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Very little pure grammar. Lots of applied grammar. Whether or not a student can deliberately generate or manipulate sentence structure is the primary concern of Sentence Composing, not whether the student can identify grammatical structures or diagram sentences, although in working with the four sentence composing techniques the student, unconsciously, does both.
Where used, grammar terminology is traditional, but its use is always subordinate to the major goal: the improvement in sentence composing.
Research has shown that teaching grammar does not improve students’ writing, but that’s because studying grammar has been an exercise in naming, defining, and identifying various grammatical structures, with little or no attempt to have students practice those structures in ways professional writers actually use them.
The practices in Sentence Composing help students to write better because the activities consist exclusively of professionally written sentences instead of the artificial, contrived sentences in grammar textbooks written to illustrate a grammatical structure rather than the effective use of that structure. The hundreds of professionally written sentences illustrate the effective application of grammatical structures, or “applied grammar.”
As a teacher, you will benefit from an alternative to stacks of ungraded long compositions. You can readily give attention to the sentences students compose, with quicker, more constant, more thorough feedback than with longer compositions. You will be teaching something specific, manageable, and very helpful to your students whose writing will show marked improvement.
Using Sentence Composing is not a substitute for your regular composition program, but an important supplement. Needless to say, students must frequently apply the skills they learn, and from the other composition lessons you teach, by writing longer compositions.
Sentence Composing is based upon the assumption that language is learned largely through imitation. This is the “mimetic” theory, validated by linguists concerning oral language acquisition.
The same theory applies to written language acquisition. The belief that imitating good writing can improve one’s own writing is not new, but it has been largely ignored in contemporary English teaching. Great writers of the past (including Shakespeare) acknowledged imitation as the technique by which they learned to write, sometimes even copying verbatim from the masters hoping something would rub off. Their teachers taught them how to imitate, and, in short, they learned to write well by imitating good writing.
The activities apply the “mimetic theory” to a manageable unit: the sentence. The emphasis is imitating well-written sentences by professional writers.
The same method–imitation–is the foundation of Sentence Composing. That written sentence structure can be mastered through the deliberate imitation of professionally written sentences is the major belief upon which Sentence Composing rests.
The number of practices is intentional and highly desirable. Practicing is the only way to guarantee that a skill becomes a permanent part of the way students compose their sentences.
For this reason, there are many, many more practices on a particular skill than are found in most grammar/writing textbooks. Sentence Composing emphasizes practicing, not identifying; applying, not memorizing.
Monotony is unlikely because the methods are varied through the use of the four sentence composing techniques, as well as the mini literature lessons the professionally written sentence models provide, sentences far more interesting than the typical concoctions found in grammar textbooks/workbooks.
Emphasize several points.
Students should write out sentences that result from unscrambling activities, not merely indicate the order of the sentence parts.
The same is true for expanding activities. Insist that students write out the entire sentence, not just the part they compose to add to the professional sentence.
Hardly busywork, the writing-out is essential pattern practice. Some students will attempt shortcuts. Explain to them the reason for avoiding them.
Another point that needs emphasis involves students’ comparing their own sentences with the original by professional writers. If their sentences differ from the original, some students may be disappointed. Emphasize that, although students’ sentences may differ from the one by the professional writer, very often those student variations are equal to, sometimes even superior to, the original professional sentence.
Here, for example, is a typical sentence unscrambling activity. Students had to unscramble these sentence parts from a sentence by Jack London:
- who had made his kill
- Buck stood and looked on
- the dominant and primordial beast
- and found it good
- the successful champion
So long as unscrambled versions are grammatical and coherent, student versions should be accepted and commended, especially if, as sometimes happens, the student version is actually better than the original version.
Here are the original sentence and several acceptable student variations:
Buck stood and looked on, the successful champion, the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good.
Acceptable Student Variations:
The dominant and primordial beast, Buck stood and looked on, the successful champion who had made his kill and found it good.
The successful champion, the dominant and primordial beast who had made his kill, Buck stood and looked on and found it good.
The dominant and primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good, the successful champion, Buck stood and looked on.
Buck stood and looked on, the dominant and primordial beast, the successful champion who had made his kill and found it good.
Even though the emphasis is on sentence structure improvement, a byproduct is content improvement. Students are constantly focusing on professionally written sentences, which are effective in two ways: structure and content. When students imitate professional model sentences, they try, often unconsciously, to reach for the model’s high level of content to match the high level of structure. They don’t want to fill the great structure with “junk.” They are reluctant to put plastic flowers in a golden vase.
Students’ content will often show precision in word choice, vividness of imagery, originality of concept, etc.–the characteristics of content found in the model sentences they are imitating. The professional sentences used exclusively and abundantly in Sentence Composing act like magnets, mainly for structure but also for content.
Most teachers are used to unvaried sentences from the majority of their students. When students demonstrate in their writing more sophisticated and varied structures as a result of their learning through Sentence Composing, the effect on the teacher can sometimes, ironically, be negative.
