A New Look at Reading and Writing Assignments

While communication technology has changed rapidly over the last thirty years, our modes of teaching students to be communicative have changed very little. The essay still seems to be the time-tested standard in many areas of the humanities and the social sciences. Increasingly, students in public schools are exposed to informational media that is published digitally, and as such, they are often see traditional paper text as an archaic mode of communication. The following post offers some easy ways to re-think reading and writing assignments to boost student motivation and better prepare them for literacy in an increasingly digital world.

Writing Assignments

Writing assignments, as they have traditionally been employed in educational settings, focus on correcting writing  after the writing process, rather than providing sufficient feedback to students during the writing process itself.  Much of what students write in the classroom is also teacher centered in two manners. First, teachers often decide topics, genres, and other technical specifications. Second, feedback on student writing is based on a teacher’s innate preferences and dispositions regarding the use of written language, often despite undoubted attempts at fairness and objectivity. These facts, coupled with a decrease in student motivation, highlight the need for a serious reconsideration of how instructional professionals develop writing assignments and respond to student writing.

Students Need to Have Choice in Writing Assignments

Not all writing is the same, nor does it need to be. The teacher who sees only one solution to such a multi-sided problem is thinking in terms of “cans” and “cannots,” and not in terms of “hows.” Flexibility promotes experimentation, which is what we all want. Most English teachers would be ecstatic to see their students playing and experimenting with language for the sheer joy in creating something silly, or something serious, or something smart. So why not give them the opportunity? The means letting students, at times, choose both their topic and mode of response. Providing students with the opportunity to respond in multigenre form will allow them to practice writing styles that will better enhance their skills as strategic and independent thinkers.

Students Need to Publish, and Students Need Varied Feedback

In the digital world, there is no excuse to not share interesting writing and thoughts with one another. Social media broadcasts the minutia of millions of minds every minute and commands far more attention at any given moment than probably any other form of media in history. What does this say to a student whose essay has gone from her desk to your desk and back again? Sharing content is a vital part of being a digital author and also provides access to an almost unlimited source of feedback and criticism when used in conjunction with digital publishing forums. Publishing written work, whether it be in digital form, a school paper or literary journal, or in a classroom research conference, is an integral part of developing an identity as  a scholar and finding fulfillment in your work.

In addition to increasing student motivation  and attachment to a subject, physical and digital publishing forums often provide students with the most valuable commodity in their growth as writers: varied feedback. It is easy to figure out how one person thinks, what peeves them, but it is increasingly difficult to figure out what writing strategies will help you achieve your goals when a group of diverse individuals is your audience.

Good Teachers Provide Feedback That Is Critical and Cerebral

When responding to student writing don’t focus unnecessarily on mechanical errors unless they are detrimental to your comprehension of the student’s argument itself. Think of these grammar mistakes as something to explain later with manipulative sentence parts. Your response to student writing should provoke the student to think more critically. I like to offer logical counter arguments and ask them open ended questions (“How does fact X impact argument Y?”). This is your forum, as the teacher, to direct the student in the improvement of his or her piece of writing. Oftentimes, this feedback should be thematic and follow previous direct instruction. For example, after discussing the role of audience awareness when writing, you would ask one or two open ended questions about the student’s knowledge and understanding of her audiences on the next piece of writing you assess.

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