So You’re Going to Teach Composition

I wrote this originally for the composition TAs I am supervising, but the questions are relevant to anyone designing a university-level reading/writing course. In subsequent posts, I will expand on many of these ideas. These posts will be listed on the page, “Teaching First-Year Composition.” When I taught my first composition course, more than 30 years ago, I was given a book and told to teach from it. I ordered the instructor’s manual and did exactly what it said. Fortunately, it was a good instructor’s manual. These days, most grad students and new instructors have considerably more background in composition theory and practice than I did. However, no matter how much background you have, the first time you face a roomful of live students where you are in charge of making things happen is a daunting prospect. This series of posts is designed to help a new instructor make the transition from theory to effective practice.


Who are your students? What are their needs? Are they native speakers of English? Are they ethnically and linguistically diverse? Do they have books in the home? Are they new to the institution? Do they have jobs? What goals do they have? (You may want to do a survey.)

Learning Goals

What are your learning goals? What will students be able to do at the end of the course that they were unable to do at the beginning? What skills and abilities will they be able to improve? (You may need to consult program guidelines.)

Connecting Reading to Writing

What will the students read? (Hint: It is usually a mistake to assign your favorite story/poem/article because your students are unlikely to love it the way you do and you will be disappointed. Also, articles that you find hilariously witty will probably be puzzling at best to a diverse student audience.) Will you have a theme? How will these materials help develop your reading and writing goals? How will they connect to the writing assignments? How will you prepare students to do the reading? What kinds of pre-reading activities will help them understand why they are reading and what they are looking for? How will they use the materials? Will the texts serve as models, discussion fodder, argumentative foils, sources of information to support arguments, or in some other way? What policies will you deploy to encourage students to do the reading?

Concepts and Strategies

What rhetorical concepts and strategies will you teach? How will students use them? How will you work to ensure that they transfer to settings beyond the course?

The “Arc” of the course?

What is the arc of the course? How will the beginning be different from the middle or the end? Will students have a sense of progress, that they are going somewhere? Will strategies and concepts introduced early in the course be practiced and mastered later? How will you sequence the reading and writing assignments?

Genres beyond the Essay

What written genres will you teach and why? What genres do students know that you can build on? (Hint: Texting and social media posts.) What writing process will you encourage? Will you respond to rough drafts? Will you have portfolios with multiple drafts? How will you respond to the writing? Will you have a rubric or other scoring system? Will you have a point system or percentages?

Using Sources

Will students do research? How will they learn research techniques? How will you address matters of quoting, paraphrasing, and documenting sources?

Course Policies

What policies will you enforce about attendance, tardiness, and late papers? How will you deal with plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty? (Include a link to the institutions policies on such matters.)

Class Sessions

What will you actually do in class? Having a reading for the day is not enough. Will you lecture? (Don’t do this too much, but sometimes it is the best way.) Will you have a class discussion? (Have some questions ready.) Will you have a quickwrite to get things started? Will you have in-class writing? (Often a good idea at the beginning, middle, and end of a course.) Will you have a quiz on the reading? (Sometime the threat of a quiz is enough. Another strategy is to ask, “What was your main takeaway from the reading?)

Grammar and “Mechanics”

How will you deal with grammatical, mechanical, and idiomatic problems? Will you have mini-lessons? Will you do “minimal marking”? Will you attempt “consciousness-raising” by focusing on a limited number of problems to facilitate language acquisition?

Your Teaching Persona

Finally, what sort of ethos do you want to project in your class? Do you want to be the student’s best buddy? (Probably not.) The authoritarian taskmaster? (Probably not.) The approachable coach? (Possibly.) Don’t be too self-deprecating. You were offered this course because you have certain accomplishments. Also, resist the temptation to be a despot in the small fiefdom that is your course.


You may also want to look at these additional posts: “What Do Writing Courses Do?,” “Writing Matrix Extension” and “Writing Matrix Extension 2.”