Reflections of an English Tutor: 3 Ways to Do Better in English

As an English student, I spend a lot of time defending my choice to study it. I’ve been considered strange for as long as I can remember; first because I loved reading and did it every chance I got. Then it was because I not only loved, but did well in English class. It didn’t end in high school either – after all you have to take it then. When I would tell people that I willingly chose to prolong the torture for what started out as 4 but turned into 5 years, well, people just could not understand why anyone would ever want to do that.

That being said, I understand that not everyone will feel enthusiastic about English. It definitely requires a certain kind of mind, one with a high verbal intelligence, not to mention a passion for language. And I respect that: after all, I’m not one for physics and I certainly don’t want people berating me for that. My counter argument, however, is that something like physics is highly respected and valourized in North American society, where as English, in general, is not. It needs a stronger defence, and the one I will mount here is that there is a reason you have to take it all four years of high school.

As someone who, on occasion, moonlights as an English tutor, I have seen first hand the disadvantages that come from not taking English as a discipline seriously. So, I’d like to share with you all the most common problems I see in high school students, and easy ways to fix them. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn something new. I would consider that a good day’s work for me.

1. Reading comprehension

Out of all the issues I help my pupils with, this is the one that alarms me the most. Reading is a crucial foundation, not only for writing, but for interacting with the world. Western society puts a huge emphasis on the written word, and you’re seriously short-changing yourself if you only ever understand the bare minimum of the things you read.

Admittedly, I must include a disclaimer before I go any further: as a final year Bachelor of Arts student, I can boast a high level of reading comprehension (I muddled through a first year philosophy class after all, and believe me, EVERYTHING seems much more understandable after THAT), and this could bias my judgment of how much high school kids should be understanding at their age. But even factoring that in, I’m still surprised at how little some kids I’ve tutored seem to understand from the things they read. It’s partly a problem of a too-small vocabulary, and partly one of passive reading. I’ve found myself having to explain common enough words like “embedded,” or explaining simple and clearly written short pieces assigned in class.

The solution to this is simple. I’d like to be able to say “just read more!” but I know from experience that I am a rare breed of creature that way. So, especially if you don’t like to read, be a more engaged reader. It’s been my experience that people don’t put in the effort here. They read things, especially in English class, just to get the homework checks, or get through an article, chapter, assignment, etc. But you might be surprised at how much your mind expands when you stop reading passively, letting the words flow over and past you, and start paying attention to the subtle things. Locate the main point of what you read, because the majority of what you read is trying to tell you something – even fiction. The majority of the time, the authors won’t spell it out for you, and this subtlety is part of what makes good writing. Pay attention to organization: how does the author organize his or her thoughts? Is there a pattern to the way their argument or story unfolds? If they’re trying to be persuasive, do they succeed or fail? Why? Once you understand the reasons behind the madness, English becomes a lot more intuitive and easier. And, if you’re lucky, it suddenly seems a lot less useless.

2. Writing

Good writing is something of an elusive thing these days. It is definitely a big problem with younger generations (I’m constantly reading about Baby Boomers complaining about the terrible writing skills my generation has), but it is certainly not limited to them. Plenty of older people thriving out there in the big bad world haven’t mastered this essential skill either. The problem? I have a theory: these days not enough distinction is drawn between speaking and writing, especially with the rise of the Internet and social media. In a lot of ways, the virtual world of the world wide web has turned writing into an extension of our thoughts. This is problematic because writing is a much more formal and structured act than either thinking or speaking. Both are spontaneous and happen in real time. We can’t backtrack and erase the things we’ve already said or thought – we can only add amendments. Writing is drastically different because it allows for editing. And because it affords us this ability, there are higher expectations of it.

So many people, even past high school, write like they talk. This results in a stream of consciousness* effect that comes at the cost of clarity. Unless you are a modernist novelist* who wants to push the envelope of writing as an art, and want to explore the complicated and abstract relationship between thoughts, language, and actions, you are safest staying FAR AWAY from that. Writing the same way you talk results in run-on sentences, an absence of punctuation, and incorrect sentence structure. These are the easiest ways to not only lose marks but, more grievously, confuse your reader. People, especially young English students, forget far too easily that you will not be present (most of the time) to explain to your reader what you meant. And if you must orally explain it for it to make sense, I would argue that your writing has failed.

*see links below

3. Planning Before Writing

I find this is often one of the most overlooked parts of the writing process. It is one of the most important. I used to sit down and just start writing, organizing my thoughts as I went. Some time around grade ten or eleven I realized this was the wrong way to go about it. I want to emphasize this – IT DOES NOT WORK. It’s a slight variation on the maxim, “think before you speak.” I urge you to likewise think before you write. You’d be surprised at how quickly your ideas either grind to a halt or devolve into confusing rambling if you don’t take a few minutes to clarify what it is you want to write, and how you want to write it. Outlines are like blueprints – they will make your writing clearer and stronger, and help you find your way back if you get lost. They can become your best friends when you’re in the thick of the dark, dreaded woods of essay writing. Outlines are especially handy for any kind of academic writing.

There are more issues I could add to this (effective writing, editing, reading more, reading introductions and background material, etc.), but I think those are the most pressing issues and this is not meant to turn into a lecture. I can let all the disgruntled and under-appreciated English teachers out there do that for me, haha. Tune in next week when I will attempt to tackle what could be a provocative issue – Why We Should Teach More Rhetoric.

Until then, for you fellow intellectually curious souls out there, I will leave you with some related and interesting topics to delve into:

Stream of consciousness (feature of modern literature): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stream_of_consciousness_(narrative_mode)

Metafiction (feature of postmodern literature): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metafiction

Since I mentioned the relationship between language, thoughts, and action, I will also include this fascinating bit of psychology/anthropology/linguistics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity

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