Monthly Archives: May 2015

Hello and Goodbye: Introductions and Conclusions

hello my name isStudent question: “Does this paper need an introduction?”

My answer: “I think that would be polite. Do you agree?”

Quizzical looks follow. What does politeness have to do with writing an introduction?

Then I explain that an introduction is really just a way of saying hello to our readers, and usually when we say hello we try to be polite.

Many students come to us with formulaic notions of what an introduction should be and do. They think an introduction is a paragraph that begins with a startling statement, dictionary definition, or provocative question, followed by a general overview of the topic, and ends with a thesis statement as the last sentence.

That’s a nice little checklist, and maybe it’s useful for very young writers, but writers with any sophistication at all are ready to move beyond those limits.

If we are helping students think of writing as authentic communication between human minds rather than as the culmination of piling predictable rhetorical bricks upon bricks, an introduction becomes something much more interesting.

Most human interactions begin with some variation of “hello,” right? We say hello when we formally meet someone for the first time. We usually say hello to the people we see every day. Sometimes we say hello to an old friend after being apart for a long while. Within each of these situations, we can bring a variety of attitudes to the interaction. For example, a blind date is different from an inherently adversarial first meeting, as in some kind of legal proceeding. We say hello differently depending on the situation. The same is true of writing introductions.

If we help students think of writing introductions as a way of saying hello, we are asking them to think deeply about important elements of composition, including audience, purpose, and tone.

  • Who is my audience? Is it one person, a specific group, or a more amorphous readership? Do we have any kind of pre-existing relationship with this audience? What kind of approach is most likely to engage this audience, and what kind of approach is more likely to create distance?
  • Why am I writing this piece? Assuming it’s meant to be read by others, the piece has a purpose–persuasion, nostalgia, delivery of information, call to action, etc. What is the best way to say hello to my specific audience that is most likely to achieve my purpose? Do I engage charmingly and then work my way up to the most challenging main points? Do I drop an attention-getting bombshell right away and then attempt to pull together the shrapnel? Do I begin with a straightforward preview of what I’m going to say in the rest of the piece?
  • What about tone? What attitude should I adopt at the beginning of this piece in order to elicit a certain type of response from a reader? If I immediately begin ranting, how is a reader likely to respond? If my introduction is stuffy or overly academic, what effect will that have on my audience?

When we discuss tone, students usually are quick to understand that whatever attitude we present in writing or face-to-face is likely to be reflected back to us from our audience.

A great discussion usually emerges when I explain a bit of theory from psychologist Eric Berne’s transactional analysis model. Berne said that we operate from one of three ego states when we interact with each other: Parent, Adult, or Child. These terms have specific meanings in Berne’s model. If we act like a Child (unreasonable, overly emotional), the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Parent (condescending, authoritarian). If we act like a Parent, the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Child. However, if we act like an Adult (reasonable, empathetic), the person we are interacting with is also likely to respond as an Adult. In this way we can predict and, to a degree, control how others will respond to our tone.

With this understanding of tone in mind, a writer can decide whether to begin concretely, emotionally, or poetically. Good writers are good decision-makers, and that decision-making ability is really the most valuable skill we can help develop in young writers.

But what about writing conclusions? Well, a conclusion is really just saying goodbye. As with introductions, we say goodbye in a variety of ways depending on the situation and the people involved. Maybe that will be another blog post.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading this. Your comments are always welcome. (Goodbye.)

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Learning with Second-Language English Writers

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One of my biggest learning challenges this year has been figuring out how to help writers for whom English is a second language. These are students who have completed English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and classes but who are not completely fluent in English. They are fluent in their native languages–Serbian, Ukrainian, Jamaican Creole, Polish, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Korean, and Hindi—but their English includes non-standard idioms, expressions, and mechanical errors.

Interestingly, I can converse with these students almost perfectly. They may have accents, but I have an accent too. With the help of eye contact, vocal inflections, and gestures, we can understand each other easily. I’ve enjoyed fascinating conversations with many students this year about cooking, culture clashes, technology, and schooling. But when it comes to writing, the communication begins to break down.

The most common types of English errors from second-language writers include missing articles, missing or misused prepositions, and variations on irregular nouns and verbs. I can understand why these are tricky for those still learning the finer points of English. Of course, I also see errors in tense, sentence formation, spelling, and punctuation, but native English speakers frequently make these kinds of errors too.

So I find myself wrestling with how to separate the second-language issues from the other composition concerns. In other words, as I look at a student’s writing, I try to understand what its strengths would be if it were written in the student’s native language. Even when the writing is somewhat garbled, I can usually tell if the thoughts are organized, developed, and focused. In many cases, the writing includes significant amounts of explanation, detail, and even some humor.

I’ve always believed that clear writing represents clear thinking, and unclear writing represents unclear thinking. For a second-language English writer, I’m not sure that’s true. His thinking might be completely clear in his native language, but his lack of facility in English muddles that clarity in the version I’m seeing. Like I said, the clarity isn’t completely obliterated; it’s just muddled. But it might be perfect in his native language.

When working with students in our writing center, I usually begin by asking how I can help them. Many second-language writers say, “Tell me all of my mistakes. I want to write in English perfectly.” So how do I help these motivated but sometimes frustrated students move forward as writers?

First, I look for patterns in their errors. I learned this diagnostic practice from Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations back in the 1970s, and it’s served me well for several decades. For example, if I can point out to a student that she is missing articles in several places, she will frequently say something like, “Oh, yes. In my language we do not have articles, so I make that error.” Then we can go from there. Of course, I’m limited by my understanding of my students’ native languages, but they usually are expert enough to help me help them if I point out a consistent error pattern.

The second approach is to urge simplicity of expression. I frequently see students who write complex sentences to convey sophisticated ideas, but that complexity increases the likelihood that a sentence’s grammar wheels will come off. So, I suggest that the writer break down the complex idea into shorter, simpler chunks that he can manage linguistically. My hope is that as he becomes more adept at manipulating shorter, simpler sentences, he will eventually develop the ability to manage more complex sentences. Learning to walk before trying to run seems like good advice, but it also feels a little condescending to ask writers with big ideas to practice simplifying them.

The third aspect of my approach with these students is to be sure they know what they are doing correctly. My feedback always includes commentary about the depth of their ideas and the quality of their development, in addition to my focus on their mechanical issues. If we concentrate only on negative aspects of a student’s writing, she will frequently overgeneralize and think, “I’m a bad writer.” On the other hand, if we can let a student know that she has good ideas but is still learning some linguistic nuts and bolts, we can hope that eventually her mechanical abilities will catch up to her high-level thinking, with the result being complex ideas expressed in clear, correct English.

Am I on the right track? I’m grateful for any suggestions you have for helping students at this level of development as English-language writers.

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