Developing skill in expressing myself orally or in writing

Series Editor: Michael Theall, Youngstown State University
Author: Frances Johnson, Rowan University

Writing is part of every job. Surveys by the Associated Press claim that most American businesses need to improve the writing and communication skills of their workers. Employers, in the same survey, said that eighty (80%) percent of their workers need to improve their communication skills (1). If we ask employers that question we would obtain a similar response (1). A quick glance at the Sunday classified or the job searching website, Monster. Com speaks to the importance of communication. As the world has grown increasingly complex, communicating effectively has resumed a place at the center of the college curriculum. It is also a value we see prized over and over again as our graduates seek employment, no matter what their major field of study.
While skill in written and oral communication is one of the central hallmarks of an educated person, and while these two abilities are fundamental to success in education, they often are minimized in many colleges and universities. Some colleges and universities require two semesters of writing and one semester of public speaking. Some others only require one semester of writing and no courses in public speaking. Many writing teachers cringe at such practices. To better put this displacement into the perspective of the communication teacher, let’s just change the discipline. Would a mathematics teacher be comfortable if students were required to take only one math course in their entire academic careers? Can one learn French or world history in one semester? Yet, somehow students are “expected” to master audience, purpose, tone, focus, style, mechanics, development—just some of the aspects of writing—in one, sometimes two semesters. The task is daunting, difficult, and demanding, both for teachers and students.

IDEA Objective #8 must be viewed with one, important premise in mind: writing and speaking skills will not be improved by simply assigning a paper, a speech, or a presentation. An equally important corollary is that no student progress in writing and speaking skill can be expected unless the skills are deliberately taught. When using the IDEA system, keep this in mind: do not choose this objective as ‘essential‘ or ‘important’ unless you intend to actually teach writing or speaking. There are two teaching behaviors that relate very strongly to this objective. They are #19 Gave projects, tests, or assignments that required original thinking and #16 Asked students to share ideas. It is logical to draw a connection between having to think (not simply repeat what someone else has said) and then, having to explain one’s new ideas. Also important to achieving this objective is to inspire students to set and achieve challenging goals (IDEA item 15). But one must also have the raw material for this process as suggested by the relations of Objective #8 to item #9 Encouraged students to use multiple resources.

IDEA research has also found that Objective #8 relates to other learning objectives. IDEA Objective # 6 Developing creative capacities relates powerfully, and the connection between creativity and skill in describing new ideas to others is also obvious. Finally, there are strong connections to objectives dealing with liberal education (Objective #7), using resources (Objective #9), and defining personal values (Objective #10). Once again, the links between intellectual activity, openness to new ideas, and communication is apparent. Progress in learning as well as in the development of new ideas can not be made without clear communication.

Helpful Hints

Many educators have expressed an increasing concern with the poor communication skills of college graduates, and writing support programs and resources have become more available. For example, while some universities use testing procedures to ensure the effective communication of their graduates (Old Dominion University, 2), others are using curricular changes like writing across the disciplines programs (Cornell University, 2). First year writing coordinators, writing program administrators, and several faculty have replaced the single “writing expert” in many English departments. “Writing/Speaking Across the Curriculum” (W/SAC) program are common across the country and these efforts are supported by several on-line resources (3). The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE, 4) includes several questions about the amount or written and oral work assigned to students, and these are used (in part) to determine the institution’s level of performance in the “Level of Academic Challenge” benchmark.

Teaching grammar doesn’t work. Not only are drills and skills ineffective ways of teaching writing, they may actually harm a writer’s understanding of the ways in which language actually works because such lessons focus on making language “correct” rather than making “meaning” (5). So, asking your students to use their handbooks and complete exercise 12 on subject and verb agreement will not help them to be better writers; these are uncontextualized exercises and suggest that a writer can learn “parts” of writing and then “assemble” it into a “whole” of writing (6). What can improve grammar is for teachers to use the students’ own text. Take the errors you find in an assignment and put them on an overhead. Ask students to identify the problem and fix the sentence. If everyone in a class is having trouble with introductory clause commas or the thesis statement, again, take examples from the actual assignments. The use of the students’ own voices and texts makes the lesson more real for them. Both the lesson and its value become more concrete and more easily understood. Excellent introductions can be shared with the whole class so that students’ can learn from each other.

