(How) Do you deal with sentence-level issues in student writing?

From Mike Laser

I’d like to share a problem, and ask a question.

Here are a few sentences written by my students this semester:

  1. The poem, “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe is by far his most famous poem he’s written… When looking at the poem on a deeper meaning though, you can see that Lenore was his love, and she has died in some way.
  2. The author purposely associates this word (“carried”) to this new meaning to reveal how life was like for men in war, including how he once lived when he was drafted into the Vietnam War.
  3. The doll finally came to life and took charge to make a change.
  4. Neglecting to recognize the horrors those people endure allow people to go to war more easily.
  5. She’s only a plaything or maybe you can call her a doll in his mind.
  6. The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones.
  7. The author thinks back at when he was at war and talks about the man he killed and how he was someone he would befriend.
  8. The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
  9. Apart from the speakers’ terrible war experience and varied gendered perspective, the poems send out a clear message that wars should be prevented in the future by describing them as gruesome.

I understand that our job is mainly to teach students to construct coherent arguments, and that teaching grammar lessons is largely ineffective—but I’m haunted by sentences like these. I don’t expect to turn any of these writers into Susan Sontag in one semester, but I wish I knew an effective way to help them.

My question: have any of you been able to make a noticeable difference when teaching students who write sentences like these? If so, what did you do?

There may be no easy cure—there may not be a cure—but before giving up, I’d like to hear what experienced instructors have to say.

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4 thoughts on “(How) Do you deal with sentence-level issues in student writing?

  1. Great question, Mike. While not terribly effective at globally cutting down sentence-level errors, I’ve had some success with individual students by modeling how to identify sentence-level errors (they first have to know that the sentence is wrong before they can fix it). There is a simple exercise (possibly in Bean’s Engaging Students) of pulling out sentences from student papers and correcting them as a class. You can even break students up into groups and have them identify and correct sentences from each others’ papers. It can be fun if you treat it as a game that they know will help them become better writers.

  2. Our job is to teach students how to empower their thoughts by transmitting them to others in a coherent form. The sentence is the basic tool for doing this and without knowing how to write a decent sentence, the power of their thoughts is destroyed.

    I was also told, including at Montclair State, never to teach grammar, but there are ways to get around this. Show your students the sentences you have listed above and see what they say. They will find the same muddiness that you have found. But they will not know what is wrong or how to fix them.

    Teaching college freshman you are faced with years of so-called teaching when the students are encouraged to express their feelings, not write clear thoughts. You can’t fix that in one semester, but you can make them aware that unless they can write a sound sentence, all the wonderful thoughts in their brains will go to waste.

  3. I do grammar quizzes where they fix problem sentences from their papers. Sentences are marked with the handbook chapter/reference and they look up the mistakes themselves. I stole this from someone else, of course, but I know at least some of my students are more careful about their writing because of it.

  4. I very much relate to this question! I don’t teach traditional grammar in a writing classroom either, but I do emphasize style in first year writing. Recently, I’ve been using some of the exercises from Holcomb and Killingsworth’s *Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in the Composition Classroom,* and I have found that these activities give students a performative grasp on the structure of language in ways that help all the students in the class, even the students who don’t make errors but who want to learn to make their prose even better. I wouldn’t say that these exercises are heavily emphasized in my classes, but they do make a nice supplement to what is central.

    I’ll be there at Montclair teaching first year writing in a few months, so I will be able to let you know how it works with them too.

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