kitchen table math, the sequel: Reform Writing

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reform Writing

I'm a big fan of sentences. When I edit my work, I'm constantly combining and recombining them, altering the order of phrases, or their depth of embedding, to maximize clarity, flow, and efficiency. Following this, almost in lockstep, is clarifying my message. This works in both directions: the more I play around with sentence syntax, the clearer my thoughts become; when I know exactly what I want to say, the ideal sentence structure comes along for the ride.

None of my writing instructors ever focused on sentence-level syntax--except to tell us to "vary our sentence structures." But varying structure for the sake of variation alone does not enhance writing; when you structure each sentence for clarity, flow, and efficiency, you will, willy nilly, vary your sentence structures. My focus on syntax comes not from my English teachers, but from my own personal interest in sentence structure (one that ultimately culminated in a doctorate in linguistics). From a young age, I'd constantly scrutinize the variety of structures that undergird effective prose and try to internalize them so they'd become part of my own syntactic repertoire.

So when Catherine recently sent me an article by Robert J Connors on The Erasure of the Sentence, I was astounded to realize that explicit instruction in sentence syntax had been a staple of composition classes (dating back to classical antiquity) until just a few decades ago.

What happened? Here, in a nutshell, is Connors' thesis:
The usefulness of sentence-based rhetorics was never disproved, but a growing wave of anti-formalism, anti-behaviorism, and anti-empiricism within English-based composition studies after 1980 doomed them to a marginality under which they still exist today. The result of this erasure of sentence pedagogies is a culture of writing instruction that has very little to do with or say about the sentence outside of a purely grammatical discourse.
But first, what are these sentence-based rhetorics that have fallen out of favor?

Recent champions of sentence-based rhetorics include Francis Christensen, whose specialty was "sentence combining." In Connors' words, "Sentence-combining in its simplest form is the process of joining two or more short, simple sentences to make one longer sentence, using embedding, deletion, subordination, and coordination."
According to Christensen, you could be a good writer if you could learn to write a good sentence. His pedagogy consisted of short base-level sentences to which students were asked to attach increasingly sophisticated systems of initial and final modifying clauses and phrases-what he called "free modifiers." Effective use of free modifiers would result in effective "cumulative sentences," and Christensen's most famous observation about teaching the cumulative sentence was that he wanted to push his students "to level after level, not just two or there, but four, five, or six, even more, as far as the students' powers of observation will take them. I want them to become sentence acrobats, to dazzle by their syntactic dexterity."
Another "sentence-based rhetoric" was Edward Corbett's "imitation exercises," which involved the "the emulation of the syntax of good prose models." Students would begin by copying a model sentence word for word. Then came "pattern practice," in which students construct new sentences that parallel the grammatical type, number, and order of phrases and clauses of the model sentence, perhaps with the help of a syntactic description of the model sentence's structure. Students might also perform syntactic transformations (informed by Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar) on the model sentence. In Corbett's words, the aim of such imitation exercises was to "achieve an awareness of the variety of sentence structure of which the English language is capable." Other advocates of imitation exercises noted that student writing "is often stylistically barren because of lack of familiarity with good models of prose style;" the remedy was explicit emulation of good models.

Both Corbett's and Christensen's methods were subject to empirical scrutiny, and studies showed that both methods not only increased the grammatical complexity of student writing, but also improved the overall writing quality (as compared with control groups and as rated by blind raters). In particular, internalizing syntactic structures, even by slavishly copying them, ultimately increased originality and creativity--presumably by giving students a wide repertoire of syntactic tools to choose from and handy ways to play around with them.

But as Connors notes, almost as soon as this sentence-syntax teaching methodology starting showing empirical success, it was shouted down into oblivion by critics who found it philosophically distasteful. After all, these methods involved:

1. textbooks
2. mere exercises, devoid of content and real-world application, with (worse yet!) correct and incorrect answers
3. rote imitation
4. an inorganic, narrow, analytical, reductionist approach that stifles creativity
5. a procedural focus at odds with the authentic writing process in which motivation and communicative intent and self-expression come first and everything else comes along for the ride (including, apparently, grammatically well-formed sentences).

