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How My Students Learned to Marry Form and Content

I teach a group of homeschooled 12th graders. This is my second year teaching them, having followed them from 11th to 12th grade. I introduced them to The Lost Tools of Writing Level 1 at the beginning of the 11th grade and we’ve continued the lessons into this second year.

I have often encouraged them to implement what they have learned in LTW to their papers and speeches, but have never required it. When it came to stuff like impromptu speeches, they tended to be more willing to use LTW forms. But when it came to stuff like papers and prepared speeches, they were less willing. It seems that their lack of confidence in good content caused them to lean more heavily on LTW forms, hence its usage in impromptu speeches. Where they were more confident in their content, they felt free to not use LTW forms.

Until last week, that is. For some reason, every single one of the students implemented most or all of the LTW arrangement elements into their speeches: exordium, narratio, division, refutation, and amplification. What happened next was a great encouragement to me. Every single one of them received feedback and assessment from each of their peers. Without fail, those who used more elements (especially more than they normally had) were told this was the best speech they’d given all year.

There was one criticism several of them received, however. Several of the students included all of the arrangement elements except for the statements, “The first reason X should have Y is…” and “The second reason…” and so on. Each of the students were told that while this was the best speech they had given all year, it was still a little confusing to follow.

The discussion that ensued bore much fruit. The speakers felt like including those lines sounded clunky and pedantic. What they realized because of the honesty of the peers’ feedback was that while it may feel that way to them, it provides much needed signposts to communicate to their listeners where they are in the speech. This is especially true if the listener tunes out for a moment. Letting your audience know where you are and when you’ve moved on to the next point not only helps them to remain attentive, but also helps them to catalogue and file the information you’ve given them.

Whereas the students had previously thought the quality of their content was enough to give an interesting and awe-inspiring speech, not to mention a captivating one, they now realized they needed more. They needed the forms LTW taught them to communicate that quality content in a way that would be memorable and sensible to the mind receiving it. I have a feeling this lesson is going to lead to a marriage of form and content that will never be divorced again.

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