Teaching Tips: A Survey of Approaches to Sentence Pedagogies (Part 1 of 2)

by Clay Walker

Along with the turn to theory and disciplinary rigor in the field of Composition and Rhetoric during the 1980s came a profound turn away from the generative sentence-level pedagogies that were widely popular and shown to be successful (Connors). While many compositionists flippantly remark something along the lines of “research shows that skill and drill doesn’t work,” little actual research has been done on practice-based sentence exercises. Moreover, sentence-level pedagogy doesn’t have to be mindless drone work! Following in the tradition of Christensen and Corbett who argue for a sentence-level pedagogy that serves as a mode of idea generation for student writers, more recent scholars like Micciche and Howard have argued for a return to the sentence in our teaching. The following blog offers a primer on research addressing sentence-level pedagogies that reads somewhat like an extended annotated bibliography. I will develop this argument in three sections, two of which are organized as detailed literature reviews. The first section reviews arguments that the field has mistakenly turned away from sentence-level pedagogies (see below). The final two sections, which will be published separately, respond to this literature review with an overview of arguments for sentence-level pedagogies and a discussion of teaching practices


Critiques of Composition Studies for Having Turned Away from Sentence/Style Pedagogies


In “The Erasure of the Sentence,” Robert Connors surveys the research record on sentence-level pedagogies from the mid-1960s through the 1990s. Connors focuses on three main strands of sentence-level pedagogies (the Christensen method [Christensen], classical rhetoric imitation exercises [Corbett; Weathers and Winchester], and sentence-combining [O’Hare; Strong]). For each method, Connors describes the origin of the pedagogy, outlines its rise to prominence in the field, and summarizes its supporting research. Notably, Connors finds that each sentence-level pedagogy was found to be statistically effective in teaching students to develop more mature sentence-level writing (Faigley analyzed the Christensen method; Hake and Williams examined imitation exercises; and Hunt analyzed sentence-combining). After reviewing each of the three pedagogies, Connors discusses the main critiques leveled against sentence-level pedagogies, beginning in the 1980s when sentence-combining pedagogies were widely practiced and accepted as a core part of composition instruction.


First, scholars such as Moffett made anti-formalism arguments that critiqued sentence-level pedagogies “for moving from ‘little particle to big particle’ toward the whole composition. ‘For the learner,’ Moffett wrote, ‘basics are not the small-focus technical things but broad things like meaning and motivation, purpose and point, which are precisely wheat are missing from exercises’ (205)” (110). Sabina Thorne Johnson also contributed to the anti-formalism critiques: “She initiated a line of argument against syntactic methods that later came to seem conclusive: that students need training in higher-level skills such as invention and organization more than they need to know how to be ‘sentence acrobats’” (111). Like Johnson, A.M. Tibbetts pushed for more emphasis on higher-order concerns, arguing that the Christensen method “is not designed to teach young people how to do the most valuable things any grammar-rhetoric should be designed to teach – how to think; how to separate and define issues; how to isolate fallacies; how to make generalizations and value judgments – in brief, how to express the truths and realities of our time and how to argue for improvements” (111). One response to the formalism of sentence-level pedagogies emerged by schools such s Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, and Moffett, in the school of expressivist pedagogy. These scholars critiqued sentence-level pedagogies for being a-rhetorical, as Elbow explains: “In sentence-combining the student is not engaged in figuring out what she wants to say or saying what is on her mind. And because it provides prepackaged words and ready-made thoughts, sentence-combining reinforces the push-button, fast-food expectations in our culture” (Elbow qtd in Connors 111).


Second, composition scholars leveled anti-automation critiques that challenged the nonconscious writing capacities developed by sentence-level pedagogies. Following these critiques, research on sentence-level pedagogies shifted to subfields such as ESL, disabilities, and special education. As Connors explains, the behavioral psychology that formed the basis for much of the pedagogy was increasingly distrusted by humanists: “for many critics, the behaviorist, exercise-based formats of these pedagogies were deeply troubling. They were perceived as a-rhetorical, uncreative, and in some senses destructive of individuality” (114). Scholars like James Britton and James Moffet critiqued exercises for lacking the rich context of authentic writing practices.


Finally, scholars criticized the empirical basis for sentence-level pedagogies in what Connors calls the anti-empiricism critiques. Scholars like Susan Wells and Patricia Bizzell critiqued sentence-level pedagogies in the late 1970s for having an empiricist foundation and epistemology. As Connors notes, sentence-level pedagogies were found to be “a practice without a theory, a method without a principle” (117). While research published during the late 1970s and early 1980s showed that sentence-level pedagogies worked, its critics condemned the practice for lacking a sufficient theoretical rationale (118). As the social-constructivism movement emerged, scholars like Michael Holzman further criticized the pedagogy for embodying a scientistic approach rather than an humanistic approach (118-9).


