Assessing Writing from a Discourse Perspective

Often, when teachers provide feedback on a student’s writing, they tend to focus on the grammatical/punctuation aspects of the paper. However, this often does not make a lasting impression and it also can frequently cause students to freeze up when the need to write as they become obsess with the details of grammar rather than with the shaping of ideas.

Another approach to providing feedback to students is to analyze and assess their writing from the perspective of discourse. Discourse rules have to do with the overall structure of a paper. It is the big picture aspects of writing. Clear discourse can often help to overcome poor grammar/punctuation but excellent grammar/punctuation can overcome a poorly structured paper. This post will provide some of the components of discourse as they relate to writing a paper.

The Organizational Level

At the highest broadest level is the organizational level. At this level, you are looking to be sure that the students have  included an introduction, body, and conclusion to their paper. This seems elementary but it is common for students to forget to include an introduction and or a conclusion to their writing.

You also want to check that the introduction, body, and conclusion are in proportion to each  other based on how long the paper was intended to be. Often, students write short intros, have a long body section, and have little conclusion as they are exhausted from the writing.

At this point thorough reading is not taking place but rather you are glancing to see if all the parts are there.  You also are searching to see if the ideas in the introduction, are present in the body, and reiterated in the conclusion. Students frequently wander when writing as they do not plan what to say but rather what and see what google provides them.

The Section Level

At the section level, you are looking to make sure that the various parts that belong within the introduction, body, and conclusion are present.  For the introduction, if it is a standard research, paper some of the things to look for includes the following

  • background to the problem
  • problem statement
  • objectives
  • significance statement

For the body section, things to look for includes

  • Discussion of first objective
  • Discussion of second objective
  • etc

For the conclusion, it is more fluid in how this can be done but you can look for the following

  • Summary of the introduction
  • Main point of each objective
  • Concluding remark(s)

First, you are checking that these components are there. Second you are checking for the clarity. Normally, if the problem and objectives are unclear the entire paper is doomed to incomprehensibility.

However, bad grammar is not a reason that problems and objectives are unclear. Instead it may be the problem is too broad, cannot be dealt with in the space provide, etc. Objectives normally have the same problem but can also be unrelated to the problem as well.

Sometimes the problem and objectives are to narrowly defined in terms of the expertise of the student. As such, it is highly subjective in terms of what works but the comments given to the student need to be substantive and not just something vague as “look at this a second time.”

If you cannot give substantive feedback it is normally better to ignore whatever weakness you found until you can articulate it clearly. If this is not possible it’s better to remain silent.

The body section must address all objectives mentioned in the introduction. Otherwise, the reader will become confuse as promises made in the introduction were never fulfilled in the body.

The conclusion is more art than science. However, there should be a emphasis on what has been covered as well as what does this mean for the reader.

The Paragraph Level

At the paragraph level, you are looking for two things in every paragraph

  • main idea
  • supporting details

Every paragraph should have one main idea, which summarizes the point of the paragraph. The main idea is always singular. If there are more than one main idea then the student should develop a second paragraph for the second main idea.

In addition, the supporting details in the paragraph should be on topic with the main idea. Often, students will have inconsistencies between the main idea and the supporting details. This can be solved by doing one of the following

  • Change the main idea to be consistent with the supporting details
  • Change the supporting details to be consistent with the main idea

At the paragraph level, you are also assessing that the individual paragraphs are supporting the objective of the section. This again has to do with focusing on a singular thought in a particular section and within each paragraph. Students love to wander when writing as stated previously. Writing is about breaking down a problem into smaller and smaller pieces through explanation.

Conclusion

The assessment of the discourse of a paper should come before the grammatical marking of it. When ideas flow, the grammatical issues are harder to notice often. It is the shaping of discourse that engages the thinking and improves the writing of a student in ways that grammatical comments can never achieve.

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