Teaching Strategy Tip #34


Many students are afraid of writing and are afraid of the freedom that an assignment predicated on their interests might suggest (Bean, 2011). A reason for students’ reactions is that they are concerned about exposing themselves as not being proficient writers. This is a concern not only for students whose first language is not English but also for those whose first language is English. Scaffolding assignments to provide practice and improve performance can be encouraged in multiple ways through formal and informal writing. Further, scaffolding writing assignments allow students to learn more critically as they improve their work.

Informal writing, also called exploratory writing, or expressive writing “is the kind of exploratory, thinking-on-paper writing we do to discover, develop, and clarify our own ideas. Exploratory writing is typically unorganized and tentative, moving off in unanticipated directions as new ideas, complications, and questions strike the writer in the process of thinking and creating. Examples of exploratory writing include journals, notebooks, marginal notes in books, nonstop freewrites, reading logs, diaries, daybooks, letters to colleagues…memoranda to myself” (Bean, 2011, pp. 120-121).

Free-writing is “writing without pauses” (Rhem, 2009, quoting Elbow in Writing without teachers ) which “invites surprises. Students often discover things they didn’t know they thought or felt. The deepest insights often come after ten or fifteen minutes when writers initially feel they have run out of things to say. Writers should generate a lot of ideas to allow them to keep only the best ones for the finished draft” (Rhem, 2009).

Journaling How to get students invested in writing? Stevens (Rhem, 2009) suggests journaling in a handwritten notebook, whatever occurs to them, written in free-form style, a constant companion to their lives. Starting class with a warm-up session of writing allows students to hear their own thoughts about a subject.

Summarizing – A summary can be as short as one sentence or as long as a page; the typical length is 150-250 words. Summary writing requires that the reader separate main ideas from supporting details. This provides hierarchical structure of the reading….they are easy to grade quickly (Bean, 2011, p. 178).

Writing “translations” – Students are asked to “‘translate’ a difficult passage in their own words” (Bean, 2011, p. 179). “This is a particularly useful for students to practice deciphering syntactically complex prose. The act of close paraphrasing also focuses students’ attention on precise meanings of words” (p. 180). Coming back to what they wrote later in the class session helps to focus their thinking about a topic.

Grading How can such “free-form” work be graded? Stevens asks students to re-read their journals, “select two entries to photocopy for me and then type a one-page reflection on why each was an important entry for them” (Rhem, 2009). Stevens has a rubric to provide feedback on these “meta-reflections.”

Similarly, Bean (2011) discussed Haswell “[who] discovered that students found and corrected approximately 60% of their own sentence errors (misspellings, comma splices, dangling modifiers, and so forth) when Haswell quit circling mistakes and simply marked an X in the margin next to lines that contained errors. …His ‘minimal marking’…withholds a grade on an essay until students have found and corrected as many of their own errors as possible. Haswell thus creates a classroom environment that motivates better habits of editing and proofreading” (p. 75). Bean (2011) notes that when student read their drafts out loud, they “unconsciously correct many of their mistakes” (p. 75)

Developing the structure of an argument Making arguments, often through “hierarchical structures,” can be demonstrated, through Socratic questioning and students are instructed to write sentences that provide a “bird’s-eye view,” by creating structure through devices such as section headings, and paragraph topic sentences (Bean, 2011).

Developing rhetorical context Writing to explain the context that provided the impetus for the project or text is important, as is providing the synthesis of prior literature and presenting arguments that will be countered. The potential audience must be taken into account. These separate skills are to be made explicit by the instructor, who can also use templates of prompts to provide scaffolding (Bean, 2011).

Accessing one’s own “cultural literacy” By reading and discussing the reading, students can become aware of “cultural codes” (Bean, 2011). Instructors can provide scaffolding in helping students understand their own beliefs, and “culture codes,” their own cultural assumptions, to open themselves to wider audiences, and understanding of others’ writing.


To obtain guidance on ways to frame assignments

  • consult Bean (2011), or
  • consult “Fellows” from the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) through the
    Faculty Commons. As the WAC website notes: WAC promotes the practice of integrating writing as a learning tool into every discipline. Underlying this approach is the idea that writing well is integral to successful learning as a process that synthesizes one’s analytical skills as a reader and thinker. Writing as a process encourages critical reading and thinking that hone one’s ability to understand and to reason. These foundations of success provide opportunities for students to reinforce and to strengthen their aptitude in any field of study. WAC practices are integral to preparing undergraduates in their chosen fields as they strive to become professionals.

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