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New Ally in Teaching Composition

Every subject poses unique instructional challenges. Yet I can't think of one that is more daunting than teaching composition. That's because it's impossible to teach students how to write effectively unless they are given an authentic opportunity to do so. Multiple-choice and short-answer exercises are simply no substitute.

During the 28 years that I taught English in the same high school, I envied my colleagues in other departments who did not have to lug home piles of essays. They were able to use answer keys to assess their students' work, or at worst had to read only short essays for content alone. But grading compositions was a different story because English teachers had to consider not only what students wrote but how they wrote it. I don't mean their handwriting, as difficult as it was to decipher. Instead, I'm talking about their sentence structure, vocabulary and spelling, or, on a more sophisticated level, their style.

That's why I was intrigued by what John Whittier-Ferguson, professor of English at the University of Michigan, has developed ("Composition 1.01: How Email Can Change the Way Professors Teach," The Atlantic). He correctly has identified the importance of providing his students with frequent appropriate practice that is followed by immediate knowledge of results. He does so by using e-mail.

Here's how it works: Students e-mail fragments of their essays as they're writing them. He then promptly responds with comments and suggestions. This approach essentially makes all students feel that they have their own personal tutor at their side as they're writing. Compare this strategy with traditional instruction. Even if English teachers burn the midnight oil to read and correct essays in order to get the papers back to their students the very next day, it is still too late because the paper has already been written. What students need is guidance as they're writing.

It's always more difficult to learn to undo a behavior than it is to learn to do it in the first place. That's why I hope that Whittier-Ferguson is given an opportunity to present his ideas to English teachers across the country. His strategy has the potential to be a blessing for them by helping them be more effective in less time. That's the dream of all teachers.

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