As a result of these three critical strands (anti-formalism, anti-automatism, and anti-empiricism), the field of sentence-level pedagogies came to a halt and the aphorism that “research has shown that sentence-combining doesn’t work” was born. However, as Connors’ essay shows, this claim “is simply not true” (119). Connors elaborates explicitly on this premise: “I can find no work that genuinely ‘disproved’ the gains created for students through sentence practice” (119). More to the point (and disconcertingly), “if people believe that research has shown that sentence rhetorics don’t work, their belief exists not because the record bears it out but because it is what people want to believe” (120). Why did this happen? Connors suggests that sentence combining was pushed out as new scholar crystallized a humanistic, theoretically-driven disciplinary identity in the early 1980s. Connors argues that inter-disciplinary, empirical, quantitative, behavioralist pedagogy of sentence-combining was swept out the door with other non-English elements, including high school education, oral based rhetoric in speed and communication departments, psychology and quantitative research methods (121).


In “Style and the Renaissance of Composition Studies,” Tom Pace argues the field misunderstands the place of style in rhetorical education (4). Building off Peter Elbow’s call for composition and literary studies to re-align their interests in areas such as style, Pace writes: “Elbow is insisting … that studying and teaching style – and playing with language in both scholarship and the classroom – are by no means an exercise in some type of dainty humanism for a few privileged souls, or dull regurgitation of rule. No. Rather, Elbow is suggesting that the study and teaching of style should reside at the very heart of what we should do as composition teachers – instruction in the craft, the skill, and the infinite richness of language. And, I would add, the teaching of style, the playing around with words, the messing around with metaphorical language is conducive, not adverse, to academic writing and to socially responsible writing instruction” (5). To make his case, Pace provides a re-reading of three key figures in sentence-pedagogies during the 1960s and 1970s: Christensen, Corbett, and Weathers. Teaching (and by extension learning) style in writing courses constitutes a kind of social responsible writing practice because it provides students with “more stylistic options,” thereby increasing the likelihood that they will “be able to demonstrate successful rhetorical activity” in whatever writing situations they should find themselves (22).


Rebecca Moore Howard provides a history of composition that seeks to account for the erosion of setnence-level pedagogies in “Contextualist Stylistics.” Like Pace and Connors, Howard notes that “Compositionists today are comfortable teaching the writing process or positioning the composition classroom as a forum in which to improve society, but many are decidedly uncomfortable about teaching style. Those who do teach it tend to employ textualist methods that are now outdated in stylistics” (43). Howard distinguishes her history from Pace and Connors by focusing on the field’s critiques of linguistics and literature, and the unexpected influence the Students Right to Their Own Language had on sentence pedagogies. Compositionists, in establishing a field of their own, left style behind as they moved beyond linguistics and its emphasis on units smaller than or equal to the sentence-level. Likewise, the field wanted to move out from under its subordination to literature. “Disavowing an interest in style accomplished both” (47). Further, SRTOL had an unintended effect of dampening interest in teaching (standard English) style. Drawing on Stephen Parks’ Class Politics, Howard explains, “SRTOL took a clear stand on sentence-level issues: “[G]ood speech and good writing ultimately have little to do with traditional notions of surface ‘correctness’” (Parks 2000, 12). And it sent powerful signals to teachers: ‘If we can convince our students that spelling, punctuation, and usage are less important than content, we have removed a major obstacle in their developing the ability to write’ (8)” (47).


Lost to the new generation of compositionists who solidified the field’s identity in the early 1980s was the fact that SRTOL was supposed to be followed-up by a second group drafting a new pedagogy that would address stylistics. But, as Parks points out, that never happened, and the only options have been to take up fossil pedagogies that emphasize clarity (e.g., Joseph Williams) or do nothing at all (48). Howard’s goal in “Contextualist Stylistics” is thus to articulate a theoretical basis for a socially responsible sentence-level pedagogy. Drawing on contextual stylistics, Howard emphasizes reflection and reflexivity as two key elements in a socially responsible stylistic pedagogy. “Contextualistic stylistics offers methods that might lead composition students not to acknowledge their inferiority to canonized authors, but to understand how readers construct text-intrinsic authorial ethos; what roles authorial ethos (intrinsic and extrinsic) plays in the effectiveness and success of texts; and how a range of analyses and techniques allows the writer to manipulate the systems of signification through which texts are interpreted” (55). Using reflection (in a Dewey and Freire tradition), Howard argues students can focus on the production of a text in order to “understand their own stylistic choices and options, and to see how those choices and options participate in, are son trained by, and have the potential to affect the sociocultural contexts in which they are deployed” (55). Reflexivity would invite students to “acknowledge what they learn about themselves and their relation to contexts” (56).


Taken together, this body of research demonstrates that the field mistakenly turned away from a teaching practice well supported by research in the field. As a field, we have privileged rhetoric and process over style and mechanics. However, as scholarship in the next section seeks to point out, the higher order concerns of rhetoric and idea generation are not as easily separated from the mechanics and grammar of sentence-level writing as we might be inclined to think.


Dr. Clay Walker regularly teaches developmental and intermediate writing at Wayne State University. His research focuses on the interconnections between literacy, embodiment, cognition, and our social and material environments. His current project explores how research in cognitive linguistics on conceptual blending can contribute to our understanding of how we make meaning through literate practices that cross discourse community boundaries.  

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