Teaching Composition

Teaching composition is not only about teaching grammar, spelling and punctuation, since this would make writing seem dead on the page, devoid of meaning and influence. According to Bazerman & Russell (2008), the art of composition comes "alive when it is being written, read, remembered, contemplated, followed - when it is part of human activity." In this connection, the activity theory developed out of L. S. Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory is often used in composition studies to analyze how writing works as a tool to mediate the huge range of human activities.

Its growing significance in composition studies lies in its ability to analyze the dynamic social interactions mediated by writing at both the micro level, which is described as psychological and interpersonal; and the macro level, which is referred to as sociological or cultural. Writing is seen as one material tool among many through which identity, authority, and power relations are renegotiated to change individuals, institutions and societies.

Writing is regarded as a powerful instrument of thought. In the act of composing, writers learn about themselves and their world and communicate their insights to others. Writing confers the power to grow personally and to effect change in the world. The act of writing is accomplished through a process in which the writer imagines the audience, sets goals, develops ideas, produces notes, drafts, and a revised text and edits to meet the audience's expectations. Students can be thought to write more effectively by encouraging them to make full use of the many activities that comprise the act of writing, not by focusing only on the final written product and its strengths and weaknesses.

The National Council of Teachers of English, based in Illinois, has outlined some essential principles in the teaching of writing. First, writing assignments should reflect a wide range of purposes, which may vary from discovering the writer's own feelings to persuading others to a course of action, recreating experience imaginatively and reporting the results of observation. Student writers should have the opportunity to define and pursue writing aims that are important to them. Furthermore, they should have the opportunity to use writing as an instrument of thought and learning across the curriculum and in the world beyond school.

The second principle set out by the NCTE centers on the argument that the classroom is where writing is especially valued. It should be a place where students will develop their full composing powers. They should be guided through the writing process; encouraged to write for themselves and for other students, as well as for the teacher; and urged to make use of writing as a mode of learning, as well as a means of reporting on what has been learned. Writing teachers should transform their classrooms into scenes for writing and reduce the number of the students to 20, so that frequent individual attention can be paid to each student.

The third argument is that composition teachers should themselves be writers. Teachers, who have experienced the struggles and highlights of writing, will realise that their students need guidance and support throughout the writing process and not merely comments on the written product. Furthermore, composition teachers who write will be aware that effective comments do not focus on pointing out errors, but encourage revision, which will help students better develop their ideas and achieve greater clarity. Writing teachers should be familiar with the nature of the composing process; the relationship between reading and writing; the functions of writing in the world of work; and the value of the classical rhetorical tradition.

The fourth principle is that the central means of writing instruction should be guidance in the writing process and discussion of the students' own work. Students should be encouraged to comment on each other's writing. Reading what others have written, speaking about responses to their writing and listening to the responses of others are important activities in the writing classroom. Textbooks and other instructional resources should be of secondary importance. The students should receive frequent, prompt, individualized attention from the teacher.

The evaluation of students' progress in writing should begin with the students' own written work. Writing ability cannot be adequately assessed by tests and other formal evaluation alone. Students should be given the opportunity to demonstrate their writing ability in work aimed at various purposes. Students should also be encouraged to develop the critical ability to evaluate their own work, so they can become effective, independent writers in the world beyond school.

Teaching Composition: Selected full-text books and articles

Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing By Irene L. Clark; Betty Bamberg; Darsie Bowden; John R. Edlund; Lisa Gerrard; Sharon Klein; Julie Neff Lippman; James D. Williams Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
An Introduction to Composition Studies By Erika Lindemann; Gary Tate Oxford University Press, 1991
Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice By James D. Williams Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003 (3rd edition)
Librarian's tip: "The Process Approach to Composition" begins on p. 99
Reading-Writing Connections: From Theory to Practice By Mary F. Heller Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Comprehending and Composing in the Intermediate Grades"
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