A core principle in precision teaching — in any effective teaching — is that instruction must begin by teaching the novice to discriminate good performance from bad.
Correct from incorrect.
This principle is true of conceptual learning as well as procedural: in order to know what a concept is, the student must also know what the concept is not.
That’s where you start.
“Yes/no” knowledge comes first because we can’t know whether we’ve done something well if we don’t know what doing something well looks like. We all have an internal inspector who judges performance, and our internal inspector must be trained.
To learn the difference between correct and incorrect, students must be given examples and nonexamples. EGGs and NEGGs in precision-teaching parlance.
EGGs alone won’t do.
When it comes to teaching writing, the need for NEGGs is a problem because examples of bad student sentences are surprisingly hard to come by. I’ve spent hours scouring the web, looking for the genuine article. There’s not much out there.
Sure, your own students write bad sentences, but using students’ own work to illustrate bad sentence writing is rude. At least, it would be rude for me; I can imagine there are instructors out there who could pull it off with humor and esprit de corps.
And even if you do use your own students’ sentences to illustrate what bad sentences need like, you still need an organizing principle.
What different kinds of bad are there?
Bad student sentences in creative writing
After yet another hour this afternoon, I’ve come up with this list of “worst student sentences,” reportedly saved by a professor of creative writing:
The sentences on this list sound like they were written by real students to me. I’m sure they were if only because it’s quite difficult to write a bad student sentence on purpose.
I can certainly write bad sentences of my own. Everyone can.
But I don’t make the same mistakes students do, and I don’t understand their mistakes well enough to be able to imitate them.
What makes a bad sentence bad?
Another problem: this particular list doesn’t really include the type of bad student sentence we instructors see in nonfiction college writing. I’m thinking of sentences that start off fine, but then go off the rails as the word count adds up. During my first semester teaching, I took to calling these constructions train-wreck sentences, a metaphor that had no instructional value whatsoever. Very frustrating.
We need a robust, teachable collection of bad student sentences, and we need a corpus linguist to analyze them for us.
Writing instructors need a taxonomy of student error.
In the wake of today’s Google expedition, I see that there exists a field of written-language study called “error analysis, as well as a body of work on automated scoring of writing. They may have something useful to offer.
But if so, it’s going to take many more hours to ferret out.