For effective writing instruction, start with sentence composition

by Grace

College writing instructor John Maguire was feeling frustrated in trying “to turn poor writers into good ones”, but then he realized he needed to start with the basics.

These kids don’t know what a good sentence is. They attempt to write papers with bizarre strings of words that are not sentences, and they don’t know what the problem is. Their high school teachers let them write fragments, and now they think of a fragment as a kind of sentence. They have been trained to accept fragments, and I can’t get them untrained. Papers cannot be made from terrible sentences.

He started with having students focus on using active verbs, which just by itself improved their writing.  Eventually he structured his course to so that the first eight week of instruction concentrated on “these five rules of readable writing”:

  • Be concrete rather than abstract
  • Use active verbs
  • Put human beings in rather than writing impersonally
  • Use shorter sentences
  • Use simpler and more compact words

After that, the second part of the course “contained the skeleton of a “normal” comp course including argument, narration, thesis sentences, and arrangement of parts”.

Other effective approaches to writing instruction such as the “Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point” and’ the “Hochman Method” take a similar approach.

The sentence is the basic unit in writing, and author Ta-Nehisa Coates believes “teaching kids how to write compelling sentences is a lost art”.


John Maguire, “Teaching College Students to Write”, John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, May 07, 2013.

2 Comments to “For effective writing instruction, start with sentence composition”

  1. This is certainly good advice – for 6th grade! The problem is, it is only a little baby step towards good writing. Once students can write a coherent sentence, there are still years of learning to put them together into a paragraph, a series of paragraphs, an argument…
    If we are teaching students the baby steps in college, how can we get them to be good writers before they graduate? We are under so much pressure now to crank out students in 4 years, somehow having gone from 6th grade writing to adult writing in addition to learning enough of their field to get and hold a job.


  2. Yes, you are correct. It’s hard to see how one course in college can make up for what years of K-12 instruction failed to teach.


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