Difficutly Paper – Using writing to learn

A difficulty paper is a written essay in which students reflect on challenging sections of their academic texts and try to work through their difficulty. It gives students a chance to apply various techniques to try to make sense of difficult passages in texts. Assigning a difficulty paper in the context of a class communicates to students: 1) that writing is a tool for learning and not mere documentation of “finalized” learning, 2) that reading is a process of meaning-making to which students can apply various strategies, and 3) that you as the instructor are interested in the process of students’ learning and not just the product.

There are different ways that teachers approach difficulty papers. Here is just one…

Ask students to:CanadaCollegeLogo

1) Locate a challenging or intriguing section of a text and describe the difficulty or questions they have regarding the text. Students can think meta-cognitively and try to articulate what about the text is challenging or why they are struggling with that section of the text.

2) Have students propose some possibilities for the meaning of that particular section of text. What might it mean? What clues surrounding the section help lead the student to their various proposals and hypotheses?

3) Then ask the student to reread both the text and their proposals. Which of their proposals seem most plausible in light of the original text? What does the textual evidence support?

4) Finally, invite the student to make connections both within and beyond the text. How does this understanding of the passage connect with other aspects of the text? How has working through the difficulty in this manner helped them to understand anything differently or see something new?


Students submit the answers to these questions in an informal essay. You can let students know that they do not have to have an argument to begin writing paper, but rather the paper is more exploratory. An essay of about 1 single-spaced page is an appropriate length to start with.

Cover Memos for Essays

As your students begin submitting midterm and final papers, consider having them complete a Cover Memo alongCanadaCollegeLogo with their paper. Cover Memos are a short set of questions that invite students to think meta-cognitively about their writing, hopefully helping them process and learn more from the experience. It can also guide the responses you give to each student’s writing, which may decrease the amount of time you spend responding to student paper.


Author Feedback (http://writingcenter.unc.edu/faculty-resources/classroom-handouts/author-feedback/)

• Describe what are you trying to accomplish with this paper? What do you want the reader to take away from this paper? How do you hope the reader will be changed after reading your paper?

• What do you think are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of this piece of writing right now? What do you like about it? What did you struggle with as you wrote it? What areas do you want the reader to pay special attention to as he or she responds?

• What kind of feedback would be most helpful to you at this stage?


Here are some additional questions to consider:

• What was your experience writing this paper? Which aspects do you feel good/confident about? Which aspects do you feel concerned /less confident about?

• How did you use the feedback you received from your classmates?

• If you could start this assignment over or if you had further time to develop it, what would you do with it?

• What was your drafting and revising process like? On which aspects of this assignment did you spend the most time?

• What kind of feedback would you like from me?

Considering the Context of Texts

CanadaCollegeLogoSource: Taylor, Catherine G. (2004). Critical Literacy and the Un/Doing of Academic Discourse. Ethnologies, 26, 1, 125-143.

Taylor is situated within the socio-cultural perspective on schooling, emphasizing critical literacy, which for her, “emphasizes reading and writing as activities for personal empowerment and social transformation” (p. 125). “Critical educators currently use it across the curriculum and throughout educational levels as a method of teaching already-literate people how to think critically about language and perhaps spark a passion for social change” (p. 126).

Taylor provides a specific set of questions for students to consider about the way text is written:
• Who benefits from the way this story is told?
• Who’s telling the story? What different does that make?
• Whose voices are heard, and whose aren’t? What difference does that make?
• What relevant factors are missing? What difference does that make?
• What kind of evidence is offered? What kind of evidence is not offered?
• What is treated as a root cause? Who benefits from that?
• What is left until the end (when most readers have stopped reading) or barely acknowledged?
• How else could this story have been told? What difference would that make? (p131)

These questions invite students to read below the surface of a text and to analyze/evaluate the choices and moves a writer makes. As students consider questions like the ones Taylor offers here, they are prompted to think more critically about text – something we ALL want for our students.

Academic Word List

The Academic Word List (AWL) are the most frequently appearing word in academic texts written in English, initially compiled by Averil Coxhead from the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand . The words are divided into sub-lists based on how often they occur. As an example, here is Sub-list #1:

sector          available          financial          process          individual          specific          principle          estimate          variables          method

data              research           contract          environment      export          source            assessment     policy               identified        create

derived       factors              procedure      definition      assume                theory            benefit             evidence         established      authority

major           issues                 labor                occur              economic           involved       percent             interpretation                           consistent

income        structure          legal                 concept         formula               section           required          constitutional                            analysis

distribution   function       area                  approach       role                      legislation     indicate            response           period             context

significant   similar


It is interesting for students to consider these words, whether native English speaker or not, because it can help focus the exact denotation of vocabulary words, as well as the impact of connotation on meaning. Word choice is clearly something student writers should consider based on their audience and purpose.

