Posts tagged ‘sentence composition’

April 24, 2015

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.

July 10, 2014

The rise and fall of sentence diagramming

by Grace

The sentence diagramming method once popular in American public schools was developed in the 1870s.


For a long time, sentence diagramming flourished throughout the American school system, and, despite being condemned as a useless waste of time in the 1970s, it still persists in many schools. Indeed, it spread well beyond the USA, and so a very similar system is taught in many European countries (though not, alas, in the United Kingdom). For example, schools in the Czech Republic teach sentence diagramming so successfully that researchers are investigating the possibility of including school children’s analyses in a working tree-bank of analyzed sentences.

I learned sentence diagramming when I attended Catholic elementary school, but I doubt any local schools are using it today.

Besides teaching grammar in a fun way (at least for some), diagramming sentences may offer the benefit of teaching how to pull clarity from the chaos”.

What Diagramming Teaches Us

When Joseph R. Mallon Jr. bumps up against a complex problem, he thinks back to a lesson he learned in high school from the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

The Philadelphia-area school’s Catholic nuns taught him the art of diagramming a sentence. Once all the parts of speech lined up, Mallon pulled clarity from the chaos. It’s a process he uses today to tackle tough issues as chief executive and chairman of Measurement Specialties Inc.

“Sit down quietly. Take (the issue) apart into its component parts. Make sure all the components fit together well. They’ve got to be well chosen, fit together and make sense. There are few (business) problems that can’t be solved that way, as dire as it might seem,” Mallon said. “Sentence diagramming is one of the best analytical techniques I ever learned.”

Investor’s Business Daily
17 October 2000

An online parser applied to one of my sentences generated this diagram:


Even with my foggy understanding, I can see how diagramming helps in learning parts of speech and syntax.  The online tool is interactive, and provides parts of speech terminology for every word in the sentence.  It makes some mistakes, but it looks like a neat tool to use for reviewing sentence structure.  Unfortunately it does not accept pasted text.


Richard Hudson, “A Brief History of Diagramming Sentences”, Slate, January 2, 2014.

June 21, 2013

‘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)

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