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

by Clay Walker

In the first installment of this survey of sentence-level pedagogies, I reviewed research critiquing arguments that these approaches to teaching writing don’t work. In the following two sections, I first review scholarship arguing for one kind of sentence-level pedagogy or another (though there is some overlap between research reviewed in the first section and the second section); the final section briefly outlines a couple of assignment models that instructors can fold into their courses.



Arguments for Sentence Pedagogies


Scholars who advocate for sentence pedagogies argue that sentence based pedagogies are key generative or invention tactics for composing that tap into the rhetorics of style. These arguments for sentence pedagogies are distinct from skill and drill arguments by their emphasis on rhetorical concerns such as invention, imitation, and style. Although some arguments for sentence pedagogy emphasize the importance of exercise-based practice, these exercises build toward contextualized writing situations/practices (c.f. Christensen, Corbet, Strong).


In “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence,” Francis Christensen outlines his sentence pedagogy, which centers around a main clause that serves as the kernel for further, and generative, sentence development. Christensen’s method operates on 4 major principles to develop what he calls the cumulative sentence. Christensen distinguishes the cumulative sentence as a mode that is “dynamic rather than static, representing the mind thinking” (156). Further, this mode of sentence development is rhetorical because “It serves the needs of both the writer and the reader, the writer by compelling him to examine his thought, the reader by letting him into the writer’s thought” (156). First, good sentence writing begins by adding new information to the kernel in contrast to emphasizing brevity, deletion, simplification, etc. (c.f. Strunk and White). Addition happens by adding new phrases to a kernel main clause. Second, because the Christensen method emphasizes addition, one must specify how new phrases relate to the kernel, which Christensen calls direction. New phrases may occur before, within, or after the kernel. Third, the writer must determine the level of specificity of the new phrases – whether they are abstract or concrete. Finally, the writer must develop texture by using modifying phrases, adjectives, and adverbs. Ideally, one’s sentences should achieve a variety of texture throughout the text.


In “The Theory and Practice of Imitation in Classical Rhetoric,” Edward P. J. Corbett argues for the value of imitation as a generative practice for developing style. Noting that ancient rhetoricians, including Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Longinus, Cicero, and Quintilian, advocated imitation as a powerful learning strategy, Corbett situates imitation as part of a larger learning triad of theory, imitation, and practice. The goal of imitation, Corbett argues, is to make oneself similar to another writer; similar, but not identical. To imitate is to emulate, for “Imitation” in classical rhetoric “asked the student to observe the manner or pattern or form or means used by a model and then attempt to emulate the model” (244). There are two basic steps to imitation as a developmental exercise: analysis and genesis or emulation (245). While we don’t have access to the ancient pedagogies, Corbett draws on the Renaissance adaptations of classical rhetoric to develop the following imitation exercises: explication de texte; copy verbatim select passages; double translation; and paraphrase. While commonplace books were practiced also during the Renaissance period, Corbett does not value them as an imitation source, but notes instead their function as a collection of passages on various subjects (e.g., a collection of content rather than a study of form). Finally, Corbett discusses writers’ and scholars’ comments on imitation, including Robert Louis Stevenson and W. Ross Winterowd, who argue variously that imitation does not stifle creativity (249).


Micciche argues in “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar” that the field should take up grammar instruction as a rhetorical concern rather than as an end stage (error correction during editing) writing concern. While Micciche notes that “grammar instruction is unquestionably unfashionable” (716), she argues that teaching grammar is as important as any other undertaking in composition pedagogy (718). Micciche’s approach is to emphasize grammar as a rhetorical concern in that it deeply ties the formation of thought to the expression of ideas through language structures. Thus, Micciche writes, “The grammatical choices we make – including pronoun use, active or passive ver constructions, and sentence patterns – represent relations between writers and the world they live in” (719). While critics of grammar instruction argue variously that focusing on grammar takes too much time away from higher order concerns or that ideas must be developed before sentences may be crafted, or that grammar instruction focuses on error through a disciplinary (e.g., control) framework, Micciche emphasizes rhetorical grammar as a concern of language and ideas. In this sense, we may, like Christensen (unmentioned in Micciche’s argument), note that rhetorical grammar is generative. Micciche defines rhetorical grammar instruction as “a tool for articulating and expressing relationships among ideas. The purpose of learning rhetorical grammar is to learn how to generate persuasive, clear thinking that reflects on and responds to language as work, as produced rather than evacuated of imperfections” (720).


