Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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The History of the Form Revisited

Posted: Jul 06, 2013 13:07;
Last Modified: Jul 06, 2013 13:07

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I mentioned in a previous post an article which attributed the origins of the five-paragraph essay to the early 20th century in Germany. Unfortunately, this snippet was the only glimmer of knowledge I could acquire for some time. After searching vainly for weeks for more about the history of the form, I was today finally gratified when I stumbled across an article called “The Five Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing”, by Matthew J. Nunes.

This article traces the commonly perceived origins of the form,  describing its basis in the realm of current-traditionalism, which had its day between 1870-1920. While the article is actually questioning the origins of the form in this period, it does concede the solid placement of the form within the period which I think is worth describing here.

While the sophisticated and intelligent readers of this blog may be familiar with current-traditionalism, I myself was not. Nunes describes the main features of current-traditionalism  “as being an emphasis on product over process” (297), as well as a great emphasis on rules and results. As Nunes says, “[i]nvention, in current-traditionalism, is essentially disregarded in favor of rule-based arrangement” (299).

This certainly seems to describe how we use the five-paragraph essay today; as a formula into which any argument can be implemented and the result satisfactory. But, as Nunes so eloquently puts it, “the fact that the five-paragraph essay is an important current-traditional form does not mean that it originated in current-traditionalism” (297).

While Nunes is actually disputing the claims of origin in current-traditionalism, he agrees with many points that are an interesting insight into the history of the form. He mentions how textbooks from the current-traditional period often contained “how-to” sections for writing paragraphs and longer essays that ended up much like our five-paragraph form today.

What Nunes is really suggesting is that the form came from the development of Theme writing, in the same period as that of the current-traditional. A similarly structured form of writing, it included “detailed directions and assignments” (301).  The title is relatively self-explanatory; it indicates a theme on which students are supposed to write and create an argument. This format is common today in written examinations (301). These themes included directions for an introduction, body paragraphs, and a carefully summarized conclusion. But while Theme writing was popular and widely used in the current-traditional period, it was in use even before the Civil War in America (304). The same standards were in use  in Great Britain, as their educational system continued to “dominate American language instruction long after she had ceased to dominate America politically” (Armstrong 71, qtd. Nunes 305).

Nunes notes the more rigidly structured evolution of theme writing from Montaigne’s original attempt at the essay. Much as they are used today, theme writing was used to teach students the basics of essay writing before they moved on to more complex discussions (306). He goes on to explore theme writing throughout history, noting references to the practice by John Locke, and others in the 17th century ( 308), with much of the strength of the form being created even earlier, in the 16th century.

As a nice sum up, Nunes states that, in reference to the five paragraph essay that pervades and plagues our educational institutions “its history can inform our understanding of why it persists” (309). In this, Nunes also addresses my frustration in the inability to find scholarship addressing the beginnings of the five paragraph form. There is little that tells us how it came to be, and instead of questioning this invisibility, we simply take it as a symbol of its undisputed supremacy.

This article offers a neatly placed glimpse into the possible origins of the form that is so cemented into our educational system. With its history, we are offered the opportunity to place the form in our own context, and make the invisible seen, bringing understanding to our practices and how we may change them.

Work Cited

Nunes, Matthew J. “The Five-Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing.” Rhetoric Review 32.3 (2013): 295–313. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web. 4 July 2013.

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The Importance of Student Motivation

Posted: Jul 05, 2013 13:07;
Last Modified: Jul 05, 2013 13:07

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I’ve gone in several different directions with my research for the unessay project, because as a writing tool I think its results are significant and varied. I’ve looked at the general principles that underlie it–scaffolding and metacognition; I’ve tried to understand what qualifies as good writing, and whether or not the unessay promotes that; and I’ve looked at how the unessay might fit into an increasingly mechanized educational system, where machines are marking papers. The main thing I’ve found is that the rules constituting the unessay promote good writing. Dan and Michael have both expressed the uncanny differences between the essays they mark and the unessays they mark.  Student writing, when liberated from the stringent way essays are taught, becomes something completely different. The ideas are better, they flow better, and they can help the student build a foundation upon which he/she can come at the essay with more flexibility. The whole basis of education is to provide a space for students to push existing skills to their limits, with the intention of having those skills overlap with new skills, and so on and so forth.

After all that’s what this whole project is about. Its about developing a tool for educators, who are finding that an increasing number of their students are lost when it comes to the essay. Its form is foreign. And its rules and systems don’t resonate with their experiences or interests. An interesting article, “The Writing Approaches of University Students,” explores the processes and motivations of a group of university students. Conducted as a series of interviews, this study attempts to discover how process and motivation effects how individual students see themselves as writers. Do they think they are good or bad writers? Do they enjoy writing?

