Rethinking Writing Instruction

By: Betty Turso

What I consider to be the Bible of writing instruction, The Elements of Style by William B. Strunk and E.B. White, advises the writer to “make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.”  This seems clear enough but what, exactly, is a paragraph? Dictionary.com defines a paragraph as “a distinct portion of written or printed matter dealing with a particular idea, usually beginning with an indentation on a new line.”  The idea of the paragraph comes down to us from Alexander Bain, Professor at the University of Aberdeen in 1867.  Prior to that, there is little mention of the paragraph at all.  Furthermore, Arthur A. Stern’s experiments in the early 70s proved that paragraphing is arbitrary at best.  He asked 100 teachers to paragraph a 500 word passage.  Only five out of 100 paragraphed it as the original; he received responses of two, three, four, and five paragraphs. This led him reasonably to ask then why if a paragraph is a Teacher providing feedback on a student's writingdistinct unit of thought, cannot we recognize it? Writing instruction has changed little since Bain but with the advent of higher standards, it is time to think anew.   Instead of focusing on the paragraph, writing instruction should focus on the basic unit of writing: the sentence.

The first step then is to define the sentence. Dictionary.com defines a sentence as “a grammatical unit of one or more words that expresses an independent statement, question, request, command, exclamation, etc., and that typically has a subject as well as a predicate.” That is a start, but Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa has the best definition of a sentence.  He defines a sentence as a sequence of words containing a subject and a verb that advances one or more propositions.   A proposition is a statement about reality that can either be accepted or rejected.  He likens a sentence to an iceberg.  The written part is above the water and all the underlying propositions are below the water.  For example, “ I am a teacher.”  The underlying propositions include: I exist, there is something we call a teacher, and I am one of them.  Most sentences imply a number of thoughts.  In fact, the basic unit of writing is the proposition, not the words or sequence of words. As Brooks points out, the simple clear sentence, “I like hamburgers, ” is loaded with a number of questions for the reader.  What do I mean by like?  What kind of hamburgers? Why do I want someone to know this? The point of teaching sentences from the standpoint of the propositions it advances is for the student to understand how sentences combine propositions to reveal information.   When this premise is understood, the student can put propositions together to express her own ideas.  Furthermore, a writer can control a reader’s reaction by controlling the way the propositions are revealed.  Additionally, instructing sentence writing from this point of view will improve the student’s reading comprehension because the student will begin to look for and understand the underlying meaning in written sentences.

Therefore teaching writing from the point of the sentence rather than the paragraph can give a fresh look at the pedagogy of teaching.

About the author:  Betty Turso has been a teacher at John I. Leonard Community High School for the past 22 years.  She currently teaches English IV to Seniors but has a variety of experience teaching ESL, ESE Inclusion, AP, Journalism, Mass Media, and Advanced Reading courses.  She earned her Master’s Degree in English from Florida Atlantic University and achieved national Board Certification in 2000 and again in 2010.     

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4 thoughts on “Rethinking Writing Instruction

  1. Alyson Bisogno says:

    In the past ten years I have been teaching, there has been a bias for “paragraph based writing.” First there was FCAT Writes where most of the instruction relied on the five paragraph essay model. Now we have the Palm Beach Performance Assessment and the FSA at year’s end which tells students to produce a “multi-paragraph” response to the question. Although these are valid teaching and writing methods, teaching only this methods leaves some of the art of writing out of students’ writing. I’ve seen writing reduced to some algebraic expression where one only had to “plug” in some loosely strung words to produce a product because writing instruction was too focused on creating paragraphs. The art of writing requires writers to start small with words that move both the writer and reader. Furthermore, focusing on the art of the sentence may lead writers to create one true sentence as Hemingway would suggest (and maybe another one too).

  2. Betty Turso says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. Very interesting. I agree that creative writing should be a part of the curriculum. I’ve had students with innate writing abilities that are not nurtured in the typical test-driven classroom. This is tragic as we may be losing the next Pulitzer or Nobel prize writers.

  3. Silkia Aviles says:

    I agree with you! I love to write, but to teach it? Over the past years I have encountered numerous obstacles: Pruebas Puertorriqueñas, El College Board, Palm Beach Writes, and the Palm Beach Performance Assessment… And I am pretty sure they will just keep coming… I enjoyed your blog!!!

  4. Andrés Ramírez says:

    Dear Alyson, Silkia, and Betty.
    While I am in complete disagreement with your perspectives on writing, I applaud your collegiality and willingness to share your thoughts.
    It would be interesting to meet sometime and talk about this.

    Dr. Andrés Ramírez
    Assistant Professor
    Curriculum, Culture, and Educational Inquiry
    Florida Atlantic University

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