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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Working Text: Teaching Deaf and Second-Language Students to Be Better Writers

Sue Livingston

Chapter 1
The What and Why of Writing Instruction

Although the personal narrative essay is my favorite form of essay to teach, read, and respond to, my students can no longer pass their developmental skills writing course by writing a personal narrative. Because my students must now pass a rigorous proficiency test in order to graduate, the ante has been upped to exit from developmental writing. Developmental writing has taken on a more expository, academic look that requires students to engage with texts by using supporting examples to back up their points and offer personal analyses to extend the significance of the examples chosen. Reading has become the basis for writing, and although there are times when I long for some of the intriguing and engaging personal essays of the past, I have come to see how this new requirement better prepares students for the variety of writing assignments they will meet in college in the years to come.

This new way of writing does not come easily to my students. For too many years, they have not had opportunities to engage with interesting ideas to write about, for the simple reason that they have not had opportunities to read and discuss interesting ideas. Students have been asked to write about general topics that presume familiarity (�Should the government fund space exploration projects or research on human diseases?�) or are contrived to afford students practice with a particular rhetorical form (�Explain the steps involved in preparing something you like to cook�) or a particular grammatical structure (�Describe a favorite room in your house. Be sure to use locative prepositions.�). More recently, in order to enroll in freshman composition, my students have to prove their worth as writers by doing something similar to this: �Write a letter to the dean of your college arguing for either upgrading the computer labs or improving the college bookstore.� What students, honestly, would want to roll up their sleeves and get to work on these topics?

Writing assignments should ideally come from topics or questions students would like to think more deeply about after reading a required text or texts, slowly and carefully. Such texts should have themes that fire students up and introduce them to characters with whom they can easily identify because the characters� trials and tribulations tug at some similar emotional chord. Finding the right text is the key to successful writing experiences because I see how utterly motivating it is for students to read something they actually enjoy. Typically, I choose short stories or full-length novels in which intrigue builds over time and characters can be known up front and personally as their growth or decline is tracked through the text. �Because of their imaginative nature and narrative structure, [stories] invite their audiences into them. . . . Literature encourages us to empathize with or react against the characters who attract our attention, vicariously experience what they do as we identify with them, and speculate on those aspects of their lives that the authors have not described for us� (Hirvela 2001, 117). There are always ways into fictional texts for students because such texts are about the kinds of problems people have to deal with in real life�and students generally want to snoop a bit into the lives of others to see how their own problems match up, or hypothesize reasons for problems, or offer some advice. Students also tend to remember story episodes rather well, which means, at times, they can write longer essays that draw upon information gleaned from wider expanses of text�which will most likely be required in full-credit classes.

In Engaging Ideas, John C. Bean (1996) offers teachers a variety of ways to structure academic writing assignments. He makes the point that the best writing topics require students to become involved with controversy, to take a stand and roll up their sleeves and prove that their take on a particular issue is the right one. Such is the backbone of academic writing that my students must learn. And although I find there is more engagement with writing when students are afforded opportunities to theorize on their own about an issue in a text that calls to them in some way and to create their own writing topics, the majority of my students welcome ideas to write about and choose teacher-created writing topics. They need an issue to support or not support, a question to answer or a problem to solve.

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