Can you spot the sentence fragment?

From this weekend’s New York Times Magazine:

Adderall wiped away the question of willpower. Now I could study all night, then run 10 miles, then breeze through that week’s New Yorker, all without pausing to consider whether I might prefer to chat with classmates or go to the movies. It was fantastic. I lost weight. That was nice, too. Though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed. When a roommate went home one weekend and forgot to turn off her alarm clock so that it beeped behind her locked door for 48 hours, I entirely lost control, calling her in New York to berate her. I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d slept more than five hours. Why bother?

Something may look like a complete sentence because it contains a main verb, goes on for a bit, and sports a certain amount of complexity (e.g., an embedded clause). But, as Catherine and I discuss in our book–and in those forthcoming fluency exercises that Catherine mentions below–that doesn’t make it a complete sentence. True, sentence fragments can be effective. But sometimes–as this one did for me–they lead you down the garden path to the edge of a cliff. You expected more words, and here you are at the end of a sentence, having to go back and re-read it. At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage to Adderall, but rather that it brings up the first of three downsides.

Speaking of advantages and disadvantages, did you spot my sentence fragment? Did I bring you up short and confuse you?

Precision teaching, Fluency, and Training the “Inspector”

A section of the rationale Katharine & I wrote for Oxford explaining what we wanted to do:

Fluent performance means we can perform a skill quickly, accurately, smoothly — and automatically, with a minimum of conscious effort.

Fluency is the hallmark of expertise in any realm, physical or cognitive. In an academic discipline or profession, fluency requires years to develop. But fluency in the more basic skills that underlie complex tasks — composing sentences, in the case of writing — can be acquired much more quickly. Fluency in sentence composition, for instance, can be reached in as little as twenty hours of practice.

Good writers are fluent in at least three essential skills:

  • Instantly identifying (or “discriminating,” as learning theorists would say) grammatical errors in their own or others’ writing, often “by ear”
  • Instantly identifying (or discriminating) many stylistic flaws in their own or others’ writing (dangling modifiers, long chains of prepositional phrases, unclear pronoun antecedents, etc.), often by ear
  • Instantly writing grammatically correct sentences. Copy editing and revision can consume many hours, but the process of simply getting a single grammatically correct sentence down on paper is automatic. Fluent writers never have to consciously ask themselves, for example, “Where does my dependent clause go in relation to the independent clause?”

It is often thought that students can learn to write simply by writing a lot and/or by reading a lot. In fact, this approach rarely works. The reason most students do not learn to write by writing is that they cannot ‘hear’ what they write (or what they read). Their ability to discriminate a good prose sentence from a bad one has not been trained.

Fluent discrimination is important because all performance depends upon our internal “inspection” of results. When we read words out loud, for instance, we are actually doing two things: reading out loud and listening to ourselves read out loud, inspecting our performance for error.

Of course, if we are uncertain what the words on the page sound like, we can’t function as effective monitors of our own performance. By the same token, students who have difficulty distinguishing a fragment from a complete sentence cannot inspect their writing for mistakes in grammar, style, or cohesion – at least not efficiently.

In particular, students who have had little exposure to academic prose (most students, it seems) can’t hear themselves as they write—nor can they tell whether readers will understand what they’ve said.

“Precision teaching” is a method that develops fluency and trains the inspector.
The Supplement gives students a sequence of exercises that develops the inspector and trains them to write sentences and paragraphs fluently. Once students reach fluency in sentence and paragraph composition, they will be prepared to move on to the next step: marshaling evidence and pursuing an argument throughout an entire college essay.

Precision teaching and writing

A few summers back, I attended Morningside Academy’s Summer School Institute, which pretty much changed my life. A slight exaggeration, but still.

Morningside is the only school I’m aware of that guarantees its work:

The school promises that your child will make two years’ progress in one year’s time, in his or her most challenging subject, or tuition is refunded.

Their guarantee covers reading (and writing) as well as math, which brings up one of life’s mysteries: why aren’t charter schools, which tend to produce better results in math than reading,1 beating a path to Morningside’s door?

Why isn’t anyone beating a path to Morningside’s door, for that matter?

If you were ever inclined to think that success breeds imitation in the education sector, Morningside is proof that it doesn’t.

It’s worse than that, actually: successful techniques like sentence combining and sentence-level rhetorics have gone missing.

Our writing curriculum was inspired, in part, by the precision teaching I watched and practiced during my two weeks at Morningside. I want to stress the word “inspired“; the lessons aren’t a proper precision teaching curriculum complete with slices, fluency aims, and celeration charts. But the philosophy of teaching a component skill — sentence writing — to fluency is key.

Here’s how we explained our project to Oxford.

1. [I don’t know whether this situation has changed with the publication of Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered and the headway Core Knowledge has made in convincing at least some charters that knowledge is key to reading comprehension.]

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.