Who is teaching my students to write rhetorical questions?

No, really, I’m not being ironic: who are you? And could you please stop? Two of my high-advanced students — smart people by all accounts — started their diagnostic essays thus:

Do you think profit should be the only motivation for businesses?

Should profit be the only goal for business?

And guess what? (OK, that one was rhetorical) The prompt was: Should profit be the only goal for a business? So, essentially, the students started their essay by asking me the same question I asked them. Oh yes, and the second student had even given the essay a title: Profit is the only goal for business. I need to teach them what a spoiler alert is.

Let me be clear: I’m not blaming, mocking, or criticizing my students. After all, they’re reproducing the poor writing strategies they’ve been taught, in which all writing must begin with a so-called “hook,” and proceed with the familiar tedium of the five-paragraph essay. I don’t really like teaching hooks at all in academic writing. They’re fine for a magazine or newspaper article where the writer’s success (and perhaps paycheck) depends on attracting the reader’s attention, but a hook is entirely useless in a class assignment, which it’s my job to read. I can’t choose not to read essays that don’t have my attention! In the end, what makes an academic argument engaging isn’t a weak rhetorical trope in the first sentence; it’s a thoughtful, balanced, and well-supported claim that’s developed coherently and cogently. Continue reading

The great Japan tour!

I’ll be in Japan in November talking about genre-based pedagogy, the teaching/learning cycle, critical thinking, Q: Skills for Success 2nd Edition, and Inside Writing. Come join me!

JALT 2015, Shizuoka (Japanese Association for Language Teaching International Conference)

  • Saturday Nov 21, 1:20-2:20pm, Room 910:
    Integrated Skills, Critical Thinking, & Academics
    Discover how to connect reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary in exciting and engaging ways. Thought-provoking questions are explored from multiple angles through complementary readings, authentic videos, comprehensive skill instruction, and embedded language development. Participants will experience the process of using online and offline discussions, writing models, and self-reflection in this interactive demonstration, which is centered on the question: What makes a public place appealing?
  • Sunday Nov 22, 4:40-6:10pm, Room 1001-1:
    Mastering Real Writing With the Teaching/Learning Cycle
    Experience the power of language-focused, scaffolded instruction for academic and professional writing. The Teaching/Learning Cycle is a genre-based writing pedagogy that prepares all students to understand and produce the genres they need for school and work. Grammar and vocabulary are meaningfully integrated as students write with purpose in authentic contexts. Using cutting-edge research and classroom examples, the presenter demonstrates the three stages of genre analysis, collaborative writing, and independent composition for learners of all levels.

Oxford Day 2015, Sunday Nov 29, Kyoto University

10-11am: Mastering Real Writing with the Teaching/Learning Cycle (Inside Writing)

Can you reduce a non-restrictive relative clause?

Yes, I know that’s a question which has been keeping you up at night, but head on over to Cambridge’s Grammar and Beyond blog for my attempt at answering it. I’m not entirely sure I’ve got it quite right yet. While you’re there, you can play my new favorite game: find the sentence that faintly suggests the cover photo for the blog post!

My other recent posts there have been on there is/are and this/that/these/those, and they are equally riveting.

What grammar do ESL students really need?

We had an interesting discussion around the proverbial water-cooler at work this week about the grammar that we should expect students to produce correctly before they matriculate to their university degree programs (we teach in a pre-matriculation intensive English program). It’s tricky: our raison d’ĂȘtre (excuse my French) is to prepare students for success in their academic classes, which clearly requires very advanced proficiency in English. But of course it would be impossible, unreasonable, and flat out absurd to demand a level of flawless accuracy attained by few native speakers of the language. Even first-year undergraduate Delawareans, I suspect.

grammarSo, how good is good enough? For example, some of our most advanced students can speak fairly fluently for extended periods of time without a single verb that agrees with its subject (“he go … the research show …” etc.). My syllabus tells me that speaking with level-appropriate accuracy is a required learning outcome. Do I tell the student to use some -s endings? Yes. Do I assign a lower grade? Maybe a little. Do I hold the student back from matriculating? Certainly not!

Continue reading

Grammar titbits and tidbits

I have a column in this month’s Grammar and Beyond newsletter on one of my favorite topics: noun + noun modification. It’s a nice segue from my recent articles on shifting from everyday to academic registers using nominalization and relative clauses. Suggestions for future topics are especially welcome right now!

I also just discovered that the reason I couldn’t get the title of this post to look right is that we say titbit in British English but tidbit in American English. Apparently, according to my favorite blog on the subject, this isn’t a case of Puritanical prudishness (you may titter all you like, dear reader), but an example of American English using the historically older form while British English goes off on its own tangent.

