Of Horses & Carts
Ah, another one of those odd titles it seems. Stick with me, and it will all become clear. Often I am asked what I would recommend for a student so that he/she can improve his/her writing. My response is normally to find out the grade level of the child. High school level students should be expected to write papers of some length and be able to do some reading and thinking about the subject before writing about it. However, I have found in conversing with many moms, and professional teachers as well, that expectations for younger children are quite high.
Now let's get down to the real problem. Too many people want to jump to the goal of good writing without teaching their students how to do some of the preliminary work necessary to becoming a good writer. This is where the horses and carts image comes in. I'll deal with it momentarily.
As an aside, let me make clear here that I am not talking about so-called creative writing. By definition, everything except pure copying and dictation is creative. On the other hand, creative writing generally means fictional writing, writing a story or poem instead of writing an essay based on research. Good creative writers seem to be born with the knack for telling a story. They have fertile imaginations. Words seem to flow from them, oftentimes in abundance. They do, however, need to learn their punctuation and spelling. Also, they can usually profit from some literature study regarding characterization, plot, setting, and a variety of other literary techniques found in the various genres.
OK, back on track to main subject. I believe there is a definite hierarchy of skills used in writing. Perhaps skills is not really the correct designation, but nonetheless a decided progression seems to be apparent. That progression moves from words to sentences to paragraphs to multiple paragraphs in combination. Let's break it down a bit.
The first level is that of words, vocabulary if you will. All writers have at their disposal a number of words; the number varies widely, however, from writer to writer. Better writers generally have larger vocabularies; they have a greater reservoir to draw from. Hence, their writing is more precise, richer to read, often more interesting and certainly less redundant. Therefore, building a good vocabulary is part of becoming a good writer. Many people assume that vocabulary acquisition is somehow automatic and need not be systematized. True, but only to a mediocre level unless the student is an avid reader with wide-ranging tastes. A good program where learning roots, prefixes, and suffixes is systematically mixed in is best. Oh yes, such a program as described above also improves spelling skills.
The second level is that of the sentence. In my experience at least 95% of the errors found in student writing occur within the sentence. Such errors as usage, punctuation, improper or misused structures, and awkward wording are all sentence errors. Poor writers tend to overuse simple sentences and to tie two ideas together with and or but continuously. They lack the skill to utilize the other various constructions that are available in English to work additional ideas into sentences. As a result, their writing lacks variety and expression. Let me recall an interesting experiment I once performed.
A number of years ago I gave my 8th graders a single paragraph writing assignment which consisted of six sentences. The first and last sentences were to open and close the paragraph. The central four sentences were to each contain two thoughts about a given example of their choice. The topic of the paragraph was to be cloud structures. Each sentence would talk about one of the cloud types, cumulus or whatever.
When the assignments were turned in, I noted the very high incidence of sentences which combined two ideas into one using the simple expedient of hooking two sentences together with the word and. Almost no subordinate clauses, relative clauses, or verbal constructions were used. As a result, I determined to teach the class about relative clauses and did so.
A few weeks later I gave an assignment similar to the first one mentioned above. They still had six sentences with an introductory sentence and a concluding sentence. The four central sentences were to each be about a different example and were to contain two ideas. The topic this time was natural protection devices in animals. I did not mention using relative clauses at all. After the assignments came in, I again checked to see how the students put two ideas together in a single sentence. To be sure, there were still a lot of ideas hooked together with and, but the incidence of relative clause use was much higher than before. Super! The students as a group had added a new methodology of combining ideas to their repertoire. The relative clause instruction had benefited them in that they had a tool which they could and would now use correctly without fear. It was natural for them to use it.
Other constructions such as verbal phrases, appositives, subordinate clauses, and a few others can also be learned and utilized by students. This is precisely what the Jensen's Grammar series teaches. That is why all those sentence formulas exist at the bottom of the exercises. They force the student to create the various constructions so that they become familiar with them. If you have tools at your disposal which you do not know how to use, you don't use them. The same goes for the students. If they do not understand how to use a given construction, they will often avoid its use, particularly when writing.
The key to good sentences is the ability to use the variety of constructions the English language puts at our disposal. These constructions should be properly used and punctuated correctly. When doing so, precise writing becomes possible. Different structures provide slightly differing emphases even though the basic idea and words are the same.
Lesson 75 of Jensen's Grammar gives 15 combinations of two simple sentences. My comment at the bottom of the page is that at least double the possibilities exist. Some combinations accentuate the additional idea while others merely include it or even downplay it. The point is that having mastery over the various constructions and understanding their use will allow for both greater variety and precision in the sentences a student will produce.
After mastering the sentence, the student is ready to learn how to put sentences together into a paragraph. The paragraph has a structural basis for it, namely that everything in the paragraph should somehow center upon or relate to a single idea. This is conceptual in nature, and it can be taught. There are seven common organizational patterns in expository paragraphs; each one is outlined and exampled in my book, Jensen's Format Writing.. Knowing these patterns makes it easier for the student to create paragraphs. All the student has to do is to gather the raw material and fit it into one of the existing patterns.
Once the student gets the hang of paragraphs, the next job is to string a series of paragraphs together. It is organization on a larger scale. The same seven patterns mentioned for single paragraphs exist for multiple paragraphs. The common step is to first tackle the five paragraph essay, which is highly stylized regarding its opening and closing paragraphs. Then the student progresses to the research paper which consists of many paragraphs. Each of these levels is covered in turn in the aforementioned book.
Can a student write before developing a good vocabulary and mastering the various intricacies of sentence constructions? Absolutely. Should the student be required to write stories and short papers about various subjects? Yes, but be aware that proper instruction is necessary before you can expect students to consistently produce good writing. Vocabulary skills should continue to be enhanced through high school since we acquire new words readily until our early twenties. A good grammar program with some systematic review later is best taken between 7th and 10th grade. A solid writing program should then follow with lots of practice in writing papers in all other classes.
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