kitchen table math, the sequel: punctuating by breath

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

punctuating by breath

from Sentence Diagramming: A Step-by-Step Approach to Learning Grammar Through Diagramming:
Before the 1960s, grammar and punctuation were taught as foundation blocks for writing instruction. In the 1960s, some research questioned the value of teaching grammar, and new ways of teaching grammar cast doubt on the traditional methods. In the midst of all this change, the baby was thrown out with the bath water where grammar was concerned, and when the 1970s rolled around, a new generation of teachers had not been trained to teach grammar and punctuation.

I am a member of that new generation of teachers, and a product of a writing education with little structured or sustained lessons in grammar. Thankfully, one of my teachers believed in teaching grammar and punctuation through sentence diagramming. Before this instruction, I lacked confidence in my writing because I didn't know for sure if my sentences were really sentences.

I can still remember the great "aha!" feeling I had when I realized that I could analyze a sentence without the teacher's assistance--I could mentally diagram the sentence to determine if it was grammatically correct. What a sense of power that gave me!

Marye Hefty
I find this remarkable.

Mary Hefty earned a Masters degree in English and then worked as an editor in a research laboratory, but as a child (or teen?) she could not tell whether she had or had not written a sentence.


She goes on:
When I left the research laboratory to become a college professor, teaching English composition and technical writing, I noticed during the first term that many of my students' papers were riddled with grammar and punctuation errors. I didn't know how to add the necessary instruction in grammar and punctuation skills to our limited class time without letting it take over the class like a weed. Typically, I tried a band-aid approach to teaching grammar and punctuation. When I saw sentence fragments in the students' papers, I talked about sentence fragments. When I saw comma splices, I talked about those. It didn't take long to realize that many of my students didn't recognize a sentence, so they couldn't solve the sentence problems. My students were just like I had been--needing structure and an organized way to learn grammar and punctuation without having the approach overwhelm them or make it difficult for them to learn the writing process in class.

In several classes, I decided to discard the band-aid approach and devote 10 percent of the class time to teaching the students grammar and punctuation, starting with the basics--What is a simple sentence? How do you diagram it? And guess what? It worked.

I've been teaching sentence diagramming in some of my courses for eight years now, and the students who begin my classes not being able to identify or define a simple sentence leave the class with the vocabulary and knowledge to identify simple, compound, and complex sentences; fragments; run-ons; and comma splices. Most importantly, the students have a foundation that enables them to learn more--without my help--after they leave the class.

Surprisingly, my university students don't mind having to learn grammar and punctuation through sentence diagramming because this approach quickly gives them the skills and confidence to fix the problems in their papers on their own. I have heard enough anecdotal evidence from my students to know that sentence diagramming works. For example, one of my former students told me that she was asked to edit letters for her boss. She said that before taking my class, she just put in the commas in where she thought she heard a pause and just guessed that the sentences were correct. "Now I know for sure, and I can really help," she said.
A lot of my students -- these are college freshmen -- "punctuate by breath."

Punctuating by breath is OK as far as it goes, I think. Now that I'm learning the formal rules of punctuation, I realize I've been breaking some of those rules for decades. I've been breaking the rules because a) I didn't know them, so b) I've been punctuating by breath.

Having thought it over, I've decided to carry on punctuating by breath when the occasion calls for it. If I want or don't want a comma somewhere,  then a comma there will or will not be. I'm the decider.

Still and all, the reason this works for me is that I have never, ever, in my entire adult life, failed to recognize a complete sentence. Nor have I failed to write a complete sentence if that's what I wanted to write.

I have come to the realization that a course about writing is a course about sentences.

Sentence Diagramming: A Step-by-Step Approach to Learning Grammar Through Diagramming


Crimson Wife said...

Thank you so much for letting me know about Don Killgallon's "sentence composing" materials- they've been incredible helpful to me in teaching applied grammar/sentence writing in our homeschool. One more reason KTM rocks! :-)

ChemProf said...

I have to say that the way writing is taught in school now, even more than the math curriculum, is pushing me to consider homeschooling my daughter. Both her dad and I were iffy spellers, and in the free-for-all of writing workshop I don't know that she'll learn anything. I see this in my college students -- they are slow, their handwriting still looks like they are in the sixth grade, and (as you say) they aren't really sure when they have a sentence. Plus, they've done so much navel gazing that when I ask freshmen to write a conclusion paragraph for a lab report, they are likely to tell me what they liked about the lab rather than what they observed.

I am increasingly in favor of teaching skills in isolation, especially initially, and I think real grammar instruction is critical to learn to write well (and efficiently).

Songstress said...

I am reminded by your post title of the famous and hilarious Victor Borge routine where he illustrated his "phonetic punctuation" technique:

I first heard this routine as a child, when I was learning punctuation. I have to admit, I sometimes still hear his voice in my ear when I am writing. Perhaps making punctuation more entertaining for students would bring it alive for them. Comma placement does seem capricious at times to me, and most certainly open to interpretation. On the other hand, I see a lot of high school students write run-on sentences, use too many commas, and weirdly place clauses.

Sometimes the "formal rules" didn't seem to make as much sense for me when I read out loud, but at least Victor Borge made it fun.

MagisterGreen said...

As a Latin teacher, I use diagramming more and more with the kids and I'm always amazed at how they respond. At first they often are put off by the complexity of it, although that has more to do with the nature of Latin than anything else, but once they see what it allows them to do they rave about it. Often they'll ask to do more than I had planned to.

The single biggest thing I notice when using it is how utterly incapable students are today at distinguishing between complex and run-on sentences. They think that a run-on is defined merely by its length; I'll show them bits of speeches George Washington gave and they're aghast at first. But once we diagram a bit of it they see the coordination and subordination of the various thoughts and it starts to sink in that long =/= run-on.

Thanks for the book recommendation...I'm always on the hunt for something else to add to the reading pile.

K9Sasha said...

The book, The Grammar of English Grammars by Goold Brown is available free online by Project Gutenberg. I'm not sure what's in it, but I heard about it at the International Dyslexia Association conference I just attended.