You Can't Teach Writing by the Numbers

By Tina Blue
March 19, 2002

    I just finished a tutoring session with "Jane," a high school student who is taking English 101 at a nearby community college.  Like most freshman composition students she has some problems with her writing, but nothing that a good composition class couldn't deal with.

    But unfortunately, like too many students in high school and college, she is not going to get a good composition class.

          Actually, her college English teacher just retired from many years of teaching high school English.  I wasn't surprised to hear this, since everything the teacher is doing in this 101 class screams high school.  In many of my articles on this site I complain about teachers, especially those in high school and middle school,  who force their students to write according to rigid formulas, but this particular instructor is even more fanatical than most about specifying the elements of the formula she wants her students to follow.

          Believe it or not, she tells them how many paragraphs each essay should have and how many sentences each paragraph should have!  She also requires that each paper have a certain number of compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.  Oh, yeah, and at least one semicolon.

          You can see where such requirements come from, of course.  She obviously is used to dealing with students who normally write in short, choppy sentences and who think a paragraph is sufficiently developed with two or three general remarks about its topic.  Her requirements are intended to force students to combine closely related sentences into more complex structures and to make sure that they provide at least a certain number of sentences of development for each main point in their essay.

          But after examining her handouts and hearing what my tutoring student has to say about the course, I can tell that this woman has allowed her concern with numbers to get the better of her good sense.  It is one thing to teach students to write longer and more complex sentences, but it is counterproductive to shift their focus from writing as meaning and communication to writing as a matter of counting sentence types. 

          In the first place, most students are not given sufficient grounding in grammar these days to even understand what is meant by simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.  In the absence of such knowledge, they naturally assume that what the teacher wants is longer sentences, period.  But of course the length of a sentence is not what determines whether it is a simple or a complex sentence; that is determined by the types of clauses within the sentence.  (Whew!  I got my semicolon in!)

          I asked Jane whether the teacher has worked with them on this subject--whether she has given them lessons in recognizing sentence types and in writing the different types of sentences.  Jane says the teacher has tried to, but no one in the class understands what she is talking about.  So I spent a few minutes going over sentence types with Jane and giving her examples of each type.  It didn't take long for her to learn to distinguish between a simple sentence, a compound sentence, a complex sentence, and a compound-complex sentence, regardless of length.  Really, it's not that hard to do--and not that hard to teach, either. 

          But instead this teacher has simply laid down the law, and lowers the students' grades if they don't produce according to the numbers.

          What bothered me about Jane's essay was not the lack of length and complexity in her sentence structures, though I can see we need to do some work there.  What really bothered me was that there was virtually no development of her key points, and little in the way of logical connection from one point to the next.  In other words, quite apart from any sentence-level flaws, the essay was nowhere near being an adequate analysis of her topic, which was the impact of violent media on children.

          Think about that topic.  There is so much that could be said that a writer would need to intensely narrow and focus his approach to the subject before he could even begin to write about it.  But that's one of the lessons this composition class isn't teaching.  Instead, Jane was allowed to take violence in media and its influence on children as a topic for a short essay.  And I do mean short.  This paper is no more than 500 words long.  What can one possibly say about such a huge, nebulous topic in such a short space?  Nothing worth writing or reading, I assure you.

          So the teacher has failed to teach her class the first, most basic lesson about writing essays: you must choose a topic and an approach that you can actually handle in the allotted time and space.  If the wrong sort of topic and the wrong sort of thesis are chosen, then the writer will have absolutely no hope of producing a decent essay.  He's doomed from the very first word.

          The teacher also has not bothered to explain or demonstrate what is needed to properly develop a point in an essay.  Her instructions have nothing to do with logic or with using relevant, concrete, and specific detail to support the writer's claims.  Nope, it's not what the student says that counts, but only how many sentences he has included in each paragraph, what types of sentences, and the number of paragraphs in the paper.  In other words, actual content is pretty much irrelevant.

          Nor does this teacher show any concern about whether the points being made are arranged coherently, with one point leading logically to the next.  All Jane's essay consists of is a series of unsupported vague and general assertions to the effect that there's a lot of violence in the media and it's not good for children, so parents need to get involved and set guidelines for their kids.

          I wanted to work with Jane on organization and development, but she didn't want to, because that isn't what her grade will be based on.  All she wanted from me was help in understanding the different sentence types and in learning how to construct each type so that she could get the right number of them into her essay.  Oh, yeah--she also needed to know where in her paper she could stick a semicolon, since she also has to use one of those.

          Do you see what I mean?  How can such "instruction," so thoroughly divorced from meaning and purpose, possibly help students become better writers?  Since Jane attends a fairly small community college, I don't doubt that many of the students in her class have limited writing skills.  But the way to help them improve those skills is not by getting them to count sentence types, the number of sentences in paragraphs, and the number of paragraphs in the essay. 

     And the way to help them learn how to use semicolons (or any other form of punctuation) to good effect is not to require that each essay have at least one semicolon.  Heck, I seldom even use semicolons myself.  In fact, I go for whole long essays without ever calling up a single semicolon.  It's not that I don't know how to use them,* but that they seldom serve my purpose, and I never use anything in my writing that does not serve my purpose.  (That's another lesson these students should be but are not getting in their English 101 class--never use anything in your writing that doesn't serve your purpose.)

          Regardless of where students are in terms of their writing skills, they can't learn to write by the numbers.  Writing is communication.  It must have meaning and purpose.  Otherwise, it's just so much pointless blather.


*If you need proof that I know how to use semicolons, or if you just want a little help with using them properly yourself, pop over to my grammar and usage website and read "Colons, and Semicolons, and Bears!"

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