A Decade of Change: A Correspondence on Theory and Teaching
Russell A. Hunt
[as published in Reading-Canada-Lecture 5:3 (Fall 1987), 148-153.]


Au cours des dernieres annees, les theories relatives Ii la maniere dont les eleves lisent et ecrivent ainsi qu'a la facon dont ils apprennent Ii lire et Ii ecrire ont subi des modifications importantes, ce qui a entraine des changements majeurs dans les idees et dans les methodes de beaucoup de professeurs d'anglais, et cela surtout dans Ie domaine de la redaction au niveau universitaire. Divers domaines, tels que la psychologie du developpement, la theorie litteraire, la recherche sur la redaction et sur la croissance de l'alphabetisation precoce ont engendre des idees capables de transformer la pratique de l' enseignement de facon fondamentale. Cet article, redige sous forme d'un dialogue, etudie certaines de ces idees survenues au cours des dix annees precedentes.

I've been told that when you stop being just a little ashamed of what you used to believe and do, you've probably died and simply haven't noticed. If that's true, a lot of English teachers have good reason to believe they're not dead. So much has changed in writing theory in the past decade or so that many of us who teach writing believe something very different in 1987 from what we subscribed to a few years ago. I often find myself in a sort of amazed mental dialogue between the me of, say, 10 years ago and the me of today.

1977: Every spring it's the same. Besides all the end-of-term record keeping, I have these dozens -- even hundreds -- of student papers to read and mark. If you don't give each of them 15 or 20 minutes, you can't do them justice. But 80 papers or so is 20 solid hours of reading and marking -- and I can't do more than three or four in a row before my attention starts to flag. So it all comes down to two full weeks when I do almost nothing but read and comment on papers.

I've tried recording my comments on individual cassette tapes, but it doesn't really save time. Besides, I'm not sure that that medium is sending a message to the students that I really want to send. I've even written an article questioning it (Hunt, 1975). These days what I do is mark the mechanical errors in the text itself, but type on a separate sheet any comments I want to make that are longer than three or four words, keying the comments to numbers in the text. It often turns out that the page of written comments is longer than the student's original paper.

What really bothers me is knowing that most of the students don't really read the comments at all; they just look at the bottom line, where the grade is, and then throw the paper away -- or at best file it away. It's not easy. It's really one of the few parts of the job of teaching English that I find onerous -- but it's got to be done. You can only learn to write well by writing. I'd like to have them write a lot more but I just can't read any more papers than I'm reading now. Besides everything else -- I hate to admit this, but it's true -- 99% of them are so boring. If only the students would write as though they cared about their subjects.

1987: You sound to me like a person on his way down burnout road. Not so much because you're spending so much time on teaching -- I guess I'm still doing that -- but because what you're doing seems to make so little sense to you.

I don't know how to break this to you. Perhaps straight out and bluntly is the best way: I don't mark papers any more. I don't "correct" them, or respond to them, or even evaluate them. I don't even read most of what my students write.

I imagine that makes you think I've shirked my central duty as a teacher of English -- abdicated my responsibility as an arbiter of acceptable prose and abandoned my position as designated reader and responsive audience for my students. And I guess that's all true -- but I've come to question whether that duty, that responsibility, that position, is really as important or central as I once believed. The turning point for me may well have been Mina Shaughnessy's book, Errors and Expectations, which from your position is being published right about now (1977). In it, Shaughnessy confronted the problem so many American composition and English teachers faced: A new round of "democratization" of the universities created a tidal wave of university students who were "not by traditional standards ready for college" (p. 1). These "open admissions" students were regularly shunted into "Basic Writing" classes where faculty who, like Shaughnessy, had no particular training in teaching writing, had to cope with them somehow.

Instead of doing what many of her colleagues did and handing the problem over to a kamikaze cadre of graduate students and part-time instructors hurled into the fray like Canadian troops at Ypres, Shaughnessy confronted the situation herself. What she did seems simple enough now, but at the time it was amazing. She tried to understand what her students were doing and why. She did not simply use the old standard strategy of copy-editing texts, expunging errors and inelegancies until they were "correct," and expecting that producing those correct texts would magically help their original authors to do better next time. (That is, she did not buy the Lamarckian theory whereby cutting the tails off generation after generation of mice would somehow produce a breed of tailless mice.)

Much of what Shaughnessy thought about those students, of course, now seems wrong or incomplete, and her recommendations for dealing with their problems seem limited -- but her way of looking at those texts and their creators revolutionized the way many members of her profession looked at student writers. We came to believe with her that those students' "errors" were actually principled phenomena that could be dealt with only be understanding how they were produced -- what those writers thought they were doing, what they believed and knew, and how they utilized that knowledge. Our attention was subtly but permanently dislodged from what the texts lacked to what their producers had.

