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How Do You Teach Students to Write Solid Sentences?

This guest post is written by author Michael Laser. 

If you’ve had success, please share what worked!

This post is adapted from a much longer post on Doug Lemov’s blog, Teach Like a Champion.

MichaelLaserI’m a novelist and a relatively new teacher of freshman composition (going into my 4th semester). I’ve been searching for effective teaching methods to help my students improve their writing at the sentence level. To give you a sense of the problems I’m trying to address, here are a few sentences from their essays:

Because now in today’s age if it were opposite and it was a group of males in a store shirtless and a male manager walked in he would 9 out of 10 times ignore it and say that they weren’t doing anything stupid or unnecessary, holding women to a different standard.

The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones. 

The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage. 

I’ve read books and articles on integrating grammar instruction into a writing curriculum and have adapted the strategies that seemed most promising. I’ve also invented lessons of my own, including “Recognizing Awkward Sentences” and “Improving Awkward Sentences.” But even students who seemed to get the idea when we practiced usually forgot the lessons when they wrote their essays. And, though it hurts to admit this, very few of my students improved significantly—at the sentence level, at least—by the time they handed in their final essays.

I expect awkwardness in a first draft, in student writing and in my own; but I know that I can clear up most of the problems by going back and revising. That’s the skill I’ve tried to teach my students. So far, I haven’t found a way that works.

Frustration has led me to rethink my search. Instead of trying one teaching strategy after another, I want to find teachers who have gotten better results and ask how they did it.

Have you seen significant improvements in your students’ grammar and style between September and June? If so, would you be willing to share some of your methods? The more specifics you can provide, the better.

You can post suggestions in the Comments section, or email me at Michael@michaellaser.com. Eventually, if enough people respond, I’d like to compile these ideas and present them for other teachers to use, either on the Web or in book form. Either way, I would credit the teachers who suggested the methods.

Note: Many writing specialists believe that an emphasis on correctness crushes confidence, stifles creativity, and produces less capable writers. For decades, they have sought to engage students by assigning topics that matter to the writers, encouraging students to flesh out early drafts with more detail, and overlooking most errors. They have worked to overturn students’ belief that I can’t write—a belief that results from finding their best efforts bloodied with red marks, repeatedly. These insights are important. Still, it seems to me that, in the reaction against oppressive teaching methods, basic skills have been lost. If students graduate from college and go on to write emails, letters, and reports that are as awkward and error-filled as the papers they’ve written in my class, they’ll be judged harshly.

I want to encourage my students to think creatively. The challenge is to build their confidence at the same time that we teach them to write graceful, grammatically correct sentences. If you’ve accomplished that, please take the time to explain how.

Michael Laser writes novels for adults and younger readers. You can read more about his work on his website, michaellaser.com.