27 February 2008

Coherent Thought and Complete Sentences

This past week, I had an enlightening (for me) confrontation with a student who seemed unable – or unwilling – to distinguish between complete sentences and run-on sentences in his writing. In the end, he claimed that he did not care if he failed my freshman English class because, in his words, “after two years as a freshman, you all have to pass me anyways.” To this I responded, “Oh no, Sparky,” (I did, in fact, call him Sparky). “You’ll stay a freshman until you get enough credits to become a sophomore or you turn 21. At that age, you’ll be kicked out.”

This young student is not alone in his lack of understand of himself, the language he is supposed to speak and write in, and his situation in the limited world of secondary education. His inability to form complete sentences (and thus complete thoughts) shows an inability to apply logic and to know where one thing ends and another begins. It is also a symptom of an ingrained distaste for sustained mental effort that comes from “after two years, you’ll pass me anyway.”

I would say that somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of my students have trouble, or lack the desire to, form clear, coherent sentences on their own, without direction. Techniques, if they can be called that, for using punctuation range from complete abstention (the never-ending, page-long run-on sentence) to random insertion of periods and commas designed to give the appearance of competence.

There appears to be three causes for this malady. First and foremost, students who fail to form complete thoughts on a regular basis are just too intellectually lazy to care about using punctuation. As a result, their thoughts are confused and jumbled both in their writing and, one would have to assume, in their heads. This first reason is most common, from my experience, in students of fairly high ability. Unfortunately for them, their lack of diligence will hurt them down the road. As their education goes on, more complex ideas will require them to focus their thoughts more. They will be short on practice required to deal with complex ideas.

The second reason students fail to form complete thoughts is that, for some reason or another, they’ve come to believe that their written words should look just like their spoken words and their unrefined thoughts. This may come from too many free-writing sessions in school coupled with a lack of revising and editing. Essentially, students believe that anything written is good, longer writing is better, and word count equals deep thought. Many students have not been taught the difference between formal writing and free-writing, and revising and editing (the most painful part of writing) is left by the wayside. The result is the erroneous belief that all words on the page are of equal value regardless of their coherence. This, just like lack of punctuation, will result in students being ill equipped to tackle complex ideas.
Third and last is the toughest to tackle from a teacher’s point of view. Some students are convinced that they simply do not need to learn how to compose sentences, how to think coherently, or how to argue verbally or in writing. They are convinced that anyone who critiques their ability – or lack thereof – is “offending” them. They are perpetual toddlers, consistently touching the hot stove after being told not to. The scary thing is that no matter how many times they get burned, they always go back to the stove. They are the ones who believe that eventually they will not be burned, that they will be passed on to a higher grade. They are the ones who claim all sorts of external reasons for their failure (teachers, unfair work, principals, other students, racism, sexism…the list is endless). They are the ones who will never get to more complex ideas and who will continually believe that the universe is centered on them. It is no surprise that these same students are the ones who cause the most disruption in the classroom and in the school. They refuse to learn on a regular basis – and it is, of course, someone else’s fault. Unfortunately for the rest of the students, these students who refuse to learn also feel they have a right to come to school and are entitled to a diploma.

So at the end of this little rant, what’s the point? Perhaps that laziness is a learned trait and breaking students from that habit is a painful and necessary thing. Perhaps that the struggle against chosen ignorance is a serious fight and that more folks need to join the side against ignorance born of the confused self because teachers cannot win that fight alone. Perhaps that constant vigilance against lax thought (and writing) may feel like a losing battle, but that my rant leaves 70 percent of students out of the picture – which is a good thing. Perhaps – and I know this is going to offend some – the bottom of the bottom, those who are there by choice, deserve to be left behind. In fact, they demand it.


Jack N said...

Don't you have to worry about their precious "self esteem"?

Bob M. said...


Thanks for that. I'll have something to say about unwarranted "self esteem" soon.


Chan said...

Bro, I'm glad there are still teachers out there who care about the little but very important things.

Yesterday I took a written test for the MT Highway Patrol. It was about 80 questions covering basic math, reading comprehension, grammar/spelling and a short writing exercise. I probably could have aced it in the 8th grade. Out of the 45 or so people that took the test, only 18 passed with a 70% or greater. I was blown away by how many people with a high school diploma couldn't pass this test.

And you called the little **** Sparky! That is awesome!

Jack N said...


In all seriousness, I will be very interested in hearing what you have to deal with in the public system.
I know that I couldn't do it and admire those that give a concerted effort in spite of the hamstrings.