“In too many classrooms, we assign and assess writing without teaching the craft of it.” –Penny Kittle
The first time I heard about parallel structure, limiting one’s use of linking verbs, and different sentence types, I was only a couple months from earning an English B.A. from the University of Michigan. If not for one class with a graduate student named David West Brown (who went on to write the wonderfully practical In Other Words: Lessons on Grammar, Code-Switching, and Academic Writing), it is likely that I would have started my career as an English teacher without even basic knowledge of these three foundational writing concepts.
I share this fact not to disparage my schooling, as I got lucky in so many ways with the lessons I learned and the teachers I had. But it is remarkable that someone who took dozens of English classes from quality teachers had such gaps, and I think it illustrates a major issue with how we teach writing in this country. The fact of the matter is that we simply don’t teach much of what Penny Kittle calls the craft of writing. We talk about spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and, in the later grades, the essay form ad nauseam, but almost no one directly discusses what makes writing work. Rarely do teachers explain and explore what makes a transition jarring, why some words sound good and others don’t, how to cultivate a powerful voice, common reasons why sentences sound choppy, and what makes the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. sound like liquid silk.
Arizona State professor and one of the most devoted academics to studying writing instruction, Steven Graham, argues that decades ago a shift was made from the rhetoric centric model of teaching writing that dates back to Ancient Greece in favor of the idea that writing should be “caught, not taught.” What he means by “caught” is the idea that if students encounter enough good writing and do a lot of writing themselves they will automatically internalize the most important rhetorical concepts. They may not be able to verbalize what these concepts are, but they will begin to instinctively use them, which is the more important of the two.
This shift described by Graham explains why I made it so far in my education without hearing about parallel structure, linking verbs, and sentence types. I was right in the heart of the caught, not taught era, and like many writers of my generation, I may not have known the names of these concepts, but I did “catch” a lot of them. When I look back at my work from college I see rough use of parallel structure, a striving towards non-linking constructions, and varied sentence types. I also have to admit that the large quantity of beautiful writing that I encountered in my English classes is likely why I gravitated towards the study of language. If instead of beautiful stories and poetry, I’d had to endure lecture after lecture on rhetoric and eloquence, I doubt that I would have felt the same passion about the written word.
The problem with a pure “catching” approach is not that it is wholly ineffective; we humans can absorb a lot and some of the most naturally gifted writers can become fabulous wordsmiths without ever learning what a compound-complex sentence is. But a pure “catching” method can also leave serious gaps in understanding and significantly disadvantage the students for whom writing doesn’t come as easily, as they will likely catch far less. I would even go so far as to argue that our continued reliance on the catch method is one of the central reasons that so many students in our country don’t like writing. If students struggle with writing and don’t get clear, direct answers about how to move past those struggles, it shouldn’t surprise us when they grow uneasy around writing or even develop anger at it for its opacity.
In my classes, I strive to blend caught and taught in a way that gives my students the best of both worlds. We regularly look at great mentor texts in an effort to absorb some of the magic and style of the English language’s best writers, but we also regularly peer under the hood of writing to see exactly how it works. Below is a lesson given in this style on parallel structure that gives direct instruction and then uses Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a mentor text. Generally, I will also show them an inspirational movie speech, like the following, to further make the point of how parallel structure adds weight in big moments.
There is nothing particularly novel about this lesson, and yet it is one that ex-students will often mention when they run into me as being transformative in the story of their writing. My guess at why they mention this one is that it both showcases how language can be mesmerizing and yet is incredibly concrete, which helps all students feel that they can create beautiful lines like this too.
So to paraphrase Penny Kittle, if you assign and assess writing, don’t forget to teach the craft of it as well. If you, like me in my early days, don’t know where to start, I encourage you to find these two books. They are loaded with amazing lessons on how writing works:
Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup
Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for other lessons of mine. I’ve got lots, ranging from use of linking verbs to transitions, and I am happy to share. We are all in this together, after all!
Yours in Teaching,