Teaching Writing

Many new rhetoric instructors find the idea of teaching writing skills to freshman students (in just 15 weeks) a bit daunting.  But the goal of the general education rhetoric classes is not to teach students how to write the next great American novel, but, more realistically, to learn to “advocate a position responsibly.” In other words, the goal – ultimately - is for students to learn how to put together a decent argument.

Rhetoric students should learn how to do two things:

The first, and the one that will be most useful to students in their college years, is to write a paper which makes a clear and well-supported argument. This is the basis of most academic writing. Most professors expect students to be able to write a paper in which they do the following: (i) describe the problem they're addressing or, in other words, sketch out the context for their argument (ii) make a strong claim (iii) provide goood supporting evidence (iv) deal with counterclaims and objections and (v) conclude by gesturing to the broader implications of what they've been arguing.  Rhetoric instructors work to familiarize students with this style of writing and to teach them each of these key features. For more on this go to Basic Academic Writing and see Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's book, They Say/ I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.

The second objective is for the students to learn to do a rhetorical analysis of a text. This leads to a better understanding of the various ways in which the audience, occasion and purpose shape a writer’s approach and of how he or she attempts to persuade the readers by choosing particular kinds of language and making particular kinds of appeals. However the students also have to master the skills of argumentation described above. In other words, as they learn to analyze a text rhetorically they must also learn to write a good thesis and use evidence to support their claim. 


There are a wide variety of approaches to teaching writing skills, just as there is huge variation in the way students learn. Sometimes, though, it helps to keep in mind the following strategy.

First, break the task down into its component pieces. E.g. In teaching the structure of an argument, you can break it down into its key elements - the introduction, the claim, the evidence, etc). Then: 

1. Model what you want them to do. Show them how you do it. Write an introduction while they watch, thinking out loud as you do it. Write a thesis statment, beginning with something vague and gradually rewriting and refining it to make it clearer, stronger and more specific.

2. Ask them to help. Put a thesis on the board and ask them to help you make it better, stronger and more specific.

3. Ask them to do it themselves, but provide help. This time you help them, providing suggestions and advice as they figure it out in small groups or individually.

4. Finally, ask them to do it themselves. You watch (or grade).

  • You do it, they watch
  • You do it, they help
  • They do it, you help
  • They do it, you watch