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Teaching Students to Write … Anything

By: Danielle Coty-Fattal | Date: March 9, 2022 | Tags: Author Post
Teaching Students to Write … Anything

This is a guest author post . Nigel Caplan is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute in the United States and a co-author, with Ann Johns, of the new book Essential Actions for Academic Writing (Michigan, 2022). Nigel and Ann also co-edited Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay (Michigan, 2019). Nigel blogs at www.nigelcaplan.com.

I teach academic writing, but sometimes, I’m not quite sure what academic writing is. One way to define it would be to say that academic writing is the writing produced in educational contexts, but even a cursory glance at a few syllabi in higher education reveals that academic writing encompasses a vast range of tasks. Undergraduate students write lab reports, reflections, discussion board posts, summaries, short-answer questions, and more. Graduate students write proposals, literature reviews, case studies, articles, dissertations, and more. And even a term as apparently ubiquitous as a “research paper” can look very different depending on the discipline, course, or even professor.

How is anyone supposed to learn to write all these different types of text?

One solution that is often seen in preparatory courses such as English for Academic Purposes, developmental writing, or first-year composition classes is to assign essays, often following a predictable formula with a thesis, supporting arguments, and conclusion (see Caplan & Johns, 2019). Various modes of essay (contrastive, descriptive, argumentative, and so on) are taught in the hope that students will figure out for themselves how to adapt these writing lessons to future tasks. However, often such transfer rarely occurs, leading to considerable confusion as students try to write, for example, essays when asked for short-answer questions, proposals, or discussion board posts. A hammer is a great tool until you need a screwdriver.

In Essential Actions for Academic Writing, Ann Johns and I take a very different approach. We believe that novice writers need above all rhetorical flexibility, that is, the ability to tackle unfamiliar writing situations and produce texts that are effective in specific contexts. We can’t prepare our students for every written assignment they will encounter⁠—we can’t even predict what they will be! But we can equip student writers with a decent toolbox rather than a unitasker.

So, if we don’t teach five-paragraph essays and we can’t teach all the genres of students’ future academic writing, what can we teach? The answer is to teach students to understand genre: not the word necessarily, but rather the concept of writing that varies according to the situation in which it is produced and read (see Tardy, 2019, for an accessible introduction). We all recognize genres instinctively: a text message to a friend doesn’t look like an email to your child’s teacher, a conference proposal, a book report, a wedding invitation, or a newspaper article. By the same token, a business case study, a philosophy essay, a biology lab report, and a linguistic analysis are distinctive genres, and a well written text in one genre would be unsuccessful if submitted for another assignment.

To help teachers and students navigate the wide and unpredictable range of academic genres, we have developed the Rhetorical Planning Wheel, a guide for analyzing and writing texts in any academic genre.

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The wheel has eight spokes that each represent a component of the target genre. Not every consideration is equally visible in every genre, but together they prompt writers to ask questions about a new writing task:

  • Purpose: Why do people write and read texts in these genres?
  • Writer’s role: What is the position, role, or persona of the writer? Are they an expert, a student, a customer, a manager, or someone else?
  • Audience: Who will read the text? What do they expect to find?
  • Context: What is happening around the text? In what situations is it produced and consumed? Do other texts precede or follow it (e.g., an invitation prompts an RSVP)?
  • Structure: What are the moves, stages, or sections of the text? Are they fixed or flexible? Are there any optional stages?
  • Register: What language choices are typical of this genre? Is the tone formal or informal, friendly or distant, personal or impersonal? Is the word choice technical or everyday? Are sentences long or short, dense or unpacked, academic or conversational?
  • Sources, evidence, and data: What kinds of supporting information are expected? Are certain sources required or proscribed? How much and what types of data or evidence are usual?
  • Conventions: What other conventions are expected, such as the use of a style or citation guide, formatting rules, multimedia, fonts, or headings?

At the center of the wheel is the genre as well as the actions writers typically take in effective texts in this genre, such as explaining, summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing, reporting, or reflecting.

Throughout Essential Actions, students use the Rhetorical Planning Wheel to interrogate the texts they are reading and writing. This practice forces writers to think about each task before diving in and adopting an ineffective role, structure, register, or set of conventions. For example, I once had a student who insisted on writing a five-paragraph essay in the style of a standardized language test for every task, which was never really successful and turned out to be a complete disaster in an online discussion board for another class. He asked me why none of his classmates replied to his posts. I think it’s because he’d misunderstood the genre. The structure, writer’s role, intended audience, register, purpose, and conventions didn’t fit the task, so his colleagues were unsure how to respond (or just didn’t bother to read his “essays”).

A good way to demonstrate the application of the Rhetorical Planning Wheel is to read several examples (never just one model!) of a particular type of email, such as a request for an extension, an apology for absence, or a request to review a journal manuscript. With a little guidance, students can usually recognize which emails are more or less successful and why. This can lead to interesting discussions about language choices, structure, conventions, and purpose. Email writing is in itself an important skill for all students to learn, but they can also apply the same analytic technique to any new genre, from a short-answer test question to an honor’s thesis or doctoral dissertation.

When viewed through the lens of genre, academic writing is complex and varied, certainly, but also manageable and demystified. There are a fairly limited number of actions that writers take in academic texts, and equipped with the tools to understand new genres, language resources for accomplishing those actions, and lots of practice and feedback, students can feel confident that they will be able to write successfully throughout their educational careers.