From Sentence Combining to “Revision Decisions”

Revision Decisions Cover
Image courtesy of Stenhouse

This week, I am happy to be one stop on the blog tour for Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean’s new book, Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond (Be sure to visit stops one, two, and three for some great insights from Stacey, Sarah, and Donalyn, too).

In interest of full disclosure, I was provided an advanced copy of the book by Stenhouse, though I have long been an admirer of Jeff’s work to effectively integrate grammar instruction into the writing workshop and Deborah’s work on genre study and best practices in writing. More importantly, even though I got one for free, you can win a copy, too… read on!

So, it was my pleasure to read their book and converse with them about some related topics.

First, a quick overview of the book from the perspective of an English teacher who was always reluctant to “teach grammar.” I tried to integrate grammar instruction into my mini-lessons and conferences with students, but very rarely could I get beyond the idea of simply introducing my middle schoolers to using commas in a series or, if I was really lucky, to add an appositive phrase. Jeff and Deborah have provided teachers with a road map for how to make grammar instruction, through an alternative form of sentence combining, much more effective than simply winging it during those teachable moments and hoping that something would stick. Indeed, Revision Decisions provides us with the theoretical and practical glue to make grammar lessons meaningful and memorable.

Jeff and Deborah remind us that “Writing is a series of attempts that is often messy — drafting, revising. Many things are tried; some will be fixed, some discarded, and others memorialized in print, making it the best it can be — for now” (17). They encourage us to teach students how to play with language, to make words and phrases move on the page, to help our ideas take shape, reform, and then take shape again. Teaching in this manner is not necessarily easy, because we need to be willing to take risks with our students, playing with language while inviting them, too, to engage in the process. It is important that we provide ample wait time as students explore, remembering that “[t]he most important part of these activities is letting the students discover as much as they can” (44). Jeff and Deborah show us exactly how to do this by offering their DRAFT heuristic (18):

  • Delete unnecessary and repeated words
  • Rearrange sentence parts/chunks
  • Add connectors
  • Form new verb endings
  • Talk it out

Then, in the second half of the book, our co-authors walk us through a number of “lesson sets” which explain these revision decisions in more detail. All in all — and not just because I am a big fan of their previous work — I can say that Revision Decisions will guide my teaching practice as I continue to think about how sentence combining (and, as Jeff and Deborah show, “uncombining”) can be a great teaching strategy.

Second, and equally as interesting, I was able to interview both Jeff and Deborah via email. They provided me with some compelling answers to burning questions that I have about the teaching of grammar. I share my original questions and their responses here:

Question 1: First, as we consider the many ways in which students knowledge of grammar could be assessed, part of our reality is that the new common core tests, as well as other high-stakes tests such as the ACT, are asking students to identify grammatical structures and problems and then reply to a multiple-choice question. How do you balance teaching “revision decisions” with authentic pieces of student work against these constraining types of test questions? In what way are we able to have students transfer their knowledge of grammar from their “revision decisions” into the reality of test prep?

Jeff’s Response:

Jeff Anderson
Jeff Anderson

The cool thing about the concrete acts modeled and experimented with in Revision Decisions is that they are based in a sound research-based instructional methods and help prepare kids for test. Sure, it will work best for critical thinking, revision, and sentence combining questions that students are sure to encounter. It’s not so much about editing; however, since we only use grammatically correct sentences to play with and combine, they are getting exposure to correct texts as they reformulate and revise.

Thinkers. That is what we want our students to be in our classroom, in the world, and even on tests. Thinkers. Thinkers evaluate what best communicates and idea, analyzing, testing it. This is all built into the lesson cycle or progression in Revision Decisions. Based in the Writing Next research on sentence combining, study of models, and collaboration, students will think. Thought requires flexibility, risks, and options. We demonstrate options, we allow students to tinker with and combine sentences, all in the name of making beautiful, rhythmic sense. The concrete doable actions of the DRAFT mnemonic let young revisers in on the concrete things they can do (options) to create effective prose: Deleting, Rearranging, Adding connectors, Forming new verb endings, and the essential piece of Talking it out. Luckily higher standard tests won’t ask students to identify a part of speech or structure, but the applied knowledge they’ll get from sentence combining and revising will set them on a path for success.

Deborah’s Response

Deborah Dean
Deborah Dean

One of the ways I would say the work we present in the book helps prepare students for testing is that Revision Decision work is consistently putting options about writing in front of students and asking them to consider the effects of the different choices, much as the test does. As students and teachers work with making writing choices (revision decisions!), they consider effects, to be sure, but they also consider issues of clarity and, in some cases, correctness—issues the tests focus on. All of these are elements of the decisions writers make. In our classroom talk about choices and effects, a certain amount of talk about correctness is sure to come up: it is, after all, something readers might expect in some writing situations and it is possible for writers to violate expectations for grammar when they are playing around with parts of sentences. Therefore, correctness (or lack of it) also creates an effect that writers need to consider in revision. There is room in this practice for helping students get ready for tests; it is just woven into the talk and decision-making about sentences. Long answer put short: although we don’t focus on correctness directly, it will certainly come up in discussions of choices and their differing communicative effects.

