Link: Teaching writing

A couple months ago, The Atlantic magazine had this article about a school that used subjunctive clauses to Fix Education. I read this when it was published but wasn’t sure then what I thought about it. I’m still not saying it’s wrong, but I did enjoy the analysis of that article and its contents that I read this morning in comments by someone named “quixotrist” in a blog post at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’m copying the comments below (partly as a future reference to myself):

Oh, please, make it stop.  The pain is too much, and it has gone on too long.  Please, let it stop.

Because I respect Geoffrey Pullum, I clicked onto the Peg Tyre article from the Atlantic that Lucy Ferris had commented on. I said at the time  that I expected it [the Atlantic article] to be ignorant piffle — which of course is not a nice thing to say.  Still, in response to Ferriss’s response, I wrote a quick and dirty history of where we (the profession) ought to be by now.   Clearly we aren’t there.

In the Tyre piece, I came across the name of Arthur Applebee, whose history of the profession had just come out when I entered the PhD program in English education in the early 1970s.   Assuming he’s the same Applebee cited by Tyre, I can’t believe he would be taken in by this so-called “writing revolution.”  I do, however, believe this pull out quote comes from the same guy:

“Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,” says Applebee, “has become increasingly rare.”

I remember him as describing the history of composition up to that point [when I started my PhD program] as an endless series of panaceas, all of which were, of course, inadequate.  Using grammar to teach writing, I learned from Applebee, was the single most researched topic in English education.  And the results always came up negative: no effect or, in that it took time away from other activities, actually a negative effect.

At that time we were on the cusp of a thing called “the revival of rhetoric.”  Composition was going to become professionalized.  Up until that point, I had sort of planned on becoming a linguist, but I abandoned my program at Chicago and followed my husband to Tallahassee with our first-grader twin sons.  I saw the switch as second best, of course, but we (the profession) were going to do something worthwhile, something that needed doing.

Someone in the comments here today mentioned John Mellon.  He did the first study on sentence combining.   His conclusion was that previous studies of the effect of grammar instruction on written composition had been nil because IT WAS THE WRONG GRAMMAR.  Starting with the new transformational grammar, that’s what made the difference, he thought.  And he got some very promising results.

Frank O’Hare came along next, saying basically, “I don’t think so.  It’s not the improved description of grammar; it’s the sentence combining practice itself.” That’s why O’Hare’s work carried “without formal grammar instruction” in its title.

Anyone who thinks learning the parts of speech is going to improve composition instruction ………. well, let’s just say you’re unlikely to be able to prove that hypothesis.

This whole paragraph from the Tyre article is astonishing:
>They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, >>
What on god’sgreenearth does that mean?  My guess is they’re deconstructing  into simple sentences something they’ve read.  The examples given of student sentences clearly are taken from a secondary source.  The students are probably being taught passive plagiarism along the way … another topic for another time.

Let me continue: > and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones … .>>  Okay.  They’re reinventing sentence combining.  Too bad they’re not learning about fair paraphrasing at the same time.

To continue: > They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin.>>  It would be just snippy of me to talk about that too much.  Things we used to call “clauses” had verbs in them; other NPs we called “phrases,” but I’m old.  Let it be.  But, still, it would be hard work to begin a sentence with an appositive since by definition they’re  likely to follow the noun.

Continuing:>Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, …>>  Why later?  Since fragments are usually stranded pieces of mishandled sentence complexity, why not teach that fact along with the structures they derive from?  Like: “Alice, the girl with a white rabbit.”  Not a likely fragment, but a result of starting a sentence “with” an appositive.  Here is a more likely fragment: “Alice, who followed the white  rabbit down a hole.”  When they’re learning to write relative clauses, that’s the time to SEE the pattern of the sentence.  Where is Alice’s verb?  This is an extremely likely fragment: “When Alice followed the rabbit down the hole.”  In other words, the structures you use to EXPAND your simple independent clauses are the very pieces of a sentence that are most likely to get stranded as fragments.

Penultimately: > how to pull the main idea from a paragraph,>> Now, about those sentences the students were producing by using connectors (coordinate and subordinate conjunctions)?  Here’s where those “ideas” are coming from.  (Students always ask, “How many words do you have to change before it isn’t plagiarism?”  The correct answer: “All of them.”)

And finally: >and how to form a main idea on their own.>>>  And what, pray tell, does that mean?

If a child reads about Alexander the Great, what do you expect them to write?  How about this: “Alexander the Great sat down halfway to China and wept that there were no more worlds to conquer.”  Good sentence?  Yeah.  Ursula Le Guin wrote it.  The essay it’s embedded within is a work of genius.

I’m a firm believer in teaching students to write from patterns.  My own dissertation was a survey of theories of rhetoric with heuristic bases.  Heuristics are problem solving strategies:  Patterns. The one everybody knows comes from journalism: who, what, when, where, why, how.

My benighted colleagues were just aghast at the soul stultifying consequences of teaching patterns of arrangement.  Patterns of invention got smuggled into comp instruction at the turn of the 20th century as patterns of arrangement: describe a process; classification; comparison/contrast; definition ….  They became rigidified, of course, but they did less harm than expecting a student who has read a couple of pages about Alexander the Great to come up with a whole paragraph that wasn’t just a parroting of what had been read.  Give them an atlas and ask them to write about his journey.  Then you’ll get something more original.

EXAMPLE of structure-based heuristic:
The five-paragraph theme has been much abused and lamented.  I’ve heard professors of English (yes, more than one) say that there is no five-paragraph theme in the real world.  If I have a chance, I take them through the introduction to Bertrand Russell’s autobiography:

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: a longing for love, a search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.  These passions, like a great wind …………..”  If you’ve never read it, google it before you say a word back at me.  It’s truly beautiful.

