Michael Laser writes novels for adults and younger readers, and teaches at a state university in New Jersey. He recently wrote to reflect on the low state of writing skills among his students… and to ask what to do about it. He’s identified an issue that’s critical to me and my team: the weakness at the fundamental building-block of sentence formation.
A friend of my wife’s teaches psychology at a nearby college. She once commented, “My students can’t write. They’re all required to take a year of freshman writing—but I don’t know what goes on in those classes.”
Two years ago, I landed a job at the same college, teaching freshman writing. I’m a novelist, and have taught creative writing to adolescents and college students, but I had never taught expository writing before. Remembering that professor’s remark, I prepared diligently.
What I found in the first batch of homework upended my plans. In the three semesters I’ve taught so far, I’ve had only four students who could consistently write competent sentences. Most of the others had good ideas, but their written English ranged from mildly awkward to barely comprehensible. (My first semester’s classes were remedial, I should point out.) And though it hurts to admit this, very few of my students improved significantly—at the sentence level, at least—by the time they handed in their final essays.
You may assume I’m an incompetent novice. That would explain my students’ slow progress—but it doesn’t account for all the students who have completed other freshman writing classes and gone on to frustrate and dismay their professors. Or, you may consider me foolish for expecting my students to learn in one semester what they failed to learn in the previous 12 years. That’s a fair criticism; but I don’t think it’s right to throw up my hands and give up. A writing instructor should be able to teach college students to write better sentences than these:
Because now in today’s age if it were opposite and it was a group of males in a store shirtless and a male manager walked in he would 9 out of 10 times ignore it and say that they weren’t doing anything stupid or unnecessary, holding women to a different standard.
The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones.
The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
I could supply hundreds of similar examples.
I’m not writing this simply to call attention to the problem: I want to ask for help from experienced teachers. Before I explain, though, I’d like to give you more background.
The focus of the freshman writing program at my college is on essay skills (developing a thesis and supporting arguments, for example) rather than sentence-level skills. It’s my understanding that most colleges have a similar orientation. I agree that college students need to learn these skills, but we’re dodging our responsibility if we ignore the fact that many students arrive without basic writing skills, and hope they’ll improve simply by writing essays. No matter how well we teach them to craft an argument, these clumsy sentences will hurt their future grades, and their success at work.
Here’s where it gets complicated. Teaching students to write competent sentences is harder than it sounds. I asked other instructors for advice, and the most common suggestion was to teach mini-lessons, as needed. They warned me, though, not to expect dramatic progress. My experience confirmed what they said: very few of my students managed to apply what they learned in these mini-lessons to their own writing.
I’ve read books and articles on integrating grammar instruction into a writing curriculum, and have adapted the strategies that seemed most promising. I’ve also invented lessons of my own, including “Recognizing Awkward Sentences” and “Improving Awkward Sentences.” But even students who seemed to get the idea when we practiced usually forgot the lessons when they wrote their essays.
Experts in writing instruction say that errors and awkward passages often occur when students reach for new complexity of thought, or strive for sophistication. It’s an ongoing process: the further they reach, the more mistakes they make. We should encourage their brave attempts, not police their grammar, these experts say. It helps to understand this. But I know from my own experience that polished writing is exactly that: writing that has been polished. I expect awkwardness in a first draft, in student writing and in my own; but I know that I can clear up most of the problems by going back and revising. That’s the skill I’ve tried to teach my students. So far, I haven’t found a way that works.
Frustration has led me to rethink my search. Instead of trying one teaching strategy after another, I want to find teachers who have gotten better results and ask how they did it.
Research has identified effective general strategies for writing instruction. I’m after something more specific, though: lessons that will help students who write complex, misshapen sentences, or who can’t seem to master the basic rules of grammar.
What this problem really calls for is a nationwide search for teaching methods that have significantly improved the writing of struggling students. Until that happens, though, we may be able to collect some valuable ideas right here.
English teachers: have your students’ grammar and style improved noticeably between September and June? If so, please share some of your sentence-focused methods in the Comments section below. Or, if you know other teachers who have accomplished what I’m trying to do, please encourage them to respond.
The more specifics you can provide, the better. For example, teaching revision strategies is considered an effective way to improve student writing—but which revision strategies do you teach? And how do you deliver the lessons so that students actually use the strategies when they write?
Skeptics will say I’m searching for something that doesn’t exist—that, for students who have gone through twelve years of school without learning to write a solid sentence, no one-semester intervention will get the job done—or, that what’s really needed is a rethinking of how we teach writing in K-12 classrooms. Both objections ring true; but I remain optimistic that a few master teachers are already delivering the skills I want to teach my students. I hope they’ll share their methods here.
Note: When I first wrote to Doug to ask for help and advice, he suggested I look at a strategy he calls, “The Art of the Sentence,” which he describes in Teach Like a Champion 2.0. This activity asks students to summarize a reading (or express an idea the class has been discussing) in one well-crafted sentence… and then to revise and improve it. I plan to try this next semester, every time my classes meet. I know that my students have been overwhelmed by the prospect of revising an entire essay; I hope that practicing in a more limited, focused way will make a difference.
Another Note: Many writing specialists believe that an emphasis on correctness crushes confidence, stifles creativity, and produces less capable writers. For decades, they have sought to engage students by assigning topics that matter to the writers, encouraging students to flesh out early drafts with more detail, and overlooking most errors. They have worked to overturn students’ belief that I can’t write—a belief that results from finding their best efforts bloodied with red marks, repeatedly. These insights are important. Still, it seems to me that, in the reaction against oppressive teaching methods, basic skills have been lost. If students graduate and go on to write emails, letters, and reports that are as awkward and error-filled as the papers they’ve written in my class, they’ll be judged harshly. As Linda Christensen wrote in her article “The Politics of Correction”: “Failing to learn these skills handcuffs students. Their lack of fluency with the language of power will follow them like the stench of poverty long after students leave school…”
I don’t want to throw out the more progressive traditions in writing instruction. As a teacher, I prize my students’ insights, and want to encourage their thinking and exploration. The challenge is to build confidence and engagement at the same time that we teach students to write graceful, grammatically correct sentences. If you’ve accomplished that, please take the time to explain how.
One last thought. I wish I could convince Doug to compile a new book: Teach Writing Like a Champion. Perhaps your contributions will become the first draft.
To learn more about Michael Laser visit michaellaser.com.