Opinion

Novelist teaches freshman writing, is shocked by students’ inability to construct basic sentences

Have we lost this essential skill and can it be recovered?

Last year, I taught expository writing to freshmen at a nearby university. (The name of the school isn’t relevant here; this article reflects my own views on teaching writing, not the university’s.) What I saw disturbed me: a few of my students expressed their ideas well, but most of them couldn’t write clear, grammatically correct sentences.

Here are some examples of their work:

  • Neglecting to recognize the horrors those people endure allow people to go to war more easily.
  • The money in the household shared between Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
  • The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones.

The First Year Writing program at my university stresses essay-writing skills: developing an arguable thesis, presenting strong supporting arguments, using quotations as evidence. As an author and ghostwriter, I agree that freshmen need to learn these skills, and that we should encourage creative thinking, not stifle it with endless, mind-numbing grammar lessons.

But those clumsy sentences haunted me. How will my students’ future professors judge their work? Will the students struggle to find jobs because of their cover letters? Their writing may improve with practice as they make their way through college — but they’ve already been practicing for twelve years!

I had taught classes in fiction writing, but never expository writing, so I asked more experienced colleagues for advice. Some suggested that I pick a few common errors and teach brief lessons. They cautioned me, though, not to expect miracles.

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Approaching the challenge methodically, I listed the types of mistakes each student made, identified the most common ones, and devised what I thought were lively lessons. (Change to active voice: “The UPS man was run over by a FedEx truck.”) While continuing to focus on essay-writing skills, I added lessons on revising awkward phrases and replacing fuzzy abstractions with more concrete specifics. I showed my students examples of bad writing and better writing; most of them quickly recognized which was which. Then I had them practice revising terrible sentences, first as a class, then individually. Here, most of them stumbled.

I wish I could say that my lessons worked as planned, that their final essays showed vast improvement, but that would be an overstatement. The changes were subtle at best.

The prevailing opinion seems to be right: brief lessons don’t accomplish much. A few bright students will quickly absorb the new concepts; the others will fill out their worksheets on subject-verb agreement almost perfectly, and then write things like, The conflict between Sammy and Lengel are mainly about teenage rebellion. But that doesn’t mean we should give up and pretend it doesn’t matter.

(Why does it matter, though? Isn’t this a petty problem? That’s an argument for another essay. For now, I’ll just say that readers notice these things. Minor errors distract, and erode the writer’s authority.)

I searched online for proven teaching strategies, and emailed a few writing instructors at my school and others. My search didn’t turn up the answers I needed. I found articles recommending writing across the curriculum in high school, and the story of Judith Hochman’s program of rigorous grammar instruction, which produced transformative results at a Staten Island high school.

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Hochman’s method recognizes that many students have never learned how sentences work, and therefore teaches sentence structure, moving from simple to complex. The commitment to writing instruction is schoolwide and immersive; I couldn’t imagine using it in a twice-a-week college class (though I do plan to teach sentence structure in the future).

Many of the writing instructors I spoke with shared my frustration. No one enjoys reading final papers that are just as awkwardly written as the first work of the semester. But none of them said what I’ve come to believe: that we should offer more help to students who reach for eloquence, only to trip over their own contorted clauses.

The teaching of writing has become an academic specialty with its own dominant philosophy, which argues against grammar instruction. But I believe that ignoring awkward writing will prove to be a mistake — an educational fashion that will handicap a generation, until someone shouts, Look at the clumsy writing our students are producing!

I’m not saying the current focus on constructing competent arguments is wrong. But many students arrive at college unable to write grammatically correct sentences, and we need to teach them that skill, too.

The challenge is figuring out how. I’m still hoping to find instructors who know how to teach this at the college level, who are willing to share their methods. Meanwhile, college writing programs should begin to ask these questions:

  • How many of our students need remedial help with writing?
  • What are we doing for them? Is it enough? (Even colleges with writing assistance centers need to ask what their tutors do about grammatical errors. Many, I believe, overlook them.)
  • What else can we try?

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Until effective strategies emerge, I intend to experiment. While keeping the emphasis on essay-writing skills, I plan to give my students more practice spotting problems in their sentences and more instruction in how to fix them. One instructor I contacted, John Maguire, has published a manual for writing teachers that stresses concrete nouns, active verbs, and conciseness. I expect to draw heavily from his work.

Like athletes building muscle-memory, some students need practice working on sentence-level skills. For those who need extra help, I’d like to assign interactive quizzes for homework, so they can see instantly whether or not they’re getting the answers right, and adjust if necessary. My goal: to see clear progress by the end of the semester.

Learning to write, like learning to dance, takes time and practice. We acquire grace slowly, and strive not to stumble. There’s no clear point at which a teacher can say, Yes, perfect — but it’s reasonable to expect that students will improve noticeably. Perfect writing may not exist, but relative competence does. We should be helping students achieve it.

Michael Laser writes fiction for adults and adolescents. His most recent novel is My Impending Death, a dark comedy. For more about him and his work, visit michaellaser.com.

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Michael Laser

Michael Laser writes fiction for adults and adolescents. His most recent novel is My Impending Death, a dark comedy. For more about him and his… See Archive