The article begins with an indictment of writing theory, which serves as the springboard upon which the case-studies are hurled: “Writing theory remains limited. One shortcoming involves the reductionistic nature of the traditional cognitive perspective, which results in isolating processes such as planning, translating and revision; doing violence to the nature of writing as an integrative process. Along the same line, the assumption that the writing processes occur in a tidy, linear sequence is questionable. Additionally, the role of writers’ intentions and beliefs as related to writing processes has not been a major consideration. Writing is an externalization and remaking of thinking, and to consider writing as separate from intentions is not to address composition as a reflective tool for making meaning” (Lavalle 373) The essay is taught in a series of rigorously ordered steps: you read, you research, you plan, you write, you edit. But what if you prefer to start at a different stage or treat the writing process as a circle instead of a straight line? The unessay is a tool designed for the discontented writer; it allows her to approach all aspects of the writing process however she chooses, and whenever she chooses. There is a sense that the decisions you make when writing are your own, when using the unessay. With the essay student motivation is relegated to extrinsic factors–grades, praise etc., Educational theory has long preached against the use of extrinsic motivating, with things like candy or objects. Intrinsic motivation is more effective, because it is a burning from inside the student, a hunger to achieve and do well as an end in and of itself, not as an obstacle in the way of the true goal: “When the student’s goal is just to comply with task demands, the learning activity involves a low level of cognitive engagement (e.g. memorizing or repetition) and a superficial, linear outcome (listing or organizing), a surface approach” (374). This is a severe issue involved with motivation. Students are not engaging with the essay; they are regurgitating information into a prescribed form. This creates a low level of engagement, and superficial retention of class material.

The study identifies five major approaches in the writing of university students. Three of these are problematic (Low Self-Efficacy, Spontaneous-Impulsive, Procedural), while two are optimal (Elaborative, Reflective Revision). Below is the appendix from the article. It contains the style of writing, followed by the motivation, followed by the methods used by the students):

(Pg. 389) Approaches to writing: 1. Elaborative- to self-express (visualisation, audience)

2. Low Self-Efficacy- To acquire skills/avoid pain (study grammar, collaborate, find encouragement).

3. Reflective-Revision- To make meaning (Revision, reshaping, drafting)


4. Spontaneous-Impulsive- To get done (Last minute, no planning or revision, just like talking).

5. Procedural- Please the teacher (observe rules, organize and manage writing).

All of these are important factors necessary to understand how and why university students write, but I think the second–Low Self-Efficacy–is the most important when talking about the unessay. Low Self-Efficacy “describes a highly fearful approach based on doubting ability and thinking about writing as a painful task. . . . This approach evolves around poor writing self-concept, accompanying perceptions of skill deficits, and little, if any, awareness of the function of writing as a tool of meaning and of personal experience” (376). From my many conversations with Dan about the unessay or blogging or any from of non-traditional writing, I unequivocally get the same response when asking about student writing: it’s fantastic. The ideas are sophisticated, and on a more basic-level, the grammar, punctuation, etc., are all above expectations. Our conversations on essays are the exact opposite. I think this says something profound about Low Self-Efficacy. Students feel that they lack the skills and knowledge to perform on the essay, and it is those beliefs and motivations that create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is not that they lack the skills or knowledge, in reality, because they are performing them with excellence on informal assignments.

How do we motivate and convince students that they have the skills to perform on writing tasks? The unessay is a stepping-stone. It allows students to hone writing skills, without feeling the gnawing pressure of the essay. It allows students to pursue interests, thus motivating them, both through form and content. The article argues that, ” The key to facilitating writing at the university level is found in designing a high quality writing climate to include deep tasks, emphasis on revision and meaning, scaffolding, modeling and integrating writing across content areas (relevance)” (386). Deep tasks and thus deep writing, is a by-product of integrative teaching, with an emphasis on relevance and freedom, not fixed forms and one-size-fits-all writing.

Works Cited

Lavelle, Ellen, and Nancy Zuercher. “The Writing Approaches of University Students.” Higher Education 42.3 (2001): 373–391. JSTOR. Web. 26 June 2013.

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Scaffolding and The Zone of Proximal Development

Posted: Jun 29, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 29, 2013 13:06

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Two of the most important terms in a teacher’s repertoire, and two of the most popular teaching ideologies in education right now, scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development are simple yet elegant ways to describe how teachers build on a student’s current knowledge so they can ascend to ever higher plateaus. The unessay is nothing if not a product of scaffolding and the ZPD.

Using Wikipedia’s definitions, which are more than adequate for understanding these terms, scaffolding is ” a learning process designed to promote a deeper level of learning. Scaffolding is the support given during the learning process which is tailored to the needs of the student with the intention of helping the student achieve his/her learning goals. Instructional scaffolding is the provision of sufficient support to promote learning when concepts and skills are being first introduced to students. These supports may include the following: resources, a compelling task, modeling a task, providing coaching. These supports are gradually removed as the students develop autonomous learning strategies, thus promoting their own cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning skills and knowledge. Teachers help the students master a task or a concept by providing support.

And the Zone of Proximal Development is ” the difference between what a learner can do without help and what she or he can do with help.” Beginning as a small circle in the middle, signifying what the learner can do unaided, and branching out in concentric circles of increasing size, with each circle further from the center denoting the need for increasingly more aid for the student.”

