Friday, 5 June 2020

This is not a sentence.

I have often shared a story in professional presentations about when I was 12 years old and doing my grammar homework one night (yes, I do realise that in educational epochs, as well as human years, this was a long time ago).  I looked up from said homework and asked my Dad “What’s syntax”? Without missing a beat, my mischievous Dad retorted “It’s what people have to pay when they go to a massage parlour”. Apart from the usual eye-roll that pubescent girls reserve for their parents, my Dad’s response probably did more for my semantic than my syntactic skills at that particular moment. However, the important point is that at 12 years old, I was grappling with the intricacies of how words go together and the mystery of the rules that govern this process.

Fast-forward a number of decades, and I am still thinking about the componentry of language: phonemes, graphemes, morphemes, vocabulary, syntax, discourse, and in particular, that most ubiquitous collection of words, the humble sentence.

“Sentence” is one of those value-added words in the English language that pays the rent twice by being polysemous – having two (superficially at least) unrelated meanings. It can obviously refer to a term of imprisonment (and/or the process by which a judge commits a convicted offender to a prison term), or it can mean a collection of words arranged together in a rule-governed way to form a clause, made up of a subject and a predicate.

Now some of you might already be thinking that this blog post is getting a bit technical and be zoning out, but stay with me. Why am I thinking about sentences on a wintry Friday night? Because I have spent the better part of the last week reviewing and grading first year university students’ essays and I am calling out the rot (another useful polysemous word) on the low functional literacy levels of students when they enter University.

Lest there be any temptation here to blame the University for accepting said students, let me emphasise that these students, in the overwhelming majority of cases, are school leavers who have successfully completed Year 12. In the case of Victoria, where I live, this means compulsory study, at Year 12 level of one of three English options. We don’t need to drill down here on the content of these subjects. The important thing is that all students have to complete 13 years of study in English, ranging from the basics of reading, writing, and spelling, to understanding and employing genre, and being able to understand and produce narrative, expository and persuasive text. So far so good, but Houston, we have a problem. 

These students cannot write in sentences. 

What do they do instead? They pretty much write as if they are speaking, connecting words in a rough stream of consciousness, adding punctuation (plus or minus capital letters) to taste. Some essays contain more sentence fragments than actual sentences. If you are not sure what a sentence fragment looks like, here’s some examples (with minor edits to prevent re-identification):

      Such as smells, eye contact, sounds, touches, and language. 
          Thus resulting in long periods of infant distress.
          For example, a child starting to remember a favourite book. 

      Many of the essays contain homophone errors (yes, we all make them, myself included, but not in the abundance I am seeing them this week). Think: effect / affect; principle / principal; their / there; to / too; roll / role; adolescents / adolescence.

And of course, we must not forget the inevitable star appearance of apostrophe errors. However, the stand-out feature for me is that these students do not have an explicit rule in their long-term memories that tells them what a sentence is.
My first conscious awareness of this problem was in the late 1990s when I supervised psychology Honours students for the first time. I found myself writing (yes, literally writing; with a pen) in the margins “This is not a sentence” over and over again. I still recall the exasperation of one student, “Gemma” in a supervision session when she told me:

“You know, when you write ‘this is not a sentence’, I stare at it and stare at, trying to make sense of what you mean. But I have no rule in my head that tells me what a sentence is”.

So – how do students acquire explicit grammatical rules that guide them in their learning? Some are fortunate to gain a working implicit knowledge about how sentence structure works, but they would struggle to articulate the rule. Others, like Gemma, have inadequate implicit knowledge and hence no rules and no problem-solving tools. Note here too, that I am not even trying to cover the more macro issue of overall text cohesion, because most students are stuck in the primary-school weeds of trying to write a grammatically complete sentence.

Words live in sentences and behave in rule-governed ways that are clearly mysterious and random to many University students. Obviously, the inner workings of sentences, just like the inner workings of words, need to be systematically and incrementally explained to students, in both primary and secondary school years, if they are to arrive at University ready for the challenges of higher education. 