The result of this backlash was that most writing instructors came to believe that "research has shown that sentence combining doesn't work."

Sound familiar?

If not, try substituting "sentence combining" with "traditional math," syntactic transformations with "mere calculation," "imitation exercises" with "drill and kill," and "communicative competence" with "conceptual understanding."

Woops! I thought that by writing about writing I'd be taking a break from math.

(Cross-posted, with a different title, at Out In Left Field)


Catherine Johnson said...

oh my gosh - you've read Connors!

I LOVE Connors' work!

Jean said...

That's really interesting, thank you. It has always seemed to me that the average school instruction in writing is very muddy; children are not taught much in the way of exactly how to do things. Or at least, I wasn't, and I don't see much different now except for an increased emphasis on the all-important 5-paragraph essay.

I think the result is that most of us see writing as a sort of swamp we have to get through--there's no map and it's full of sticky pitfalls you can't see. I was quite surprised when I picked up a high-school level writing textbook based on older rhetorical methods and discovered that there can be a completely different approach.

I have been putting my own (homeschooled) kids through a writing program that uses many of the methods you listed. Every week we take a literary model and imitate it, spending a day each on analysis, word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph structure. I have been really pleased with their progress.

So I suppose I'd better read Connors too!

Katharine Beals said...

Jean, I'd love to hear more about what you're doing and what resources you're using, as I, too, want to cobble together a home writing teaching program for my daughter. I'm on the brink of ordering Hake's Grammar and Writing. Are you familiar with it?

TerriW said...

Jean: Are you using IEW? My kids aren't quite old enough yet to start their sequence (I believe it goes 2nd grade and up), but we'll be there soon. I'm currently reading through Writing With Ease, which we are also considering.

Catherine: Am I remembering right, did you get that Teaching Company lecture series on Sentences? How was that?

Jean said...

I use Classical Writing. They recommend Harvey's Grammar, but I use Rod & Staff, which also works. Can't comment more now, gotta run sorry!

Crimson Wife said...

We are using Don Killgallon's "sentence composing" books, which I first heard about here at KTM (I believe it was Catherine who recommended them). I noticed a huge improvement in my DD's sentence-writing after she finished Story Grammar for Elementary School. This semester, she is working through Grammar for Middle School.

I am also planning on using Harry Noden's Image Grammar next semester.

I have looked at Classical Writing and IEW but they haven't appealed to me very much.

Jean said...

IEW doesn't appeal to me either. I find that with CW, it took a while to wrap my brain around exactly what they're trying to do; I had to read quite a lot of the introductions to the books (online) before I got it.

What I particularly like about CW is that it teaches writing in a very step-by-step way, so that everything is very explicit. It also always asks the student to rewrite some sentences in different ways, which I think is great.

So for example, my 7yo girl is currently given a simple line of dialogue (The mouse said, "Who is to put the bell on the cat?") and asked to rewrite it twice, putting the explanatory words in different places and replacing 'said' with something else. ("Who," demanded the mouse, "is to put the bell on the cat?" + one more.)

My 10yo daughter is given a sample sentence and asked to rewrite it 6 different ways: by finding new synonyms, changing the grammar, expanding, contracting, and producing a sentence that uses the same grammatical structure but has different content. (That's only 5 but I forgot the other one.)

It's heavy on grammar and sentence structure, especially on practicing saying the same thing in several different ways. It's definitely not for everyone but I have really been satisfied with it. I suppose other folks would say that same about IEW.

Catherine Johnson said...

After teaching for a semester at my local college, I have concluded that composition is all about the sentence.

The sentence, if you think about it, is an embryonic composition; having a subject **and** a predicate, a sentence is an argument - or almost.

Love the idea of asking a child to write a sentence in 6 different ways.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think sentence combining would be a good way to learn a foreign language, too -- and I'm pretty sure I saw some research on this somewhere...

Catherine Johnson said...

I would love to read Christensen's rhetoric - but so far haven't tracked down a reasonably-priced edition.