‘teaching kids how to write compelling sentences is a lost art’

by Grace

‘teaching kids how to write compelling sentences is a lost art’

That is the observation of Ta-Nehisa Coates, author and blogger for The Atlantic who spent this past semester teaching “Writing and Reading the Essay” at MIT.

The ‘sentence is the basic unit in writing‘.

As Coates suggests, today’s K-12 literacy instruction does not place much importance on sentence composition.  That’s my thought every time I hear parents and educators marvel about how wonderful it is that elementary students are writing “research papers” and personal journals, instead of spending more time mastering foundational literacy skills like sentence composition, grammar, and vocabulary.  These students then have to play catch-up in high school, struggling with writing essays while lacking basic skills that were never taught in the earlier grades.  The most striking example I have seen are local high school juniors in honors English class who spent the first several weeks of the school year reviewing learning basic grammar.

… explicit instruction in sentence syntax had been a staple of composition classes (dating back to classical antiquity) until just a few decades ago.

Francis Christensen and Edward Corbett are two of the few recent advocates of “sentence-based rhetoric”.  Their instructional methods have included “sentence combining” and “imitation exercises”.

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.

Don and Jenny Killgallon have written a series of books on sentence composing.

Sentence Composing is an approach to teaching improved sentence structure by using respected professional writers as mentors whose sentences become models for students. Using those models as a starting point, the approach uses four sentence manipulating activities–unscrambling, imitating, combining, and expanding–to provide practice in learning from the mentor how to write similar sentences.

The Kilgallon texts work well for afterschooling or homeschooling, with instruction aimed at all levels — ranging from elementary grades to college.

Related:  ‘Writing, writing, writing’ – a skill lacking among too many college graduates (Cost of College)

4 Comments to “‘teaching kids how to write compelling sentences is a lost art’”

  1. I suspect that Ta-Nahesi Coates means something different from “well structured sentences” when he uses the term “compelling”. I say that having heard him interviewed numerous times on WNYC – he is very interesting. Anyway, one of the big problems I see with my own students, who are definitely not MIT students, is that their K12 teachers tried to teach them to be “compelling”, which often descends into platitudes, rather than to be coherent. And honestly, I don’t see the need to be compelling most of the time. Most of the writing they will do in their careers, if they do any writing at all, and if their manager actually cares whether the writing is good or not, will be factual memos and reports. No one cares about compelling – they care that it is well organized and that there are bullet points because higher management isn’t really going to read the whole thing anyway.

    On the other hand, in my kids own school, I see an intense focus on the sentence – in the second, third, and fourth grades where that focus belongs. Both of my kids who have passed through those grades spent endless homework hours writing sentences that illustrated grammatical points, as well as correcting sentences. They hated it of course – oh, how my second kid whined about writing his weekly sentences. My own kids had far more grammar in those years than I had back in my day. I suspect, though, that my college students have gone to schools more like the ones I went to.

    The focus does shift to brief research papers and what they call “persuasive essays” in the fifth grade. I think they could do a better job of teaching kids how to do research, but that doesn’t impact the writing aspect. Now, I already knew my 7th grader is a much better writer than most of my college kids, but when my fifth grader did his persuasive essay this year, I about fell over – I would definitely have given it an A at the college level. And the thing is, my kids are not natural writers, and I did not teach them anything about writing. so, I conclude, it is completely possible to have kids ready to focus on paragraph and essay structure in middle school, as long as they have been taught the foundations earlier.


  2. Even if Coates meant something different, you usually cannot write “compelling” sentences unless you first learn the fundamentals of well-structured sentences. IME, persuasive writing is important in many fields, but of course not in all. I’ve had to write plenty of persuasive memos during my time spent in the business world.

    Your kids’ instruction sounds wonderful, something which I would have liked for my own kids. 🙂

    I agree that teaching of research skills could be improved. I’ve had teachers basically tell my kids in elementary school to just “Google it”.

    Yes, most kids should be writing paragraphs and essays by middle school, and research papers by high school. This is completely doable if they’ve received good instruction in the fundamentals during the earlier grades.

    BTW, I think most high school kids probably need some review of the fundamentals, but it shouldn’t take up a significant portion of their instructional time.


  3. I looked up their book Sentence Composing for Elementary School and was impressed with what I saw on the preview of the pages. What impressed me the most is what they call “sentence chunking” because this is what my poor readers (even in middle school) have trouble with. I plan to order their book. I think the elementary level book looks like it will be plenty difficult for my middle-school and high-school readers who are having trouble with these concepts. Thank you for this most useful post.


  4. I used the elementary Kilgallon book with a middle-schooler. Sentence chunking seems to be a way to help a student sharpen his focus on the meaning and syntax, with benefits that spill over into both comprehension and writing.


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