Which Of The Following Is An Example Of Person-First Language Do You Need an English Degree to Write Well?

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Do You Need an English Degree to Write Well?

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they have difficulty communicating in writing, I’d have… a lot of money. When I ask why, the answer is invariably the same: “I don’t understand writing, and English, and grammar, and all that stuff.” For some reason, people seem to think that knowing “all these things” is necessary to learn how to write well.

Who knows all the rules, the meaning of all the terms, the linguistic foundations of writing strategies? Think of the people who have tried to teach you “all these things.” You probably remember your high school English teachers. You might think of university English teachers. They have degrees in English. The conclusion, then, is that you need to have a degree in English to write well.

This is not true. Understandable, but wrong.

Textbooks and guides do little to change this perception. Without the benefit of a strong background in English terms, grammar, concepts, etc., you can quickly become frustrated, confused, bored, lost, or simply turned off. For example, I recently discussed The Elements of Style, Strunk and White’s writing guide. I like this writing guide and describe its value to me. Someone replied that he didn’t like it because he needed a grammar book to understand it. His statement pointed to a major problem with most writing instruction.

The first problem is that many writing books, courses and other instruction expect people to know grammar, writing terminology, concepts, etc. Use them freely while trying to teach writing strategies. People who do not know them will not be able to benefit from the instructions.

The second problem is that ineffective instruction separates academic knowledge from writing strategies. For example, a book on writing clearly might have a separate section in the back on grammar. So, if a person is confused about a term, he will stop reading about the strategies and spend some time studying the grammar section. Other books, courses, etc., spend a lot of time on terminology and grammar before they show you how to use this knowledge. It’s one or the other. They do not teach terminology in the context of writing strategies when that knowledge is relevant.

My three writing resources are guilty of these two problems. I already mentioned Elements of Style, which has a separate section on grammar and usage. Line by Line by Cook is a powerful book about writing well, but the author assumes that you already know the grammar and terminology. Williams, the author of my third favorite book, Style: 10 Lessons of Clarity and Grace, includes an appendix that defines several terms used in the 10 lessons. Their assumption is that most people already know the terminology and grammatical concepts, so they put this information at the end in case someone uninformed happens to read their books.

Maybe this is true. But this is not suitable for the typical person who has not obtained a degree in English, but still needs to communicate in writing. (You can get more information about these three books by searching them on Amazon or by clicking on their image at hostileediting dot com.)

In short, textbooks do not provide effective writing instruction because they have a flawed instructional model. The instructional model is not aligned with the way people learn. The woman who needed a grammar book to understand Elements is a good example: the problem is the instruction, not the student.

I have a master’s degree in English, and I have spent over 15 years working in local and state education agencies designing and implementing learning systems. This gives me a unique perspective on teaching writing. I learned three instructional strategies along the way that apply to writing instruction.

  1. Teach the necessary terminology and concepts in the context of the primary focus. This means that background information and supporting concepts should not be separated from primary instruction. For example, if I teach people to put commas around appositive phrases, and they don’t know what appositive phrases are, then this is the time to teach them – not later, not before, but now. This also means that I will not teach about different types of sentences because they are not relevant to the main topic at this time.
  2. Provide new information in old terms. This means using common, everyday language to help people understand new concepts, that is, using words that people already know. This also means using examples that are relevant to students’ experiences. Research on learning is very clear on this: people learn best when they can relate the new content to their lives.
  3. New concepts need to be reinforced many times. Just explaining something once is not effective. Explanations must be used several times or more, and in different ways.

Sometimes, grammar terms are important. They can be very useful for discussing writing strategies and for summarizing concepts. However, they too can be taught by following the three strategies above. First, they are introduced only when relevant to the current topic. If they are not relevant, they are not discussed. Second, they are taught in simple terms and explained according to the experiences of the learner. Once the student has grasped the basic ideas, they are explained and used several times. If the terms are important, then the instructor has the responsibility to ensure that the students understand and can apply.

These three strategies are not the result of personal speculation; I am not an armchair philosopher coming up with ideas without research or testing. An abundance of research literature on learning supports these ideas. Most important, at least for me, is the feedback from students in my adult education writing courses and from people who have bought our writing guides.

Implement these strategies and pay attention to how you respond to people. Here are some word-for-word examples of their answers.

  • “The instructor used words I could understand.”
  • “I really like the way Mr. Bowman presents his example.”
  • “This was the class I’ve been waiting for.”
  • “Written concisely in plain English…”
  • “…very easy to understand.”
  • “… explanations [are] clear, concise and very informative” …

As shown by this feedback, this 3-part approach works: teach the concepts in the context of the primary instructional focus, teach the new content using a common language, and reinforce the new learning.

Who can use these strategies for effective writing instruction? The answer to this question is quite simple. If you provide writing instruction in any way, these tips are for you: elementary and secondary (K-12) teachers, college-level writing instructors, writing workshop teachers and facilitators, writers of writing books, bloggers on writing, editors, etc.

Communication skills are important, and people need to write well. With so many resources available on writing, why do so many people still struggle with writing? The problem is the instruction, not the learner. With these three strategies, teachers will provide effective learning opportunities, and you, the students, will learn to write and communicate effectively.

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