“I Don’t Write that Good”: Strategies for Teaching Developmental English
Updated: Feb 26
Because students in Developmental English classes have typically scored low on college entrance assessments, instructors assume their language abilities are abysmal, which is not necessarily true in all cases. Students enter the course with a variety of writing deficiencies as well as strengths.
Some students possess rather sophisticated vocabularies, but struggle with organizational issues. Other students demonstrate strong sentence structure skills, but lack the fluency of language to properly express themselves on paper.
Regardless of the specificity of their individual deficits, all Developmental English students must overcome a variety of writing challenges to succeed in academic and professional environments.
The key to navigating this unique medley of learner characteristics is to teach in a contextual sequence that builds upon current writing capabilities, while introducing new skills at a pace that is comfortable and encouraging for nontraditional students.
Implementation of the following instructional strategies creates opportunities for students to make moderately significant improvements in their writing in a relatively short amount of time.
#1. Administer a Grammar Pre-test and Post-test
Create or borrow a diagnostic grammar test that covers basic language knowledge, such as simple sentences, verb tenses, parts of speech, mechanics and spelling. The assessment should contain at least twenty multiple choice questions. Giving the same test at the beginning and end of the quarter will allow instructors to quantitatively gauge student deficiencies and improvements made throughout the course.
#2. Teach Grammar Essentials
Since good writing starts with good grammar skills, it is absolutely necessary to balance sentence development with grammar work. The two go hand-in-hand, which makes it easier for students to understand the process of stringing individual words into full sentences.
The following list presents the most common areas of improvement for developmental writers that instructors should teach on a regular basis:
#3. Introduce the One-Paragraph Essay Format
The one paragraph essay—also referred to as a standalone paragraph—is generally ten to fifteen sentences long, and condenses all of the basic elements of a complete essay into one short writing assignment. The paragraph essay begins with a topic sentence, contains supporting information, and ends with a conclusion. Using this writing process technique not only helps Developmental English students understand essay structure more clearly, but also increases their confidence in approaching longer writing assignments.
#4. Reinforce Learning with Quizzes
After teaching a writing process or grammar concept, follow the instruction with a quiz to assess student comprehension. Instructors should elaborate on the reasoning behind each correct response, and be prepared to address student questions that might arise while giving the answers to the quiz. For example, after teaching a unit on sentence fragments, immediately follow the lesson with a quiz. In this way, quizzes are used as teaching tools to reinforce learning versus punitive grading measures. Students enjoy the immediate feedback, learn from their mistakes more frequently, and tend to retain the information longer after each quiz session.
#5. Address Common Writing Errors
Use actual student writing samples to identify areas of improvement, in addition to prewritten handouts on various grammar issues. After noting the errors that surface the most among students’ written work, create a handout containing sentences from their essays that illustrate those particular errors. The examples below model this technique.
Student Writing Examples:
My mom had come and got my two boys that day, I was happy that I was getting a break from my kids.
Although there are some things I would love to change about raising each of them.
If you hang around someone that’s like you it’s gone cause problems. So then ya’ll gone try to outdo each other.
When confronted with their own writing and that of their classmates, students are at first appalled by their urban grammar. After the initial shock, however, students self-correct their papers more efficiently with examples from their own writing as opposed to samples from standardized handouts. Of course, the writing samples should be used anonymously. The point is to personalize your class instruction not to embarrass or offend your students.
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Ashan R. Hampton is a long-time English instructor turned entrepreneur. She is also a proud graduate of the Donaghey Scholars Program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock under the direction of Dr. C. Earl Ramsey, Emeritus. Through her company, Onyx Online Education & Training, she offers online writing courses and print books for academic and professional development to individuals and corporations. She is also a prolific published author of several books on a variety of topics. To find out more about Ashan's work, visit www.arhampton.com.
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