The Academic Club
Nipissing University, Canada.
riting *.* - A Serious Misnomer
'Writing competence,' 'writing skills,' 'writing course'--they're all wrong. Seriously wrong.
Many approach writing as if it were merely cosmetic, merely the mastery of a bunch of arbitrary
grammar rules and conventions. Editing is thought to be much like proofreading--'Would you
just look this over?' is a question casually asked, implying a request of little magnitude. Wrong.
If words merely expressed our thoughts, if it were 'merely' a matter of translating our thoughts
into words, perhaps this attitude would be correct. But try thinking without words and you'll
see immediately that language enters the cognitive process much before the (presumed) final
I have been a writer for about twenty years, a professionally trained English teacher for
fifteen, and for the last few years, I've been the co-ordinator/instructor of Nipissing
University's Writing Skills Program. It is this last experience, which consists of intensive
tutorials with individual students all day long, that has boosted my understanding of writing:
not only is it the flip side of reading, it is inextricably linked with thinking and what we
often label as writing problems are much deeper than that--they're thinking problems.
The relation between writing and reading is fairly straightforward: often a student has poor
writing skills because s/he has poor reading skills. It takes weeks of modelling and then
closely supervised practice just to get the students I work with into the habit of reading
each and every word they've written. It seems that skimming, just to get the general idea,
is the standard modus operandi. Is this because of the whole-language theories--approach the
sentence, the paragraph, holistically, pay attention to the whole, never mind about the parts,
the details? Or is it the result of lightning fast bite-sized bits on television and radio
that prevent close attention? Or is it just that I'm dealing with weak students who don't
understand stuff even when they read it closely, so they've learned not to bother? Whatever
the reason, this lazy or careless reading accounts for errors, not the least of which is the
dangling modifier error: Consider the sentence "For people who like to play, they are usually
in good shape"; the word 'for' is skimmed over or forgotten by the second half of the sentence,
and it's not until I point this out and ask "What is for these people--you didn't finish your
thought" that the students even recognize the problem.
And then it takes another few weeks to engage their minds, to get them to think about what
they read/write: "'TELEVISION influences the role of children'--wait a minute, I'm having
trouble with that one, I can't conceptualize television influencing the role of children;
in fact, I'm having trouble with 'the role of children'; I can understand television
influencing the children; I can even understand television influencing which role children
later choose to play in society, but how, exactly, does television influence the role of
children?' 'Oh--I guess it doesn't, I just meant, like, that television influences children--'
'Well then just say that--like.'"
Of course, once students improve their reading skills, their writing skills improve. I once
worked with a student in a second year Philosophy course, who was spending six hours each
week on the assigned reading and still doing poorly on the reading comprehension quizzes.
Once he understood that there was a topic sentence in each paragraph, a sentence that expressed
the single point of the paragraph (and that he could highlight the topic sentence in each
paragraph and end up with an outline of the whole article), he started making sure his own
paragraphs had such sentences. Once he understood the importance of paying attention to words
such as 'but,' 'nevertheless,' and 'furthermore' as conceptual road signs for the route of the
argument, he started using such words when writing his own arguments.
The relation between writing and thinking is multifarious. Of course, there is that engagement
of the mind, that thinking about what one is writing, which I've already mentioned. But many
very specific 'writing' errors are actually thinking errors. Consider the following:
1. Incomplete sentences or sentence fragments - These are really incomplete thoughts.
2. Punctuation errors -
- Incorrect or no use of colons and/or semicolons - The former introduces an
explanation or an example of a thought; the latter joins related thoughts of equal
importance. If students don't see these connections between the dots, their
sentences, they can't see, they have no use for, such 'advanced' punctuation.
- Parentheses are equally rare - Students can't recognize or can't create a
subordinate idea embedded in a dominant idea. To understand the levels of emphasis
for such embedding--represented by parentheses, dashes, or commas on either side--is
even more unusual.
