• Ashan R. Hampton

“I Don’t Write that Good”: Strategies for Teaching Developmental English

Updated: Nov 30, 2020



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.


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.

 

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 the rudimentary 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 the basic anatomy of an essay more clearly, but also increases their confidence in approaching longer writing assignments.

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.

   

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.


For example:

Comma Splice:

My mom had come and got my two boys that day, I was happy that I was getting a break from my kids.


Sentence Fragment:

Although there are some things I would love to change about raising each of them.


Colloquial Language / Urban Grammar:

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 faulty communications. 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.



Ashan R. Hampton is a long-time English instructor turned entrepreneur. Through her company, Onyx Online Education & Training, she offers digital courses and print books on grammar, proofreading, business writing and communication for personal and professional development to individuals and corporations. To find out more about Ashan's work, visit www.arhampton.com.


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