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Helping Students with Academic Writing

By March 14, 2021English

At my last writing workshop for adults, I began by sharing four issues students (grades 6-12) have when writing academic papers and a few things I do to address those concerns. Perhaps some of these ideas will help with your teaching.

1) Brainstorming 

Problem: So often, students don’t take the time to really think about what they intend to say. Instead, they frantically jump into a topic.

Solution: As a full class, have students practice brainstorming a simple topic (e.g., eye glasses, bird feeders, fork). As they throw out ideas, put the information on the board in an organized format. Do this exercise several times over a few days. Then divide students into small groups, give them a different topic, and have them brainstorm and write the organizational part on poster board. The small groups can then take turns explaining their findings to the rest of the class.  Finally, have each student brainstorm a topic and put information into an organized format for a grade.  In all of these exercises, students never do write the paper.

2) Organization

Problem 1: Unfortunately, when reading research papers, there is often a disconnect between the opening paragraph with thesis statement and the rest of the paper.  I will often flip back to the opening to try to determine what the paper is supposed to be about.

Solution: Train students to have an idea of what their paper (or paragraph) is about and then have them write the body of the paper first. After the body in done, have students write the introduction/thesis statement and finally the  conclusion. Papers will be much more cohesive.

Problem 2: Students write “through-composed” or linearly with no organization.

Solution: Give students a paragraph with no organization and have them try to determine what the writer is saying. Then, give a similar paragraph with organization so they see the difference. Share organizational models.

Problem 3:  Students don’t put their paper in a logical order.

Solution:  Spend a few classes on logic.

Problem 4: Whether writing a science, history, or English paper, the “word count” seems to supersede anything else about the proposed paper. Some students begin writing as many words as they can to meet the word count, leaving any semblance of organization in the dust.

Solution: If assigned a 300-word paper and paragraphs are about 50 words each, students will need six paragraphs: an introduction, conclusion and four paragraphs that can be two or four different ideas. When students get in the habit of looking at an assigned paper in terms of number of paragraphs, they focus on organization rather than word count.

3) Paragraphs

Problem: Students can’t write a paragraph. The bottom line is that there is not enough paragraph practice in any grade!

Solution: Make your first assignments paragraphs only. Ultimately, students will have topic and clincher sentences as well as five common stylistic techniques: preposition, -ly, and –ing sentence openers, a who-which clause, and a short sentence of five words or less. This paragraph-teaching procedure is used with the Institute for Excellence in Writing and produces organized paragraphs that flow easily.

4) Grammar and more…

Problem: Students often struggle with apostrophes, the use of me-myself-I and lay-lie,  capitalization (e.g., titles), punctuation (e.g., colons), run-on sentences, and even note-taking.

Solution:  Have mini-lessons ready for these topics.

End Note

By focusing on the above areas, students will grasp the writing process better and reach the goal of writing quickly and well.

Work in Class

In my writing classes, I make sure all work is done in class. This includes brainstorming (alone or in pairs), research, writing by hand, and typing their papers.  By “writing by hand” I mean exactly that. They write paragraphs that include stylistic techniques. When a paragraph or section of a paper is finished and passes my inspection, I put my initials on the paper and they type that part of it. I know exactly what each student does because it’s done in class.

What happens when – at week seven of an eight-week research project, a student walks into class with a completed paper on a topic different from the one he chose?  I don’t accept it.  All students need to go through the brainstorming, research, writing, and typing stages.  (There is a time at the beginning of the process when a student can change her/his topic but that is only during the first week.)