How to Assign Writing When You Don’t Teach Writing

Over a decade ago, my university transitioned from an English Department-based composition sequence (often designated as ENG 101 and ENG 102 in many universities) to a first-year seminar format that would be staffed across all departments. This change, of course, meant that many professors with no background or training in how to teach writing were now teaching first-year writing.

The university fumbled this move quite a bit, but gradually the significance of that hurdle was recognized. We continue to find ways to support professors new and still learning to teaching writing.

Two of the foundational concepts repeated by those of us helping support these professors have been that teaching writing is not an inoculation (one course, or even a few courses, cannot produce students who need no more writing instruction) and that assigning writing is not teaching writing.

For many years, I have been posting my thoughts and strategies for anyone who is tasked with teaching writing or who must teach a writing-intensive course, even though they have no experience or background in formal writing instruction (much of that became this book).

But I received an email from Heather Thiessen recently who framed her contacting me this way: “I don’t teach writing; I teach religious studies. However, I also ask students to write. Sometimes that feels like a bad idea.”

What she is confronting, I think, is incredibly important because students develop beliefs and practices about writing from all of their schooling experiences, regardless of whether or not the teacher/professor is actively teaching writing.

Heather ended her email by gently requesting that I examine “how teachers who are in the ‘writing across the curriculum’ position can, could, should use writing assignments in a helpful, as opposed to harmful, way I would be grateful.”

Here, then, I want to discuss how to assign writing when you do not teach writing—while adhering to the dictum “First, do no harm.” I also include some suggestions for how to make assigning writing and managing the paper load more efficient and manageable when you aren’t a writing teacher/professor.

This discussion and principles, I think, are applicable K-16, but I do tend to target in my examinations of teaching writing high school and undergraduate student writing.

In the do no harm category, I strongly recommend not requiring students follow a five-paragraph essay [1] or any template/essay rubric that does much of the work for the student.

The five-paragraph essay is equally weak writing and overly simplistic thinking (few topics fit neatly into a central thesis/argument that needs only three supporting points, especially at the college level). Templates and essay rubrics also place most of the writing decision making (organization, paragraphing, etc.) on the teacher/professor instead of the student.

Instead, I suggest finding authentic published examples of essays that model the qualities you want students to include in their essays; here, as I will stress often for teachers who assign but do not teach writing, less is more. What are a handful of elements important for you, your learning objective(s), and the reason you are assigning as essay?

One of the greatest gifts you can provide your students and teachers of writing is to use your role as a content teacher to expose students to the wide variety of ways writing exists across disciplines [2]. If you teach history, help students explore and mimic how historians write, for example.

One of the more harmful cycles in formal schooling is that teachers have mostly themselves written when they were students only school essays (formulaic and for the teacher), and then as teachers, ask the same of their students. Students need and deserve authentic writing experiences throughout their schooling.

Also in the do no harm category is an opportunity to reconsider your own attitudes toward writing, essays, and surface features of language (grammar, mechanics, and usage) as well as what messages you are sending to students about each of these.

At the core of this is making a shift from demanding correctness to encouraging students to have healthy and positive attitudes toward expression. A few strategies to follow include:

  • Require and allow students to submit essays in a drafting process, providing them opportunities to receive feedback (targeted) from you and their peers.
  • Stress that all writing is improved by drafting, but do not ask students to “correct” their essays and avoid framing the use of language as right or wrong. Instead, ask student to revise their writing (focusing on content, organization, and style) and to edit surface features (grammar, citation, formatting). A simple change is the language you use has an important positive impact on students.

This second point is certainly challenging, even for veterans of writing instruction, but students are better served when they are invited to understand language in descriptive (how language is used in different contexts) and not prescriptive ways (punitive approaches that perpetuate inequity) [3].

Related, a third do no harm category is not announcing to students “I won’t grade this like your English teacher” or “This isn’t English class.” Students need to understand that essay writing is common across disciplines, especially as they move to college and beyond.

