Contributor: Gina Hogan, Citrus College.

In being introduced to writing, students need a clear, consistent approach to increase their confidence and comfort with a task they feel is insurmountable. In my college classes, I teach the first foundational block as writing correct sentences, the second is writing effective paragraphs, and finally writing effective essays. Teaching writing as a building activity where concepts build on each other has worked well in my developmental writing courses. This technique of “building writing” makes the writing process more manageable for students. It allows students to practice each concept or block separately to see how it shapes subsequent blocks. This method increases students’ understanding and confidence along the way. Many writing books present grammar and/or composition content in too complex a manner with few opportunities for practice, or with so many topics that the student is simply overwhelmed. I focus on simple and brief explanations that are easy to remember. I use a variety of practice exercises with modern topics to engage the students in their learning. Students have often shared with me how effective my teaching method is in helping them overcome their discomfort with writing.

More specifically, teaching grammar in blocks as part of a building activity provides students with a visual image that easily allows them to remember, understand, and apply good sentence construction. This building process helps students see how each grammar concept or building block sets the foundation for the next concept or building block; as a result, their confidence in writing grows the more they learn and practice. Just as real concrete foundations require specific raw materials (sand, water, cement, and gravel) that bind and mold together into a design, each writing building block (grammar, paragraphs, and essays) requires specific ingredients. For example, in grammar, to build a correct sentence, you need nouns, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. I explain each ‘ingredient’ and then ask them to ‘build’ their own sentences using a variety of these ingredients. In that way, students gain insight into the power and flexibility grammar brings to writing and to meaning. Furthermore, to help increase confidence and proficiency in the elements of a complete sentence, I scaffold the concepts from the basic elements of a sentence (like subjects, verbs, conjunctions) to the more complex and challenging concepts (like modifiers and parallelism). In scaffolding the content, when students transition to building more challenging sentences, they retain their proficiency by keeping intact the basic structure of a complete sentence, yet they feel comfortable in adjusting the format to achieve more variety; meanwhile, their confidence in their writing capabilities increases. Along the way, I highlight important concepts with unique mnemonic devices, so students can remember easily and feel empowered to do the task on their own. For example, in teaching conjunctions, I use the following acronyms: FANBOYS (for coordinating conjunctions), HOT MAMAs (for adverbial conjunctions, and WASBITs (for subordinating conjunctions). My students often comment that these acronyms make grammar more accessible to them and much easier to remember.

Most importantly, I initially deliver the content of essay writing using only tightly structured patterns of writing; then, I move into loosely structured patterns of writing. Students struggle to figure out when and how to use patterns of writing. Yet, once I play with when and how I present the patterns in my classes, I find that students who learn the tightly structured formats (like classification, cause and effect, and comparison/contrast) first gain great confidence and proficiency in the elements an essay should have. Then, when they transition to loosely structured essays (like narration, definition and description), they retain their proficiency in keeping intact the basic structure of an essay (introduction paragraph with thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and conclusion paragraph), yet they feel comfortable in adjusting the format and confident in their writing capabilities. Furthermore, just like I do with teaching grammar, I emphasize several mnemonic devices; for example, for developmental sentences, I use the acronym of FRIEDs to remind students to use a mix of factual statements, reasons, incidences, examples, or details in making their topic sentences and supporting paragraphs clear and convincing.

Lastly, regardless of the approach I use, I try to engender for my students a learning environment that is student-centered, encouraging, and easy to follow. My aim has always been and remains to make every student realize that we are not born writers but we become writers and that writing can be our voice to the world.

Gina Hogan is a tenured professor in the English department at Citrus College in Glendora, California. She has developed and taught developmental English courses, trained and mentored faculty in teaching developmental writing, and helped create Citrus College’s Writing Café, a writing across-the-curriculum center. For five years, she served as Chair of the College Success Advisory Committee, a committee that continues to advocate the core principles of Citrus’ developmental program. Gina has an MS in Business Administration and an MA in English Composition and Literature and is currently working on a doctorate in Education (Ed.D). Gina is a naturalized citizen of the United States, and English is her third language. She understands the challenges inherent to learning effective communication skills, and her passion is helping others learn to communicate clearly and to appreciate the written language.

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