On-line exercises for students to practice using the words on the AWL can be found at: http://www.englishvocabularyexercises.com/AWL/id17.htm

Conversacolor – Metacognitive Discussion Tool

“Conversacolor1 is a highly structured form of class discussion that is extraordinarily simple in design. Each student is given a set of colored cards with which to ‘play’ during a class discussion. A color is assigned to each kind of statement that migCanadaCollegeLogoht occur in discussion: a statement of a new idea (red), a statement that develops an idea (green), a transition between ideas (orange). When the student raises her hand to speak, she must be holding the ‘correct’ color card for the kind of statement she plans to make. In addition, there is a card (yellow) that allows others to challenge the student’s color choice if it seems her statement does not match the color used, and a special card to request clarification of terms (purple). By insisting that a card accompany each contribution to class discussion, this game encourages students to classify their own statements in relationship with the comments of their peers, and engage in meta-cognitive work on the kind of statement they wish to make. Furthermore, the teacher can relinquish the facilitator role and become a player in the class.

The game begins with someone offering a statement or question to the class on the given topic. That person then calls on the next speaker, with each subsequent speaker called on by the previous. This lack of a single facilitator is important, for each person can thus choose how the discussion will unfold. As I write in the instructions: ‘Want to see your point developed? Choose someone holding a green card; want to have the last word on that idea and move somewhere else? Choose a red card holder.’ The game insists that students take responsibility for the direction of the conversation. However, if a challenge (yellow) or clarification (purple) card is held up, these get priority over all others, with purple getting priority over yellow. If there is a challenge, the class must vote on whether they agree with the challenger, or whether the original speaker used the correct card.”

Conversacolor is a fairly sophisticated level of discussion and students must be supported to execute it in ways that are beneficial to them. However, by participating in this kind of discussion, students are invited to think metacognitively about talk, which can be translated to their writing. This strategy can also provide a class with a “color-coded” language for talking about ways to develop their writing.

1. Excerpted from Scheinberg, Cynthia. “NTLF Vol. 12 No. 6 2003 – Carnegie Chronicle.” NTLF Vol. 12 No. 6 2003 – Carnegie Chronicle. National Teaching and Learning Forum, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

Guide to Critical Thinking

Of course, writing well is closely tied to thinking critically. And critical thinking is specifically named in the Cañada College mission statement. All of us want our students to deepen their critical thinking abilities.

Researchers, Richard Paul & Linda Elder, have developed a text called, “The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools,” which is available in abbreviated form at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/files/Concepts_Tools.pdf.  The entire text is available at on-line books sellers, including Amazon. Paul has also spearheaded a website with other resources regarding Critical Thinking called the Critical Thinking Community; you can find those resources at: http://www.criticalthinking.org//

One page from the “The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking” offers questions for students and instructors to consider.

You might ask these questions of your students or share them with students to guide their reflection about their own and each other’s work.

Could you elaborate further?
Could you give me an example?
Could you illustrate what you mean?

How could we check on that?
How could we find out if that is true?
How could we verify or test that?

Could you be more specific?
Could you give me more details?
Could you be more exact?

How does that relate to the problem?
How does that bear on the question?
How does that help us with the issue?

What factors make this a difficult problem?
What are some of the complexities of this question?
What are some of the difficulties we need to deal with?

Do we need to look at this from another perspective?
Do we need to consider another point of view?
Do we need to look at this in other ways?


Does all this make sense together?
Does your first paragraph fit in with your last?
Does what you say follow from the evidence?

Is this the most important problem to consider?
Is this the central idea to focus on?
Which of these facts are most important?

Do I have any vested interest in this issue?
Am I sympathetically representing the viewpoints of others?

Welcome to 2014!

Welcome to 2014, Cañada Faculty!

I have a collection of resources that I’ve gathered from the Teaching of Composition and the Teaching Post-Secondary Reading certificate programs at San Francisco State. I’ll be sharing material I see as relevant and useful to instructors; I hope you will find some benefit in them.

This Spring 2014 semester, I will be offering Drop-In Writing Tutoring to students in the Learning Center on:

  • Mondays: 9am-12:30pm
  • Tuesdays: 12noon-3pm
  • Wednesdays: 12noon-3pm

Please feel free to direct your students to the Learning Center to see me for writing support.

Thank you and have a great semester!

Julie Wilson, Writing Coordinator

Ideas for Vocabulary Instruction

Source: http://michigan.gov/documents/mde/Science_WAC_2_3_264454_7.pdfCanadaCollegeLogo

Vocabulary Instruction is essential in every content area and can have a significant impact on a student’s comprehension of text. With that, Vocabulary Instruction is something faculty in all fields must think about. When teaching Vocabulary it’s important to keep in mind strategies for success; here are 12 points to consider:

Effective Vocabulary Instruction:
1) Makes connections to students’ lives, studies, and interests.
2) Makes connections/relationships between new words and other words.
3) Involves analysis through comparing and contrasting.
4) Involves categorization and classification.
5) Involves stories about words.
6) Helps students detect meaningful patterns in words.
7) Provides for a degree of personal ownership.
8) Explore old words to new depths.
9) Explores the implied meanings of words and phrases.
10) Is game-like and engaging.
11) Use word knowledge to improve writing.
12) Use word knowledge to construct meaning while reading (comprehension)

One activity faculty can use in teaching vocabulary is to have students create personal dictionaries using graphic organizers. These dictionaries can include:

1) The New Term/Concept

2) A Personal Definition/Description (written in students’ own words)

3) A Representative drawing

– These dictionaries might also include the word’s synonyms and antonyms (showing what the word is and what it is not).

