Part of what’s distinct about Catherine’s and my curriculum is that we’re zeroing in on the basic building blocks of writing–phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.
Many of today’s writing classes instead zoom out to the big picture–communication, argumentation, and audience. Get students thinking what their ideas are and who they’re addressing them to. Have them do lots of open-ended writing. Perhaps toss some peer-editing into the mix. Surely, then, students’ phrasing and paragraphing skills will develop organically, without explicit instruction by teachers or textbooks. And surely, compared with scores of exercises in sentence construction and paragraphing, the holistic, naturalistic approach is more effective and appealing to all concerned.
It certainly appeals to many of classroom writing instructors–as it has for a long time. But, it turns out, sentence-based instruction goes back even further. A while ago, Catherine sent me an article by Robert J Connors (“The Erasure of the Sentence“), and I was surprised to learn 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.
What are these sentence-based rhetorics that have fallen out of favor? One recent example is Francis Christensen’s “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.” This 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:
- Mere exercises, devoid of content and real-world application, with (worse yet!) correct and incorrect answers
- Rote imitation
- An inorganic, narrow, analytical, reductionist approach that stifles creativity
- 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.”
Communication, argumentation, and audience–these seem like great things for writing instruction to prioritize. But as Catherine and I discuss on our book and will continue to explore here, effective communication and argumentation depend largely on effective phrasing and paragraphing. And, as those studies of Corbett’s and Christensen’s methods suggest, explicit practice with sentence and paragraph construction yields skills that typically don’t emerge from today’s more naturalistic, holistic approaches to writing.