Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Writing to Learn

Creating this log is an exercise in writing to learn. I find blogging a great way to collect and organize and synthesize information, and to sort out my thoughts.

“I don’t know what I think until I see what I’ve said.” E.M. Forster

Order of Posts

Please notice that I have inserted these posts so they may be read in order from the top of the page to the bottom instead of with the last post written at the top of the page, as blog posts are usually shown.

I've placed my bibliography and some useful links
in a post toward the bottom of the blog page.

Strengthening Sentences: Background

Strengthening Sentences: Sentence Imitating, Sentence Combining, and More
Demonstration Lesson by Claudia Dorsey
CUWP Summer Institute 2009

Find the PowerPoint and Handout at

Background: As we’ve discussed what we should do to help our students improve their writing, I and my fellow seventh grade teachers at American Fork Junior High, keep coming back to the idea that many of our students (actually most, if not all) need help at the sentence level.

Trying direct instruction, we kept hearing, “What is a noun?” and “Isn’t the word 'I' a proper noun?” Selectively pointing out repeated errors in their papers for them to work on often failed because they didn’t understand what we were trying to tell them. Daily oral language became “once-in-awhile” oral language because I wasn’t seeing transfer to student’s own writing.

Research had nixed many of the strategies I’d tried, but there was some positive talk among experts (the ones who weren’t nay-sayers about all such efforts) concerning sentence combining and imitating.

I’ve used sentence combining. When I was new to teaching junior high in the ‘90s, the materials I was handed along with the keys to a classroom included sheets of sentence combining activities, and I used them now and then. Does anyone remember the classic “Tucker was a trucker. He was stuck. He was in the muck. He was out of luck. He was near Winnemucca.”?

The now and then combining didn’t seem to do much for my students, or for me. Now I realize that I had only a shallow understanding of how to help my students through sentence combining.

A couple of years ago, I discovered Killgallon’s Sentence Composing for Middle School, and was excited at the possibilities, but once again, I wasn’t consistent. Part of the problem was that I was trying to follow too closely what I saw as the program prescribed in the book, and my students (and I) grew weary too soon. Again this year I did a little of each, but still was not consistent enough to make any real progress.

Curious, and feeling that if applied correctly, these practices could positively impact student writing, I’ve decided to again do daily sentence work – at least most days – and with an increased understanding of how to make it work for both me and the students. So here goes. . .

Strengthening Sentences: Burning Questions

Strengthening Sentences: Burning Questions

1. What can I do to help my students write clearer, stronger sentences? (That does include capitalizing sentence beginnings and punctuating the endings, as well as saying what they mean in between.)
2. How can I engage (and maintain engagement for) my students and myself in the work that must be done to improve sentences? (Can at at least part of it feel a bit like play?)
3. Will the work we do with sentences transfer to their paragraphs, essays, narratives, and other writing?

4. I'm wondering how students can IMITATE and COMBINE to clarify and express understanding in other content areas.
5. I'm wondering if I can contribute to what teachers are doing in the other content areas by selecting model sentences and paragraphs and topics that will reinforce student learning in those classes.

Strengthening Sentences: Hypothesis

Strengthening Sentences: Hypothesis

Research suggests that correctly using sentence imitation and sentence combining techniques will help my students improve their writing. Using these techniques wisely and well over time will be worthwhile. As I've studied about these techniques, I've picked up on variations and added activities that could enrich the "study" of how to generate diverse and effective sentences.

Note: More than once in my reading, I found statements, based on research, suggesting that sentence combining/imitation does result in improvement of student writing/sentences -- improvement that is accelerated over that of students in a control group not taught with combining and imitation. Apologetically added to those statements was the admission that the control group caught up with time. (Sources cited to be inserted here.)

That does not discourage me from using these teaching strategies. The sooner my students can feel more comfortable and confident with their writing, the better! I've spent too long working with readers who, because they are behind their peers, develop negative attitudes toward reading and miss out on much of the learning that is otherwise available to them. The development of competency in reading and writing must be a priority for teachers now.

Strengthening Sentences: Core Standards

Strengthening Sentences: Core Standards

Utah State Core: Seventh Grade Language Arts
Standard 2 -
Objective 3 (Revision and Editing): Revise and edit to strengthen ideas, organization, voice,
word choice, sentence fluency and conventions.
a. Evaluate and revise for: . . .
Varied sentence beginnings and sentence length.

Strengthening Sentences: Rationale

Strengthening Sentences: Rationale for using Sentence Imitation, Combining, and other Related Exercises

1. ". . . using models in the teaching of writing can free students to concentrate on ideas, enabling them to concentrate on the content of what they are writing without being unduly restricted by concerns of form." (Butler)

2. “The first reason that we should reintroduce imitation in the composition classroom is that it would enable composition teachers to teach students what we expect them to write.” (Butler) [We should provide our students with clear expectations, clear learning targets.]

3. ". . . in some instances adherents of process approaches to writing create situations in which students ultimately find themselves held accountable for knowing a set of rules about which no one has ever directly informed them" (Delpit) [This especially, as Delpit and others point out, applies to our minority and lower income students.]

4. In their "For Teachers. . . " section of Sentence Composing for Elementary School, the Killgallons (vi) suggest that sentence imitation practices could also improve reading comprehension, and later quote (vii) from Francis Christensen the idea that work with sentence composing could help the student "thread the syntactical maze of much mature writing. . ." (137).

5. ". . . it seems that one objection to imitation, based on the idea that only an individual genius alone can produce a competent work, is unsound. When we write, we are not drawing exclusively upon what is within us but also upon many other factors in our lives: our environments, upbringing, past readings and writings, and conversations in many different contexts. All of these factors mix and match and affect what comes out on the page." (Butler)

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“Imitation is both sincere flattery, and profound pedagogy.” -- Don and Jenny Killgallon (viii)

"Even though imitation requires imagination, no one wants to admit it." -- Butler

"Imitate that you may be different" (190) -- Corbett