Writing to Learn: From Paragraph to Essay
Louis J. Spaventa and Marilynn L. Spaventa (1997)
New York: St. Martin's Press
Pp. xv + 157
Writing to Learn: From Paragraph to Essay is the second book in a series of three, whose aim is to prepare ESL students with "diverse educational backgrounds" for "academic and vocational success." It is available with an Instructor's Manual, but this was not provided for review. Consequently the following comments relate only to the student's book and are thus limited by my inability to view the teacher's book. Writing to Learn: From Paragraph to Essay was written with intermediate level, community college ESL students in the U.S. in mind, which limits the usefulness of some of the content for teachers and students in other countries. However, this is a minor problem, commonly encountered and easily overcome. The book will work well anywhere with a target audience consisting of educated, middle-class learners from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, studying in a western culture.
The authors claim the book is "process and product" oriented and at first glance it appears to fulfil this claim. It is divided into six units of work, each based around a theme (myself, family, education, work, leisure and recreation, and the natural world). The themes were selected on the principle that it is easier for learners to apply new skills when writing about things relatively familiar to them; later chapters begin to present more diverse thematic content. Presumably because there is a teachers book available, little guidance to the teacher is provided in the preface beyond a brief description of the beliefs underpinning the text and the way each unit is divided. From the advice to the student one can discover that instructors will decide what order and which activities are best for students, which suggests that the units are not necessarily designed to be worked through chronologically. Each unit is divided into four main parts: Pre-Writing, Structure, Writing and Editing, and Writing and Revising Assignment. These are followed by Additional Practice, Journal Topic Suggestions, and room for a Vocabulary Log, all of which provide supplementary material.
The Pre-Writing sections present concepts such as brainstorming, speculating, freewriting, ordering and organising ideas, generating vocabulary, writing first drafts, and notetaking. Encouraging discussion and teamwork, the activities in these sections are generally designed to be communicative but they lack a cohesive flow. That is, it is sometimes difficult to see how one activity relates to the next or even whether or not it is intended to. The purposes of the activities and how they fit into the writing process are not explained in the text. There frequently appears to be little or no connection between the pre-writing activities and the later writing activities in each unit. In addition, one has to question whether writing first drafts really qualifies as a "prewriting" activity. [-1-]
The next section of each unit, Structure, seems to be designed to review or present briefly selected grammatical and structural features of writing, particularly conjunctions and transitions for sentence combining. While some parts of this section (sentence combining) are clear and easy to use, with a detailed and logical progression from less to more difficult concepts, other parts (tenses) seem to have questionable value, as they serve only to gloss over the basics. It may be better to leave out such inadequate or incomplete coverage, and leave the teacher to review such aspects as required.
The Writing and Editing section provides guidance regarding the structure and editing of writing, including the use of titles, punctuation, sentence problems, topic sentences, thesis statements, supporting information, and analysis of whole essays. This section also includes some activities that appeared a little idiosyncratic to the general purpose of the section. These comprise a notewriting activity (genre or warm-up?), an activity on grouping ideas (prewriting?) and an activity on research (also prewriting?). The activities in units 5 and 6 introduce a lot of new information about writing and editing and sharply increase the level of difficulty. From editing titles and sentences (units 1-3), students are suddenly asked to conduct research (unit 4) and analyse whole essays (units 5 and 6).
The Writing and Revising section presents the main writing task for each unit, which varies from a descriptive paragraph about another person (units 1-3), through a job application letter, a narrative (unit 5) and a description using spatial organisation (unit 6). Each activity guides the student through the process of brainstorming, organising ideas, writing, editing, and redrafting. Communicative exercises include pairwork and peer review.
The final section, Additional Practice, provides a variety of activities that give students further practice with activities having a grammatical, structural, or lexical focus. These are all designed around the same theme as the rest of the unit. They are useful choices for both students and teachers to provide more practice or homework activities. At the back of the book some appendices provide more information about presentation, journal writing, capitalisation and punctuation, as well as a writer feedback sheet. All of the information contained in the appendices was useful at a basic level, but could be improved.
The layout of the book is clear, with plenty of space provided for writing answers. The photo quality was adequate but could be better. In contrast the drawings were clearer, but seemed more appropriate for younger students and were very culturally biased towards white middle class life and activities. The photographs included people of more ethnic diversity.
The authors of Writing to Learn: From Paragraph to Essay have clearly attempted to encompass a wide range of student writing needs, both academic and vocational. This is evident in the way they have included both micro- and macro-level focus activities on all aspects of writing from mechanics to genre to structure and process, as well as attempting to meet students' needs for increased lexical knowledge and volume of practice. The result however, is a rather illogical combination of features in many sections of the book. [-2-]
In addition, there are few apparent connections between such sections as the prewriting and writing, as well as inadequate coverage of some important concepts such as the patterns of organisation and logical order in writing. Some of these inadequacies may be resolved by viewing the Instructor's Manual, where such problems may be overcome by the information or guidance presented therein. The book does present many communicative activities, but on closer inspection is more "product" than "process" oriented, simply because it fails to teach the writing process explicitly. There is a general emphasis on form, which fails to address the meta-features of texts. By this is meant that not enough attention is paid to explaining some of the hows and whys of written discourse, why different types of English are written the way they are, the purposes of various kinds of writing (for example, types of academic writing versus types of vocational writing). Furthermore, understanding some of the rhetorical aspects of languages, such as contrastive rhetoric, facilitates a student's ability to manipulate the forms to their desired purposes. These aspects could be developed further, as students at any level benefit from such knowledge. Attention to and awareness-raising of these fundamental features of writing in English helps students to understand the relevance of what they're learning. None of these issues are addressed in any of the activities where one might expect them. In addition, although the book does model process writing in the Writing and Revising section, simply leading students through the steps of the writing process does not teach it explicitly, and certainly does not illustrate the recursive (as opposed to linear) nature of the process.
In conclusion, although the book presents many communicative and worthwhile activities, and could be usefully employed in many classrooms, it cannot be blindly followed as a prescription for moving students "from paragraphs to essays." That will require the teacher to select carefully from the text and supplement the tasks with explanation and awareness-raising activities, if they wish to draw students' attention to those meta-features of written texts mentioned above--a task which has, arguably, always been the teacher's responsibility in any case, and which would probably be confirmed by the teacher's book.
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