Commitment is tough—especially when it comes to grammar

I’ve been distracted away from blog posting by a number of things: most recently, a heap of student papers. But these papers, as it turns out, aren’t just time-consuming items to read and grade; they’re also rich material for a blog about writing instruction. With great regularity, they illuminate blog-worthy patterns in the prose writing styles of the latest crop of college graduates (my students are typically master’s students). One of these patterns appears in the three sentences below, which I’ve altered slightly for anonymity:

  1. In Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, it discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.
  2. From talking with the student’s mother, it seems as though she is very satisfied with the accommodations he receives at school.
  3. For those individuals that are included with their regular education peers, they struggle more with accessing classroom reading materials because they are reading below grade level.

What do all these sentences have in common? I’m not sure how obvious the pattern is: I’ve perhaps become, over the years, as hyper-sensitive to it as I am hyper-irritated by it. But what we see here, generally, is a looseness of syntactic structure. More particularly, all three sentences have topical material that really belongs in subject position, right before the verb, but is “factored out” into an introductory modifier. Ditch the modifier and move the content into subject position, and you get:

  1. Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.
  2. My talk with the student’s mother gave me the impression that she is very satisfied with the accommodations he receives at school.
  3. Those individuals that are included with their regular education peers struggle more with accessing classroom reading materials because they are reading below grade level.

The sentence structure is tighter, and there are fewer content-poor words like “it” and “for.” The original sentences, in other words, have undergone the kind of pruning and tightening that should be one of the priorities of revision. And I’m guessing is that part of what’s going on here is that fewer and fewer students are bothering to revise their sentences.

First drafts of sentences are naturally loose and wordy. When we start formulating a sentence, we’re often unsure of where it’s going—which is why spontaneously spoken sentences often look garbled in written transcripts. If you’re not sure where you’re going, it’s safest not to commit yourself to a particular subject. Prematurely committing yourself to a particular subject may prematurely commit you to a particular predicate: a predicate that may be at odds with what you actually end up wanting to say. So why not procrastinate by placing the topical material in some sort of introductory modifier–“In such and such a book,” “When talking to so and so…,” “For those people who…..” Then, when you get to the main clause, you can use some sort of pronoun or placeholder (like “it” or “there”) as the subject as you start thinking your way through the rest of the sentence.

That, at least, is my explanation for these loose, modifier-heavy, subject-light sentences that predominate in the absence of revisions. As for the other phenomenon–why are students no longer revising their sentences?–this brings us back to one of the reasons why Catherine and I are writing this blog in the first place: the demise of sentence-level instruction.

Teacher’s lament

I’m going to be working with a graduate level research class next week, and in the process of trying to track down papers on the relationship between writing and thinking, I’ve just come across a fabulous passage, quoted in Exploring Literacies Theory, Research and Practice by Helen de Silva Joyce and Susan Feez:

Bringing up the question of learning to read and write reminds us of the comment by the primary-school teacher who remarked, ‘It’s lucky we’re not responsible for teaching them to talk. If we were they’d never learn that either’. Nevertheless, a surprising number of people do become literate, mostly through being taught.
(Halliday 2009/1978: 178)

Halliday and Hasan are two of my favorites; our writing curriculum is strongly influenced by their work (which I have yet to read in full, I should add).

I don’t post this passage to malign teachers, by the way. Not remotely.

Being good at teaching isn’t enough. To teach well, teachers need a field-tested curriculum.

But instead of providing a proven curriculum, schools expect teachers to Google lessons and posters on Pinterest, or buy them from Teachers Pay Teachers.

I personally have spent what feels like years of my life Googling lessons, handouts, and worksheets, and in the end what I have is a massive heap of digital stuff (some of it fantastically helpful, to be sure) that doesn’t cohere and isn’t a curriculum.