Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice

By James D. Williams | Go to book overview
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9
Writing Assignments

OVERVIEW

Numerous factors contribute to successful writing assignments, but developing a sequence that allows students to incorporate skills they have practiced in previous work with new skills they are trying to master is absolutely crucial. In addition, a well-written assignment makes clear to students what they are supposed to do, how they are supposed to do it, who the students are writing for, and what constitutes a successful response.

All approaches to teaching writing include some notion of what assignments are supposed to do and be about, but few offer any principled discussion of sequencing. In both the current-traditional and the process views, sequencing is usually linked to a taxonomy of behavioral objectives and cognitive development through the various rhetorical modes. Students begin with narration and description, producing personal-experience narratives or simple firsthand descriptions. They then go on to definition, comparison-contrast, and process, until at some point, they reach argumentation (see Lindemann, 1993b). Underlying this sequence is the notion that rhetorical complexity and cognitive complexity are essentially the same thing. In the current-traditional view particularly, students are often considered incapable of coping with abstract cognitive tasks, so classroom instruction focuses on writing assignments that are deemed rhetorically concrete. However, cognitive processes and language develop interactively, each influencing the other, and they are not the same thing.

Effective teachers recognize that the distinct nature of rhetorical complexity and cognitive complexity affects the way teachers sequence assignments because the rhetorical demands of a task may be far different from the cognitive demands. For example, close analysis shows that true narration is perhaps the most rhetorically demanding of all the modes, even though it may be less cognitively demanding than argumentation. Beginning a sequence with narration therefore appears

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