How Do I Teach This Stuff?

by Nancy Vazquez, UWC Director

This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Fall 2011.

According to the W and C Course Advisory Committee, any course awarded a W or C certification must include instruction in writing and/or speaking.

But what does that mean? What exactly constitutes “instruction” in writing and speaking?

Teaching writing (or speaking) isn’t the same thing as teaching grammar, so there’s no need to brush up on participles. Instead, think about the way you write an article or prepare a conference presentation: the creative process you use, the assumptions in your discipline about how and when to use outside sources, the self-reflection and peer critique that help you refine your ideas and your wording. Then, think about how you can share that experience with your students.

After all, writing and speaking are skills best learned by doing. That means the most helpful classroom activities in a W or C course are those that allow you to give students feedback, support, and direction while their work is in process. In reviewing course proposals, the W and C Course Advisory Committee sees a broad range of instructional activities, such as

  • guiding discussions of model journal articles or speeches

  • supervising small groups in revising sample sentences or paragraphs

  • holding individual conferences with students

  • directing brainstorming or proofreading sessions

  • leading students through an analysis of their audience

  • reviewing the ethical and effective use of sources

  • modeling the instructor’s own writing process.

Teaching communication skills can also go hand-in-hand with teaching course content. For instance, if your class is discussing an assigned reading, you might spend a few additional minutes asking students about the author’s rhetorical strategies: What kind of vocabulary did the author use? How was supporting evidence introduced? Did the author cite statistics or quote authorities? What was the most effective part of the reading?

This kind of discussion brings communication to the forefront, making it visible to students. You’re teaching them to consider not just what authors or speakers say, but how they say it.

As your students become more critical readers and listeners, you can help them apply this knowledge to their own work.

Likewise, you can help students understand the need to adapt their work to suit a particular audience. For instance, an engineering class might compare a journal article about an emerging technology with a company’s promotional material about that same technology. Students could evaluate differences between the two audiences, exploring what each audience expects, as well as what they value.

And yes, if you’re teaching communication skills, at some point, you’ll want to address grammar, punctuation, or format issues, but that probably won’t require lengthy lectures.

Instead, choose three or four of the more common or disruptive errors you see in your students’ work and revise them with the class. You can take examples directly from your students’ work, but be sure to preserve the authors’ anonymity and explain why the mistake is distracting or confusing.

That helps students see correcting surface errors as part of their ultimate goal—communicating their message effectively to their audience.

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