The terms are so similar they have come to be used almost interchangeably, so for the sake of clarity I will use the ZPD to describe both. Further defined in “Vygotsky, Tutoring, and Learning” we can see the theoretical principles of the unessay at work: “Vygotsky’s definition of the ZPD leaves open to us the task of identifying the nature of the guidance and collaboration that promotes development and a need to specify what gets learned during the course of a given history of tutor/learner interaction” (Wood 5). The nature of guidance in the unessay operates off of an assumption: that university students are capable and proficient writers. The results of the unessay as well as blog assignments have demonstrated this, according to the both Michael and Dan. Michael and Dan assumed that the writing itself was not the issue, rather, it was the form the writing was forced to adhere to which gave student’s difficulties.

The traditional essay is foreign and awkward to many, meaning it is not a part of a student’s ZPD, and if it is part of her ZPD, it is to such slight degree that she is unable to perform adequately without guidance. This is where the unessay comes in, as the bridging device between a student’s ZPD and the plateau the teacher wants her to be at. You don’t go from walking up a hill to scaling Everest, nor do you go from writing rigid five-paragraph essays to the intricate and nuanced essays expected in university. ZPD and scaffolding ” emphasize that learning is a complex process that depends, in large part, on changes that occur in a learner’s strategic knowledge, domain-specific knowledge, and motivation” (Harris 297). Once these skills are fostered and added to the student’s current body of knowledge then the ZPD expands and you can slowly pull off the ‘writing-trainin-wheels,’ so to speak.

Works Referenced

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Instructional_scaffolding&oldid=548517392

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Zone_of_proximal_development&oldid=558276245

Harris, Karen R., Steve Graham, and Linda H. Mason. “Improving the Writing, Knowledge, and Motivation of Struggling Young Writers: Effects of Self-Regulated Strategy Development with and Without Peer Support.” American Educational Research Journal 43.2 (2006): 295–340. JSTOR. Web. 26 June 2013

Wood, David, and Heather Wood. “Vygotsky, Tutoring and Learning.” Oxford Review of Education 22.1 (1996): 5–16. JSTOR. Web. 29 June 2013.

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Unfortunately, Planning and Structure do not Equate to Comprehension and Creativity

Posted: Jun 19, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 19, 2013 13:06

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In the realm of our Unessay research, researchers cannot seem to agree on a few questions. What is the best way to teach students to write with vibrancy? Is it to give free reins and let them run with anything? Or is what is needed a more central focus on the tools needed to write effectively, like grammar, syntax, and other stylistic concerns? And where does argumentation fit in? Where will students learn to think critically and insightfully about the issues they are presented with, rather than just forming unoriginal, albeit well supported, formulaic essays?

These were my questions as I begin to search for the ways in which other researchers, apart from Dan and our Unessay crew, have approached the issue of teaching essay writing to students. Many approaches mirrored that of Dan and Michael’s, in that they favoured a more analysis-centred approach, leaning more towards giving students the opportunities to think and to question. Form and structure typically take less of a focus, and the emphasis in instruction is placed on critical thinking and questioning.

For students with learning disabilities, planning and a focus on structure seems to be the key to writing a good essay. Sexton et. al.  (1998) conducted a study in which they helped sixth graders with learning disabilitiesmore effectively incorporate the aspect of planning and development into the essays they write. Now this is an interesting notion. These students were writing poorly formed essays based on their mental function that often removed the planning stages from their writing. Could older writers be doing the same thing? It certainly appears as if students without learning disabilities have taken the emphasis on structure and used it as the measuring stick for all of their essays?

Perhaps a lack of planning often contributes to undergraduates’ essays. Many write essays by pulling an all-nighter, and simply getting it done in one twenty-four hour timespan. While adult brains have a significantly larger capability to understand and comprehend things in the long-term, maybe undergraduate essay writers are not utilizing this ability. Papers come out stilted because they have not been planned, simply been stuck in. Originality to some extent comes from thought about a topic and its counter-arguments. When students write essays, they are not thinking about the writing process, and how they are to formulate an essay, Instead, they are thinking about how they can take the form they were already given and plug into it what is needed.

The exercise of planning helps students with learning disabilities get a grasp on the form of the essay as a whole, so it can be tied together and its separate parts joined. University students are missing this step in the process. They see the five-paragraph form not as a way to tie things together, but a way to break them apart, into easily manageable pieces that require no originality and no planning, only the evidential proving of each separate piece in a sequence. As opposed to using these building blocks to build a bridge to bigger and more complex ideas, university students tend to use them to build a wall around themselves, one that keeps them from seeing and understanding the flexibility and possibilities of the essay form.

But why? Is laziness simply the answer? A lack of time, or rather, adequate time management? Or has there been something so engrained in our students that teaches them when it is time to reach down into the very depths of their knowledge and understanding, and to discourse effectively on it, the only thing to do is replicate their model?

This seems like a rather alarming precedent. In a society that professes to value creativity, in terms of students’ essays, there seems to be a disconnect in what we practice and what we preach. More can certainly be researched about how the essay format influences students’ and instructors’ individual perceptions of what is required for a well-written essay, and how these expectations differ.

