Teaching Tips: Effective Language Use in the Classroom Discourse Community


Unlike other courses, where exchanges between teacher and student can be reduced to at least one or two objective tests a semester, the writing course requires students to write things down regularly, usually once a week, and requires to read what is written and then write things back and every so often talk directly with individual students about the way they write.

Mina Shaughnessy (“Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing”)

The discourse community of the writing course is unlike any other. The Wayne Writer proposes that our “classroom is a community where people (students and instructors) come together for the purpose of education. Within this community, language is used in very specific ways” (xi, emphasis added). As instructors we use language very specifically. Students enter first-year composition (FYC) classrooms unable to understand or speak our specific language. Classroom instruction, directed activities, assignments, feedback, student conferences, and assessment all contain our language—the language of the instructor, i.e. our discourse. The success of our writing course depends on not only an effective introduction to our language and its use but also our consistent use of that language throughout the course. Before we can expect students to respond to what we are saying, we should make clear to students the language of this new discourse community to which they are now a part and how we will talk to them about the way they write, i.e. our language and how we will use it.

I am not claiming that we are intentionally hiding our language from students. I am, however, suggesting that we sabotage its effectiveness without realizing it. Students in FYC already struggle to make connections between what we are asking them and what they are then expected to write. I argue that we increase this struggle when we do the following:

  1. We do not explicitly make clear our language and how we will use it to talk to students about the way they write (i.e. What do we mean by an “introductory paragraph” and what we are looking for in theirs, what do we mean by “analysis” and what does it look like, what do we mean by “be more specific” (provide examples, more detail, or what?).
  2. We are inconsistent. If we are inconsistent in our language and its use between the written artifacts we give to students (syllabi, assignments, rubrics) and what we then say and write back to them throughout the course (instruction, lessons, feedback), then students may not be clear on what it is we are expecting of them. This means combing our syllabi, assignment prompts, and grading rubrics to edit for consistency, clarity, and cogency (sound familiar?).

In other words, if our assignment prompts and rubric state that we are looking for an “evaluative claim” at the “beginning of the essay,” then we should not only make that language clear to students (what it means and what it looks like) but we should also use that same language (“evaluative claim,” and “beginning of essay”) when we talk to them about the way they write.

Perhaps this sounds like a “duh” moment, but I am guilty of inconsistency and of presenting language on the syllabus, spending class time using different language, and then grading using yet another language. The ENG 1020 Common Syllabus provides a language for how I can talk to students about their writing. Projects not only have consistent language use between descriptions and rubrics but also a consistent format. To help insure that my students are understanding what is expected, I purposefully rhetorically analyze my classroom language. By not forgetting my own scene, context, participants, purpose, constraints, and genre, I can help make the language of the classroom discourse community more effective.

Corey Hamilton is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and a first-year Ph. D. student studying Rhetoric and Composition at Wayne State University. Corey has taught basic writing, intermediate writing, and Accelerated Learning Program classes at the University of Central Oklahoma. His current scholarly interests include Digital Rhetorics, Composition Pedagogies, Rhetorical Theory and the Rhetoric of Music.

Works Cited

Shaugnessy, Mina. “Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing.” CCC (1976): 234-3. Print.

The Wayne Writer: Second Custom Edition for Wayne State University. Boston: Pearson, 2015. Print.

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