Basic Writing Concepts
In teaching basic writing in freshman composition, there are some principles to always keep in mind. Not all students come into class having the same abilities. They can however all profit from the class if it takes the students from the basic level and progresses from there.
The basic level assumes that they can write complete sentences.
There are three areas of writing that should be emphasized throughout the course. They are Organization, Clarity, and Support. They are all related concepts in that each strengthens the others, but each concept can be focused on.
The first emphasis should be on Organization. I begin with a theme to evaluate students' writing. This theme, 'At My House' can deal with a house/home from the students' childhood, their present home, or an ideal home in the future. It should not be simply a description of rooms and physical features, but should have some associative memories, emotions, aspirations, etc. For this theme the only requirement is that it be written in complete sentences [no creative stream of consciousness].
Once this theme is turned in and I evaluate where the students are in their skills, I begin to teach the students basic Organization.
All subsequent themes in the quarter have the same Organization pattern. [*In many freshman composition classes students write one of various types of themes. They receive corrections, but do not write them again. Therefore they do not improve, but try to remember what they have learned for the next time, whenever that may be.]
All the themes have a three part introduction, a three part main body and a three part conclusion. The 'odd' number is intentional. Humans basically think in even' numbers, or pairs such as good/bad, up/down, in/out, positive/negative, etc. Three parts is more challenging than four parts and is less time consuming for the instructor than five parts and less labor for the students who are learning how to think and not simply doing a quantity of work.
The basic organization is: Introduction: State the thesis. [The thesis sentence should be a three part sentence and the last sentence in the Introductory paragraph.] Main Body: Develop the thesis in three sections, with support. Conclusion: Restate the thesis and summarize the main body, or mention some of the highlights of the main body. [NOTE: the summarizing or the highlights should still be in the same one, two, three, order from the introduction] The introduction and the conclusion should be able to be placed side by side and have the same order. Some students forget in the course of the paper, where the paper is heading and the conclusion becomes quite different from the introduction. When they can stay 'on track' on a 500+ word theme, they will have a much easier time staying focused on the organization of a research paper.
A basic SAMPLE organization is: [This example is 'simple' because one should not teach a difficult concept with difficult terms.]
Introduction: My favorite breakfast cereals are, (1)Corn Flakes, (2)Rice Krispies, and (3) Captain Crunch. Main Body: Paragraph one: I like (1)Corn Flakes because they are nutritional. Paragraph two: I like (2)Rice Krispies because they make noise when milk is added. Paragraph three: I like (3)Captain Crunch because it is pre-sweetened. Conclusion: My favorite breakfast cereals are (1)Corn Flakes, (2)Rice Krispies, and (3)Captain Crunch because they are (1)nutritional, (2) make noise, and (3)don't need to be sweetened, respectively.
Before the first theme, the teacher might consider having each student do a practice three part thesis sentence by holding up an object such as a pen, eraser, etc. and asking them to make up a three part thesis sentence. For instance, one might say, A stapler can be used for (1) fastening papers together, (2) putting pictures on bulletin boards, and (3)as a paperweight. *The idea here is not to embarrass any student but to enable them to understand and utilize the three part thesis organization. [See also: Helping students write thesis sentences ]
The first 'organized' theme topic is The Ideal Man or The Ideal Woman. The students have already thought about this topic and don't need to take research time away from the thinking and writing part of the assignment. The student may at first think of a physical/mental, a two topic division, but the three part organization expects them to think further.
[*Another characteristic of some freshman composition classes is the requirement for documentation in beginning themes. This requirement changes the focus from writing to finding sources, and if only a week is allowed to write the theme, much less work time is spent on improving writing skills than might be otherwise done. Documentation should be covered thoroughly in Research Writing, after the students are strongly grounded in the basics, Organization, Clarity, Support.]
After the second theme is collected, the instructor can begin to determine which students need extra help.
From this point onward, the topics can be increased in challenge as determined by the teacher from reading the previous topic.
After the concept of Organization is introduced, Clarity is the next focus. The paper should have overall clarity, and each sentence should be clear. Some students have a clear initial concept but lapse in the clarity of individual sentences. Some students do not have clarity in their initial three part thesis sentence. These problems are remedied by explanatory comments on individual student's papers, by class instruction, and by class discussion. *I have found that when students discuss in class, they have to bring their ideas into speech from their 'right brains.' This practice enables many of them to make the next step of turning their ideas into the written form. We discuss an essay from the text in almost every class period. I ask each student to write from 3-5 comments on every essay, and they receive a grade on their participation. [Not a grade for each class period, but part of the term grade.] Bringing written comments to class, keeps them from saying that someone else already 'took their idea.'
Support is the last main concept. Support doesn't mean documentation as in research. It means explanation and examples. For instance, when parents say they are going to get their teenage child a car, the term car means much different things to the two parties. The parent thinks, 'economical and safe'. The teen thinks 'powerful and popular.' When someone writes almost any term, examples strengthen the clarity and power of the theme.
Have the students sit in a circle and each describe their 'ideal house.' Then ask them how much is conveyed by the word house compared to their extended descriptions. This exercise should show the reason for supporting examples.
With these three concepts, Organization, Clarity, and Support, the first quarter can be profitably spent learning basic writing skills. Variety comes from imaginative paper topics of increasing difficulty.
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