Sentence fluency and conventions in Culham's text
Looking at Chapters 6 and 7 in Culham’s text 6 + 1 Traits of Writing, I’ll briefly touch on some of her ideas that either resonated with me as authentic, as well as those that do not ring as true for me. Specifically, the chapters focused on the importance of the writing traits of sentence fluency and conventions (e.g., grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation).
In regards to issues of sentence fluency in students’ writing, Culham recognizes that test graders ran across a problem when grading standardized tests. They felt their grading ought to recognize fluency and variety in good writing – not just the structure of the writing. Here I cannot help imagining a bureaucratic, rigid system that administers and strictly grades standardized assessments. I think of the variety of people who take such jobs as test grading for the state – surely, there are several that go through the motions they’ve been trained to do, while a few begin to question the rigid nature of the grading system, and only a small number of those people actually make any waves to this point. With time, the few graders that question the authority of the system gradually are noticed, as similar complaints have been consistently made by other active participants in the process. In the end, I wonder how much has been done to stress the importance of sentence fluency among graders and students taking these tests. And whose ideas are most authoritative on the issue of what constitutes sentence fluency in the first place? Culham is not the first person I would consult on this issue.
As Culham encourages accepting fragments as sentences within a text, I cannot help but question her authority. For instance, within Writing Sample 2 in Chapter 6 (Culham, 189), the student’s writing contains numerous fragments but receives a score of 5/5 in sentence fluency. Personally, I’m not too stuck on the importance of grammar rules, and students should know they can (and often should) use a number of sentence structures to craft fluent writing. But, in emphasizing the acceptability of sentence fragments, Culham seems to focus on the breaking of only one rule, whereas the emphasis might be better placed in illustrating to students how variety in sentence structures indicate mastery of a given language. Then again, perhaps the high score illustrates that sentence fluency is not as important, or not as easily assessable with objectivity, as other traits.
Regarding strategies of building narrative fluency, I do not see any pedagogical value in practicing tongue twisters or using “fluency phones", but I can see how reading aloud, and pausing at times to notice sentence structures within a text, may help students become more fluent. Also, I think students may greatly benefit from a mini-lesson on sentence diagramming (204). For more ideas on teaching sentence fluency, check out Wiredinstructor for ideas.
In Chapter 7, Culham encourages teachers to “correct use of conventions, as well as [trying] new techniques [or, risk taking]" (217). I appreciate her open approach in regard to teaching and assessing this trait. Too often, English teachers spend too much time with students on conventions, and seem unbelievably frustrated when they’re faced with students writing exactly how they think they’re speaking.
Thankfully, Culham notices the very basic strategy of using copy editor symbols when grading/proofing rough drafts and final papers for students. She also notes that teachers ought to model the editing process for students, while occasionally asking why they made certain editing decisions to reinforce their own thinking about conventions, or lack thereof, within their own writing. Culham also suggests practicing the editing of spelling by having students read a text backwards, or by rearranging punctuation – these ideas seem unnatural, inauthentic means of practicing this skill. Students would notice how ridiculous these tasks seem to be, and I think they would be less likely to participate in them, as opposed to just reading through their paper again.
Lastly, I was surprised by the following quote in Culham’s text: “Research doesn’t support claims that the separate teaching of grammar. . . will help students score better on standardized tests that include grammar, usage, and punctuation" (245). What? If that’s the case, then why should teachers even bother teaching grammar? Surely, this does not suggest that there is no value in teaching conventions to students. I cannot support the altogether dismissal of the value of teaching conventions to students in our schools. And I do not think Culham means to suggest such an extreme position either.