2015 Conference Presentations

It’s like my blog, but LIVE! Here are some of my upcoming presentations this year:

Consortium on Graduate Communication Colloquium

March 25, 2015: Toronto (registration is closed: we are at capacity)

  • “The State of Graduate Communication Support” with Michelle Cox (keynote presentation)

TESOL (handouts and PowerPoint slides here)

March 26-28: Toronto

  • “From Theory to Practice in SLW: Crossing Borders, Building Bridges” (Discussant after an incredible panel including John Swales, Chris Feak, Dana Ferris, Maria Estella Brisk, and Gena Bennett). Thursday 3/26, 1pm, room 104A
  • “Genres that Work in the Writing Classroom” (with Monica Farling), Thursday 3/26, 4:00, room 707
  • “Transitioning to College Writing: The Essay Language Project” (with Ken Cranker), Friday 9:30am, room 203B
  • “Mastering Genres with Inside Writing“, Friday, 5pm, room 801B
  • “Using Needs Analysis Data to Improve Programs and Curricula” (colloquium I convened, featuring Scott Stevens, Neil Anderson, Carmela Gillette, Kay Stremler, and Adrian Wurr). Saturday, 9:30am, 717B

Continue reading

From everyday to academic writing

I’m excited about my column in this month’s Cambridge grammar newsletter: it’s about a technique to help students move towards the register of academic writing by changing subordinate clauses into relative clauses. The idea came to me when I was teaching our pre-matriculation ESL undergraduates last session. I had several students who were writing quite accurate sentences with interesting content, but in a style that seemed wordy and prosaic. Fortunately, I had just been reading some research in Systemic Functional Linguistics (Ho, 2009) which found that at the university level, more sophisticated writers tend to choose embedded clauses (i.e. restrictive relative clauses) over clauses with subordinate conjunctions (such as because, even though, etc.). We also know that coordinated clauses (and, or, but) are more frequent in spoken, informal, and less mature English (e.g. Brisk & De Rosa, 2014, in de Oliveira and Idding’s great new volume). Sure enough, I was able to pick out sentences in my students’ papers with lots of coordinating and subordinating conjunctions that would be more academic and effective with relative clauses, especially when reduced. I think some of it even sunk in! Take a look at the article and the worksheet, and let me know what you think. Next month, in part 2 of this thrilling mini-series, I take on another SFL staple, nominalization. Theory into practice: it really works.

Happy Grammar Day, incidentally.

Q: Skills for Success, 2nd edition (2015) is here!

CoverOxford University Press has just released the greatly improved 2nd edition of Q: Skills for Success. (UPDATE: The second edition of all levels in the series is now available for ordering. The first edition will remain available for at least another year, but check all this with your local Oxford representative.)

It’s been nearly 5 years since the first edition came out, and it’s been incredible to see it adopted by so many schools and universities around the world. For this second edition of Q: Reading/Writing 5 (co-authored by Scott Douglas and myself), we’ve updated the content, added some new readings, and responded to two common requests from teachers: more reading comprehension exercises (done!) and more writing models (done!). The models are especially exciting as they show students attainable standards of writing and include exercises that help them analyze why the writing works. The design is more appealing, and there’s a great big “Q” on the cover, so you can’t miss it. There’s also a video built into every unit and much tighter integration with the online practice site, now called iQ. Get it? I … Q … Can’t imagine why we never thought of that before. Oh, and the teacher presentation software, iTools (which I love using in the classroom!) comes on a USB stick, so no more installations from the DVD, which will cheer up our tech crew.

I’ll be sharing ideas for teaching from the new edition at JALT in Shizuoka, Japan, and also at Oxford Japan’s Professional Development Day in Kyoto in November. For samples, please contact your friendly Oxford rep. I hope you like it!

SSLW: Graduate Support, Joint Construction, and more!

Please visit this page for my handouts and slides from the fabulous Symposium on Second Language Writing, November 13-15, 2015, at Arizona State University.

  • The State of L2 Graduate Writing Support (with Michelle Cox): Friday 3:15-3:40pm (Gold Room) — preliminary results from our survey of members of the new Consortium on Graduate Communication.
  • Joint Construction: Collaborative Scaffolding and Cognitive Apprenticeship: Saturday 9:00-10:30am (Arizona Room) — part of the TESOL/SWLIS invited colloquium, “The Benefits of Genre-Based Pedagogy for Second Language Writing Development” starring Silvia Pessoa, Maria-Estella Brisk, and Luciana de Oliveira.