Micciche’s approach to grammar instruction adapts the Commonplace books for the composition classroom. Students are asked to cite any passage from any text that they find interesting, for whatever reason. Accompanying each entry, however, is an analysis that examines the relationship between the form of the language and the ideas expressed in the passage. The pedagogy thus “encourages students to experiment with language and then to reflect on the interaction between content and grammatical form. While this approach entails study of sentence slots, structures like participial phrases and adverbials that add information to a sentence, and the difference between independent and dependent clauses, rhetorical grammar more generally requires students to think about the work these aspects of grammar achieve for a writer’s message” (722).


In “Doing Sentence Combining: Some Practical Hints,” William Strong outlines three main areas that make sentence combining a successful enterprise. First, Strong argues that since writing is inherently a constructive process rather than a deconstructive process, students need practice in building good sentences and paragraphs. Sentence-combining accomplishes this, Strong argues, because it asks students “to transform clusters of kernel sentences into more complex, elaborated structures. In other words, it’s making longer sentences out of short ones. It’s making choices from a finite set of stylistic alternatives” (210). Key to the success of the pedagogy, Strong argues, is modeling by the instructor (211). Strong supports this pedagogy by pointing to five areas in which research has shown sentence-combining to be effective, though the does not specify authors or titles of the seventeen studies that he refers to  (216). Second, Strong argues that developing effective writing skills requires practice over time in what he describes as an ebb and flow of growth (211). Sentence-combining meets this goal by paralleling effective music instruction, which emphasizes exercise-based practice that scaffolds to context-rich performance/production. However, rather than monitor and correct all practice efforts, we must develop a workshop orientation in which students work in small groups to play with and develop writing abilities. Finally, Strong argues that the pedagogy invites students to generate lots of writing, much of which cannot be read by the instructor because of the volume (213).


In Sentence Combining, William Strong introduces his approach to sentence combining in conjunction with several exercises. Strong outlines the key assumptions that underlie the sentence combining pedagogy for students. First, all language users are language experts. Sentence combining does not teach new writing skills, but instead brings to the surface the student writer’s wealth of linguistic resources “to the level of awareness so that they can be used deliberately and effectively” (xxiii). Second, developing technical grammatical understanding of language will not make you a better writer; thus,“Writing depends on the ability to use language, not on the ability to describe it” (xxiii). Third, speech is our primary language system, writing is a secondary technology for using language that must be taught and learned (xxiii). Thus, students should use their oral speech skills to “hear” or find the best solution to a sentence-level composing problem. Students already know how to use the words, and where to place them in a sentence, though minor conventions about comma use, etc., may arise in class work (xxiv).


The value of sentence combining is that it allows students to choose from an array of alternatives for expressing an idea. While there may be innumerable options for expressing an idea, one’s writing skill depends on the potentials visible to or available to the writer (3). Choosing good sentences: Strong explains that it makes no sense to evaluate a sentence on its own. “A sentence is effective only if it works; and sentences only work in the context of other sentences” (40). To evaluate their own writing, students must be able to reread their own sentences and evaluate a given sentence within its broader context. Sentence combining skills offer the student to identify and deploy alternative sentence formations to help make a target sentence “work” more effectively in its situation.