Works Consulted

Gary, William L. “Letting Students Teach Themselves.” Community College Week 15.7 (2002): 4. Web.

Andrews, Richard et al. “Teaching Argument Writing to 7- to 14-year-olds: An International Review of the Evidence of Successful Practice.” Cambridge Journal of Education 39.3 (2009): 291–310. EBSCOhost. Web.

Fallahi, Carolyn R.Wood. “A Program for Improving Undergraduate Psychology Students’ Basic Writing Skills.” Teaching of Psychology 33.3 (2006): 171–175. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 June 2013.

Prosser, Michaelwebb. “Relating the Process of Undergraduate Essay Writing to the Finished Product.” Studies in Higher Education 19.2 (1994): 125. Web.

Sexton, Melissa, Karen R. Harris, and Steve Graham. “Self-Regulated Strategy Development and the Writing Process: Effects on Essay Writing and Attributions.” Exceptional Children 64.3 (1998): 295–311. Web.

Lavelle and Zuercher, Ellen and Nancy. “The Writing Approaches of University Students.” n. pag. Web.

Young, Beth Rapp. “The Grammar Voyeur: Using Google to Teach English Grammar to Advanced Undergraduates.” American Speech 86.2 (2011): 247–258. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 June 2013.

“Let’s Kill the Term Paper – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.

“In Teaching Composition, ‘Formulaic’ Is Not a 4-Letter Word.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.

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A Review of “A Machine Learning Approach For Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays"

Posted: Jun 06, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 06, 2013 13:06

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I’ve become quite interested in the idea of machines grading papers ever since I read the New York Times Article Dan posted in the group library: “New test for Computers: Grading Essays at the College level.” For now I am just going to concern myself with the article in my title, but I am working on a much larger piece which combines several scholarly articles as well as a few editorials, on an educational issue that I feel will become increasingly relevant as technology expands: grading machines.

This article is interesting for several reasons, but mostly because it tests the abilities of human-markers against machine-markers, which is after all the most important issue when determining the efficacy and usefulness of these machines. Can these machines pick out those things that produce an effective piece of writing? The article defines what it means by effective writing, which I believe is an adequate but unfinished definition: “The literature in the teaching of writing suggests that invention, arrangement and revision in essay writing must be developed in order to produce effective writing. Stated in practical terms, students at all levels, elementary school through post-secondary education, can benefit from practice applications that give them an opportunity to work on discourse structure in essay writing.” I think we can mostly agree that if a machine can fulfill these requirements, that while imperfect, it is headed in the right direction.

So how well do the machines in this experiment perform these functions? Firstly, it is important to look at what it is the machines are being asked to do. In a broad sense they are being asked to identify the thesis and conclusion statements in a few hundred student essays. But the greater goal is to have them outperform a positional algorithm; this would show evidence that the machines can not only recognize specific examples input into them, but can also apply knowledge based on those examples.

The positional algorithm pertains to how a computer marks an essay based on length and position of words and paragraphs:

Essay length is highly correlated with human or machine scores (i.e., the longer the essay, the higher the score). Similarly, the position of the text in an essay is highly related to particular discourse elements. Therefore, we computed a positional label for the thesis and conclusion discourse categories. The method outlined in Table II was used for computing baselines reported in a later section” (462). The computing baselines for the positional algorithm are as follows, where P=paragraph:

For thesis statements: (1)# of P=3 or more all text in P 1, excluding the first sentence. (2) # of P=2 or more select all text in the first P. (3) # of P=1 Select nothing

For conclusion statements: (1) # of P=3 or more all text in final P (2) # of P=2 or more select all text in final P (3) # of P=1 select nothing.

The Results: “the performance of both discourse-based systems exceeds that of the positional algorithm, with the exceptions of the topic-independent system, PIC, for identification of thesis statements” (465).

“For identification of conclusion statements, the topic-dependent and topic independent systems have overall higher agreement than for thesis statements” (465)

“Thesis statements are more difficult to model as is apparent when we compare system performance for thesis and conclusion statements” (465).

”Overall, the results in this study indicate that it is worth continuing research using machine learning approaches for this task, since they clearly outperform the positional baseline algorithm” (465).

The machines are better at identifying conclusion and thesis statements than the positional baseline algorithm, but they are not as effective as the human markers. However the machines can do this process much faster than the human markers, providing almost instant feedback. What we see here, I think, is that machines are helpful when we want to identify specific discourse elements related to writing: i.e. grammar, thesis and conclusion statements, punctuation etc., Machines handle the mechanical aspects of writing quite well. What I have been finding, however, is that machines are notoriously poor at dealing with the creative aspects of writing, including subversion of writing rules.

My larger blog will focus on a synthesis of the creative and mechanical aspects of writing and the pros and cons of machine grading that goes along with those. Specifically, I will look at how a machine might deal with some of the more unusual writing pieces the unessay is likely to produce. Can a machine ever be relied upon to mark something that bends the rules of writing for a purpose?

