These books supplied the strategies that became the core of my teaching method. Each one offers far more ideas than I mention here. I recommend them all.
Further down, you’ll find recommended books that take different approaches, which may help if your students need either more basic or more advanced instruction.
- Jeff Anderson, Mechanically Inclined and Everyday Editing
Anderson teaches middle school. The key to his method is mentor sentences: showing students examples of great writing that illustrate the skills he wants them to learn. To teach editing, he involves students in conversations about what works well in a given passage and what doesn’t. He tinkers with sentences in front of them—moving things around, substituting a phrase or word—and asks which version they prefer. The whole class works together, talking the problems through. He believes that students learn more from positive reinforcement than from error correction.
Where I’ve veered away from Anderson’s methods—for example, showing my classes more “problem sentences” than inspiring examples—it’s because I’m the last English teacher most of my students will ever have. I practice a form of emergency medicine: showing them how to cure their writing of the most common errors rather than challenging them to reach for loftier, more imaginative language. For college freshmen who still struggle to write and who won’t be receiving further writing instruction, this seems a reasonable choice.
- Doug Lemov, Reading Reconsidered and Teach Like a Champion 2.0
These books are aimed at K-12 teachers, but they included one of the most useful teaching techniques I’ve come across: the Art of the Sentence, in which students are asked to take a complex idea and express it in one carefully crafted sentence. I build this into every lesson plan, because it’s the best way I’ve found to let students practice polishing their writing. Lemov’s books also include dozens of other teaching strategies I’ve used with my classes.
- Kelly Gallagher, Write Like This
Many of Gallagher’s teaching ideas parallel Anderson’s. He uses mentor sentences to teach skills, and limits himself to teaching one key skill per week, which his students practice every day. Students analyze these mentor sentences, then emulate them repeatedly. He also writes and edits in front of them, and explains what he’s doing as he goes. He believes that teachers need to give students both “simulated and integrated practice,” i.e., first they do an exercise, then they use the skill in writing of their own.
- John Maguire, College Writing Guide—available via the author’s website, http://readablewriting.com/
After years of frustrating experiences teaching freshman composition, Maguire developed a system of his own, and it seems promising, especially for teachers who are free to design their own syllabi from top to bottom. He spends the first eight weeks of the semester teaching his students to write strong, readable sentences. He trains them to include concrete objects in their writing, to use active verbs, and to choose short words instead of longer, pretentious ones. For the final six weeks of the semester, he has students write short essays. Other professors, he reports, have noticed that his former students are the best writers in their classes.
- Constance Weaver, Teaching Grammar in Context
This book is a compendium of useful ideas. I’ve incorporated so many of Weaver’s suggestions into my teaching method, it’s hard to remember what I did before I read her book.
If your students need more basic instruction, you may want to consider the methods described in these books:
- Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler, The Writing Revolution
Some students develop an instinctive sense of what makes a good sentence by reading voraciously; but many don’t. Hochman’s approach assumes that students need to be explicitly taught common sentence structures. It also draws heavily on sentence combining and sentence expanding. If your students never learned to write a grammatically correct sentence, this method should help them. (The book also offers advice on teaching basic essay-writing skills: summarizing, outlining, forming a thesis statement, etc.)
- Bruce Saddler, Teacher’s Guide to Effective Sentence Writing
This book is aimed at teachers of special needs students, but its advice seems useful for any students who haven’t learned how to write competent sentences. It relies mainly on sentence combining, but also offers a wealth of sensible advice on teaching writing in general.
- Charlotte Morgan, When They Can’t Write
Morgan wrote this book for teachers of students with dyslexia in grades 6-9. It breaks writing concepts down to the simplest level possible. Although the approach will seem overly basic to college instructors, I believe it could be adapted for students who struggle with writing at the most fundamental level.
If your students have already mastered the basics and you’d like to help them improve their style, you may find these books useful and inspiring:
- Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences about Writing
- Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace
Finally, here are a couple of straightforward, easy-to-understand books about grammar, for students who want to learn the rules, and for teachers who want a brush-up:
- Paige Wilson and Teresa Ferster Glazier, The Least You Should Know About English: Writing Skills
- Jane Straus, The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation
Straus’s book also has a companion website that provides simple explanations of basic grammar concepts: http://www.grammarbook.com/