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How can I learn to write better?

  • How can I learn to write better?

The following blog post was written by Dara MacKay, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement.

How can I learn to write better?

This is a question I hear every semester, without fail. When we set goals at the beginning of the term, inevitably, every student says they want to work on ‘writing’. My question is, what about writing? When a learner asks a vague question like, “How can I learn to write better?” my answer is equally as vague: “By writing.” I get puzzled looks, or the one that says, “Duh… I knew that already,” but the truth of it is simple. In order to learn how to write, to master the art that is writing, one must actually, simply, write. 

I currently teach in the Youth in Transition program. These learners generally sit around a CLB 6 or 7 in writing and are preparing for future studies. Many of the learners in my level move on to take Academic Upgrading or to the English for Academic Purposes program, and some leave us to begin their career programs and college studies. Our focus is not only on language skills, but on academic skills as well. 

Writing needs to occur in all areas of learning. As I mentioned in my previous post, the process must be organic and needs driven. It should flow from what the learners are bringing to class - their context, and it should flow through your outcomes and lessons. My process is fairly simple. I teach concepts in small chunks, and spend the majority of the time in the act of writing and practicing.

Recently, I was teaching how to write a compare/contrast essay. My learners came to me with an understanding of essay structure and format, and all the wonderful basics like thesis statements and intro, body, conclusion. So, my job was to help my learners expand their skills.  We built upon them.  They had the foundation, now we needed to add another floor.  My focus for this was a specific essay style, and how to write stellar introductions.  I had a sub focus on building quality arguments and expanding details in the body, but the main focus was how to write an eloquent, engaging introduction.

What I did, as always, was begin with what they already knew. They knew basic structure, and thesis statement. So we went over hooks, how to capture an audience, details starting general and becoming more specific, and finally, how to write a thesis statement that doesn’t say the classic: In this essay, I will discuss blank, blank and blank. My learners needed to grow. And guess what? Because we broke down the introduction into pieces and built on what they already knew, they totally got it. During the process of writing this particular essay, I broke it down into several mini-lessons that addressed the specific needs this group had with writing. 

The last thing, and possibly the most important thing of all, is the feedback. Throughout the process, which is the main focus, I include time for pointed, targeted feedback that comes from the learner, his or her peers, and me.  Feedback should help a writer grow and ultimately learn something. It isn’t just about the grade or the benchmark. It’s yet another tool for teaching. 

In the next post, I will be discussing my views on assessment, and how I think writing should be best assessed so the learners can get the most out of it.