Works Cited:

Burstein, Jill, and Daniel Marcu. “A Machine Learning Approach for Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays.” Computers and the Humanities 37.4 (2003): 455–467. JSTOR. Web. 31 May 2013

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From Reading to Writing: Why the Essay isn’t Working

Posted: Jun 01, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 01, 2013 13:06

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Academic literature is rife with conflicting reports on the nature of the five paragraph essay. Discourses from composition professors, high school teachers, and disgruntled students cover the pages of journals and blogs, offering up heavy-handed insights about the benefits and tyrannies of the typical five paragraph format. Many praise the formulaic model that allows for expansion and embellishment, while others disparage it as the ultimate indignity in stifling any creative impulses a student may have had. So what then, is to be the consensus?

I wanted to examine the origins of the form, and hopefully tie it to its modern instructional methods. Most associate the origins of the essay with the 16th century author Montaigne, who provided the name for the genre when he described his literary experiments as essai, the French verb meaning loosely “to try” (Atwan 110). Montaigne classified his works by no other category, but simply by their common attempt to engage critical thought and the processes of questioning and answering. Yet, the deviation from this original and idealized model in students’ writing today is startlingly clear. But that is something we already knew, as the whole goal of this project is to try to examine from where this disparity originates.

These days, loose and undefined attempts at critical thought are not what students are asked to write in the classroom. In Atwan’s article, “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay,” I found a statement that neatly reiterates something I wrote a few weeks ago: “[i]n short, they were asked to read essays but required to write compositions” (113). He is talking about the obvious disconnect between the true and vibrant essays that make up the academic canon and the simply formulaic models students are asked to produce in a poor form of mimicry. The serious disparity between the literature that students read and what they are expected to write is indicative of a much larger problem.

In discussing the exercise of essay writing in schools, G. Kim Blank suggests that:

[t]he practice, hustled from its German origins early in the 20th century, began earnestly enough: It was one way for students to demonstrate that they could absorb what they had read, a form fairly close to what we now call a research paper. The practice exploded in the second half of the century, and it continues today, having also devolved into variations of the now ubiquitous five-paragraph essay.

But here is where the misadventure begins: While the research or term paper and its spinoffs had the good intention to show that a student had assimilated material—that is, that the student could think, not to mention read—today its function revolves around whether the student can write. (1)

If this is really the case, it has massive implications for the teaching paradigm. If this shift is truly exemplified within the education system, it makes perfect sense that students have trouble thinking critically about what they read. What was originally created to determine reading comprehension is now used to measure writing ability. The focus on critical thinking skills that it was meant to teach are now suspiciously absent, and even more disconcertingly, what has taken its place?. In high school, students are taught how to write an essay, not to critically think through its parameters. We teach students to write the five paragraph essay, not the essay in its original form, which was really a “thinking-through”, and an attempt at understanding.

How many high school teachers mark essays based on comprehension of the material? They are marked based on the defensibility of the thesis, and the argument’s execution. This is where the fundamental disparity lies, and what needs to be addressed if students are to approach secondary education more fully prepared for the engagement and critical thinking that is required of them at this level.

Works Cited

Atwan, Robert. “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay.” River Teeth 14.1 (2012): 109–117. Web.

Blank, G. Kim. “Let’s Kill the Term Paper – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.

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What Makes Writing Good?

Posted: May 25, 2013 14:05;
Last Modified: May 25, 2013 14:05

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The whole point of the unessay project, as I understand it, is to further develop and understand tools that enhance good writing. The unessay is one such tool. My early research has been dedicated to the dissection of the unessay: what principles underlie its composition? how does it fit into current theories on teaching writing? And how and why is it an effective tool? Much of this research is centered around the theories of meta cognition and scaffolding. The unessay requires that its user consider every aspect of the writing process (metacognition): form, argumentation, style, topic etc., It also attempts to bridge the gap between the formal essay and free-writing, by giving the writer complete control, allowing them to utilise the skills they already have in a form they are comfortable with. The end goal is always the formal essay, but the achievement of that goal is through the slow addition of knowledge to a student’s pre-existing knowledge (scaffolding). It sounds almost painfully obvious that learning is simply the expanding framework of an existing body of knowledge, but the formal essay often disregards this concept. A student is given a framework, and it is assumed she already understands how to utilize it. I think what many teachers find–myself included during my brief stint in the education program–is that many students do not understand the form, nor do they feel particularly inclined to utilise it.

With a decent framework through which to understand the unessay, and its place in the contemporary teaching of writing, I shifted the focus of my research, broadening it slightly, to try and answer what I feel is the most significant question when assessing any writing tool: what makes good writing? If we can compile a series of attributes that constitute good writing then surely we can come up with a tool which fosters those skills.