To begin, faculty can use a direct instruction or class discussion model to help students complete their personal dictionary graphic organizers. To benefit from collaborative learning, students might also share their entries with each other to add helpful information they learn from their classmates.

Of course, students must do something with their new vocabulary in order to internalize them. One activity is to have students “interview” words.

Step 1:   Have students imagine that the term/concept is a person that the student is going to interview.

Step 2:  Have students write 2-3 interview question that get at the fundamental traits of the word.

Step 3: Have students answer those questions in a T-chart.

For example:

Term/Concept:  Choloroplast

Questions:  1) What are you?  2) Where do you exist?  3) Why are you needed?

Answers: I am a small structure that is part of a plant cell. I exist in the cytoplasm of that cell and you can find me with a microscope. I look green because I am where light energy is converted into energy that plants use to live.


Vocabulary comprehension is essential to understanding texts and to communicating in ways that are “acceptable” to a community, such as the community of Science Course Students & Teachers. Hopefully, we are all able to help students learn new words and use them in ways that help them to internalize, more than just memorize their meanings.

FQIP: Igniting Metacognitive Reading

SOURCE: http://michigan.gov/documents/mde/ELA_WAC_263481_7.pdf  (Adapted from Reading Apprenticeship, a great curriculum to help secondary and post-secondary students strengthen their reading strategies!)

Focus-Question-Image-Predict (FQIP) is a strategy for helping students be more meta-cognitive about their reading. This is a strategy to use in any class involving reading. Canada_College-seeklogo_com

Steps to using Focus-Question-Image-Predict (FQIP):

1. Provide students with a text (either in small groups or whole class). Invite them to preview the text by writing their answers to the following questions:
• What expectations do you have regarding the reading?
• What predictions do you have about the reading?

2. Have students read individually for 10 minutes. Then, stop them and have them write their answers to the following questions:

• Where are you focusing attention? What are you ignoring?
• Write down the specific questions you are asking yourself.
• List the images or visuals you are forming.
• What predictions do you have about the remainder of the text?
• What role do your mental moves play in understanding the text message?

3. Have students read individually for another 10 minutes. Repeat step 2 having students answer the same questions.

4. Ask students to look for patterns in their reading process and summarize them, sharing their summaries with a partner or in a small group.

5. Have group members categorize the groups responses under the following headings:
• Focus
• Question
• Image
• Predict
6. Have the group explain the strategies for reading the discipline-specific text they read based on the reading patterns found in their group.
7. At the whole class level, record each groups responses into a larger list, identifying the common reading strategies students used to read the discipline-specific text.  The teacher might use the header, “Expert Readers of _________ (ex: Art History Texts)” to validate the class’ strategies and to suggest that different disciplines require different kinds of reading strategies.
8. Have the groups or the class discuss strategies for supporting their own reading and the reading of their classmates.

Optional: Teachers might repeat this with another discipline-specific text to highlight the differences in reading in your content area and other content areas. Students begin to see there are multiple “kinds” of reading and there are discipline-specific values and approaches to knowledge.


As a reading teacher myself, I often experience and hear other teachers challenged by students who struggle for comprehension. Because FQIP is INDUCTIVE rather than DEDUCTIVE, this activity is a good first step in helping students pay attention to their reading and develop strategies they can carry forward in all future reading.

Metaphorical Thinking

Source: http://michigan.gov/documents/mde/Science_WAC_2_3_264454_7.pdf

Metaphorical Thinking is an activity targeted for students in Science courses, but could also be useful for students in Social Sciences and even STEM courses.

The activity challenges students to identify connections between concepts that on the surface appear to be very different. Thinking about similarities between seemingly dissimilar concepts can invite students to think more critically about those concepts and deepen their understanding.

To use Metaphorical Thinking, Teachers should:CanadaCollegeLogo

1. Teach a mini-lesson on what metaphors are so students have background information on which to build.

2. Have students compare two different concepts. One idea is to have students do this in small groups using a graphic organizer. The teacher may consider creating or co-creating the categories of comparison for the graphic organizer with students to guide their comparisons.

3. After collecting their points on the graphic organizer, students can write a summary paragraph describing how the two concepts are similar. They can also include a visual image labeling the parts/similarities between the concepts.

Some examples of comparisons offered are:

How are the parts and functions of a cell similar to the parts and function of a city?

How does it feel to be a polluted river? (a more empathy-focused comparison)

“Mitochondria are like Wheaties because they give the cell energy. Both contain fat and proteins………”


You can imagine how comparing two concepts can also serve as a memory aid for students in advance of quizzes and tests.
Source: http://michigan.gov/documents/mde/Science_WAC_2_3_264454_7.pdf


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