Finals just finished, grades are in, and break begins at the end of the week. It’s time to look back at the semester and reminisce.
I always enjoy teaching writing, and I had another semester full of fond memories with my most recent class. Interestingly, my writing classes usually have plenty of lively discussion. It’s a subject that a lot of students really care about, but it’s also a medium that allows them to express their ideas more completely. In a second language, it’s often more difficult to keep up with the pace of a conversation, but writing provides more time to gather and construct your ideas (of course, this is true for many native speakers too, myself included).
So without further ado, here are some memorable things my students have said or written this semester and why they’re significant.
1. “How many words?”
Answer: as many as it takes.
Students always want to know the quantity. They don’t always realize that 500 words of garbage is worse less than 300 well-written words.
My essay assignments had a word minimums, but they were minimal. If the content was there, the word count would be too. Here is what was required in my essays:
- Hook/Background information
- Thesis statement
- Three body paragraphs with topic sentences, supporting sentences, and examples/details/etc.
- A restatement of the thesis and a concluding comment
If each of those were done thoroughly, meeting my 500 word minimum was no problem. More importantly, doing each of those things well leads to a pretty good essay.
And a good essay should be the goal. Not a word count.
2. “‘With the development of society…'”
What’s your favorite stock phrase?
Another popular one in my class was “Public debate has been going on as to whether…”
And an odd one: “The tentacles of [X] are spreading even wider.”
Yeah. That one led to some interesting combinations.
Students slip these into their essays to beef up that all-important word count. By the end of the semester, after seeing each of them five to fifty times, teachers are gagging.
It’s not just the monotony. It’s that they don’t really say anything.
“With the development of society, technology is playing a more important role in our lives.”
“Technology is playing a more important role in our lives.”
Any difference in meaning? Not really.
Which one sounds stronger? The second one. Nearly every time.
Again, students don’t always realize that more isn’t always better.
3. “I know how to write an essay in English now, but I never learned know how to write an essay in Arabic.”
I love teaching English, but I might like teaching writing even more.
I’ve heard something to this effect from a few different students. Even students who have spent a lot of time studying writing in their home countries have plenty to learn about the organization and structure of an essay. Many native speakers certainly do too!
The mechanical skills of writing in English, such as grammar and vocabulary, are certainly important, but even those can’t be relied on alone. I can write a perfectly grammatical essay with lots of beautiful vocabulary, and yet say absolutely nothing (actually, maybe that’s all I wrote in grad school…).
The skills related to selection and organization of actual content are just as important. And very fun to teach.
4. “I can’t think of any ideas!”
So where does that content come from?
Brainstorming is a skill just like any other. And for some students, it’s the hardest one of all.
I’ve had students who have excellent grammar and vocabulary and can structure an essay perfectly, if they have the content. But when they’re put in a room and told to write an essay in 30 minutes, they’ll only write a few sentences.
The problem is that they just haven’t developed the ability to come up with ideas, support, examples, topics, and whatever other concepts are needed for their essays. Luckily, that can be practiced and improved.
5. “Writing is about ideas.”
Based on what I just wrote above, I should be agreeing wholeheartedly with this statement. However, I don’t. At least not wholeheartedly.
The student who told me this beautiful sentence had an ulterior motive. His spelling was atrocious. Maybe, he thought, if my ideas are good enough, spelling just won’t matter.
When “smoking” is spelled “someokeing,” it doesn’t matter what kind of ideas you have. No one will understand them.
Writing is about ideas. It’s also about conveying those ideas clearly.
6. “My friend told me that the score you get on IELTS/TOEFL is just luck.”
There are a lot of variables in standardized testing. Students are quite aware of that oxymoron.
They know that in writing sections, it’s luck of the draw which prompt you get. Your rater is also assigned at random.
So you could get an easy prompt and a generous rater, or the complete opposite.
Some students try to cope with this uncertainty by memorizing those lovely stock phrases we saw earlier. Furthermore, they can find tons of example essays on every topic imaginable online. Surely, with a little luck, some serious memorization would allow a student to just mix and match some of this material to produce a passable essay, right?
It never works that way. If the writing test is fair and the graders are honest and well-trained, only good writers will pass. There’s no beating the system.
Hard work is the only guarantee of success.
7. “Rethesis statement”
Why say “restatement of the thesis” when this is so much easier?
Students still need all that meta-language from grammar class, but essay writing has its own batch of buzzwords:
- Thesis statement
- Topic sentence
- Final comment
And that’s just a start.
It seems like a lot of specialized language describing a lot of structure. Isn’t that boring and suffocating?
I’ve defended the five paragraph essay in the past, and I haven’t changed my mind about it. For most ESL students at the college level, this jargon and structure is necessary.
It doesn’t have to be boring. Explain the importance of each part of the essay and how they work together, and they’ll get it. There will still be plenty of space for creativity.
By the way, speaking of creativity (and returning to the power of brevity), what’s wrong with “rethesis statement”? It makes sense to me.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. The frequency of my posts has dropped off a bit this semester. I’ve got a few good excuses (which are also shameless plugs):
My story “Celeste” got second place in the Well Versed flash fiction competition. “Celeste” and my short story “The Woods” will be published in the upcoming, latest edition of Well Versed, due out in June.
Please check them out!
Featured Image Credit: Nationaal Archief