“What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers” is an article I came across while investigating this very question. The article begins with an interesting question: how do teachers evaluate a student’s writing? There are numerous issues when doing so, subjectivity being the most contentious: “reader-response theorist Louise Rosenblatt, whose transactional theory to reading, famously defined reading as ‘a transaction between the reader and what he senses the words are pointing to.‘” When a teacher marks a student’s paper she is responding to the student’s writing, and making a judgement call about how successful the student is at pointing those words to the topic at hand. Because of the highly subjective nature of this line of inquiry, teachers have attempted to come up with some objective ways of evaluating writing. The 6+1 Traits model of assessment is one of the more popular approaches used in schools. It creates a rubric to define objectively good writing: “In this model, the key traits that define strong writing are ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and presentation” (319). Creating objective marking systems is probably the most popular method of teaching writing right now. It allows the marker to appear impartial, and it allows the student practical, tangible guidelines to follow.

The problem with this method, apart from it being impossible to reduce writing to a formula, is that it diminishes the creativity of writing, which according to many writers and teachers is an essential component of any written work. The unessay, while being far more difficult to mark than a paper adhering to the 6+1 traits method, is more realistic and accommodating because it supposes that writing can be successful in many different forms. A study conducted in this article comes to a similar conclusion. The study: “three groups composed of teachers, teaching various age groups, academics, and professional fiction writers were given a series of Q statements about writing (ex: Good writing is clear and easy to understand. Readers don’t have to struggle to get what the author is saying.), and asked to rank these statements from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree.’

The results of the study:

Group 1: emphasized “the connection between writing and thinking” (322). They tended to disregard standard conventions as a necessity of good writing. They valued creativity, surprise, and ideas over rules of convention or form.

Group 2: “emphasized organization and ease of understanding” (323). They thought good writing adhered to predictable forms, making it easier to read, and that the audience was unimportant–good writing will be clear regardless of the audience.

Group 3:  “valued clear purpose, voice, and correct writing mechanics” (324). They thought that good writing ought to follow the mechanical rules of grammar and punctuation, but that writing was not hindered by subverting conventions in argumentation or style.

This study suggests that there is no such thing as a universal standard for good writing. It is conditional, and based on a number of factors. One of the most important factors in determining good writing is fashion. What kind of writing is fashionable or ‘in’ at that particular moment in time? The article cites the influential Elements of Style as one such example. The Elements of Style preaches the hemmingway-esque style of writing: stripped-down, plain and clear language, using adverbs and adjectives sparingly. The article emphasizes that though this may be the dominant style, it wasn’t always, and is unlikely to remain so indefinitely (319-20). Take Nabokov’s Lolita for example: the language is flourish and overdone, soaked with adjectives, adverbs, and very wordy, yet it is considered one of the greatest novels of all time; its language and style being two of the biggest parts of that success. Nabokov uses the language to convey themes and ideas, to suggest that language can disguise the hideousness of an action or individual.

Nabokov demonstrates something that the article touches on in its conclusions, namely, that although there is no ultimate standard or checklist to define good writing, there are some general rules which will help all writers: “within each perspective teachers do need to consider the purpose for a particular piece of writing. For example, a creative personal narrative about a new stepmother does not need to adhere to the five-paragraph structure, nor should an essay written for a standardized test get ‘creative’ with punctuation” (325). As the unessay promotes, the common theme to good writing is an understanding of your purpose for writing, and how that purpose is best relayed to an audience formally. The decisions are yours to make. The success of your work is deterimined by your abilities, not adherence to one kind of writing.Consider the audience, the purpose, and the form when writing. Teachers should be aware of their biases and adjust marking schemes accordingly.

Works Cited:

Nauman, April D., Terry Stirling, and Arlene Borthwick. “What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers.” Reading Teacher 64.5 (2011): 318–328. Print.

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Unessay and Standardized Testing

Posted: May 24, 2013 13:05;
Last Modified: May 24, 2013 13:05

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In studying the origins of the five-paragraph essay, I stumbled across an article called “Teaching Writing in the Shadow of Standardized Writing Assessment: An Exploratory Study”, by Hunter Brimi. His article begins to dissect the relationship between standardized testing and the writing skills of students. He suggest that the standard format of a five-paragraph essay originated as a marking rubric for the markers of the state-wide tests, to determine the success of the essays written by the students (Brimi 53) And while it appears to have originated as a general standard to assess writing and argumentation skills, it quickly evolved into being the method by which writing and argumentation were taught (Brimi 54). As is typical with standardized testing, teachers begin to teach the material from the test directly to ensure that their students are successful, as well as to make sure they remain free from the trouble that may ensue if their students’ grades fall too far below the line standard set by the tests (Brimi 55).

The whole goal of essay writing in schools is to teach argument and critical thinking. While this is a difficult thing to measure, especially under the strictures of standardized testing, in a backwards sort of loop, the attempt to create a model that will test the critical thinking of students in effect diminishes it. The ability of a student to “plug in” the appropriate structure into a given format does not increase his or her writing ability, nor does it promote original or critical thought. Studies provide evidence that critical thinking and argumentation skills are not garnered most effectively from the five-paragraph structure. Rather, discussion and other modes ways of developing logical and rhetorical skills are what builds appropriate responses throughout the school years of a child (Newell et al. 277), and that a focus on a formulaic structure rather than content inhibits the writing of students.