1977: That's all very interesting, and perhaps even persuasive, but it really doesn't tell me any more than that we need to understand how errors get produced. But if you eliminate marking papers, what can you put in its place? Multiple-guess tests? Empty writing exercises produced out of the writer's ignorance of the conventions and rules of formal academic -- or even informal, non-academic -- prose? I don't see how students would learn from that.

It's important to remind you that correcting "errors" isn't all I do with those papers; it isn't even the main thing. I design my comments to help the student think about how his writing is understood and evaluated by someone else. I do try to mark every genuine "error," because if I don't he'll think it's okay, but that is not the central thing I'm doing. I try to help each student become aware of the way his writing is organized, about matters of clarity and presentation and style and, yes, okay, elegance. I try to engage in a dialogue with the student.

What I'm dissatisfied with is mainly that this work just takes so much time. It means, for instance, I can't have student rewrite their papers after I've commented on them, and then go back over the rewritten versions with them. And when I stop to think about it I'm not sure that it would really work all that well. When I have had students rewrite papers, I've often received pretty perfunctory work -- they don't often seem to see the point of rewriting. They usually just fix the smallest mechanical errors, anyway. I saw an article recently titled "You Mean, Write it Over in Ink?" (Odell & Cohick, 1975). I guess that's what most of my students think revision is. The better students seem to profit from it, though. Maybe I should be satisfied with that.

1987: It's interesting you should mention Odell. A lot of recent research has pushed me toward believing that language is best learned when it's being used to serve the language learner's own purposes. Very little of this work has been done in areas at all closely related to English teaching at the secondary and post-secondary level -- about as close as you get is Odell's work on writing in non-academic settings (Odell, 1980; Odell & Goswami, 1984). He and his colleagues make it clear that writers of memos and letters in business settings -- in cases, that is, where the writing is accomplishing something the writer genuinely needs to have accomplished -- are constantly making highly sophisticated rhetorical and stylistic decisions.

Perhaps the most important influence, though, has been what's come to be known as the "whole language" movement in elementary education (Goodman, 1982a, 1982b; Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984; Newman, 1985, 1986; Smith, 1982a, 1982b, 1985). Reading their descriptions of the process of learning to write and read for the first time has taught me two important things. First, children learn written language first and best by using it in naturally-occurring situations to make, and keep, and deepen contact with the people around them. Second, paying conscious attention to the structure and conventions of language is no help to them as they learn, and may even by a hindrance.

There's also the research on the earliest stages of language development in infants. You've already read Roger Brown (1973) in connection with studying our daughter Kate's early language by replicating a study by Slobin and Welch (1968) on language competence. When you consider in detail how infants learn to speak it reinforces the notion that language is fundamentally, and from its very beginnings, a social matter-and that the miracles of language learning that are regularly performed by infants are performed because the child is driven by the desire to make and keep and deepen contact with the people around her. I think the idea was expressed first by Vygotsky in the thirties (1962, 1978), but I've found Kenneth Kaye (1982) and Michael Halliday (1975, 1978) particularly powerful in helping me understand it.

1977: In general I'm prepared to accept the kind of analogy you're drawing. After all, John Holt was making the same point back in the sixties when he was saying that if we taught children to speak the way we teach them to write we'd have institutions full of kids who'd never learned to speak, or spoke only with difficulty (1964, 1967). The problem is that I'm not sure how all this goes beyond Holt's basic idea, and I still don't see how to apply his ideas in my own teaching very effectively. And it does seem to be stretching it a bit when you compare my students trying to present their view of what a Hemingway short story means to an infant babbling in a crib or a child scrawling out deformed letters and pretending to write.

1987: What you're asking is, where does all this lead in terms of teaching practice? It makes me try to create situations in which students use written language in ways that are immediately and obviously useful to them, in which they only write things through which they genuinely intend to make contact with someone -- by informing her, or persuading her, changing her in some way. They write and read, in other words, what Edelsky and Draper (in press) call "authentic" texts: They don't write and read what I've started calling "textoids" (Hunt, in press).

Specifically I don't any longer ask students to write formal essays. Such papers are read (or at least, and more important, the writer thinks they're read) only for evaluation, by an audience (the teacher) whom the writer believes already knows what's being said and whom the writer therefore cannot expect to inform, move, or persuade. I do, on the other hand, require students to engage in what I and some of my colleagues at St. Thomas are calling "collaborative investigation."

