By Ann D. David
I have written “awk” in the margins of many a student essay, especially when I taught high school English. The feedback was accurate in that whenever I wrote awk, the writing was, indeed, awkward. And if the writer fixed that section, the paper would be better. Figuring out why the sentence was awkward and what to do about it was left to the student because I thought that “Figuring it out is how they’ll become better writers.” There are, I see now, missteps in that line of thinking.
The sentence was likely awkward to my ear because I had more experience with academic English than my students had. And I majored in English, which meant I’d read and written more than most of them had at that point in their lives. I was also assuming that because I could figure out how to make the sentence less awkward, my students could too.
The problem was that I didn’t actually take the key step of teaching my students how to make awkward sentences less awkward. I gave them no mentor texts and taught little grammar in context. Also, my scrawled advice was on a final draft, not a draft whey could revise. These strategies are all ways we know to support students in revising their writing, but I didn’t engage those strategies. I just assumed they’d get it and apply their learning to the next paper. The fact that many did is a testament to them, not me.
As I moved into teaching preservice teachers and presenting professional development for writing teachers, I reflected on my own teaching of writing and asked myself hard questions: Why did I only write on final drafts? How did I teach grammar? Did my students become better writers because of what I did? I asked these questions to model for my preservice teachers how to be a reflective practitioner, and, practically, because I was asking them to do a lot of writing and I needed to get better at helping them become better writers.
In focusing on my feedback on writing and asking my students if my feedback helped, I had a huge “Aha!”: awkward sentences are signs that the writer is reaching and stretching, not that they are struggling. Rarely has a simple article-noun-verb-object sentence been awkward. Awkward sentences showed up when a writer was trying to find their way to complex or compound sentences, or playing with a periodic structure. Or, they were trying to capture a complex thought, one that’s new to them, that they haven’t had to write before. Awkward sentences are, in fact, good ideas waiting to find the right words in an order that would make sense to their imagined reader.
What Replaced the Awk
So what did I do when I figured out that awkward sentences are gems? First, I stopped writing awk. Second, I started really digging into the sentences to figure out what the writer was trying to do so my feedback could be meaningful. Sometimes I did this during writing conferences with students and sometimes gave written feedback on drafts they handed in. And, I realized something else: I didn’t know much grammatical terminology. When I tried to actually name the grammatical issues that were making these sentences awkward, I realized how limited my knowledge of the language of grammar is. I simply didn’t have the language to explain that the sentence is confusing the object of the preposition and the indirect object (about which there is much discussion, should you choose to fall down the internet rabbit hole).
So I went to work paying more attention to grammar and the grammar of language. When I was reading, I paid attention to sentences, figuring out how they were put together, and thinking about how I could use sentences as mentors for student writers. Rebecca Solnit became a favorite with loose sentences like this — “After all those millennia of poetry about the moon, nothing was more prosaic than the guys in space suits stomping around on the moon with their flags and golf clubs thirty-something years ago.” —which she followed with a complex–and much shorter–sentence like this: “The moon is profound except when we land on it” (from Hope in the Dark). Oh, and she didn’t put a comma before the conjunction. Solnit hadn’t thrown the grammar rules away, after all, style manuals differ on that comma. But she was pulling and stretching on those rules to achieve an effect on her reader. I had conversations with students about these mentor sentences, their effects on the readers, and how those ideas can inform their own writing.
And if I didn’t know the grammatical or rhetorical language to explain what a sentence was doing, I went to grammar books, Wikipedia, or my Facebook friends to figure out what grammatical structures the student may have been aiming toward. I would share my learning with students, showing them that I was learning this grammatical work too. Also, in working with my preservice teachers and their writing, I started asking them more questions about those “loose” sentences as a way of uncovering their thinking. What are you trying to communicate here? What is the idea in this phrase? Who is this pronoun referring to? And I conferenced during drafting, instead of writing on final drafts. Finally, I taught students the grammar they needed in the moment they needed it.
Implications for Future Teachers
This approach to teaching writing, and more specifically conventions, takes time and attention that is very different from reading final drafts and scrawling awk in the margins. A writing conference is about how to make meaning with words, how to communicate with others, and how to use language–including grammar–in support of the larger purpose of the writing. I talk to my students about this way of teaching writing. They tell me how much more supported they feel, how much better they feel about their own writing, and that they see potential for themselves as writers. They envision these kinds of conversations with their own students, and see the potential this stance toward grammar has. Dropping the awk has been totally worth it.
Dr. Ann D. David teaches preservice teachers at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, is the NCTE Liaison for the Yanaguana Council of Teachers, and a teacher-consultant for the San Antonio Writing Project. She stays connected to K-12 classrooms through her children’s experiences and her professional development work on the teaching of writing.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.