How Come?

Why do most primary and elementary teachers view “writing a complete sentence” as the gold standard for student writing?  Why do kindergarten teachers press emerging writers for complete sentences to the point where they prefer one copied from a chart over one piece of writing by the student  that may be comprised of pictures and labels?  When third grade teachers bring student writing samples to study team meetings, why do they feel that the very least kids could do for them is write in complete sentences?  Why would this be proof of the student’s ability to write?

One issue I feel is at play is that the grammar and syntax of a complete sentence is a quality (a convention) of writing that teachers can easily recognize.  Other qualities or characteristics of good writing are not necessarily in their view because said teachers are not teaching them.

Another possibility is that The Complete Sentence [TCS] represents the entry point into all Correct Written English [CWE] for many grade school (and perhaps middle and secondary teachers, too?).  I meet with strong evidence for the belief that students must get CWE into their heads and hands, and be fluent at TCS before teachers should allow them to write.

And, with the common teacher complaint that Common Core is not “developmentally appropriate” for their students, who asks when should an emerging writer who is learning a new language be expected to write in complete sentences?  And, does the way English sounds to that EL student be conducive to recognizing complete sentences?  I think not.

Facing down a blank page and producing speech and visual ideas on the page for starters does not occur to teachers who are mostly teaching the spatial organization of writing.  They are not teaching fluency, or the moves of writing, with their students. These teachers feel that support  is telling their students where to put their sentences when they write. This “modeling” is a scaffold that seldom gets taken down because it is far easier than modeling one’s own think aloud, revising it and playing with the next thought that might follow.  Teachers seldom really write and share their thinking aloud with students.

Teacher: Write your topic sentence here. [It’s already copied on the chart paper]

Student: (thinking to herself) Okay, but what’s a topic sentence? (copies the chart)

Teacher:  Make sure you use a period at the end. I want to see complete sentences.

Student: (puts a dot after the last word and waits)

Teacher:  Now I want you to write three more sentences that explain your topic sentence.

Student: [writing] I hope this is enough.  I had better put some dots in mine.

I love great picture book read alouds,  for everything they can bring to children’s literacy.  But in particular, I haven’t seen teachers reading aloud with appreciation for the way language works.  The reading skill of letting one’s voice drop and stop when there’s a period, for example.  Readers are pushed to read fast and run their fingers through the text, processing it.  No wonder their writing is often words running on and on.

I believe that one of the goals of writing ought to be to motivate students to put their thinking on the page, in the fresh coherent manner in which we speak [see Peter Elbow Vernacular Eloquence].  However, teachers are often more worried about correctness. The exercise in getting down thoughts is over ruled by the steps needed to address capitalization, spelling and punctuation.  They seem simple, but paying attention to the all at once, while producing written characters on the pace, and paying attention to what you want to say is complex, for an adult as well as a child.  The result in classrooms is that standardization is made more important than student expression.

I have elementary reading intervention students come to me who cannot write without the constant urge to erase.  They try to self-correct the form — even stopping the flow of writing to adjust the formation of a letter.  See me in the group waving them on, “No, pretend you don’t have an eraser.  Let’s get our thoughts and images down onto the paper!”  Their training to “write” in primary grades was more about correctness than goodness [Elbow].

All of this school belief, the metaphor many teachers live by –Write in Complete Sentences! — is the opposite of what writers say that they do.  Initially they “write badly,” as Anne Lamott explains the “down draft” part.  Just get it down.  Next you can do the “up draft” which is to revise.  Finally, if it is going to be published, do the “dental draft,” fixing every letter and bit of grammar and syntax, punctuation, etc.  This is the edit.  True that proficient writers have often internalized quite a bit of self-editing and sometimes employ it while they are revising, but most don’t let editing interfere with the first attempt — the draft.

I dislike erasures for another reason — both in math and in language arts.  The act of “correcting” takes away the traces of my first attempt.  When I make another attempt — find another answer, write a different word, or spell differently — my brain sees no trail. There is no learning in erasing.  There is only the feeling that what I am doing needs correction.  I prefer the less painful, quicker yank the bandaid off approach in drawing a quick line through my writing that I dislike.  It feels more powerful than punitive.  And I can still look back at the offending words later.  Perhaps some of them weren’t so bad.

When I try to write something that feels important to me, or a felt sense that is just a teensy bit out of reach of my next words, I would find it crippling to worry about my grammar and conventions.  I think that young writers do their best work out of that felt sense and often out of an image, not a string of words.  It seems to me that they picture what they have to say and, as they get some words down, more follow.

One way to support our EL writers, and all young writers is to “write in the air” or try out their thinking, pretending to scribble along a line in front of them with their finger as the imaginary pencil.  This allows easy revision with rehearsal and without commitment to paper yet, which is an effort.  The best part is that it allows children to listen to themselves — to test the sound of their language and words with all that they know about speaking [which is quite a bit more than what they know about the rules of CWE].

I often write with exasperatingly weird grammar.  If I had to think about grammar while I pursued a train of thought, I would quit writing.  My ability to write sentences with acceptable flow — with a more natural grammar than I learned in “school writing” — grows as I give myself permission to write more freely, to “blurt onto the page” as Elbow puts it, and to write quickly trying to keep up with the mental flow.

And, often, my best writing is done more in prose poetry mode, where I am using what Don Edwards refers to as “the line.”  I have a line [not a sentence] that is like a live wire, like the germ for the full fledged thought or description which will come about as I write enough to discover what it is.  Why wouldn’t it be okay for a student writer to proceed from a line, one that has some energy or appeal, and flow into the words that line inspires?

When I have to write expository reports, which I dislike, even then, somehow I am able to go back and revise my terrible, awkward sentences and ghastly paragraph structures.  I can hear the places where my writing diverges from what is considered correct by reading it aloud.  I can revise more patiently if I have been free to over write — to say too much and seek within it the good stuff — than by stilted, careful writing.  If I had been required to first organize this post into the “hamburger essay” format, I would have been unable to say what I have explored during the writing.  All this love of putting words and ideas into little compartments is the result of what?  Being overly fastidious?  Control freaks who cannot bear a bit of uncertainty or tolerate the messiness of a typical creative design process?

I wonder. How does a student know when he has written a complete sentence?  How do I know?  I have learned from reading and employing very basic grammar study what complete sentences should look and feel like.  The main trick is in seeing clauses and knowing what conjunctions mean.  Writing a better sentence — sentence fluency –is best taught, in my opinion, by models from literature.  Great sentences by authors of books I’ve read.  The simple act of marking the words into phrasing gave me and gives students the feel for the units of speech.  The feel for what teachers who teach-grammar-to-death [and who don’t wonder why it doesn’t transfer into student writing] are hoping to impart.  Grammar is analysis, which means breaking into tiny parts to try to understand the whole. Sentence modeling is intuitive.

Modeling the syntax of well-written [beautiful] sentences and learning by imitation is apprenticeship, by which many arts and skills are learned.

Finally, I wonder why getting the complete sentence is supposed to happen in student writing by the strange exercise of DOL?  I see classrooms everyday in which the first event — the exciting lead in to a day of learning — is a half sheet of paper with some very so-so, dull sentences that have errors in them projected on the doc cam. The students’ task is to make the corrections, which presumably teaches them to edit.

How far is the gap between knowing how to edit and knowing how to write?

How far apart are my exciting, silly ideas and the confidence that I will be able to put them down in CWE, especially with regard to the honored, revered Complete Sentence?

I think a better standard would come out of the question, “What is good writing?”  Surely the answer cannot be “drivel recorded in correct form, in complete sentences.”

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