Let me give you one concrete example of how this can work. In my science fiction class last term, the students spent a week finding and consulting books and periodicals on science fiction and on modem literature, and anthologies and collections, to see what scholars and critics seem to believe are the most important nineteenth and early twentieth century science fiction books, and why the sources they consult seem to think they're important. Each student produced a short report presenting and arguing for a particular list of books which the class ought to know about; in class the reports were shared around small groups, and each group arrived at a consensus list: The group lists were combined and discussed and a reading list for the next week settled on.

What's most important about this to me is that the students' writing had real consequences. Either people were informed or persuaded, or they weren't. If the writer's grammar or spelling or handwriting interfered with the purpose, she found out; if the writing didn't convey the message she intended, she found that out too, not because an evaluator gave her a "C-," but because her peers ignored or genuinely misunderstood her work. And rather than dwelling on the failure, she went on to try again, almost immediately. In such a situation students write four or five times as much as in the traditional essay-centered class. Most important, perhaps, once they've done this a couple of times, it becomes clear to the students that it's a process in which writing is a genuinely valuable -- even irreplaceable -- tool. It's not merely a means of demonstrating for purposes of evaluation that you know or can do something.

1977: You said at the beginning that you thought your job as an arbiter of acceptable prose, a designated audience for your students' writing, wasn't as important as I think. Okay, but how about your responsibility as a teacher of important and true information and genuinely valuable and excellent texts? What happens if you leave the selection of texts and gathering and evaluation of information up to your students? Won't they (at least sometimes) come up with erroneous information and choose trivial and silly texts? It seems to me that one of the reasons I became (and have remained) an English teacher is that I believe that there are texts and writers which are unequivocally important and valuable, and I have some responsibility to keep knowledge of those texts and those permanent truths alive. Don't you feel you have a responsibility to guide the process of selection of texts, to exert some control over the presentation of "facts?" Suppose you taught a chemistry class this way and a student came in with a report based on the phlogiston theory of combustion, or (to come a little closer) a developmental linguistics class and one of your students got the idea that Skinner's view of verbal behavior explained language development?

1987: That's the hardest question. Not hard to have an answer to -- I think I have one -- but hard to state the answer to in terms that don't sound irresponsible or trivial or dismissive. It's an important question, and one that gets asked pretty regularly, and one that needs to be taken very seriously.

It seems to me there are three ways to answer it, or maybe three parts to the answer. One is that the possibility, and the consequences, of students having "wrong information" are highly overrated. Insofar as the structure of the learning situation keeps them in touch with the texts of the discipline they're studying, and with each other, in my experience it's very rare for students to come up with drastically wrong facts or to make wildly bizarre choices about texts or issues. When I send my freshman literature class out to look at poetry anthologies and bring back poems for the rest of the class to read it's surprising -- even disappointing -- how conventional their choices often are.

Further, it is very unlikely that students will persist in hanging onto wrong information: In the context I'm talking about it almost always happens that the process corrects error, just as efficiently as (and, admittedly, no more efficiently than) the process of collaborative investigation in communities of researchers and scholars continually refines and "corrects" error there. In my eighteenth century class a year ago, for instance, a group of students prepared a report on the wrong Samuel Butler, failing to notice that the man they were reading about lived in the nineteenth century. The process whereby they discovered that they had investigated the wrong man was far more effective in teaching them about literary scholarship and research -- and about the right Samuel Butler -- then any lecture or explanation from me could possibly have been.

There's another issue here. The question of picking trivial and bizarre texts is not so simple as I used . . as you think it is. Recent critical theory has not created a new orthodoxy to replace the Old New Criticism, but it has made perfectly clear what the central views of New Criticism were, and why they are no longer tenable. There are some ideas it's virtually impossible to embrace any longer -- however much we might want to hold on to them. One is that there is a clearly defined set of texts that constitute a canon of important or essential literature (Baldrick, 1983; Belsey, 1980; Eagleton, 1983); another is that those texts themselves can be expected to be the same from one situation or one reader to the next.

The research Doug Vipond and I have done over the past few years (Hunt & Vipond, 1985, 1986; Vipond & Hunt, 1984; Vipond, Hunt, & Wheeler, in press) has established this last point absolutely for me. I now believe that in the act of requiring a text for a class, I determine the situation in which it will be read, and thus assure that it will not be the same situation as the one in which I read it, or in which it was originally read. In other words, when I generate a list of works which I think constitute (for example) the essential texts for the eighteenth century, I can be certain of one thing: The students will not create the same meanings for those texts that I do. This is not only because of the dramatic differences between the students' knowledge and expectations and my own, but also because of the even more dramatic differences between the situation in which they read the texts and the situation in which I read them.