Question 2: Second, just as the Writing Next report indicates that isolated and grammar instruction has a neutral to negative effect on students writing, it also notes that word processing has a positive effect. How could a teacher transfer some of the ideas that you both have shared in your book to a technology–infused lesson? What might you suggest for teachers as they help students use word processing for smarter revisions?

Jeff’s Response

Ack. This one is hard for me. I have lost many a good idea by revising on a word processor program. I do think it’s handy for small stuff, but I have lost things too. I almost always print my writing out at some point, open a new file, copy and paste the section in need of revising. When and if it works, I paste it into my doc. So I guess, sharing my process isn’t a bad way to do that. Wait, I am sharing my own process discovery. That’s writing process, by jove. Also considered a huge plus in the Writing Next research report.

Deborah’s Response

It certainly seems to me that the practice we present in the book works with students who are word processing as well as, if not better than, for those who are writing out their sentences. In fact, one of the challenges of this work is that when students are handwriting, they sometimes don’t like to make multiple versions, “writing the same words over and over.” Some of my students acted as though the physical act of writing was almost painful in these instances. For those students, being able to copy and paste to move sections of sentences around would be a great benefit, allowing them to create more ways to frame the ideas of a sentence with relative ease.

An additional benefit that is available for handwriting but that may be a little less noticeable is the way that copying and pasting helps students to see how ideas group themselves into grammatical structures for movement. It is easier, I think, for them to see a prepositional phrase or verb phrase as a unit if they are moving chunks with a word processor.

Question 3: Finally, though I’m sure it is difficult to pick only one, what grammatical structure do you think most students could learn to use in order to add power and voice to their writing? What is it about that particular grammatical structure that you find so useful? Do you have an example of how an author has used that grammatical structure in a book, essay, or poem?

Jeff’s Response

For me (but Debbie has a love affair with this structure itself. I am surprised we didn’t dedicate the book to right-branching sentences), it is the idea of the right-branching sentences. So primary to both of us that it is Lesson Set 1 in Revision Decisions. Whether a writer adds an appositive to the right of the main sentence or clause or a participial phrase to the right. This is manageable and replicable for both fiction and nonfiction writing. In the book, we reference a sentence by Albert Marrin from Rats!:

A rat can collapse its skeleton, allowing it to wriggle through a hole as narrow as three-quarters of an inch.

The main clause is really expanded by the right-branching modification. This is true in appositives or participial phrases or any other appropriate structure.

Deborah’s Response:

I don’t know for sure how to write the sound I just made.

PPFFFFSH!

It’s a little like asking which is my favorite child. Impossible to answer.

But, okay. I don’t know what Jeff would say, but I would go to participial phrases, I guess. (As soon as I say that I think of dozens of others—should I say appositives????) Why do I find them useful? They allow me to add details; in fact, if I’m thinking about using them, I usually add details I might otherwise leave out, adding those details in concise ways, without duplicating words or making placeholders necessary.

I always remember a passage of Where the Red Fern Grows that we use on pages 103 and 104 in the book. It’s a passage that shows how powerful participles can be (and so does the example on page 105 from Sheinkin’s Bomb). Participles and participial phrases are useful in so many places and in so many texts. We have lots of examples in the book of them—I guess both Jeff and I really are drawn to them.

I thank both Jeff and Deborah for their responses! And, now for the fun part. GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond, courtesy of Stenhouse Publishers.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Revision Decisions, please leave a comment on this post by Monday, November 17th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winner, who will be contacted via email.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you if you win. Stenhouse will be shipping the book to you, so I will share your mailing address with them.

Thanks to Jeff and Deborah for their timely, useful, and fun approach to teaching revision!


Image of Revision Decisions cover courtesy of Stenhouse. Images of Jeff and Deborah include links to the original source. All other original text written by yours truly, Jeff and Deborah is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International LicenseCreative Commons License

8 thoughts on “From Sentence Combining to “Revision Decisions””

  1. I am a huge fan of Jeff’s–read it all, watched the vids, etc. I can’t wait to check out this book. I was intrigued by the second question about revising via word processor rather than by hand–an ongoing topic of conversation in my 1:1 iPad and MacBook school!

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  2. I have gone to Jeff’s workshops twice now. I love how he gives concrete lessons that can be used right away in the classroom. I’m a big fan of DRAFT!

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  3. I think this book will breathe new life into the grammar and revision work that teachers struggle with in writing. I can’t wait to explore the lessons they have provided. Thanks for a great interview!

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  4. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful responses. Since there were six comments, I have rolled the dice at random.org/dice and it came up with #1. So, Joey, I will put you in touch with the folks at Stenhouse so you can get your book! Thanks again to each of you for taking time to read and reply.

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