- Misplaced or missing periods - Like incomplete sentences, this error indicates a
failure to recognize the boundaries of a thought: When is it complete? When is it
3. Wrong word - This is often not just a dictionary error or a matter of using 'quick' when
one should use 'quickly'; it's more like a matter of using 'with' when one should've used
'through'. Such an error indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of the connection,
the relation, involved: 'A with B' describes a correlative relationship; 'A through B'
describes a causal relationship.
4. Irrelevant or off-topic - These are not just harmless 'messy bedroom' problems. What's
indicated is that the student doesn't truly understand the nature of the subject and so
can't tell if something is relevant or not--something has been connected, albeit implicitly,
5. Poor paragraphing - This reveals a failure to recognize the boundaries of a topic or a
point. It does no good to tell a student that the rule for paragraphing is that you start
a new one when you go onto a new point or into a different direction if s/he can't recognize
separate points or a different direction. (And it's completely meaningless unless s/he has
a point or a direction in the first place!)
6. Incoherence - At the sentence level, at the paragraph level, or at the essay level, this
indicates the absence of connections, conceptual connections. Sentences lie like so many
dots on a page--students expect the reader to make the connections, to give it shape, to
give it coherence. (Instead, I give a list of transitional words--because, therefore,
however, and, but, despite, when, etc.--and tell them to go back and combine their sentences,
joining two sentences together as often as possible. Their eyes widen as they look at the
list--I have given them keys to the palace.)
Even the inability to identify the subject of a sentence, which can lead to subject-verb
agreement errors such as "The maintenance of computers are complex," is a thinking error:
such inability suggests that the student can't distinguish between what's dominant (the
maintenance) and what's subordinate (of computers) in a sentence (and so no wonder they can't
do so in an essay--see the point about incoherence).
One of the more popular segments of my "How Not to Fail the Writing Competency Test" seminar
is the one I introduce by saying "Now, you may be saying to yourselves, 'I'd be glad to
organize my thoughts that way if only I had some thoughts!'"--I go on to explain three
(1) The perspective strategy - Every issue can be approached from several perspectives,
and most issues can be considered from a moral, practice, economic, and social perspective
(we then consider, to illustrate/apply this strategy, the question of whether or not
abortion should be legalized);
(2) The transfer strategy - Take from an issue you do know about and see if anything is
applicable to the new issue, the one you don't know anything about (we then transfer
our knowledge about driving licenses to the question of whether or not boating licenses
should be mandatory);
(3) The grab bag strategy - Think of the history of, future of, parts of, kinds of, causes
of, effects of, ways to, advantages of, and disadvantages of X and see if anything gets
you anywhere (we brainstorm about body piercing for a while trying to form some sort of
supportable opinion about it).
Again, here are keys to the palace. Again, passing a writing competency test is very much
a matter of thinking competence.
It is not difficult to understand why this error, this mis-identification, has occurred.
First, it is quite common to mistake the symptom for the disease.
Second, it is not until the second year of university that we explicitly teach thinking
skills. Until then, we (explicitly) teach students only how to read, write, and do
arithmetic; any problems are, therefore, seen as belonging in those categories.
A third factor is that 'the writing process' is simply misunderstood: many people, though
mostly beginners, believe that one thinks something and then writes it down. However,
most of us surely aren't Mozarts: we can't conceptualize an entire symphony and hold it
in our minds complete before then writing it down. At the very best, we can do that for
maybe a four-bar phrase, or a paragraph, at a time; more probably, we can handle only a bar
or two, or a sentence, at a time. (And many of us don't even think in whole sentences before
beginning to write.) And even then, if we're at all concerned about connection, we have to
go back and make changes, to those 'complete' paragraphs and sentences.
More typical than the Mozart process is this: we begin to think and start writing out those
thoughts, those approximations to what will eventually, after much recursive motion, much
thinking and writing and re-thinking and re-writing, be a finished piece (essay, paragraph,
sentence). Thus, writing is not a separate, 'second step' to thinking. The two are usually
bound together (along with reading of course, as we will often need to read what we've got
written down so far).
