This website shares what I’ve learned so far about teaching college students to write better sentences.
Why focus on sentences? Students should be able to write acceptable sentences by the time they reach college, shouldn’t they?
George Orwell, Paragon of Clarity
As my wife says, Should shmould. The fact is, many college students write awkward, error-filled sentences. (You’ll find some examples below.) And, though we may wish it were otherwise, errors and awkwardness are the first thing most readers notice. If students don’t learn to write competent sentences, they’ll be handicapped for life—in their college classes, when they apply for jobs, and when they have to write emails or reports at work.
As you may have discovered, though, this is a very hard skill to teach. Grammar lessons alone don’t improve student writing. You can teach all of the key concepts, but if students don’t use them in their own writing, you haven’t accomplished much.
It’s difficult to teach sentence skills, but not impossible. Drawing from the ideas of Jeff Anderson, Doug Lemov, and others, and experimenting with some of my own, I’ve devised a method that has helped my students write more clearly and gracefully. This is a work in progress, but I wanted to share it with instructors seeking new ways to teach these skills more effectively.
If you’ve found effective ways to help students improve their sentences, please share your ideas. Go to the “Other Teaching Strategies” page and post your suggestions. We all thank you!
Q&A, for those who want to know more
What about all the research showing that teaching grammar does little or nothing to improve student writing—that, in fact, it can have an adverse effect?
I’m aware that I’m stepping into a minefield, and contradicting many of my colleagues’ strongly held beliefs. Most research consigns teaching grammar to the category of Harmful, Backward Practices, which also includes bloodletting and lobotomy. But there are different ways to teach students how to handle sentences, and recent research shows that non-traditional approaches can be effective. (See the 2012 paper, “Grammar for Writing: An Investigation of the Effects of Contextualised Grammar Teaching on Students’ Writing,” by Debra Myhill, et al. As the authors observe, “[E]xisting research is limited in that it only considers isolated grammar instruction…” This study investigated, instead, “the impact of contextualized grammar instruction on students’ writing performance,” using what the authors call a “mixed-methods approach.”)
Why devise a new method? Don’t instructors already know how to teach these skills?
Somewhere, perhaps, skillful professors are working miracles, but I haven’t found them. There are some promising approaches, which I’ve drawn from—but I’m not convinced that any of them will transform the writing of students who arrive at college with weak sentence skills.
What results can you show?
Comparing Before and After writing samples from the 2016-17 school year, I found that nearly half (43%) of my students improved a great deal after one semester, and all but an eighth of them improved at least somewhat. I wish I had more dazzling results to show, but this outcome is much better than my students achieved before I adopted this method.
My approach seems most effective with students who take the assignments seriously, and who can tell the difference between a well-written sentence and an awful one. It doesn’t work for those who don’t put in the effort, or whose innate sense of English is so weak that they can’t see anything wrong with a terrible sentence.
Students at different skill levels need different kinds of instruction. I’ve included a list of Recommended books for instructors whose students need either more basic or more sophisticated instruction than this website offers.
Is it possible that you’re holding your students to unrealistically high standards?
Judge for yourself. Here are some sentences written by my past students:
- 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.
- Unity is expected and honored in the eyes of others however the harsh reality of those who experience war on the home and war front is ignored.
- Also being only book smart is not very great in your personal life. The fact that you won’t think outside the box just because it’s not require kinda.
- It started off very in directive and ended in a ponderous of what Sammy was going to do now that he has no job.
- Famous authors such as Walt Whitman and Percy Byshee Shelley write poems because it tells a message.
- And for you to strive and impact the community at large you need to appeal to what others can relate to, and that’s your where you are in life and how many people depend on you so they can live happily another day.
- Of those young people, they come off as blunt when they are really trying to be passionately aggressive or come off as exquisite when they are trying to be passionately compulsive.
For some of these students, English is a second language. Others may have undiagnosed learning disabilities: some have told me that they’ve always hated reading and writing. Many of them can see there’s something wrong with a contorted sentence once I point it out; but others can’t.
The challenge, in other words, is complex. (I wanted to say overwhelming, but I’m trying to encourage you.)
How can I teach sentence skills when I’m already teaching students to develop a thesis and supporting arguments, to organize their ideas in paragraphs, and to read beyond the surface of a text?
It’s not easy, but it can be done. At the university where I teach, a semester of freshman writing classes consists of 28 sessions, each one 75 minutes long. The program has rigorous requirements, and there isn’t much time left over for sentence skills. But even a limited amount of instruction (15 to 20 minutes per class) has yielded valuable results.
To fit everything in, I follow a basic lesson plan that blends discussion, writing, instruction in sentence skills, and lessons in essay-writing skills. (See “A basic plan for every class,” here.) It’s not easy to squeeze all of this in—something usually gets bumped to the next class—but eventually, we cover the concepts they need to learn.
I don’t believe you can teach students to improve their sentences, explore new ideas, and express themselves in an orderly way, all at the same time. Aren’t you setting them up to fail, due to cognitive overload?
I don’t think so, but it’s a legitimate concern. I wish we could give students a separate workshop aimed solely at improving their sentence skills. Since that’s not an option for most of us, we have to carefully balance our instruction, encourage them constantly, and not demand more than they’re capable of delivering.
Some of my students already write solid prose and make very few grammar mistakes. If I devote a quarter of each class to sentence skills, won’t I be wasting their time? Won’t they feel that the class is beneath them?
Even the best of my writers have benefited considerably from the lessons on style. In fact, they’re usually the ones who benefit the most. As for grammar, I explain to each class that some students learned these things long ago, while others never learned them at all. I ask those who already know the material to be patient, and to use the lessons as a brush-up. Many have commented at the end of the semester that reviewing the basics helped.
I worry about turning students off to writing by focusing on grammar. Isn’t that a danger?
Learning these concepts doesn’t have to induce misery. I try to make the lessons brief and entertaining; then I ask students to use the new skills in writing of their own. They project sample sentences on the screen (anonymously, if they wish) and see what others have done. Many students have told me they appreciated these lessons, because they recognized the gaps in their knowledge. They’ve also said they enjoyed seeing their classmates’ work, and learned from it.
I’ve looked over your website, and this just seems like too much work. Response?
Few instructors will want to adopt my method in its entirety. I realize that. But I believe students can benefit from any of the activities I recommend, in any combination. Choose the ones that seem most promising to you. No one says you have to do it all.
Are you open to suggestions?
Yes! I consider the approach described here a rough draft. If you’re a college writing instructor and you’ve seen significant improvement in your students’ sentences over the course of a semester, I invite you to visit the Other teaching strategies page and share your most successful methods. I hope this site will eventually serve as a clearinghouse for effective teaching ideas.