It is agreed that essays regarding some sort of analysis or interpretation are few and far between in high school. The statistics are stunningly low for the ability of students to correctly interpret or analyze a text, as well as be able to formulate a coherent argument about it, following the recommended structure (Newell et. al. 277). This may relate to the fact that teachers themselves receive little instruction in teaching composition (Brimi 66). While teachers undoubtedly do their best to ensure the success of their students, when they themselves have receied little instruction in the actual act of teaching writing, their fallback into teaching the marking scheme is understandable.

There are also studies suggesting that the single disciplinary approach to argumentative writing in high school negatively affects the essay writing abilities of students. Teachers agreed that most of the writing their students did related to literature and the analysis of it (Brimi 70). This may diminish the capacity of students to argue persuasively across genres.

As I continue researching, I plan to look more closely into the history of the five-paragraph essay, and its relationship to standardized testing.

Works Cited

Brimi, Hunter. “Teaching Writing in the Shadow of Standardized Writing Assessment: An Exploratory Study.” American Secondary Education 41.1 (2012): 52–77. Web.

Newell, George E. et al. “Teaching and Learning Argumentative Reading and Writing: A Review of Research.” Reading Research Quarterly 46.3 (2011): 273–304. Web.

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Teaching Grammar

Posted: May 23, 2013 14:05;
Last Modified: Jun 26, 2016 14:06

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As a supplement to the unessay, Dan asked me to take a quick look at whether or not teaching the formal rules of grammar has any use; Does it improve a student’s writing?

The short answer is an unequivocal no. In the article “Responses to Error: Sentence-Level Error and the Teacher of Basic Writing” Foltz-Gray argues, through a series of studies spanning several decades, that teaching grammar has no positive impact on student writing, and in may cases is detrimental. Below are a few of the studies.

Richard Braddock’s landmark 1963 study for the National Council of Teachers of English, Research in Written Composition, concludes ‘in strong and unqualified terms’ that the teaching of formal grammar “has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on improvement in writing” (19).

Study conducted twenty-years later: “School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice which should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing” (19)

2004 study University of London: “published a review of over 4500 studies on the effect of formal grammar instruction on improvement in the ‘accuracy and quality’ of writing in learners aged 5 to 16. The reviewers found no ‘higher-order’ evidence that formal grammar instruction has a beneficial effect on writing performance” (19).

These studies were done independently of one another, across time, and across space, but they all came to the same conclusion: teaching grammar is unimportant. This is not to say that grammar is unimportant, rather, we understand the rules of grammar intuitively and teaching the rules tends to make us self-aware of things we do quite naturally. But what does all of this have to do with the unessay?

Teaching grammar and the smaller constituents of language is known as “bottom-up writing” (letter-word-sentence-paragraph-essay). The thinking is that a solid base can be built on. We master the basic components of language and then move on to essays. The unessay represents the opposite end of the spectrum: top-down writing which is “the entire essay, not sentences or paragraphs, should be the focus–and starting point–of instruction” (24). This theory assumes that we understand the basics of language because we are exposed to them all of the time. Top-down writing, based on the research, seems to be the more successful of the two approaches.

Interestingly though, there are parts of the unessay that represent a bottom-up approach, making it a sort of as yet underutilized hybrid. The unessay focuses on the whole of the work–an entire paper–but it does not employ the rigid rules of the formal essay. Instead, the unessay allows the writer freedom to explore his/her ideas and form, with the belief that this will eventually liberate him/her when writing a formal essay. Perhaps merging these two styles will be the key to producing consistent, quality writing.

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The Unessay and Metacognition

Posted: May 16, 2013 14:05;
Last Modified: May 16, 2013 14:05

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In order to understand what the unessay attempts to do for writers one must understand the underlying philosophies that govern it. In my preliminary research for this project I attempted to dissect the unessay, revealing its structures, and then relating those structures to the larger theories of teaching writing.

So what is the unessay, and what principals underlie it? Using Dan’s description of the project as well as Ullyot’s blog, I came to several answers to this question: firstly the unessay is concerned with ideas, that is, what does the writer have to say about a particular topic, and just as importantly, how will the writer present these ideas? This asks the writer to be self-aware both of the subject upon which he/she will base her writing, and also with regards to form. The writer must come up with a method appropriate to the content to disseminate her ideas, which forces her to consider her ideas and how the conveyance of those ideas is effected by presentation. Self-aware and self-conscious writing seems to be the most important aspect of the unessay, as adherence to strict form is relegated to the background. In the larger educational literature this is referred to as METACOGNITION (thinking about thinking). This is where I would like to focus the crux of my research on the unessay project. The articles I have combed through so far all stress the importance of understanding why we make the decisions we make when we write. If you can answer these questions you are better able to correct mistakes and reinforce strengths.

