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Do You Need an English Degree to Write Well?
If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that he or she had difficulty communicating in writing, I would have… a lot of dollars. When I ask why, the answer is invariably the same: “I just don’t understand writing, and English, and grammar, and all that kind of stuff.” For some reason, people seem to think that knowing “all that stuff” is necessary to learn to write well.
Who knows all the rules, the meanings of all the terms, the linguistic foundations of writing strategies? Think of the people who tried to teach you “all things.” You will probably remember high school English teachers. You might think of university English professors. They have English degrees. So the conclusion is that you need to have an English degree to write well.
This is not true. Understandable, but wrong.
Writing books and guides does little to change this perception. Without the benefit of a strong background in English terms, grammar, concepts, etc., you can quickly become frustrated, confused, bored, lost, or simply turned off. For example, I recently discussed The Elements of Style, Strunk and White’s writing guide. I like this written guide and describe its value to me. Someone replied that she didn’t like it because she needed a grammar book to understand it. Her statement pointed to a major problem with most writing instructions.
The first problem is that many writing books, courses and other instructions expect people to know the grammar, the writing terminology, the concepts, etc. They use them freely trying to give writing strategies. People who do not know them will not be able to take full advantage of the teaching.
The second problem is that ineffective teaching separates the academic knowledge from the writing strategies. For example, a book about writing might clearly have a separate section in the back about grammar. Then, if a person gets confused about a term, he will have to stop reading about the strategies and spend some time studying the grammar section. Other books, courses etc. spend a lot of time on the terminology and grammar before they show you how to use this knowledge. It’s one or the other. They do not teach the terminology in the context of the writing strategies when that knowledge is important.
My three main writing resources are guilty of these two problems. I’ve already mentioned Elements of Style, which has a separate section on grammar and usage. Line by Line by Cook is a powerful book about writing well, but the author assumes you already know the grammar and terminology. Williams, the author of my third favorite book, Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace, includes an appendix defining many of the terms used in the 10 lessons. Their assumption is that most people already know the terminology and grammar concepts, so they put that information at the end in case some uninformed people happen to read their books.
Maybe this is true. But this is not suitable for the typical person who has not obtained an English degree but still needs to communicate in writing. (You can get more information about these three books by searching Amazon or clicking their picture at hostileediting dot com.)
In short, the books do not provide effective writing instruction because they have a flawed teaching model. The teaching model does not match the way people learn. The woman who needed a grammar book to understand Elements is a good example: the problem is teaching, not the student.
I have a master’s degree in English, and I have spent over 15 years working in local and state education agencies designing and implementing learning systems. This gives me a unique perspective on teaching writing. I learned three teaching strategies along the way that apply to teaching writing.
- Teach necessary terminology and concepts in context of the primary focus. This means that background information and supporting concepts should not be separate from the primary instruction. For example, if I’m going to teach people to put commas around appositive phrases, and they don’t know what appositive phrases are, then it’s time to teach them – not later, not before, but now. This also means that I do not teach about different types of sentences because they are not related to the main topic at the moment.
- Provide new information in old terms. This means using common, everyday language to help people understand new concepts, ie using words that people already know. This also means using examples that relate to the learners’ experiences. Research on learning is very clear on this: people learn better when they can relate new content to their lives.
- New concepts need to be reinforced repeatedly. Just explaining something once is not effective. The explanations must be used several times or more, and in different ways.
Sometimes, the grammatical terms are important. They can be very useful for discussing writing strategies and for summarizing concepts. However, they can also be taught by following the three strategies above. First, they are introduced only when relevant to the current topic. If they are not related, they are not discussed. Second, they are taught using simple terms and explained in terms of the learner’s experiences. Once the student has grasped the basic ideas, they are explained and used repeatedly. If the terms are important, then the teacher has the responsibility to ensure that the student understands and can apply them.
These three strategies are not the result of personal speculation; I’m not an armchair philosopher coming up with ideas without research or testing. An abundant research literature on learning supports these ideas. More important, at least to me, is the feedback from students in my adult education writing courses and from people who have purchased our writing guides.
I implement these strategies and pay close attention to how people respond. Here are some word for word samples of their responses.
- “The teacher used words I could understand.”
- “I really like the way Mr. Bowman presents his example.”
- “This was the class I’ve been waiting for.”
- “Written concisely in plain English…”
- “… very easy to understand.”
- „… explanations [are] clear, concise, and very informative…”
As demonstrated by this suggestion, this 3-part approach works: teach concepts in context of the primary instructional focus, teach new content using common language, and reinforce new learning.
Who can use these strategies for effective writing instruction? The answer to this question is quite simple. If you teach writing in any way, these tips are for you: elementary and secondary education (K-12) teachers, college-level writing teachers, writing teachers and facilitators, book writers, writing bloggers, editors, etc.
Communication skills are important, and people do need to write well. With so many writing resources available, why do so many people still struggle with writing? The problem is the teaching, not the student. With these three strategies, teachers will provide effective learning opportunities, and you, the students, will learn to write and communicate effectively.
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