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An Argument for Helping College Students Write Better Sentences

This post was written by NCTE member Michael Laser. 

 

What do you think of these sentences?

  • A large part of him quitting was to try and impress Queenie and the girls.
  • Life for the woman in 1894, when this story was written, was nothing desirable.

Now look at these revised versions. How do they compare?

  • Sammy had complex reasons for quitting. One important motive was his desire to impress Queenie and her friends.
  • Life for women in 1894, when this story was written, was full of limitations and frustrations.

This is how I introduce my students to the idea that some sentences are awkward and others are graceful and clear. (The original versions come from student essays on John Updike’s “A & P” and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”; the revisions include information that wasn’t present in the originals, but I tell my students that it’s important to explain what you mean, patiently and fully.)

Some background:

When I started teaching freshman composition in 2014, I expected that my students would absorb everything I taught them and finish the semester as capable stylists. When that didn’t happen, I went searching for mentors: instructors who had figured out how to help weak writers learn to compose competent sentences. I found many good ideas, but no magic bullets.

Since then, I’ve been experimenting with different strategies, and have put together a method that helps most of my students write more clearly and gracefully. (I describe the method on my website, collegewritingclinic.com, and in detail in my book, The College Writing Clinic.)

 

Here’s a brief summary of my approach:

  • First, motivate students. Show them why they should care—because you can’t write skillfully if you don’t care enough to work at it.
  • Teach them to see that some sentences have problems, by showing them Before and After examples like the ones above.
  • Teach a few strategies for improving problem sentences, and some simple ways to write more clearly and gracefully. (I keep an ever-growing collection of awkward sentences by former students, with names removed, to give current students editing practice. You can see examples at the bottom of this page.)
  • Explain the most common mistakes in grammar and punctuation, and train students to avoid making these mistakes.
  • Have them practice each new skill as they learn it: writing sentences that use the concept, in class and for homework.

 

And here’s how I integrate these lessons into a typical class session:

  • We discuss the text they read for homework.
  • The students write for five minutes in response to a question about the text. (This frequent, low-stakes practice trains them to write without paralyzing anxiety.)
  • I teach a lesson on a sentence skill, such as subject-verb agreement, deleting unnecessary words, or where to place commas.
  • I ask them to express the main idea of their in-class writing in one polished, grammatically correct sentence. (This activity, recommended by Doug Lemov in his books Teach Like a Champion and Reading Reconsidered, forces students to pay close attention to their word choice and syntax. Revising a whole essay can intimidate and overwhelm struggling students, but here I’m only asking them to create and improve a single sentence.)
  • Once they’re satisfied with their sentences, students post them on Padlet, a website that lets the whole class see what each student has written (anonymously, if they prefer). I point out sentences that I think are especially good, and explain why.

I also teach a lesson on a key essay-writing skill in every class—for example, refining a thesis, or addressing opposing arguments.

(To give credit where credit is due: most of my teaching strategies come from books written for K–12 teachers. Jeff Anderson, Doug Lemov, and Kelly Gallagher were important sources of ideas.)

I’m aware that most specialists in college composition/rhetoric consider a focus on sentence-level problems misguided, or even destructive. Abundant research shows that isolated grammar lessons accomplish little, and can have a negative effect; but more recent research indicates that creative, complex approaches can improve the quality of student writing. (See Myhill, Jones, and Bailey, “Grammar for Writing?”)

 

Helping students write better sentences doesn’t have to preempt critical thinking. We really should be teaching both.

 

 

Michael Laser is a novelist and writing instructor. His most recent novel is My Impending Death. To learn more about his teaching strategies, visit collegewritingclinic.com. The College Writing Clinic (available on Amazon in print and digital formats) also includes lesson plans and handouts.