Let’s resurrect sentence-based rhetorics

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:

  1. Textbooks
  2. Mere exercises, devoid of content and real-world application, with (worse yet!) correct and incorrect answers
  3. Rote imitation
  4. An inorganic, narrow, analytical, reductionist approach that stifles creativity
  5. 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.

5 thoughts on “Let’s resurrect sentence-based rhetorics

  1. In the 50s, when i started first grade,in a small-town 1-12 school, the town had no preschools and no kindergarten, although most kids knew colors, shapes, and most letters, at school entry. Instruction – the 1-4 teachers were old Normal School grads – was direct and explicit. As soon as we could all write our names, we began learning to write by copywork from the board, along with instruction in phonics, capitalization, punctuation and parts of a sentence. It started with simple stuff; full name, Monday, September 21, 195_, and a short sentence of the ” It is the first day of fall.” variety and expanded from there. We had spelling words every week and every paper was corrected for errors – by the teacher. Once we were competent at copying, we progressed (3 classroom groups) to dictation and only after we were competent at that did we begin free composition. Grammar instruction continued on a frequent and regular basis, through HS (with diagramming). With this kind of instruction and lots of practice, we were all able to write correct, basic prose by the time we entered HS, where style – and for the college-prep, academic writing – was the focus,along with field-specific writing. This was a poor town, where few kids went to college, some to short vocational programs and many directly to work

    More recently, an Atlantic article (Writing Revolution, 2012), described big improvement, in both reading comprehension and in writing, at a poor Staten Island HS (New Dorp), after implementation of an explicit program developed at the Windward School (for learning disabled), and also used for all kids at Rye Country Day School. Some kids are able to learn to write well with little instruction, but my experience as student and parent has been that those kids are (1) very bright and (2) voracious readers of very high-quality literature (kiddie lit – including the 19th century – and early consumption of classic adult fiction and non-fiction). In today’s world, that means very, very few. Yes, let’s go back to explicit instruction in grammar and composition.


  2. It doesn’t even need to be a massive amount of copywork, dictation, and grammar rules. Small, regular doses of these things can work wonders. But expecting them to just “discover” good writing is only going to work for a small group of students.


  3. Agree, and it needs to start immediately, before kids acquire and embed errors. Also, in my day, writing stories and personal accounts was something kids did on their own, often in a diary which never came to school. At school, writing was primarily – with occasional other options offered – expository (and was also done in history and sciences) until HS lit-based academic writing. I knew bigger schools that had a HS creative writing elective, but that came after kids knew the grammar and conventions.


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