The other common theme I found in teaching writing, one related to the unessay project, is the importance of viewing writing as a process. I think the weakness of the formal essay is a result of how it’s taught: students are given a list of rules they ought not to violate, a word count, and a list of topics. These are all useful guidelines, but they relate exclusively to the end-product. The articles I have read, which range from a kindergarten class to a university class, all stress the importance of workshops and the process of writing. What good does a word count do if you don’t know how to construct a proper argument? How does adherence to proper MLA format teach an individual how to edit in a way that higher level concerns are addressed (argument validity, evidence etc)? The unessay does some of these things as it forces the writer to become responsible for every aspect of the design process, instead of relying on the formal essay’s rigid framework. Finally, the articles focusing on younger students stressed the importance of writing without writing. Having students talk out writing, draw writing, or act out writing, gives different types of learners the opportunity to form ideas, which can then be translated into literal writing.

Works Cited:

Cleary, Michelle Navarre. “How Antonio Graduated on Out of Here: Improving the Success of Adult Students with an Individualized Writing Course.” Journal of Basic Writing (CUNY) 30.1 (2011): 34–63. Print.

Cummins, Sunday, and Ruth E. Quiroa. “Teaching for Writing Expository Responses to Narrative Texts.” Reading Teacher 65.6  (2012): 381–386. Print.

Jacobs, Geralyn M. “A Classroom Investigation of the Growth of Metacognitive Awareness in Kindergarten Children Through the Writing Process.” Early Childhood Education Journal 32.1 (2004): 17–23. Print.

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Introduction to Unessay Research

Posted: May 15, 2013 13:05;
Last Modified: May 15, 2013 13:05

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There appears to be a fundamental discord in the way students are taught to argue and the what professors view as a “good argument”. High school students are taught that a good argument is a point that can be evidentially proven, but professors are searching for a more open-ended approach. Students are taught to answer, while professors want them to question.

Yet, the essay seems to be a loose term in regards to genre and its conventions, with variations being prevalent across disciplines. Does “anything go” when it comes to formulaic standards? Some scholars make a distinction between the “essay” and the “article”. But how many students are taught and become truly aware of this distinction? Students read articles, yet are told to formulate essays. This distinction is one that is not often communicated to students. Upon beginning my research of the subject, I myself had never entertained the distinction.

But of course we must have a thesis. Professors require a melding of the genres, into what Heilker calls “exploratory, essayistic discourse” (Heilker 191), to be mixed with a strong thesis proven in a logical and well-supported manner. Indeed, Heilker continues, “[c]larity and order are virtues, no doubt, but overdone they produce prose that is flat, predictable, and boring” (197). But why does a separation of merely rambling discourse and a logical thesis seem so hard for students to come by, and to produce such stilted writing that it pains professors to read it? Heilker states the plight of professors most clearly when he says that “[t]he ideas of pleasure reading and student writing seem contradictory, but it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be that way” (Heilker 197). There must be some model of argumentation that is so often ingrained in students that it requires an extensive remodelling to overcome.

There is also often an absence of emotion in traditional student writing. In my own experience, I know this to be true. As a high school student, I was told to take all personality and all traces of emotion out of my writing, and to produce a technically sound and cleverly written piece of prose. This is easier said than done. University professors and the grades they assigned to me seemed to agree as I realized that my best writing was often produced in a state of passion and emotion. It was the overwrought, overdone, and highly manipulated phrases that came out the most critiqued and awkward.

I loved writing the blogs, because there were quite literally no rules, other than they had to get done. For the first time, I felt liberated from the strictures of removing myself from my work; personal opinion, emotion, and cheering enthusiasm were all tolerated. What a novel experience! Upon beginning the blogs, I never imagined that I would be allowed, even encouraged, to write essays in a similar manner. While I never had any major difficulties in formulating some acceptable argument, I often felt frustrated when it came to conclusions. My essays would often be returned with an exhortation to expand and elaborate in my conclusions, to question and answer the question “why is this important”? “But I thought I did,” I would exclaim. I had neatly summed up my points and provided a short abstract about possible implications for my conclusions. But this was not questioning. This was restating the obvious.

So what is different between secondary and college level writing? What is expected, but more saliently, what is taught? I have had instructors tell me that a brilliant idea argued poorly will earn a much lower grade than a mediocre idea presented clearly. While to some extent this premise makes sense, is this the standard that should be strived for? Based on these standards, good grades earned from essays written begin to become a bit more arbitrary. A’s are earned not because of inherent brilliance written into the student’s work, but because there is nothing overtly wrong with it.

In pursuing this strain of research, I would like to continue to examine the literature on the way essays and argumentation are taught at the secondary and undergraduate levels. I think it would be helpful to speak to professors in the Academic Writing department, and possibly in English and Education, to determine how students are emerging from their high school education, and what is specifically lacking in the arguments constructed by undergraduates. Dan’s Unessay research has already determined what differences emerge when writing and argumentation are approached from a different angle, so I would like to provide the context for why students writing efforts are not living up to the expectations presented in a conventional undergraduate classroom.

Works Cited

Heilker, Paul. “Twenty Years In: An Essay in Two Parts.” College Composition and Communication 58.2 (2006): 182–212.

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