It's all too easy for students to float away on abstract words. Here's how to get them back on solid ground.
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In her article "The Writing Revolution," Peg Tyre shows the teachers at New Dorp High School beginning to ask the question too few writing teachers ask: What skills do these students lack? She quotes Nell Scharff, an instructional expert brought in by the school, as saying, "How did the kids in our target group go wrong? What skills were missing?"
It's a crucial question for those who want to reform the teaching of writing, because once you ask what skills are missing, you can make a list and start a counter-attack. The alternative to listing missing skills is to settle into a belief that today's kids are dumb or just not interested in ideas -- which is what usually happens these days.
As a college writing instructor, I have seen many students show up in a freshman comp class believing they can't write, and their opinion is valid. They don't realize that it's because they lack certain skills that were common among college freshmen 40 years ago.
Tyre points out how small some of the important skills are, and how conscious instruction in them can make a difference. When New Dorp discovered that students didn't know how to use such words as "although" or "despite," the school consciously set out to teach them, and the kids began to write better. When New Dorp discovered kids didn't know how to say "I disagree" or "Can you explain your answer?" in discussions, the phrases were posted as prompts at the front of the classroom and much smarter-sounding discussions resulted.
"What is a concrete noun?" a student might ask. "It's something you can drop on your foot," I always answer. "It's that simple."
Like the teachers at New Dorp, I believe in conscious skill instruction and over the years have made my own list of missing skills. One is the skill of giving specific concrete examples in an essay. One might naturally assume that giving good concrete examples is unteachable, that it's just an aspect of a student's thinking, and that a student with good mind will use good examples in his or her essays. But it's much more useful to regard the giving of examples as a skill, because then you can find ways to train for it.