EXAMPLE of content-based heuristic:
“Although” clauses actually make great essay openers in the context of opinion pieces.  Before you give us your opinion, tell us what is RIGHT about the opposite side of the argument.  Although I strongly favor teaching beginning writers to use heuristics and to improve their sentence complexity skills through doing sentence combining, I would have to argue strongly against teaching grammatical terminology in order to improve writing skills.

It’s painful to think there are English teachers out there who STILL think children don’t know how to write about subjects that they are just learning about for the first time because they’re just stupid.  Children learn what they are taught.

I quit.

Oh, wait.  I already did that.

 **** An additional comment after the one above, by same author.*****

The thesis is that the Dorp “experiment” is only the latest instantiation of the single most researched question in the history of English education.  In a carefully designed study, you would likely find as much correlation between the height of children and their exposure to instruction in formal grammar.  The most linguistically sophisticated writers on this page can’t even agree on a label for “subordinating conjunctions.”  Any improvement seen in the kids’ ability to pass the essay exam can be explained by a shift in the environment for instruction: from the expressed assumption that the low performers were just stupid to active engagement by the instructors in what the kids were learning in subject matter “across the curriculum,” as they say.

**** An additional comment after the one above, by same author.*****

–an example of “anti-writing,” writing reduced to a few simple rules of grammar and structure, but in which the writer is not engaged, or discovering anything, from the book, Plato, Derrida, and Writing, by Jasper Neel.


X is one of the most important problems in today’s modern society.  There are three main reasons why X should be stopped.  This essay will explain those reasons.

First, a lot of people X because it is the popular thing to do.  They do not realize how harmful it can be in their later lives.  All young people should realize that the best thing to is have fun later when it will last.  Doing the popular thing now because it is fun is a big mistake, because this sort of fun doesn’t last.

Second, a lot of people don’t realize that taking the easy way now is a bad idea.  The way to have a bright future that will last is to work hard now and wait until later to X.  For example, Horatio Alger did not X a lot when he was young.  Instead, he worked hard for a bright future, and he ended up with a wonderful family, a good job, a lot of money, and a beautiful home.

Third, the Bible says young people should not X.  The Bible has been around a lot longer than those who X.  If young people would be patient like Job and if they work hard like he did, they will end up with children and all the good things life has to offer.

In conclusion, I feel that people should not X.  We should elect leaders and hire teachers who do not X.  Because X is popular, and the easy way, and against the Bible, you can see X should be stopped.

Prologue to Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography

What I Have Lived For

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart.  Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) won the Nobel prize for literature for his History of Western

Philosophy and was the co-author of Principia Mathematica.

**** An additional comment after the one above, by same author.*****

In reading over my first long post on this page, I feared that I would be dichotomized into an anti-grammarian.  I’m not at all.  I taught grammar for teachers for going on thirty years.  What I’m agin’ is teaching grammatical terminology and calling it composition instruction.  I’m agin’ expecting some automatic ameliorative effect on developing ideas for composition from teaching/learning grammar.  What I’m agin’ is teachers reciting rules from Strunk and White as up-to-date pronouncements about the language.

I’m not sure what you mean by students “understanding clauses”; if they can manipulate them, that’s good enough for me.When NCTE was founded right after the turn of the century, Gertrude Buck was given the job you describe for yourself.  She made a good enough effort given the state of the profession at the time, with as little effect as you are likely to have with your KISS solution.

You’ve established your authority to speak.  The writers for LinguaFranca and most of the commenters believe they have authority — most as teachers with degrees from accredited universities.  The trouble is all that conflicting authority comes down to little more than a rhetoric of display.

I’d be more open to persuasion if you would explain to me how underlining subjects and verbs leads to straightening out the confusion between contractions/possessive pronouns. (I wrote a piece called “The Organic Approach to the Apostrophe: An Unwarranted Consensus” in _Composition Studies_ 25.1, Spring 1997.)

I’m suspicious about how “identifying clauses in their own sentences” leads to deploying semicolons, colons, and dashes.  Does “identifying clauses” also help with the seventeen rules for the use of the comma?

If you are advocating teaching grammar as a means of learning about the language, I’m with you.  If you are advocating something more, do please clarify.

P.S. Anyone is certainly entitled to question the veracity and the accuracy of my representation of the research. To aid in clarification, I recommend:

Teresa Enos, _Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition_ (Routledge 2010).
….. Reading through her discussion, I remain confident that I have not misrepresented the research. She does a nice job of summarizing the bits I have mentioned, starting on p 293 with the first monograph here that I had NOT mentioned:

Bateman and Zidonis, _The Effect of a Study of Transformational Grammar on the Writing of 9th and 10th Graders_ (NCTE 1966).

John Mellon, _Transformational Sentence Combining_ (NCTE 1969).

Frank O’Hare, _Sentence Combining: Improving Student Writing without Formal Grammar Instruction_ (NCTE 1973).

Another book I referenced without citation was the following:

Arthur N. Applebee, _Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English: A History_ (NCTE 1974).

3 responses to “Link: Teaching writing

  1. I liked what Bertrand Russel had to say. The rest reminded why I got out of academia. 🙂 Counting the number of angels that can dance on the point of a needle. Although I did find sentence combining helpful when teaching basic comp classes. To teach writing means really to teach how to think on paper. Shallow dull thinking surrounded by all the appropriate punctuation won’t make a good writer. But deep profound thinking without punctuation marks still sings–every writing teacher’s dream student. And there are a few.

  2. Pingback: Teaching and Writing and Researching, Oh My… | A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation

  3. Pingback: You Have to Talk to People: The Real Deal with Primary Research | A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation

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