Some teachers may call the newly rich, elaborated, and often long sentences “run-ons,” and advise students to break those long sentences into short ones (the unvaried ones that teachers are more used to). This is a mistake, and must be guarded against.
Be especially vigilant in assessing students’ long sentences.
Don’t confuse quality with quandary. Alert teachers know the difference, and will encourage and reward signs of growth in sentence structure improvement, even in cases where the sentences might not be as polished as they could be.
No. It’s for all students. Teachers mistakenly think one of two things: (1) it must be for basic students–the ones who don’t know how to write a complete sentence; or (2) it must be for advanced students–the ones who could profit from a study of professionally written sentences.
Teachers who have worked with Sentence Composing know that it works well, with intuitive adjustments, for virtually all levels of students, from the most basic writers to the most advanced.
For these students, some teachers think that imitating professionally written sentences is unrealistic. “They can’t even write a complete sentence, so how are they going to write like Ernest Hemingway!”
Those teachers then outline a sequence they consider essential to teach–first things first!–so their students can first learn how to write a complete sentence: review of parts of speech, lessons on sentence fragments, comma splices, sentence patterns, types of sentences (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex), and so on, and on, and on.
I know and deeply regret the route, a dead end. I traveled it long ago in my first year of teaching English. (Click here “The Barry Story.”)
Students have taken that route and arrived at the same dead end so many times, year after year after year, but never get to Emerald City, never arrive in that Promised Land of unfractured syntax, perfect diction, fragmentless complete sentences. They’re tired of the dull scenery, the endless drive arriving nowhere, and they fall asleep at the wheel.
Sentence Composing is a different route, a scenic road to a good place.
And nobody (including teachers) falls asleep en route.
Yes. All of these problems result from failure to recognize the boundaries of sentences. Through Sentence Composing, students constantly look at the sentence parts of effective professional sentences–words, phrases, clauses–seeing how the sentence parts and their skillful arrangement create the boundary of a sentence.
Students misuse sentence parts when creating fragments, run-ons, comma splices. In their misuse, the sentence boundaries are either too narrow (fragments) or too broad (run-ons, comma splices). In seeing how professional writers use such sentence parts, especially phrases and subordinate clauses, in sentences with clear and accurate boundaries, and in imitating their sentences, students will intuit the correct boundaries of sentences and thereby eliminate fragments, run-ons, and comma splices from their own writing.
Many students enjoy this approach to writing improvement because it is highly involving, often challenging, and frequently, well, fun.
Students compete, so to speak, with professional writers, trying to see if they (the students) can “meet or beat” them (the writers).
Students like the “puzzle” aspect of unscrambling sentences, coming up with an effective arrangement of the scrambled sentence parts. Used to textbooks with single answers to problems or exercises, students respond favorably to the Sentence Composing activities where many solutions are often acceptable.
Many students find work with Sentence Composing enjoyable as well as productive.
The Sentence Composing approach integrates the three strands of the English language arts curriculum: literature, composition, language. As students learn how to write more varied sentences by imitating the sentences of professional writers, they are subliminally learning how to read more complex sentences of literature. The approach is an excellent vehicle for analysis of an author’s style.
The sentences of children’s literature in the textbook Sentence Composing for Elementary School are the basis for activities for upper elementary grades. Students learn basic grammatical structures through the four sentence composing techniques via sentences by writers for children. With the applications included in the textbook, students apply those structures as tools for writing improvement.
For English classes in middle school and high school, Sentence Composing reflects the entire program in miniature: literature, composition, and language. Therefore, regardless of the thrust of your regular curriculum, Sentence Composing will be applicable throughout the year.
For college classes, Sentence Composing has been used with the full range of students–from basic to advanced–and in all kinds of writing courses–from the “freshman comp” class to creative writing.
On all four levels (upper elementary school, middle school, high school, college), teachers usually assign compositions of one paragraph or longer, with the requirement that the sentence composing skills up to that point be included and clearly identified within the compositions. Subsequently, as more skills are taught, they are added to the cumulative list and become requirements for inclusion in compositions.
If you commit to making regular and frequent use of Sentence Composing throughout your course, you should see significant improvement in the writing of many of your students. In some students, dramatic gains will astound you.
In state-mandated and other required writing tests for students, sentence variety always emphatically appears on scoring rubrics. Since sentence composing directly teaches sentence variety through the writing of professional writers, students who have had widespread exposure to sentence composing throughout the English curriculum across grades have a greatly improved chance to meet the requirement for sentence variety on such tests.
For school districts committed to using sentence composing to teach applied grammar, published sentence composing materials eliminate the prohibitively laborious task of finding hundreds of professionally written model sentences for sentence composing activities.
Curriculum directors, English coordinators and supervisors can institutionalize the sentence composing approach through consultation with Don and Jenny Killgallon, who can conduct training workshops and work with supervisory staff and their teachers to design curricula to integrate sentence composing on and across grade levels. For information and references, contact Don and Jenny Killgallon.