October 2016
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ENRICHING LEARNING, SAVING TIME: DESIGNING EFFECTIVE ACADEMIC WRITING COURSES
Zuzana Tomaš, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA & Jennifer Mott-Smith, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, USA

Teaching second language (L2) writing is particularly demanding on a teacher’s time, mainly because of the need to provide out-of-class support and read student papers. So what can writing instructors do to cope with these time demands while simultaneously maximizing student learning? You may find that you can create more space for yourself by applying one or more of the following 10 recommendations to the development of your course.

1. Collaborate Across Courses

Many academic institutions, especially those hosting intensive English programs, continue to offer separate reading and writing courses. While institutional constraints may prevent integrated courses, instructors often have the freedom to collaborate with colleagues in a mutually beneficial way. For example, writing and reading instructors can choose to work with the same texts in both courses. Alternatively, reading instructors who seek to build students’ vocabulary can focus on words from the texts used in the students’ writing course. Similarly, instructors in grammar courses can facilitate L2 writers’ performance in writing courses by focusing on constructions salient in academic writing (Hinkel, 2016). This type of collaboration frees up time for writing teachers to deal with other writing-specific concepts and skills.

2. Assign Reasonable Writing Tasks

What can be assessed in a 10-page research paper that cannot be assessed in a 6-page paper, and what can students learn from this assignment? Oftentimes, we continue to design assignments based on past practice rather than on effective pedagogy. Assigning shorter papers with higher expectations for critical thinking and allowing for frequent checks on student progress allows both the instructor and students to engage with writing more deeply and efficiently.

3. Provide Clear Assignment Guidelines

Writing instructors end up spending a lot of time answering emails and clarifying issues individually after class when they fail to provide students with clear instructions for their written assignments. Clear handouts, slides, and materials serve as tools that focus students as they begin the writing task, and they can answer a number of students’ questions before they are asked.

4. Model

Even the world’s best assignment guidelines do not provide the type of guidance that sample papers do. Engaging students in analyzing sample papers can address myriad questions students may have about an assignment. In addition, when students see that other students just like them have been able to complete the assignment, it increases their confidence, and when they consider both good and bad models, it promotes discussions of writing effectiveness. While some instructors may feel hesitant to draw upon former students’ papers because they worry that their students will simply copy them, there are ways to prevent students from mimicking the examples too closely, including distributing hard copy models in class and collecting them at the end of the class. Beyond textual modeling, “cognitive modeling,” or modeling how an experienced instructor may go about completing a writing task allows novice writers important insights into effective writing (Cumming, 1995) without requiring too much preparation time for the instructor.

5. Maximize Available Resources

Writing center staff can provide help to students throughout the writing process, from understanding the assignment and developing ideas for writing through revising and proofreading, freeing up instructors’ time spent on supporting students outside of class. To make the best use of this resource, it is important to build a relationship with the writing center administrator to discuss the training of the staff and the nature of your L2 student writers’ needs. While this initial conversation may take some time, you may end up with a fruitful collaboration spanning many a writing course. Instructors who work at institutions that do not have a writing center can explore the opportunity to collaborate with a teacher training institution. Preservice teachers studying TESOL, for example, can provide effective writing feedback as part of their coursework assignments.

6. Assign In-Class Writing

Writing instructors often ask that students complete writing assignments solely outside of class, which can make students feel overwhelmed and deny writing teachers the opportunity to observe their students during the writing process. When students write in class, instructors can take notes on practices and strategies they observe and address them, along with issues that are salient in these intermediate drafts, in subsequent classes. Using students’ own processes and drafts as pedagogical material upon which subsequent instruction is based is a way to efficiently localize our teaching and best meet the needs of the particular group of students we are working with.

7. Use Known Texts for Source-Based Writing

One reason why responding to students’ source-based writing takes so much time is because instructors often are not familiar with the source texts that the students have used, so they spend time ascertaining whether the texts were accurately paraphrased and appropriately cited. Using a theme-based approach in which students read common texts allows instructors to more efficiently give feedback. At the same time, this approach allows for students to be able to give one another good feedback on source use as well. Even in a research course in which students choose their own topics for writing, students can read several common texts and branch out from there. In addition, instructors can ask them to submit their additional source texts along with their drafts, and highlight the parts of the source texts that they used in order to save the instructor time. Instructors can go as far as asking students to use different markers to match up their paraphrases, summaries, and quotes with specific passages in the source texts.

8. Optimize Feedback by Prioritizing Concerns

Guidelines for responding to student writing help instructors avoid spending too much time offering feedback on all they notice in a student paper. Providing less but more focused feedback is more effective for improving student writing and saving instructor time (Ferris, 2011). Guidelines may be developed from several principles, including focusing on content more in the earlier drafts and on language use more in the final drafts, limiting how many issues are addressed per draft, and aligning feedback with issues that have been recently taught in class.

9. Use Self-Timing and Goal-Setting Strategies for Feedback

Have you ever started grading and realized—45 minutes later—that you were still working on the same student’s draft? For writing instructors who are still learning to prioritize their feedback, it may help to set a maximum time per paper and time themselves while responding. For instructors who tend to struggle with finding the motivation to write feedback responses, setting goals may help. For example, an instructor can set the goal of responding to five papers a day and reward him or herself when the task is completed. Many instructors also appreciate mixing up more and less challenging papers to avoid grading burnout.

10. Incorporate Self-Assessment

Most L2 writers who have engaged in a variety of text analysis and peer-review tasks throughout the semester or school year are, by the end of the course, adept at self-assessment. Thus, instructors can have students submit their papers along with a self-completed rubric. This practice not only reduces the workload on the part of the instructor, but it also provides a meaningful opportunity for the students to reflect on their development as academic writers.

Conclusion

We hope that drawing upon some of these recommendations will allow you to both save time and maximize the effectiveness of your writing courses, which is important for achieving a good work-life balance. To engage with these recommendations more deeply and to have an opportunity to apply them by designing or revising an effective writing course syllabus, please consider joining us at our Preconvention Institute at the 2017 TESOL International Convention in Seattle, Washington, USA. The session (#13) takes place on Tuesday, 21 March. Register by 1 February.

References

Cumming, A. (1995). Fostering writing expertise in ESL composition instruction: Modeling and evaluation. In D. Belcher & G. Braine (Eds.), Academic writing in a second language: Essays on research and pedagogy (pp. 375–397). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Ferris, D. (2011). Treatment of error in second language student writing (2nd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Hinkel, E. (2016). Practical grammar teaching: Grammar constructions and their relatives. In Teaching English grammar to speakers of other languages (pp. 171–199). New York, NY: Routledge.


Zuzana Tomaš is associate professor of ESL/TESOL at Eastern Michigan University, where she teaches academic writing to L2 writers and works with graduate and undergraduate preservice teachers.

Jennifer Mott-Smith is associate professor of English and ESOL coordinator at Towson University, where she teaches academic writing to L2 and L1 writers.

Zuzana and Jennifer coauthored Teaching Writing (2013), along with Ilka Kostka, published by TESOL Press. Their second book, which will be published by the University of Michigan Press, focuses on teaching effective source use and is scheduled for release in 2017.

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