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The Importance of Linking Words in Effective Writing

The Atlantic magazine, http://www.theatlantic.com, recently published a series, on how best to teach effective writing.

In “The Writing Revolution,” author Peg Tyre explains the experience of one troubled high school, New Dorp High in New York. The principal of New Dorp High launched a detailed investigation into why the students were failing, and she and her faculty came to the conclusion that the core of the problem was that the students couldn’t write coherent sentences.  Tyre explains that “Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page.”  In response to these findings, New Dorp High changed their curriculum in 2009 to focus intensely, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing. The school required the students to write expository essays and learn the fundamentals of grammar. The result was an impressive increase in test scores and a lowering of the school’s drop-out rate from 40 percent to 20 percent.

For me, one of the most interesting points in the article was what the school discovered about the importance of transition words and other logical linkages in making writing effective. Some teachers administered diagnostic tests and discovered the following:

“A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

‘Although George …’

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: ‘Although George and Lenny were friends.’

A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. ‘Yes, they could read simple sentences,’ but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because ‘they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.’”

Applying other research, the teaching staff at New Dorp began incorporating the teaching of essay writing into nearly every instructional hour, along with the subject taught in that class:

“So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.

Although … ‘hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,’ Monica wrote, ‘a compound of them puts out fires.’

Unless … ‘hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.’

If … This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … ‘hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.’”

The article was fascinating to me because it concretely illustrates the centrality of seemingly simple linking words such as “although,” “unless,” “however,” “but,” and the like in making written communication comprehensible and effective.

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