The accompanying diagram illustrates this even more specifically. If there's any linear
motion at all to the process which results in the end product of a piece of academic writing
(which has as its goal explanation or persuasion), it is that of the solid arrows.
2 planning organization
3 writing ideas clarification
4 rewriting grammar, punctuation
5 presentation to the reader
But, many of these steps are, as I've suggested, recursive: planning often takes us back to
thinking, writing takes us back to planning, and writing takes us back to thinking as
well--see the dotted arrows.
Research skills play a large role, mostly at the thinking-to-planning stage. Writing skills
per se (i.e., attention to grammar and punctuation) come into play only at step four, rewriting,
in order to make all of the preceding clear to the reader. Fringe writing skills, attention to
paragraphing and organization come into play at step two, planning.
What about step three? I'd say that the cognitive work done here is ideas clarification, and
thus again, thinking skills are involved more than writing skills. Consider the difference
between "The increased emphasis on children watching television leads to passivity as adults"
and "Children who watch a lot of television develop into passive adults." The first sentence
is poor because it doesn't make sense, not because it's badly written; it is, in fact, correctly
written--grammatically speaking and with regard to spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.
And to get from the first to the second, I don't focus on writing, I focus on thinking: my
questions to the student probe for meaning, for conceptual clarification (Are you sure you
mean increased emphasis--there was an emphasis and now it's increasing? Did you mean emphasis
on children watching television or the emphasis by children on watching television? What do
you mean by 'passivity as adults'?), not for knowledge of grammar or punctuation.
Step three is a matter of language, yes, but it's not really a matter of writing; rather,
it's a matter of language as the expression of thought. (Given all of this, it doesn't help
that we call essays 'writing assignments' or that we say 'write an essay' instead of 'prepare
Having explained the misnomer and then examined possible reasons for it, I'd like now to
consider the consequences. Certainly one consequence is continued denial. Students are taught
from grade school how to write, referring either to penmanship or spelling, and they think that
by high school, let alone by university, they can write. So they're quite insulted to be told
otherwise. Most dismiss the telling and go about their way. Obviously, as long as the student
insists s/he can so write, s/he won't seriously try to improve.
Renaming, however, calling 'writing skills' 'thinking skills,' would only exacerbate the
problem: surely people believe they can think even more than they believe they can write.
I believe that's one part of why "Critical Thinking" courses are so difficult to teach:
students assume it's a bird course--they believe they already know how to think; and if
they're unreceptive, not open to the course material, the curriculum, well, it's an uphill
battle from the start (I wonder if the courses called "Informal Logic" fare any better).
Another consequence of the mis-naming is that those who do admit writing difficulties will be
focusing on the wrong thing: they'll be focusing on writing, not thinking. Every year, at the
end of my ENGL0100 course, I ask (on the course evaluation) these three questions: Has your
ability to write improved? Has your ability to read improved? Has your ability to think
improved? Invariably, students answer 'yes' to the first, 'so-so' to the second, and 'no'
to the third. Now I know their thinking skills have improved--by the end of the course, every
student can take a position on a given issue and make a short case for it. But they don't
recognize it because they haven't identified it, they haven't named it. Identifying the
problem (correctly) is half the solution.
Perhaps more important than considering the causes (and consequences) of mistaking poor
thinking for poor writing is considering the causes (and consequences) of such poor thinking.
In short, who is to blame for the students' inability to think, to form and correctly connect
complete thoughts? Well, the usual: the school system, parents, and television.