Must we accept, though, that in 2020, many students  have to go to University to learn what a sentence is?
If so, we won’t have time to properly immerse them in the complex, beautiful, and challenging ideas that sentences, paragraphs and full texts embody. We will not be able to equip them to interrogate the major theories in their disciplines, let alone to prepare written critiques and develop their own well-argued responses and adaptations to those theories. 

If secondary schools cannot deliver Year 12 students who can reliably demonstrate the basics of mastery in their language, then students must pay tertiary fees to back-fill this content alongside (and in some cases instead of) their core content. In the case of students who are themselves studying to be teachers, it is difficult to see how they can both master their curriculum content and back-fill the gaps in the previous 13 years. Indeed, it seems hardly fair to ask them to do so.

A sentence in one sense of the word is a judgement. The world makes judgements on the sentences we produce in spoken and written language and employers understandably expect university graduates to have well-developed skills in these domains. 

My La Trobe University (Bendigo) colleague, Emina McLean recently published a related piece on her blog: The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children: Literacy in higher education and beyond. Emina points out that Whole Language and Balanced Literacy pedagogies create inter-generational erosion in the extent to which the inner workings of language are passed from one cohort of students to the next. 

The epi-genetic fall-out from 40 years of constructivist, discovery-based learning in the “language arts” has sentenced University academics to teaching content that a mere generation ago, was consolidated in the primary and secondary school years. We are all the poorer for this sentence, in both senses of the word. 

(C)  Pamela Snow (2020)


  1. As a VCE teacher in one of the schools that feeds your uni, I share your pain. I teach English Language, and spend literally weeks teaching and reviewing word class and sentences (sometimes at the expense of reality interesting linguistic concepts!). Even then, some students struggle to apply the theory to their own writing. The ones who do tend to aim for more illustrious careers than teaching. I can think of only one stand-out student in my 15 years who became a teacher.

    I was really hoping that you might offer some thoughts on a solution by the end of this article. But instead, I feel a bit teacher-bashed, even though personally I know I'm doing the best I can with the limited time I get in a classroom with 25 students also studying a content-rich VCE course.

  2. Hi Kathryn thanks for taking the time to be part of the discussion. The intention of my post was to shine a light on a systemic issue that needs a root and branch response. My university colleagues and I can put downstream “solutions” in place like converting our own subject content time to the teaching of grammar, but I’m sure you’d agree that’s neither sensible nor sustainable.

    Currently there is so much in the language and literacy space that is taught via a “ choose your own adventure” lottery. That would be fine if the outcomes were better and more consistent.

    The bottom line though, is what is the minimum writing skill level the community should expect following 13 years of studying English?

  3. Oh, I completely agree that there are huge problems with literacy instruction right now in schools. Of course the minimum writing skill needs to be higher. You're only seeing the students who make it to uni, you'd be dismayed at the skill level of those who don't. There are many faults with the current system, many of which teachers feel powerless to change.

    I just still don't quite understand the intention of this blog post. To break this cycle, I think universities are going to have to teach Education students the structures of English, and then how to teach them. The only grammar I learnt at school in the 80s and 90s was in my German class; I didn't learn syntax until my study Linguistics. Then, most universities wouldn't accept my application to do my DipEd in English because I hadn't studied Literature (only Uni of Melb would). I don't think there are many current teachers with grammar knowledge; certainly many teachers panic if asked to teach my subject. We can't just shame teachers into changing their practice; we need to stop the cycle by educating the new teachers (and ideally, upskilling current teachers). There has been a small shift - 10-15 years ago I had to teach nouns and verbs from scratch in Year 11 English Language; these days most students know those, at least.

    Are the students you're talking about here studying Education? You might need to consider that change to your course and sending a whole lot of knowledge downstream. Otherwise, I don't see where the cycle ends.