In “ReMembering the Sentence,” Sharon Myers extends Connors argument that the field should revitalize sentence pedagogies, which have been roundly dismissed by composition scholars and pedagogues since the early 1980s, by offering a possible theoretical explanation for the success of sentence pedagogies. Myers develops her ideas primarily from contemporary research in linguistics, as well as her experience teaching ESL (in addition to various other composition courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level). Drawing on her experience as a writing instructor, Myers observes that students’ “thoughts founder on sentences much more often than on content or organization” (611). This view echoes Laura Micciche’s argument that thoughts hinge on the development of phrases or the form of language – what Micciche calls rhetorical grammar. In order to develop her own response to Connors, Myers draws on fields within linguistics, such as corpus linguistics, to show that sentence combining familiarizes students with words and word co-occurences in academic writing (615). While word co-occurance is not a stated goal of sentence pedagogies, such as sentence combining, it does help explain the positive effects of the teaching practice. As Myers helpfully reminds us, “Words, lots of words, words in the right contextual register, alternative words, and combinations of words are the raw material of composition” (616). Recent research in linguistics, Myers argues, can help our “sentence pedagogies [focus] not on syntax but on the actual members of the sentence: the words and phrases themselves and the processes by which we learn them” (612). We would be well advised to deeply consider how sentence-level writing contributes to the construction of meaning in rhetorically meaningful contexts, as well as to the complex processes of idea generation and articulation. In the following section, I outline three methods proposed by the scholars reviewed above for integrating sentence-level pedagogies in the composition classroom.


Assignment Types for Sentence Pedagogies


  • Commonplace Journal (c.f. Corbett; Micciche): this assignment asks students to copy passages that demonstrate an interesting, powerful, or otherwise important style. Using Corbett’s method, the goal is for students to appropriate the writer’s style (to emulate not copy), thus students copy a passage, analyze the language features that make the passage effective, then imitate the style in the student’s own writing. Micciche differs from Corbett’s model in that Micciche pushes students to examine the connection between content and form through a reflective analysis of the passage. The goal in Micciche’s approach is for students to learn how ideas are connected by language, and how clear, logical, and well phrased passages are produced by authors.
  • Reflective Writing (c.f. Howard; Micciche): using reflective writing can allow the student to focus on his/her stylistic choices in order to understand how ideas are connected to language in what Micciche calls a rhetorical grammar framework and to see how those choices are connected to a sociocultural context in which the text is situated. Using reflective writing in this way asks students to read, analyze, and reflect on passages from texts they have read, then to work to fold those style or sentence-techniques into students’ own ongoing compositions. For Howard, this reflexivity allows students to develop metacognition of their developing ethos as writers.
  • Kernel Exercises (c.f. Christiansen; Strong): the kernel method asks students to begin with a core idea, then to explore how to extend that idea by employing any number of sentence patterns. By adding clauses and phrases that modify the kernel, students will use their understanding of sentence structure to generate new ideas. Each revision should add a level of detail or depth to the sentence’s ideas. This method would be most useful early in a composing process or when students are working to develop their concepts in some depth. Christiansen also develops the kernel approach as a method for paragraphing as well.


Works Cited

Christensen, Francis. “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence.” CCC 14 (1963): 155-161. Print.

Connors, Robert J. “The Erasure of the Sentence.” College Composition and Communication 52.1 (2000): 96-128. Print.

Corbett, Edward P. J. “The Theory and Practice of Imitation in Classical Rhetoric.” CCC 22.3 (1971): 243-50. Print.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Contextualist Stylistics: Breaking Down the Binaries in Sentence-Level Pedagogies.” Refiguring Prose Style: Possibilities for Writing Pedagogy, Ed. T.R. Johnson and Tom Pace. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2005 (42-56). Print

Micciche, Laura R. “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar.” CCC 55.4 (2004): 716-737. Print.

Myers, Sharon A. “ReMembering the Sentence.” CCC 54.4 (2003): 610-628, Print.

Pace, Tom. “Style and the Renaissance of Composition Studies.” Refiguring Prose Style: Possibilities for Writing Pedagogy, Ed. T.R. Johnson and Tom Pace. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2005 (3-22). Print.

Strong, William. “Doing Sentence Combining: Some Practical Hints.” Sentence Combining and the Teaching of Writing, Ed. By Donald A. Daiker, Andrew Kerek, and Max Morenberg. Conway, AR: L&S Books, 1979. 209-215. Print.

Strong, William. Sentence Combining: A Composing Book. NY: Random House, 1973. Print.


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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