How to teach college students to write well


“Spanish university students do not know how to write.” This is a mantra that all teachers have heard at some time. This problem, far from being trivial, can have important personal and social repercussions. Not knowing how to write can limit the labor insertion of students and the international projection of Spain in spaces in which academic and disciplinary writing is an essential competence.

Any individual must be able to communicate with their professional community by composing and reading their own texts. Can you imagine a judge who does not know how to write sentences or a doctor who does not know how to make a report? Therefore, to train good professionals, we have to teach students to write in their discipline.

In the Spanish University, except in some isolated cases, there are no regulated procedures to introduce students to academic writing. Writing centers in some university, teaching innovation projects, like the one we carried out a few years ago in the degree in Speech Therapy at UCLM , and some research group focused on academic writing, little more. However, in Anglo-Saxon countries there is a long tradition of training in written composition at the University.

What is the WAC movement?

The WAC movement in the United States ( Writting Across the Curriculum or Writing through the Curriculum ), which emerged together with the creation of university departments at the end of the 19th century, is a pedagogical movement that has permeated the entire English-speaking university system.

This movement has, among other missions, to offer resources to promote training in academic writing. The resources offered range from initial courses, personalized tutorials to improve the texts, support for the introduction of writing in the design of subjects of the different disciplines, etc.

For something similar to happen in Spain, two things would have to happen.

First of all, it should change the concept we have about written language and its teaching.

Second, universities should invest in the creation of academic writing centers dedicated to advising students to improve their academic writing skills and teaching staff to teach writing in the various disciplines.

The most widespread and popular way of understanding written composition competence is to see it as an ability to transcribe oral language into visible code. If you can speak, you can write. It would be enough to spice up these basic skills with knowledge of a few textual structures that students often study in primary and secondary school textbooks.

But the truth is that writing in professional and academic fields involves the implementation of expert processes that we rarely learn in education. Making explicit these thought processes, such as planning, revision and editing, as well as the procedures involved in the composition of the textual genres of the disciplinary community to which we belong is essential to successfully approach the teaching of composition. written.

Reading a lot is not enough, as stated ad nauseam in various educational forums. To learn to write, you have to write .

Procedures for learning

In my subjects I use different procedures to approach the teaching of writing competence in the different courses. In the former I prefer to work on the composition of short but well written texts. My main objective is that they face the blank page and that they write from what they learn in class without copying from other sources. It is important to avoid that they go quickly to the Internet to copy and paste what they find there. To do this, we must design tasks that cannot be solved by going to Rincón del Vago .

Therefore, in these tasks I ask them to reflect on a specific topic (such as what Educational Psychology contributes to Speech Therapy) and I put a word limit, which in these exercises is usually 500 to 700.

I also propose tasks related to social networks , in which they have to start planning processes to develop content for professional accounts. Here I take advantage of their knowledge of networks to apply it to the generation of professional content.

In the second year, I address the writing of more complex texts, such as writing monographs. When these types of tasks are proposed, the instructions are usually limited to suggesting a topic or letting them choose it and correct what they give us (which is usually, for the most part, a cut and paste of different texts found on the internet).

The 3 phases of the process

To avoid this, I propose a phased process that resembles the procedures that an expert writer in the field of academic writing would follow:

  1. In the documentation phase, students have to look for information on the chosen topic. This search must be carried out in a specialized search engine or in a scientific database, choosing the appropriate keywords. In this phase, the student has to select three scientific articles that will help him develop his text.
  2. In the second phase, that of preparing a draft , I offer students an argumentative structure to guide their composition. This draft is delivered and I return it with review comments for the student to improve (peer review can also be used).
  3. In the last phase, that of editing , students must submit the final version of their text. Here you can read the final text prepared by a 2nd year student of Social Work at UCLM following this procedure.

In the more advanced courses I address more complex textual forms typical of the academic community, such as the research article. In my 4th year subject in Speech Therapy, Psychopedagogy of Reading and Writing, we have already been carrying out a group activity for four years that culminates in the publication of a magazine that collects student research. Here you can read the procedure that I follow in this task and its articles.

Ultimately, it is important that the educational system assumes its role in teaching advanced use of written language. Learning to write is as important as learning to speak and it facilitates our projection in professional fields.

On the other hand, to do science it is essential to know how to communicate it. The time has come to stop being self-taught and to face the task of teaching future scientists to write.

Author Bio:  is a University Professor. Evolutionary and Educational Psychology at the University of Castilla-La Mancha