Reading Student Writing

I’ve read three essays on how to read and correct student writing. The most helpful, in terms of learning how to teach: Rather than “correct” mistakes, diagnose mistakes. Read for the meaning of the essay, and give feedback based on that meaning. Ask the question, what is the author’s intent?

“I read your college application essay. First of all, college has two L’s.”

Bartholomae, The Study of Error. In this essay Bartholomae suggests student error should be diagnosed. For example, a student writes “I had accummate ten dementic and had to…” If a teacher tells the student they’ve misspelled “accumulate” and “demerit” and goes on to teach the proper spelling through repetitive exercises, they’ve only treated the surface level misspelling and failed to get to the root of the problem, especially if they’ve noticed a lot of other spelling errors in the student’s paper. What would be best would be to have the student read the paper out loud and work from there. This particular student, John, the reads the above sentence, “I had accumulated ten demerits and had to…” So what’s really going on here? John has read the current sentence, as it’s written with the misspellings, the correct way because to him the coding on the page has the correct meaning. Rather than considering the sounds of the letters, he’s considered the shape of the words he’d memorized. To him dementic makes the word demerit. To help the student learn the error, a teacher needs to diagnose the problem, and from there teach the student how to edit on their own.

Pal Kei Matsude, Reading an ESL Writer’s Text. In this essay, I learned how to read ESL writers. Primarily, avoid reading ESL essay as deficient because it doesn’t comply to the norms of English. What’s most important when reading these essays: If I see many errors on the sentence level (such as “dementic” or “childrens”), I should figure out the meaning the writer was going for and work from there, instead of dismissing the writing as unsuccessful and uneducated. Often teachers will want this writer to assimilate to English. Tell them what they’ve done is wrong and they need to fix it this way. But that assimilation practice can make the ESL writer consider their native language as inferior, and so they are inferior. Another option is accommodation, where a teacher helps the student learn the proper discourse patterns without forcing them to lose the their linguistic differences. And then there is the separatist approach, where ESL writing is read “generously” and multicultural writing is better appreciated on its own grounds. For me, After reading this essay, I think it’s important to consider any essay in terms of its meaning, and I worry a separatist approach will not delve into the problems of the essay’s communication. Even if the multicultural aspects are appreciated, the student still needs to revise–it would be wrong to assume every error was because of a language problem, because perhaps the essay still wouldn’t have driven home its purpose–That’s why it’s important to listen to the writer and understand where they are coming from, to see if the writing and their goals are linking up, no matter which language they speak.

Nancy Sommers, Responding to Student Writing. In this essay, Sommers goes through possible pitfalls teachers might fall into when commenting on student papers. Often, teachers will edit sentence level issues, such as word choice and commas, and then make broad points about why the entire essay needs to be revised (so then those sentences will likely not be the same sentence in the end anyway). Overall, the types of comments teachers make appropriate the student essay: Rather than students writing for their own intent, they write for the teacher (Whatever the teacher wants the student to do they’ll do). However, often the comments are contradictory. How can I fix this comma and also do more research? Moreover, the comments aren’t specific enough. “Think about your audience more” doesn’t really help a student to revise an essay. It would be better for a teacher to make specific comments about the text, address the logic of the essays crucial points, and ultimately force the student back into the “chaos” of the essay, to get into the fray of the paragraphs and really rewrite for their intent.

 

On My Teenage Essay Trauma

So I’m starting WR600: Teaching College Composition—learning about the writing practices of Emerson, primarily the the short essay genre, but other things too. Which gets me thinking about my old essay writing. Which was quite a traumatizing experience in high school for the exact reasons explained in Writers and Readers: Creating Meaningful Essays and Supportive Writing Communities. Back then, my essays were all about making a point, and that point tended to be something expected by the teacher, some preordained right answer, a matter of whether or not you actually read what you were supposed to read.

My high school history teacher, this short sixty-year-old woman who seemed to have a crush on me, taught our class an essay-writing rule that I’ve obeyed, to this day, like a marching order: A THESIS MUST BEGIN WITH THE WORD ALTHOUGH. As in, “Although the American Revolution seemed to be an uprising of the common man, the men in charge of state politics were the bourgeoisie of their time.” That way, you’d move through the paper from point to counterpoint, destroying the opposing side like a slow but steady war.

In college essays changed only in that I was writing either philosophy or English papers, many of which were a rehashing of what I’d already learned. I’d explain Plato’s position on Love and whether or not it could stand the pressure test of whatever rebuttals I could come up with; or I’d critically analyze Poe’s short story with the critical essays I’d been found in databases. Every essay, without fail, I use that although thesis. And it worked; grade-wise, at least. Despite it’s prescriptive model, it really did set up a well-rounded paper, where the counter to whatever I was arguing served a role that strengthened my overall conclusion. Like it says in Writers and Readers, even a structured essay model can be quite liberating. Although I still write thesis statements like I did in high school, there’s a lot of freedom in what kind of thesis I want to write; granted, in this class they’ll be propositions, so I wonder how those will be different.