  4. Hi Kathryn, the intention of this blog is to shine a light on a problem that I don't think we talk about enough. I don't think it can be a taboo topic, as we need to find multi-pronged solutions. I disagree that this needs to be dealt with alone by universities though, as it's very hard to back-fill 13 years of gaps, which are not the same for all students. Universities already have full curricula and need to meet the requirements of external accreditation bodies. We need to be teaching our students at a tertiary level, not primary or secondary.

    While I am currently teaching Education students (undergrad and postgrad), I have also taught students in various health sciences and psychology, and the problem is not unique to Education students. Did you happen to read the related blog-post by Emina McLean that I linked to at the end? If not, I recommend it.

    I'm genuinely curious too, to know what you think the minimum skill level is that should be expected from a student who has passed Yr 12 English. Are you saying it's asking too much to expect that they write in grammatically complete sentences?

    Do you think there would be an appetite among secondary teachers for PD in this space?

  5. I write from three perspectives.
    1. someone who spends a lot of time in schools working directly with teachers in primary and secondary settings
    2. an academic involved in Initial Teacher Education and preparing primary and secondary pre-service teachers
    3. a parent of a child year 7
    In my research projects and work in schools, I have introduced the explicit teaching of sentence structure/grammar, but it is hard for teachers who themselves did not learn this at school. Like Pam, I had a real interest in writing and was good at it. I remember being excited by ‘transition words’ like however/therefore/put simply etc because I could see how they would help me to write better persuasive essays. '
    When I graduated as a teacher I realised (eventually) that I could not love my students to great writing and instead needed to teach what I found incredibly easy to my novice learners. Even then, I didn’t have the tools. I just expected them to be able to do it, because I could.

    Knowing the difference between a fragment and a simple sentence requires knowledge and is one of the first things students need to learn. The Writing Revolution (Hochman & Wexler, 2017) is one of a number of resources that offers a scope and sequence for writing and strategies to go from fragments to sentence types to paragraphs and different text types. It's based on the view that writing should be in the service of knowledge so the frameworks have applicably to any learning area.

    My child has completed many activities around sentence writing in primary school yet cannot define what a simple sentence should contain (COIP: Capital letter + one idea + end Punctuation) let alone "who and what it did" or "subject and verb" which is nomenclature required for older students. Instead, he gets computer generated practice items for home-work that ask him to identify elements of sentences.
    Fortunately, these tasks are multi-choice and eventually he (and I) work out the answer! What I'm saying is they are very hard and unlikely to be of much use to anything other than his reading skills because he's not writing anything! You get better at writing by writing.

    This tells me that his teachers possibly doesn’t have the time or knowledge to teach this in class or it is perceived as something that students ought to know or can infer by doing these online tasks. There’s every chance that unless my child gets really interested in writing and figures it out as I did, my colleagues at a university will be complaining at some point!

    High school is not too late to support writing. Writing is not a mysterious process that some are good at and others are not. I teach a unit for PSTs and include examples from the Writing Revolution in both my instruction (they expand sentences and follow a framework to write paragraphs and use because/but/so to respond to the content of my unit) and in the way I show them to teach writing. It’s not a literacy unit, so I don’t have as much time as I’d like to spend on writing, but they do report feeling more confident to scaffold student’s writing as a result. Further, if you know the Peter Effect (you don’t know what you don’t know) they then realise the knowledge they need to teach writing effectively.

    1. Thank you for these extremely valuable insights, especially given the fact that you are writing from three equally informed and relevant perspectives.

      Readers of this blog who would like to know more about the Peter Effect can read about it here:

      I agree that teachers need more support in this space, and secondary school is not too late. I just don't think it's what we should be teaching at university. This knowledge is part of the "family china" that has been snuck out of teacher pre-service education in recent decades. Now, we need to make it fashionable again, by showing teachers how useful and transformative it is.

  6. "The epi-genetic fall-out from 40 years of constructivist, discovery-based learning in the “language arts” has sentenced University academics to teaching content that a mere generation ago, was consolidated in the primary and secondary school years." This sentence is incorrectly punctuated.