Avoid framing your assignment and grading (better yet, your feedback [4]) in the negative, and instead, provide students narrow (less is more) but detailed guidelines for what you will be assessing (and then allow yourself to provide feedback on aspects of the writing that will not impact their grades).

In other words, you are doing everyone a service if you provide an assessment rubric that identifies specific content, organization, and a few key surface features that will be assessed since it relieves you of “marking everything” (never do that) and provides accountability if a student or parent raises questions about grades on essays.

Once teachers/professors who are not writing teachers move past some of the suggestions noted above what tends to remain is an existential dread about grammar [5], the urge to correct student writing.

Anyone offering feedback on or assessing student writing should target first and weigh most significantly content, organization, and style (sentence and paragraph formation). To be blunt here, if a piece of writing isn’t making valid and compelling points in cohesive ways, matters of spelling, commas, and such are of no relevance [6].

A sexist claim, a lie, or a baseless claim gains no credibility from the words being spelled or the grammar being in a so-called standard form.

If you have the time, respond to the elements students need to revise (content, organization, and style) on the first submission, and then, highlight areas needing editing (grammar, mechanics, usage) when a final submission is warranted.

Especially as a content teacher, and not a writing teacher, you must narrow significantly your concerns about surface features so that you address only a few status marking concerns; typically, for example, in the real world, there are consequences for carelessly shifting verb tense, subject/verb agreement issues, and verb forms.

Since there is a great deal here to digest, several don’t’s and then do instead’s, let me end by stressing that assigning writing well when you do not teach writing can be implemented by doing no harm as well as not overburdening your workload as a teacher of content; in fact, assigning writing should reinforce your content instruction and tour students’ content learning.

You are, I am sure, shaking your head about the paper load.

When you assign writing as a content teacher, your job is not to do everything, but to do some targeted things well (to paraphrase Thoreau); consider the following:

  • Design writing assignments that have only a few clearly detailed learning goals; provide those for students in an assessment rubric.
  • Read and respond to those essays only focusing on those few goals (again, do not read for or mark everything). I recommend sending home a statement to parents explaining that when you assign grades to student writing that you are purposefully not assessing everything, but that each assignment has clearly stated elements that will impact the essay/assignment grade.
  • If students are not going to be allowed or required to revise and resubmit, do not spend time marking the essay; instead have a brief checklist identifying what aspects of the essay impact the grade assigned. (Marking essays extensively that students do not have to address is a form of martyrdom that no teacher can afford.)
  • Seek out a technology platform (as simple as Word, or any word processor, or something similar to Google docs) that supports quicker feedback from you and easier revision/editing by students.
  • Find and use (when there is consent) materials already created by teachers of writing (I typically make my support materials for students accessible to anyone, such as these).

Assigning essays across all content areas, I think, is not only essential but one the best ways to teach and foster learning in students. Students, however, as well as teaching and learning are best served if teachers send and students receive consistent and authentic messages about writing, essays, and language.


RECOMMENDED: John Warner’s “The Writer’s Practice”

Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College


[1] See John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write and the following:

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

John Warner Swears Off Essays, and Students? (Yes, And So Should Everyone)

[2] See the following:

Writing as a Discipline and in the Disciplines

Reading Like a Writer (Scholar): Kingsolver’s “Making Peace”

Intersections and Disjunctures: Scholars, Teachers, and Writers

Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

[3] See To “Be” or Not To “Be”: Moving Beyond Correctness and Stigmatized Language

[4] See the following:

Rethinking Grading as Instruction: Rejecting the Error Hunt and Deficit Practices

Not How to Enjoy Grading But Why to Stop Grading

Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

The Nearly Impossible: Teaching Writing in a Culture of Grades, Averages

Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

[5] See the following:

Lost in Translation: More from a Stranger in Academia

Teaching Literacy, Not Literacy Skills

Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language

Diagramming Sentences and the Art of Misguided Nostalgia

Not If, But When: The Role of Direct Instruction in Teaching Writing

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing: Once Again, the Grammar Debate

[6] See Rethinking Grading as Instruction: Rejecting the Error Hunt and Deficit Practices