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08.20.18Teaching College Students to Improve Awkward Sentences: A Guest Post From Michael Laser

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Some of my readers will remember Michael Laser.  He wrote a guest blog here a few years ago about the issue of chronically poor student writing at the college level.  He’s been working on a system to develop and improve his students’ writing and–music to our ears–he’s focused on the foundational skill of sentence craft. He describes his approach in this post.  I’m sure it will be useful to all teachers who face similar challenges with student writing- at whatever level.

I teach freshman writing classes. Nearly every essay and homework assignment I read includes at least a few painfully awkward sentences; some students write little else. But they have no idea there’s anything wrong with these sentences. This isn’t an issue they’ve ever paid attention to.

Many writing teachers believe that students learn to write competent sentences intuitively, as they absorb the sound and structures of English through their reading—and that trying to teach the skill explicitly is misguided. I agree that it works this way for some students, especially those who love to read. But many others arrive at college with very weak sentence skills. I consider it my responsibility to help them learn to write more capably.

Two years ago, Doug shared an essay in which I solicited readers’ suggestions for teaching my students to write graceful, grammatically correct sentences.

I’d like to tell you that, as a result of that post, I can now describe an effective way to turn struggling writers into sophisticated stylists, but it’s not that easy.

What I can share is a method I’ve devised that draws on ideas from many sources. A central element is the activity Doug calls the “Art of the Sentence”: after students write an in-class response to a question about our reading, I ask them to express the main idea of that response (or the most interesting idea) in one carefully crafted sentence.

This has become one of my favorite teaching tools. Revising a whole essay can overwhelm students, but polishing a single sentence is a more manageable task.

Manageable doesn’t mean easy, however. Before they can skillfully revise their own work, they need to learn to see the difference between an awkward, unclear sentence and a well-written one.

Here’s how I help them do that:

In the first class meeting of the semester, I project a few problem-filled sentences on a screen and ask students what they think of them. Recently I’ve been using the following sentences, which come from essays by past students:

  • The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
  • A large part of him quitting was to try and impress Queenie and the girls.
  • He calls the customers “sheep” by the way they are all the same.
  • Life for the woman in 1894, when this story was written, was nothing desirable.

 

Only a few students in each class can see that these sentences are badly written. After a brave volunteer has offered a critique, I show the class polished versions of the same sentences, so they can compare. (You’ll notice that some of the revised sentences include more information than the originals. That’s because student writers often leave out details the reader needs. “Slow down,” I tell them. “Take your time, and make sure you’ve said everything you need to say.”)

  • The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
  • In Nora and Torvald’s household, the husband controls the money and the wife must please him in order to get the cash she needs. The way they handle money shows that their supposedly happy marriage is really very troubled.

 

  • A large part of him quitting was to try and impress Queenie and the girls.
  • Sammy had complex reasons for quitting. One important motive was his desire to impress Queenie and her friends.

 

  • He calls the customers “sheep” by the way they are all the same.
  • He calls the customers “sheep” because he thinks they all act the same way.

 

  • Life for the woman in 1894, when this story was written, was nothing desirable.
  • Life for women in 1894, when this story was written, was full of limitations and frustrations.

 

As they read the paired sentences, I see the light of understanding go on in many eyes. Possibly for the first time, they have recognized the difference between careless, clumsy writing and writing that’s clear and competent.

Throughout the semester, as I teach different skills, I show students contrasting sentences: some in which the skill is used well, and others in which it’s not used at all.

For example, when I urge them to delete words that aren’t adding to their meaning, I start with this sentence:

  • By any measure, Anne Bradstreet was a great, outstanding American poet, and she was also an extremely admirable person, in my opinion.

After editing, the sentence looks like this:

  •  Anne Bradstreet was a great American poet and an admirable person.

 

The revised version is more direct and has more energy than the original, and it’s a sentence any of them could have written.

In every essay and homework assignment students hand me, I put brackets around the most problematic sentences and phrases, and ask them to try to improve those parts. By the end of the semester, many of them begin to spot the problems on their own.

To help them find the awkward places in their own work, I offer them two suggestions you’re probably already familiar with:

  1. Finish your drafts early and let them sit for a day or more. Seeing your work with fresh eyes always helps.
  2. Read your own work out loud—or, even better, have a friend read it to you—because the ear is often a better judge than the eye.

 

I also teach my students a few simple ways to improve awkward sentences.

First I show them how I do this myself. Working step by step, I delete some words and replace others. Here’s a sentence taken from a student’s homework response:

  • After reading, there are a few reasons apparent that could also be the reason as to why Sammy really quit his job at A & P.

And here’s the edited version:

  • There are a few different reasons why Sammy quit his job at A & P. 

 

(If you’re curious, you can see the steps in the editing process here.)

When it’s time to revise a sentence on their own, I offer students a simple approach. First, they have to decide which of three categories the sentence falls into:

  • Sentences that include awkward phrases or other minor problems. (These sentences can be repaired by focusing on the trouble-spots.)
  • Sentences that are too long and need to be broken into two or more shorter sentences.
  • Sentences that are so tangled, the easiest solution is to start over.

 

I start with obvious problems—one word that’s glaringly wrong, or a sentence that goes on, confusingly, for five or more lines. Once they determine which sort of issue they’re dealing with, they begin the work of revision.

Before I send them off to do this on their own, I lead them in a group editing session. The class suggests changes to a sentence I project on the screen; I make the changes they suggest, and we compare the revised sentence with the original.

Then it’s time for them to work individually. Once they’ve made their revisions, I ask them to post the sentences on Padlet, a website that displays the work of many contributors on one page. I project the page at the front of the room so they can see what their classmates have done. (I offer them a choice: put their initials on their work, or choose a wacky nickname if they prefer anonymity. Either way, I can quickly point out effective solutions, or else suggest tweaks.)

I don’t point out most grammar mistakes, especially those made by the weaker writers. But if someone has written a sentence that’s excellent except for a small flaw, I’ll say exactly that. As much as possible, I try to make sentence revision relaxed and playful, not grim and threatening. Based on their anonymous evaluations, I don’t think anyone finds this approach distressing or hurtful.

We practice editing this way several times over the course of the semester. Almost everyone gets better at it; some make astonishing progress.

You can read complete lesson plans for Recognizing Awkward Sentences, Improving Awkward Sentences, and other topics at collegewritingclinic.com. (If you visit the page on Improving Awkward Sentences, you’ll find a collection of sentences written by college students, which you can use for editing practice.) I’ve also described my method in detail in a book, The College Writing Clinic, which includes lesson plans and handouts for every skill I teach. I hope you’ll take a look, and that these ideas will help your students become more capable writers.

Note: If you’ve found effective ways to teach your students to write better sentences, please consider sharing them on collegewritingclinic.com. (See the the Other Teaching Strategies page.)

 

Michael Laser writes novels for adults and younger readers, and teaches at a state university in New Jersey. His book, The College Writing Clinic, is available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. To learn more about Michael’s novels, visit michaellaser.com.

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2 Responses to “Teaching College Students to Improve Awkward Sentences: A Guest Post From Michael Laser”

  1. Mike G
    September 12, 2018 at 5:04 am

    Great post.

    Holy cow, I wish I had this in 1998 when I taught freshman writing at LIU in Brooklyn.

  2. Leslie Diaz-Burns
    September 13, 2018 at 3:25 pm

    I’m definitely going to use this when it comes time for my Freshman to revise their essays. Thank you for the post!

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