kitchen table math, the sequel: we're starting a copybook

Thursday, July 12, 2007

we're starting a copybook

from: Improving Grammar and Other Writing Skills with Text Reconstruction (TR)
by Myra Linden

A modern version of a proven learning-to-write process, text reconstruction (TR), capitalizes on both language manipulation and "patterns of activity" to teach grammar and other writing skills in the context of connected discourse beyond the single sentence. Thus it is a useful supplement to other methods of teaching grammar. In his autobiography Benjamin Franklin tells how he devised a form of TR to improve his writing skills. As an apprentice in his brother's print shop, he set into print the essays of Addison and Steele. He took notes from the essays by writing several words from each sentence. These he calls "short hints of the sentiment in each sentence." Next he mixed the hints into random order and set them aside.

Several weeks later he tried to arrange the hints into their original order to recreate the logical organization of the essay. He says, "This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts." Then he attempted to write each sentence from just the hints, checking back to the original and noting any deviations, trying to master the vocabulary, sentence structure, and style of the writer (208-209).

A variation of TR is used in the workbook by Arthur Whimbey and Elizabeth Lynn Jenkins, Analyze, Organize, Write. The authors wrote sample papers and then jumbled the sentences within each paragraph. Students number the sentences in what they consider the best order. Then they compare arrangements and discuss differences with other students, pinpointing the information and logic they employ. Finally, they write the sentences in the order numbered.

Here is a short sample TR exercise and the instructions for students:

Instructions: Read all the sentences. Decide which should come first and number it 1. Then decide which should come second and number it 2. Continue numbering the remaining sentences in this way.

_____ Therefore, when nineteen-year-old Michael Grubbs became this year's queen, it shocked no one.

_____ One year its queen was a dog and another year a refrigerator.

_____ Rice University has had some unusual homecoming queens in the past.

_____ So Michael has agreed to give up his title and escort his runner-up, Nancy Jones, to the festivities.

_____ But Cotton Bowl rules prohibit a man from being a princess in the parade.

Check your numbers with a neighbor if possible. Where you disagree, explain to each other why you arranged the sentences as you did.

Next, copy the sentences in the order you numbered them on a separate sheet of paper. Copying sentences can be especially helpful for improving writing skills if done as Ben Franklin did -- from memory. Do not just copy word-by-word. For each sentence, follow these steps:

1. Read as many words as you believe you can write correctly from memory (usually five to ten words).

2. Write those words from memory, including all capitals and punctuation marks.

3. Check back to the original sentence and correct any errors you made.

4. Read the next group of words and repeat the steps.

Generally you will be able to read, memorize, and correctly write between five and ten words. Sometimes you may be able to remember an entire simple sentence correctly. But with a large difficult-to-spell word, you may try to write only that one word correctly from memory.

Writing from memory is a powerful technique for learning the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word patterns used in standard written English (Linden Analytical 2).

As you can see, TR involves analyzing an author's work and copying his or her language to strengthen one's own writing skills. This method was used at the Handy Colony that produced James Jones and other successful authors. Members of the colony were assigned to read and analyze works and then to copy them in order to get the feel of finishing an extended piece of work, to handle transitions from scene to scene, and to learn conciseness. Jones himself said that one can read until his eyes are red but only by copying word for word can a person see how an author builds up his effects (MacShane 117-118).

Copying is a time-honored, recently rediscovered mode of learning. From its use by Renaissance schoolboys like Shakespeare with their copybooks (to record exercises) and commonplace books (to record passages of possible content for their own essays), copying played an important role in the education of many famous authors including Milton, Thomas Jefferson, Jack London, Malcolm X, and Joan Didion.

Well worth the time to read the entire essay, which includes a set of instructions for creating your own text reconstruction exercises at the end.

We're going to do this.

I'm sure C. will be happy when I tell him.

help for the struggling writer
sentence combining exercise
we're starting a copybook
man-eaters of Kumaon - text reconstruction
expert advice on teaching writing from Joanne Jacobs
more from Joanne Jacobs
doctor pion on writing a precis and critical reading
first crack at editing exercise
home writing program in place, for now
why kids should do text reconstruction
results of sentence combining exercise
Arthur Whimbey obit
BGF Performance Systems (carries Whimbey's books)
Tips for Teaching Grammar from the Writing Next Report (pdf file)
Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve the Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools (pdf file)

1 comment:

Catherine Johnson said...

She's left out one step.

After students reconstruct the text, they write their own, original text on the same subject of the paragraph they've reconstructed.

If they reconstructed a paragraph of driving instructions based on a map printed in the book, they then write a paragraph of driving instructions based on the same map but with different start and endpoints.