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e_550 - 238 Research in the Teaching of English Volume 40...

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238 Research in the Teaching of English Volume 40, Number 2, November 2005 At Last The Focus on Form vs. Content in Teaching Writing George Hillocks, Jr. University of Chicago For many years the teaching of writing has focused almost exclusively and to the point of obsession on teaching the forms of writing—the parts of paragraphs, the parts of essays, the structure of sentences, the elements of style, and so forth. Except for the fact that the models of writing used to illustrate such forms have some level of substance in and of themselves, teachers of and textbooks on writing have treated substance as though it were of little or no importance. The underlying assumption is that writing can be taught with little or, at best, sporadic reference to content: that once students learn the various forms, they are then prepared to write real prose—for instance, expository paragraphs or evaluative themes. The problem, of course, is that writers do not decide to write an expository paragraph or an evaluative theme. If they decide to write prose at all, they decide to write about specific subject matter. Moreover, knowledge of form does not translate into the strategies and skills necessary to wrest from the subject matter the ideas that make up a piece of writing. Indeed, we have research suggesting that other foci of instruction are more powerful than instruction on form, yet there are forces that appear to be influential in maintaining form as central to teaching writing. In this essay, I review some of the research indicating the obsession with form over the past fifty years or more; discuss my own research, which tells us our focus should be elsewhere; discuss those forces that keep us from heeding this broader understanding about effective writing instruction; and, finally, offer some predictions about the possibility of shifting policy and practice away from its present obsessions. Obsession with Form Lynch and Evans (1963) published a study of high school English textbooks that was famous in the ’60s. The authors examined textbooks for grades 9 to 12 by every major publisher at the time, with copyright dates from 1949 to 1961. Lynch and
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H ILLOCKS At Last 239 Evans devote only about 60 pages of their 500-page book to the textbooks’ concerns with rhetoric and composition because, in the case of the grammar and composition books, the space devoted to grammar, mechanics, and usage far exceeds the pages devoted to composition and rhetoric. For example, the grade 12 volume that we know as Warriner (1977) includes 351 pages on grammar, usage, and mechanics but only 133 pages on composition and rhetoric. According to Lynch and Evans, the material presented on composition and rhetoric is “virtually the same in a majority of texts” (p. 312), not only within a series but also across different series by different publishers.
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