Writing and speaking are social and collaborative processes (7). Translated that means using groups, peer critique, and revision. In my many years of teaching, faculty frequently balk at the notion of student writing groups; faculty tell me that group work is a waste of time and is “blind leading the blind.” I always challenge that argument and claim that peer critique can and does work. In a small group setting, students will see the ways in which others have dealt with writing or speaking tasks. If all the members of a group express concern that the conclusion of the essay or speech is weak, students are more likely to fix that section. Most importantly, students do benefit just from the simple reading/listening of a classmate’s prose. Teachers do, however, need to prepare critique sheets and require that students complete them. Asking a student to critique a speech without any guidelines is not effective at all. Faculty need to prepare these guidelines in advance and train students if they are to be effective in their use. For writing teachers, this also means devoting class time to drafting and revising and changing the dynamics of the authority patterns in the class (8). In these examples, the teacher clearly moves from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” Participation in these groups and peer activities can be accomplished only with additional planning. For instance, if point values are assigned for these activities or if they are required as part of an assignment package, students will be more likely to participate and to benefit from the experience. (See POD-IDEA Center Note #18 “Asked students to help each other understand ideas or concepts” and POD-IDEA Center Note #16. “Asked students to share ideas and experiences with others whose backgrounds are different from their own”)

Students need the opportunity to revise their written/spoken work. Writing should not be like the Olympics: with a student’s fate determined by that two-minute run down the hill or the four minute long program. Writing is hard work and revision is even harder. As Mark Twain is said to have remarked, “I would have written you a shorter letter if I had had more time.” The elements we desire most in writing and speaking: conciseness, clarity, unity, development, and so on, take time to develop and students learn at different rates. Many students only produce one draft, edit that, and then turn it in. They will wait till the night before class to prepare a required speech. Teachers need to dissuade their students from strategies like these. Teach the process of speech making and collect the cards, notes, ideas and so on that your students use. Have your public speaking class share their ideas in small groups. Requiring evidence of all aspects of the writing/speech preparation process – pre writing, writing, revision, and editing – can help students to follow the process artificially, until it becomes natural. Giving a set number of points for including all aspects of the assignment can assure that students will comply.

Students need to be given the opportunity to write and speak a great deal. With practice, comes skill. Any number of “write-to-learn” activities can be used in a classroom. Quick one minute-papers addressing topics like “the one question you have today,” “the main point you learned in the class today,” “questions you have about the assignment,” or “reflections on the writing process” let a teacher bring more writing to a classroom (9). Students can write each other letters about what they liked best about their essay, lab report, speech, and so on.

For classes stressing oral communication, students can read sections aloud. Role-playing strategies and simulations or games are other active learning tools that can be used in the classroom to provide speaking practice.

Help students to understand that communication has become a complex process. Twenty years ago, communication may have been modeled as a straight line between its sender and receiver. Well, no more. Even the famous communication triangle, with its points of writer (encoder), reader (decoder), and text (signal) are no longer appropriate as teaching models (10). Making meaning is a complex, fluid, and cultural process. Current theorists know that meaning does not reside in the text; but rather it resides in the interplay between the text, its reader, and the cultural space all inhabit (11). Most communication specialists would argue that meaning is “processural (always changing); personal (inevitably varying); co-constructed (not just inner thought); and multi-dimensional (involving many levels and interpretations)” (12). In other words, receivers take content and derive meaning from their interpretation of it. “Postmodern theory emphasizes the inherently unstable meanings of language and the complex social and personal practices through which we attempt to communicate” (13). When students understand this, they become more careful and effective writers.

Assessment Issues

IDEA research has found that “explaining reasons for criticisms of students’ academic performance” (see POD IDEA Center Note #7) is an important teaching method for this objective. Ultimately, the assessment of written or oral communication requires feedback from a diverse audience. Students learn most when they receive this feedback from teachers, peers, friends, and particularly through self-reflection and revision processes. The different sources of feedback add authenticity to the information, especially when the contributors tend to make similar points about the writing or speaking. While some students might discount teachers comments as out of touch due to age differences, tastes, or positions, they can not use the same rationale to deny similar comments from peers. And when the feedback and revision process leads to noticeable improvement, the rewards become intrinsic (14), and the satisfaction prompts renewed effort in future assignments.

Provide a clear assignment and grading rubric. If you have “steps” that must be followed in a paper or report, presentation, or speech, make sure you indicate that in the assignment and the rubric (15). If you want headings in your long reports, tell your students. If you expect 500 words of text, put that in the assignment too. Explain just what you mean when you assign a “spontaneous speech” or an “informational speech.” The rubric you use to grade it with should be written in tandem and distributed to the class. Evaluating students on criteria that have not been shared with them is unfair. Don’t tell students to organize their essay or their presentation in any form and then penalize them for the not following the form you had in mind. If you say mechanics and spelling do not count, but then mark those errors, you have set the class up for failure. If eye contact and rhetorical questions are expected in the speech, say so! Students need clear directions; they need to know the assignments’ requirements, and they deserve to know how they will be evaluated.

