Written by Lawrence Barkley and Christine Sandoval, authors of Grammar and Usage, Naturally, 1st Edition


Writing style is born from the understanding of grammatical components: words, phrases, clauses. Author and satirist Jonathan Swift defines style as “proper words in proper places.” But how do we translate Swift’s simple observation into a notion our developmental students can understand?

In our previous post, “Teaching Grammatical Terminology in the Classroom,” we argued that teaching grammar terminology empowers students and allows them to participate in the conversation on writing. If we as instructors take the initiative to teach grammar and grammar terminology to our students, our students will, in turn, take the initiative both to employ and discuss the most effective ways to use those grammatical components in their writing. This revelation on our students’ part—that they are able to engage in a dialogue on writing with the academic community—provides an opportunity for us to delve further into the teaching of style at the developmental level.

Writing style for developmental composition

Teaching writing style at the developmental level offers students several benefits as they move through their composition courses as well as other college courses that require writing.

First, if students understand how grammar works, then applying the grammatical concepts to their writing becomes an easier and automatic, less conscious, self-regulating mechanism. Second, students make fewer errors and are able to recognize their errors; this ability to recognize their errors leads to better editing, which, in turn, leads to better communication. Third, the concepts become more ingrained if we begin teaching them now; the practice of looking at one’s language becomes more ingrained, becomes part of the writing process, eliminating a future frustration with students in advanced writing classes.

Typically at the beginning of the semester, we find two scenarios: the students who rely on a series of simple sentences to communicate their ideas and the students who attempt to create a more sophisticated sentence but end up composing an awkward and confusing one.

Applying writing skills

Once we begin teaching grammar and its terminology, we can start to demonstrate the sentence writing skills necessary to communicate more effectively, providing students a greater number of tools and the knowledge of how to use those tools to express themselves more effectively.

As an example, in a course three levels below Freshman English, students were writing about Stephen King’s “Why We Crave Horror Movies.” The original sentence read:

King claims we go to release our negativity which gave me to understand that part where he says we go to watch movies to release stress.

The student put this sentence on the board during an editing activity. The purpose of the group editing activity is to encourage students to talk about clarity of ideas and the best ways to clarify those ideas given the number of multiple phrases/clauses combinations they have learned.

Since the student’s sentence contains a series of infinitive phrases and subordinate clauses, we briefly reviewed both, noting infinitive phrases can be adjectives or adverbs and that the ideas in the subordinate clauses are less important than the idea presented in the main clause. We also generated a series of questions regarding infinitive phrases and clauses as well as the sentence itself: Are the infinitive phrases being used appropriately?  What words or ideas are they modifying? Are the subordinate clauses being used appropriately? Are there any ideas being repeated unnecessarily?  Do we have redundancy? Where does this sentence fit in the paragraph? Is a transition necessary? Afterward, the class rewrote the sentence to read:

King claims that we watch horror movies to release our negative emotions, those emotions deemed uncivilized by society, and this release, in turn, eliminates the stress that we all sometimes feel.

The students explained that an appositive (a type of phrase they had learned about earlier in the semester) was useful in explaining what was meant by “negative emotions,” and they also felt that two main clauses were necessary since both ideas were equally important.  They worked through ridding the sentence of redundancy and asked for help in vocabulary (hence the word “deemed.”).

Benefits of group editing

These editing activities help the students with their editing skills when they are editing their own writing and improve their understanding of logical organization of ideas in their own writing.  These activities also instill confidence and passion as the students have more control over what they write.

After having learned the fundamental components of grammar, e.g., parts of speech, phrases, and clauses and the terminology to talk to instructors and each other, the students are able to recognize unclear, ineffective sentence structures and apply the knowledge to revise and edit their writing.

Furthermore, we found that clarity of ideas at the sentence level translates into clarity of ideas at both the paragraph level and the essay level. Ultimately, students who learn style at the developmental level gain confidence not only in their writing in their developmental courses but also in their writing in their other college courses.