Finally (and perhaps the hardest part for me to accept): To suggest that the teacher has a responsibility to correct error and decide on all priorities entails at least two educationally-destructive ideas. One is that the teacher is very likely to be right; the second, that the locus of truth and authority in the classroom (whether she is right or wrong) is the teacher. If we accept the idea that knowledge, to be learned, must be constructed, discovered, created by the learner, we have to free the learner to take risks and make mistakes, to test hypotheses and have them collapse -- and to recognize when they've collapsed, to pick up the pieces and go on. I've argued elsewhere (Hunt, in press, 1987) that students learn better when evaluation by the teacher is not their central motive, when they are using language to get something done rather than to gain the approval of an authority.

1977: I suppose I really have no choice. I know, in the long run, I'll wind up accepting your arguments. I'm still not convinced -- but at least I suppose that eventually I won't be faced with this immense stack of student papers to mark.

1987: No. But I'm sorry to have to tell you that organizing situations in which students can use writing meaningfully to engage in collaborative inquiry is even more work than marking papers. The only comfort I can offer is that it makes more sense.


Baldick, C. (1983). The social mission of English criticism 1848-1932. Oxford: Claredon Press. Belsey, C. (1980). Critical practice. London: Methuen.

Brown, R. C. (1973). A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary theory: An introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Edelsky, C., & Draper, K. (in press). Reading/"reading," writing/"writing," text/"text." In A. Petrosky (Ed.), Reading and writing: Theory and practice. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Goodman, K. S. (1982a). Process, theory, research. In F. V. Gollasch (Ed.), Language and literacy: The selected writings of Kenneth Goodman (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Goodman, K. S. (1982b). Reading, language, and the classroom teacher. In F. V. Gollasch (Ed.), Language and literacy: The selected writings of Kenneth Goodman (Vol. 2). Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1975). Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London: Elsevier North-Holland.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. Baltimore, MD: University Park Press.

Harste, J. C., Woodward, V. A, & Burke, C. L. (1984). Language stories and literacy lessons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Holt, J. (1964). How children fail. New York: Pitman.

Holt, J. (1967). How children learn. New York: Pitman.

Hunt, R. A. (1975). Technological gift-horse: Some reflections on the teeth of cassette-marking. College English, 36, 581-585.

Hunt, R. A. (1987). "Could you put in lots of holes?" Modes of response to writing. Language Arts, 64, 229-232.

Hunt, R. A. (in press). A boy named Shawn, a horse named Hans: The Herr von Osten model of responding to student writing. In C. M. Anson (Ed.), Responding to student writing: Models, methods and curricular change. Champaign-Urbana, IL: National Council of the Teachers of English.

Hunt, R. A., & Vipond, D. (1985). Crash-testing a transactional model of literary reading. Reader, 14, 23-39. Hunt, R. A., &

Vipond, D. (1986). Evaluations in literary reading. TEXT, 6, 53-71.

Kaye, K. (1982). The mental and social life of babies: How parents create persons. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Newman, J. M. (1985). Whole language: Theory in use. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Newman, J. M. (1984). The craft of children's writing. Richmond Hill, ON: Scholastic.

Odell, L. (1980). Business writing: Observations and implications for teaching composition. Theory Into Practice, 19, 225-232. Odell, L., & Cohick, J. (1985). You mean, write it over in ink? English Journal, 64, 48-53.

Odell, L, & Goswami, D. (1984). Writing in a non-academic setting. In R. Beach & L. Bridwell (Eds.), New directions in composition research. New York: Guilford.

Shaughnessy, M. P. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Slobin, D. I., & Welsh, C. A. (1968). Elicited imitation as a research tool in developmental psycholinguistics. (Language-Behavior Research Laboratory Working Paper, No. 10). Berkeley: University of California. (Reprinted in C. A. Ferguson & D. I. Slobin (Eds.), Studies of child language development, 1973. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.)

Smith, F. (1985). A Metaphor for literacy: Creating worlds or shunting information? In D. R. Olson, N. Torrance, & A. Hildyard (Eds.), Literacy, language, and learning: The nature and consequences of reading and writing. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, F. (l982a). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read (3rd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Smith, F. (l982b). Writing and the writer. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Vipond, D., & Hunt, R. A. (1984). Point-driven understanding: Pragmatic and cognitive dimensions of literary reading. Poetics, 13. 261-277.

Vipond, D., Hunt, R. A., & Wheeler, L. C. (in press). Social reading and literary engagement. Reading Research and Instruction.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, V. John- Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Trans.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: M. I. T. Press.