A lot of adults today can look back on their time in elementary school, when they had to listen to an English teacher try to explain how to diagram sentences or memorize terms and phrases such as “pronominal,” “present participle” and “nonrestrictive appositive.” If you asked some of those adults if they actually learned anything about writing, some might say yes, but a lot will say no. There is a long-held belief that many of us failed to learn the basics of writing because we couldn’t get past the puzzling language of grammar itself, let alone learn how to write a simple, coherent sentence. For decades, the accepted way of learning to write has been characterized by teachers drilling students on the finite details of prescriptive grammar (the school of thought that says “Thou shalt never do this or that…). First mistake, and a big one. It’s like telling a student, “I’m here to teach you how to write, so let’s begin by confusing you so much you’ll toss the whole idea and turn to something really simple like super compound nonlinear spatial physics.” No wonder so many of us looked up, closed our eyes, and grabbed the first daydream that floated by. Teachers can be persistent, though, especially when they see a problem in search of a solution. One solution for students at home or in a classroom is the promise that we can skip the bewildering vocabulary and learn to write by imitating good writing.
An Introduction to the Imitating Idea
Dr. Ann Longknife, a professor of English as the College of San Mateo, and K. D. Sullivan, owner of Creative Solutions Editorial, Inc., put their beliefs in their book, The Art of Styling Sentences, a collection of 20 sentence patterns that students can learn—not by diagramming sentences or breaking down parts of speech, but by imitation. Dr. Longknife explains:
“How do you go about writing better sentences? The answer is simple. You learn the same way you learn almost every other skill: by imitating the examples of those who have that skill. You probably have already discovered that it is easier to master anything — jumping hurdles, doing a swan dive, or playing the guitar — if you imitate a model.”
Dr. Longknife’s book, along with a variety of other articles and blog posts on the imitation method, would be a good beginning for homeschool parents and students who want to see if the imitation approach is right for them. One more proven tool would be the books by Don Killgallon. Here’s an excerpt from a review of his book, Sentence Composing for Middle School:
“Unlike traditional grammar books that emphasize the parsing of sentences, this worktext asks students to imitate the sentence styles of professional writers, making the sentence composition process an enjoyable and challenging one. Killgallon teaches subliminally, non-technically—the way real writers compose their sentences…Designed to produce sentence maturity and variety, the worktext offers extensive practice in four sentence-manipulating techniques: sentence unscrambling, sentence imitating, sentence combining, and sentence expanding. All of the activities are based on model sentences written by widely respected authors. The rationale is that imitation and practice are as valuable in gaining competence and confidence in written language production as they are in oral language.”
Three More Examples Touting Imitation
1. Dr. Brock Haussamen, professor of English at Raritan Valley Community College of New Jersey: “Expanding sentences, rearranging the parts of a sentence, combining sentences—these skills do not come easily. So any exercises that help students acquire sentence flexibility have value. “[One] approach is for students to imitate model sentences; when students read a model passage and then write their version of it, imitating its grammatical features, they integrate reading skill, writing practice, and grammatical understanding.”
2. (This one is especially telling) Dr. Deborah Dean, associate English professor at Brigham Young University:
“I started teaching imitation by naming the parts of the sentences…(“infinitive phrase,” for example) and it just about destroyed my students’ interest before I learned that they could imitate without naming anything. Once they understood the idea of imitation, they became avid imitators.”
3. Finally, an excerpt from an article, “Government Gobbledygook: Dying a Slow and Painful Death,” by M. Alex Johnson, NBCNews.com, July 20, 2012. In October, 2011, the government’s passed a bill to convert all complicated and convoluted forms and documents to simpler writing that the average person can understand. The article shows that the Center for Plain Language instructors chose imitation as the preferable way to teach employees how to write “clearly and simply.”
During my junior high days, I wasn’t an A student, or even a B student. Okay, I admit it. I had to struggle to make Cs. Not that I was the class clown, but I did contribute my share of giggles and paper airplanes. I wish I hadn’t. Whoever said “Youth is wasted on the young” was probably looking straight at me. In my case, a lot of wasted moments—even years—went by while I tried to survive in a world of learning that left me lost and frustrated, especially on the day my English teacher escorted me to the principal’s office. “What now, Mr. Woods?” the principal asked, sighing as he always did. “He belched,” the teacher said. “You need to give him a real good talking to.” I wanted to tell the teacher that she had just ended a sentence with a preposition, but decided to let it go. Hey, I was thrilled knowing that I had actually recognized a preposition!
Look for more fun ways to learn how to write at www.homeschoolwriter1.com, featuring the author’s book, Finding King Onomatopoeia and Other Stories.