English is a multi-faceted subject. You’ve got your grammar: everyone’s flat out favourite; reading: which we do out loud in small groups and occassionally to the entire class; reading comprehension: which should always follow reading, but doesn’t happen in a lot of programs in Asia; literary analysis: which is reading comprehension on steroids, and requires a basic knowledge of narrative styles, prose and poetic structure, literary devices and critical approaches; and writing: which encompases all of the above, otherwise you couldn’t put a paragraph-long sentence like this together! In addition we also have to cover media studies and presentation techniques. It is a packed program.

Writing comes in a number of varieties as well. I have my students keep track of their reading comprehension answers in a journal that I mark every three to four weeks, and of course they have to write tests and exams as well. But the most challenging aspect of writing is the research essays the students must do at this level. For many of my students a research essay is an alien animal and plagiarism is bacterial slime. They have heard of such things, but never imagined that they would have to do battle with them quite so early in their academic careers. It is a frightening prospect.

I have learned from long experience that you do not want to give your students much time to be terrified. It is much better to throw them in the deep end all at once and learn to swim by thrashing around. Too much thinking about about all the variables in essay writing is paralyzing. I give them a week to dig up some information on their subject and bring it to class. Then I block off the entire day for them to write a first draft – by hand – and have then submit it by the end of the class. No agonizing homework, no staring at a blank page while it mocks your incapacity to think.

Then I help them to organize an essay structure from what they have written. I provide an outline and show them how to identify the missing areas in their essay. I give them a couple of days to whip that into shape while I give them enough lessons on MLA format to get them going, but not enough to choke them. Then I give them a second full class day, this time at a computer, to type out a second draft. Above is one class engaged in that process.

My system isn’t perfect; I still have a few kids fall through the cracks and fall by the wayside. Those I have to devote individual time to rescue.  But I like to think – and conversations with my colleagues seem to bear this out – that I have fewer kids get lost this way than other teachers who take what they consider to be a ‘gentler’ approach. There is nothing gentle about my approach. I do not cluck sympathetically while my students flounder and fail. Instead I demand that they stand up and succeed. The remarkable thing is that by the end of the term nearly all of them do.

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