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TAs as Writing Teachers

Many TAs have expressed concern about the level of writing skills their students display in exams and papers. You may be surprised to hear that YOU can do something about your students' writing skills-even if you're not a TA in the English Department. You can do this without sacrificing class time to teach something else ("English"), and you may find that the overall quality of your class improves.

Most of the strategies provided below utilize an activity known variously as "free writing", "non-stops", or "free-flows". The basic technique is simply this: for a given period of time, students write without worrying about spelling words correctly, grammar, punctuation, etc. The working rule is: get it down, don't get it "right". In general, it's best to introduce free-writing with one- to three-minute time limits. After students have become accustomed to the procedure, the timespan can be increased to five minutes or longer.


  • Ask students to write three words which they personally thought were of special importance to the day's assignment. Then, ask them to do some free-writing (e.g., for three minutes) based on any one of the words. Next have them spend ten minutes in groups of three, sharing what they've written and generating some questions to ask in class.
  • (A slight modification of the above.) Ask students to write down three words which they personally thought were of importance to the day's assignment. Have them form groups of three to share for ten minutes the words they chose and why they chose them. Then have them do a three-minute "free-flow" based on their discussion. The papers can be used for further class discussions or could be handed in for you to read (but not to grade or "mark up").
  • Have students do three to five minutes of free-writing prior to class discussion. The topic could be as general or as specific as you wish to make it. For example, in a math class a general topic might be: What do graphs do that formulas don't? A more specific topic might be: What prevents an asymptote from reaching an axis? The discussion could continue or expand on what they've written (e.g., "On the basis of what you've written, how would you answer the following question...?").
  • Have students do five or ten minutes of free-writing on a given topic, then have them choose partners, exchange papers, and read each other's papers. To help them focus their responses, you could ask them first to fill out as many as possible of the following "seed sentences" based on their reactions to what they've read. They can then share their responses.

(Provide a dittoed sheet with spaces for them to complete the sentences.)

- Your paper...
- The way you approached a topic...
- Something you might have mentioned is...
- One thing you brought up which I hadn't considered before was...
- I was surprised...
- You're good at...

  • Provide three seed sentences based on the day's work (examples: "Electrolytic reactions can be..." or "The hardest thing for me to understand in today's assignment was..." or "Supply-demand curves sometimes..."). Ask each student to write an ending for one of the three seed sentences. Then form the class into groups based on the sentence and discuss the topic for ten minutes or so. Afterward the whole class can proceed to discuss, ask questions about, or be presented with new material on the topic.
  • At the beginning of a lab, have students spend three to five minutes writing about any of the following topics: 1) What are they supposed to be investigating?, 2) What's the general procedure they'll be following?, 3) What mistakes should they be watching out for?, 4) What don't they understand about the experiment? or 5) What do they understand most about the experiment?
  • After you've given your orientation to the lab and perhaps responded to questions generated in the course of their writing, you can read quickly through their papers as they're starting their work in order to spot potential problems.
  • At the end of a class, have students do five minutes of free-writing based on the preceding class session. Possible topics: "Now, tell me all you can in five minutes about what we covered; quantity, not quality is important" or "Write for five minutes about the class we had today: what you learned or re-learned, what was boring, interesting, confusing, or surprising, what your mind drifted onto when you couldn't pay attention, what questions you still have-write about anything you want, but write about the class." Read through these papers to assess the class in general, your teaching, the students' understanding, etc.
  • After the students have done some free writing and are in groups of three to six, have them read their OWN papers to the group before they discuss the topic.
  • Ask the students to write five words that are somehow important to the day's work, then have them formulate a question based on each word. Ask them each to pick one of their questions to respond to in writing for five minutes, then:

- discuss what they've written with a partner, or
- ask YOU the question to see how you'd answer it.

Any of the activities described above can be used to promote and focus group discussions, to assess the state of students' understanding, to encourage (with regular use) the students' coming to class prepared, or to help ensure that students have some grasp of the activities they're about to do (for example, in a lab). The only really difficult aspect of using these kinds of activities is in changing expectations about what's supposed to happen in a math, chemistry, geology, or political science class ("Hey, I thought this was a class, not an English class!"). The key is to offer them as "experiments" on a regular basis. Then see whether or not, as a class, their writing on exams is different from other classes, their discussions are more focused or informed, and whether or not you've enhanced, rather than interfered with, the efficiency of your instruction.

Besides the issue of whether or not you're conducting an "English 2" class, there are two other unusual classroom attitudes you're utilizing. These are that 1) ON OCCASION mistakes don't matter, and 2) the teacher doesn't need to monitor students' output. Fader (1976) has addressed both these issues. Having observed the use of free-writing in a variety of programs, he notes that "even the worst students take some pleasure in the idea of uncorrected writing when they have been conditioned to expect and value their freedom to practice" (p. 32).

Nothing else generated so much controversy-so much emphatic agreement and disagreement alike-among the faculties of the two original (project) schools as the practice of student papers written but unread. "If we won't read, they won't write" was the rallying cry of the dissidents, a cry repeated again and again by many other teachers in the ensuing ten years. In spite of their beliefs, based solely on surmise, both faculties eventually capitulated to the assault of their own observations students wrote; teachers didn't read all that students wrote; students kept on writing. No evidence to the contrary has been generated during the intervening decade. (Fader, 1976, p. 32.)

Most of you aren't English teachers. You certainly can't be expected to spend time addressing "writing problems". The particular benefits of the activities described above are that they provide students opportunities to write-practice sessions-which won't be judged and at the same time provide ways for you to attend to the substance of your course.

Resources on Teaching Writing

Elbow, P. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Fader, D. N., with Duggins, J., Fenn, T., and McNeil, E. The New Hooked on Books. New York: Berkeley Medallion Corporation, 1976.

Fader, D. N., and McNeil, E. B. Hooked on Books: Program and Proof. New York: Berkeley Medallion Corporation, 1970.

Holt, J. "How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading". The Norton Reader, Eastman, A. M., et al. (Eds.). New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1977, pp. 189-198.

Marcus, S. "Teaching Editing in Composition Classes: A Somewhat Confluent Approach". California English, 1978, October, Vol. 14, No. 5, pp. 4-5.

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