    Perhaps the problem isn't so much a lack of formal grammar education, but that today's kids are exposed to so much informal writing (social media). Forty years ago I had no access to informal material. Everything I read had "correct" grammar.

    We learn to speak our native language by osmosis - by listening to it. Why not learn how to write our native language by reading it?

  7. Dear Anonymous Muse, thanks for opining that my punctuation is incorrect. Unfortunately, it appears I need to put more money on the machine to ask you how you would have approached the punctuation of this particular sentence. I am always open to new learning! Hopefully I receive some credit for the fact that you had to wade to the end of the post to find a sentence in which you thought the punctuation was faulty.

    I'm not advocating that students should never make errors by the way. I am however, arguing that they should not be stumbling at such basic hurdles as knowing whether or not a collection of words is a sentence.

    You might be right that young people today are exposed to proportionately more informal than formal writing, but isn't genre part of the English curriculum in Australia?

    As for your question about picking up writing by reading, I would agree in many respects that reading is an excellent and necessary part of the solution. I see plenty of examples that tell me that students do not do nearly enough reading. They hear words like "role" spoken, but because they have rarely or never seen it written, they use the homophone they are familiar with, and assume they are inter-changeable. Further, it is important to remember that while oral language is biologically primary (or natural), written communication is a social contrivance that has only existed for a few thousand years. This means humans have not evolved to acquire it naturally; it needs to be taught. A small proportion of students seem able to work out the written code without too much difficulty and instructional support, but we obviously can't build entire education systems around the light-touch needs of a fortunate minority.

    You can read more about this notion at the following links:

    Why learning should not be led by a child


    Geary, D. (2008). An evolutionarily informed education science. Educational Psychologist, 43, 179-195.

    1. This is your Anonynous Muse returning. This sentence:

      The epi-genetic fall-out from 40 years of constructivist, discovery-based learning in the “language arts” has sentenced University academics to teaching content that a mere generation ago, was consolidated in the primary and secondary school years.

      has incorrect comma usage. Either remove the comma after "ago" or add another comma after "that".

      By "informal writing" I mean very badly written material by peers (SMS, Twitter, etc.) that bears little resemblance to the English language of 40 years ago. It constitutes a large portion of what they're reading, yet teaches them nothing about writing to a standard acceptable in high school and beyond.

      I don't understand the division you make between learning to speak and write language. Nobody learns their native language by understanding what a sentence is, and nor do they need to learn it formally, as a linguist might, in order to write in sentences. Reading work aloud, a technique suggested for *creative* writers for a slightly different reason, helps tremendously.

      Your missing comma could signify an important problem here: I'm an editor by trade and I see the mistake, but I don't teach grammar and I don't know how to explain why it's wrong. Something about an independent clause, I guess. Doesn't matter. A large problem with mastering formal writing is the punctation (a facet of sentence structure, obviously). Reading your sentence aloud, with pauses in the right places, shows where the commas should be.

      Maybe we should be teaching kids to read aloud (a specific skill that doesn't get much attention in the curriculum), including their own work, in order to "hear" how to correctly punctuate.

    2. "Nobody learns their native language by understanding what a sentence is, and nor do they need to learn it formally, as a linguist might, in order to write in sentences."

      Actually, they do (though not to the extent that a linguist might). When I taught high school, I explained the distinction between "conversational" and "presentational" speech. In the former, there are conversational cues that allow for truncated forms of expression. There's nothing innate about reading or writing--hence, the need for instruction. But choosing the right instruction matters enormously.

  8. I can't understand how my reply implied that I think it's expecting too much for students to write grammatically correct sentences! Of course they should! I think the majority of my students leave school with that skill, or at least the ones heading to uni will. However, it's very hard to convince a 17yo who is simply serving their time at school to learn syntax. Sure, it would be nice to ask teachers at earlier levels to embed the skills. But we now have teachers who didn't learn grammar from their teachers, or at uni, and there is a huge void to fill. I'm lucky I studied linguistics before my Grad DipEd, or I would have had no grammar/syntax awareness.