Notice that I said the school system, not the teachers. I think teachers are, by and large,
quite competent: they've been trained in pedagogical theory and practice and they're a
hard-working, dedicated lot. But their hands are tied when it comes to so-called 'discipline
problems': they can't send the student out into the hall because students aren't allowed to
be unsupervised; they can't send the student to the principal's office because s/he can't
get any work done if s/he has to supervise 30-40 students (oh yes it would be that many--more
in fact--this figure assumes that only one student would be sent from any given class in any
given hour); a separate 'time out' room can't be set up because there's no money to hire a
supervisor for such a room (and the teachers are already in class teaching, or supervising
someone else's class while that teacher is sick or away on school business, or grabbing an
hour for lunch and/or preparation for upcoming classes); and they can't be suspended because,
well, one, that's not really a punishment, students go on voluntary suspensions of three or
four days at a time anyway (it's called 'skipping')--and two, such absences are a problem
because when the student returns, s/he'll be that much further behind and unable to follow
even if s/he wanted to, and therefore that much more prone to amuse her/himself in other, i.e.,
disruptive, ways. Which was where we started. With over half the class unprepared for the
course in question. (That's why teachers spend 80% of their time doing classroom management
--and so it's no wonder the course curriculum doesn't get covered.)
Now it's sound pedagogy to teach the student, not the course. That is, if the student can't
add and subtract, don't try to teach him/her calculus. But what if it's a calculus course
you've been hired to teach? What if the passing grade you give is thought to mean, therefore,
that the student passed calculus, not arithmetic? And what about the other students--this is
a class, not a private lesson.
Well, you may ask, what are those unprepared students doing in your calculus class in the first
place? They must have passed the prerequisite course. Of course they must have passed it.
When was the last time you heard of a student failing? It just isn't done. And students know
that. So why should they bother to pay attention--they'll pass anyway. (And most don't have
the maturity to be motivated by the intrinsic value of the material.)
Let's go back a bit to a question I'm sure you asked: why don't the students fail? Well,
apparently it's not good for them. Messes up their self-esteem. In the words of one
vice-principal, "Nothing succeeds like success." Also, apparently it makes the school look
bad. Certainly many teachers think it makes them look bad. And of course there's the money:
government grants to schools are on a per student basis, so the more students one has, the more
money one will get. And the more students fail, well, the more they'll quit, and the fewer
students one will have.
Now let's go forward a bit, lest you think that with students entering university less and less
prepared, more would fail at that point. Not so. Because there are such good programs in
place to help students remediate? Well, yes there are these, but they're grossly underutilized.
I mean, as long as students are passing their courses, getting As and Bs even, they don't figure
they need remediation.
As and Bs? Have university standards been lowered? Well, yes and no. If the professor fails
too many students, s/he will be out of a job (unless s/he has tenure; and the ones with tenure
tend to teach the upper year courses, by which time the truly unprepared and/or unmotivated
have self-selected out). And this will happen either because the Dean really believes that
the professor in question is not a good teacher (naively connecting failure rate with teacher
competence) or because the Dean recognizes that this professor isn't willing to play the
retention game. See the university thinks just like the elementary and secondary school
systems: if you fail them, they drop out, and there goes money (tuition as well as, possibly,
government grants). So you pass them, in order to keep them, in order to save a university,
so you can get them, in order to keep them.... It's a vicious circle. And, given that
'educate them' wasn't in there at all, it's an empty circle to boot.
And the parents. The second reason for students' poor thinking skills. Or rather, for the
students' poor 'classroom skills'--which disable any plan to foster thinking skills (along
with reading, writing, and arithmetic skills). This little story pretty much says it all:
one parent-teacher interview evening, Hal's parents came; his mother sat down and asked me
"How do you get him to stop swearing at you?" Not being a parent myself, I hesitate to be
too judgemental here, but it seems to me that kids who lack manners, let alone a certain
degree of self-discipline and respect for others, have their home environment to blame. I
mean surely this kind of thing begins in the home. (And then it comes into the classroom,
after six years in the making.)
And television. A kid who spends a lot of time watching television doesn't learn how to amuse
him/herself. This child is more likely to be a problem in class, especially if the class
isn't quite as exciting as television. And, of course, a kid who spends a lot of time
watching television probably doesn't spend a lot of time reading, and as I've shown, there
is a link then to writing and thinking.