Writing portfolio. A major feature in writing assessment today is the use of the portfolio (16). A portfolio approach to evaluation allows a student, a class, a program, and even a department to see writing in a totally different light. The portfolio provides the teacher with a more complete picture of the writing ability of a student over time. Growth becomes clearer. The ability to revise, revisit, and re-envision text is practiced. Adrienne Rich once remarked that revision means “to see again,” and portfolio assessment allows for that seeing again (17).

A portfolio is a collection of writing that a student has revised, resubmitted, and completed during the course. While the decision about what work to include is up to the student, the instructor can and should set the parameters for the selection, the control of the portfolio contents rests with the student. Since students are personally invested in the creation of the portfolio, their attention to its construction intensifies. In addition, the actual processes of selecting the assignments, revising them, and seeking assistance for revisions, are exercises in active learning.

Usually students will pick their best work and revise it (often in consultation with others in the class). Portfolios reinforce the concept of the on-going improvement of writing as well as the writing process. Given that considerable time elapses from the original creation of the essay or report, students are more likely to actually see changes that can be made. While setting papers aside for a while before a writer turns them in for evaluation is suggested in most writing classrooms, most students do not follow that suggestion. They remain in the position of writer and fail to view their compositions as readers. Portfolio revision helps to put the writer in the position of reader: suddenly the strengths and weaknesses of the text become more clear (18).

Another major advantage of the portfolio assessment is the collection of data that it can generate for a program. Portfolios collected at the end of the semester become excellent material for program review. A random sampling of folders for a particular course taught by different instructors can be examined, and the consistency of course content and outcomes can be verified. Strengths and weaknesses of the program become apparent. Programs can see what outcomes need additional reinforcement and curricular changes can be made as necessary. Also student outcomes can easily verified using the portfolios from a two-semester course sequence. Random samples from the portfolios at the end of one term can be compared to those portfolios from the end of the last term. Again program strengths and weaknesses as well as student outcomes can be obtained (18).

References and Resources

  1. Kolin, P.C. (2007). Successful writing at work. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. See Chapter 1.
  2. For more information, see: and Retrieved September 20, 2006.
  3. For example, see Retrieved September 20, 2006.
  4. National Study of Student Engagement. See: Retrieved September 20, 2006.
  5. Williams, J. D. (2003). Preparing to teach writing: Research, theory and practice (3rd ed.).Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. See Chapter 6.
  6. Welch, K. E. (1987). Ideology and freshman textbook production: The place of theory in writing pedagogy. College Composition and Communication, 389(3), 269-282.
  7. Bruffee, K. (1986). Social construction, language, and the authority of knowledge. College English, 46, 773-90.
  8. Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  9. Angelo, T., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbookf for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  10. Kinneavy, J. L. (1971). A Theory of discourse. New York: W.W. Norton. See Chapter1, pp. 19.
  11. Bizzell, P., & Herzberg, B. (1990). The Rhetorical tradition: Readings from classical times to the present. Boston: Bedford-St Martin. See Part Five, Twentieth-century rhetoric: An introduction.
  12. Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St Martins. See Chapter 2, pp 63 -65.
  13. Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St Martins. See Chapter 4, pp 111-115.
  14. Keller, J. M. (1983). Motivational design of instruction.” In C. M. Riegeluth (Ed.) Instructional design theories and models: An overview of their current status. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  15. Stevens, D., & Levi, A. (2005). Introduction to rubrics. Sterling, VA: Stylus press.
  16. Gomez, M. L., Grau, M. E., & Block, M. N. (1991). Reassessing portfolio assessment: Rhetoric and reality. Language Arts, 68 (8), 620-628.
  17. Rich, A. (1979). On lies, secrets and silence: Selected prose 1966 – 1978. New York: Norton.
  18. White, E. M. (1995). Assigning, responding, evaluating: A writing teacher’s guide. Boston: Bedford-St Martin. See Chapter 7.

Related POD-IDEA Center Notes

  • IDEA Item #7 “Explained the reasons for criticisms of students’ academic performance,” Barbara E. Walvoord
  • IDEA Item #9 “Encouraged students to use multiple resources (e.g. data banks, library holdings, outside experts) to improve understanding,” Leora Baron
  • IDEA Item #15 “Inspired students to set and achieve goals which really challenged them,” Todd Zakrajsek
  • IDEA Item #16 “Asked students to share ideas and experiences with others whose backgrounds and viewpoints differ from their own,” Jeff King
  • IDEA Item #18 “Asked students to help each other understand ideas or concepts,” Jeff King
  • IDEA Item #19 “Gave projects, tests, or assignments that required original or creative thinking,” Cynthia Desrochers

Additional Resources