    I did read Emina's blog, actually, and agreed with this important point:
    "Inadequate teacher training in language and literacy, the sins of the fathers, are being visited upon primary school students, secondary school students, university and TAFE students, and adults in the workplace. We can and must do better."

    I see that as a call to action for teacher training. If not, aren't universities just producing more teachers who can't teach grammar either?

    In response to your final question, I don't know, but I can only hope so!

    1. Kathryn thanks for your further contribution. I think we're in fierce agreement on a number of things, most notably, the importance of this issue. I'm sorry if I misinterpreted your response. However, I don't think we need to teach 17 year olds, syntax, but I do think we need to start teaching 7-year olds the basics of how sentences work. That way, 17 year olds, can be focusing their energies on text macro-structure, argument quality, and cohesion.

      I agree with Emina that Universities need to do more in this space (she and I are both part of a push in that direction in fact), but if schools don't step up too, it will be the sound of one hand clapping. This is not something that Universities can fix on their own. Schools and Universities need to work from different ends on the same middle. However, I also know Emina was referring to DECADES of inadequate teacher training. If it took us decades to get to this space, it will take us decades to dig our way out, unless we all work together.

      By the way, if you're not already familiar with it, you may find this text of interest: .

  9. This post was a trip down memory lane for me since I began my teaching career more than three decades ago as a high school English teacher before transitioning to elementary school reading specialist. I've just pulled out some old files and came across one with the title "The Three Goals of Writing". They are: Fluency (the free flow of ideas in an authentic voice), Form (the structuring of ideas within a mode of writing), and Correctness (the expression of ideas using the conventions of standard English). Under Correctness, the activities listed are: Daily Oral Language (a year-long program involving daily editing of a few incorrect sentences and providing both the needed change and the reason for making the change); sentence combining, imitating and expanding; proofreading/scoring guides; and grammar exercises in context.

    And then there's this excerpt from The American Journal of Education's "What Works in Teaching Composition: A meta-analysis of experimental treatment studies" (1984) by George Hillocks from the University of Chicago.

    "The study of traditional school grammar . . . has no effect on raising the quality of student writing . . . Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing . . . Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems."

    Over the years, I have appreciated the importance of all three goals, and you have nicely articulated why we mustn't neglect "correctness".

  10. Thanks for your interesting contribution Harriet. Unfortunately, for many in Education faculties today, there is something on the nose about the notion of "correctness". Perhaps the term has been tainted by the whole "political correctness" thing, I don't know. What I do know, though, is that we have eroded the knowledge-base of teachers in this space and we (those who work in universities) need to put it back. We need teachers in primary and secondary schools to work with us, so we can re-build this important knowledge and skill-base for all students.

  11. My son was taught sentence structure since year 1 or 2, As an SLSO I watch year 2 students taught at the moment and revisited each year but here I am paying for that same son , now in year 9 to know it, understand it and be able to apply it, also to want to apply it and understand why he needs to. I also have a daughter in year 6 and sentence structure has been an ongoing task in her homework, I keep hearing about clauses, prepositions, adverbial this and that. . I don't remember doing this stuff at school. It's likely I did but I didn't care to remember or apply it because I just didn't see why it mattered. I know it shows in my writing now so no one needs to point out my errors! , it is on my to do list to learn as I now, so many years later see the value.

    1. Could you please recommend a book I could use that's easy to understand so I can learn this as an adult? I was actually looking for some online last night, so many to choose from.

    2. Hi Lauren I put your question to my brains trust in the Twittersphere and here's some responses:

      Writing Matters:
      Sentence Sense Workbooks:,-level-a/prod6053#.XuXVOcARVPY

      The WriteClub:

      English 3200 with Writing Applications

      On Writing by Stephen King

      The Writing Revolution by Natalie Wexler:

      And of course there's always Grammarly for online, as you-go-assistance:

      I hope you find some useful gems here Lauren :-)

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  13. The Writing Revolution - goes right back to sentences, conjunctions, etc.

    You can also buy on Kindle