Why Many College Students Never Learn How to Write Sentences

Recently I coached a bright high school senior on how to get his college admission essay into shape. After his mother handed me a check, she said, “He gets good grades, so I was surprised to see his essay was not that good. I know they’ll teach him to write in college—I just hope he gets into a good one.”

I didn’t say the ugly truth: that her bright boy might not graduate as a solid writer, no matter how good the college.

How badly can a student write in his third year of university attendance? This badly:

The largest controversy within the Waco case was where the fire originated from, claiming that the tear gas is not powerful enough to create one. Assumptions were undergoing the process that the Davidians set fire to themselves inside the ranch, due to the fact that the ATF and FBI assured the weapons capability were not powerful enough to do so.

That’s what we get in the third year of university?

The problem is that colleges admit many students who don’t know what a sentence is, and then fumble the job of repair. High school graduates arrive incompetent to write, benefit little from their pitifully weak freshman instruction, and cannot improve their copy afterwards, because colleges impose no writing standards after the freshman year.

Incompetent students. In my experience, depending on the college, up to half the students in Writing I classrooms are baffled because they never learned sentence construction in grade school or high school. They aren’t just defective in their knowledge of grammar—they know nothing about grammar. 

Most cannot find the subject and verb in a sentence longer than eight words. Why? Because many American public schools use a “reader-writer workshop” method of writing instruction that completely skips grammar. In these workshops, students and teachers sit in a circle, play the roles of reader and writer, and give encouraging feedback to essays written on the most inconsequential of personal topics. Lucy Calkins of Columbia University’s Teachers College invented this approach, which has spread widely in American public schools since the 1980s.

That method cheats everyone through its rigid insistence that expressiveness is all that matters, and the skills in the basics of capitalization and periods don’t matter. Inner-city students suffer the most from this wrongheaded instruction, since most have little chance to pick up writing basics in their homes without books and reading. New York City teacher Robert Pondiscio exposed the situation well in this Atlantic article. 

Pondiscio reported his experience teaching in a South Bronx school. He was told to use the Calkins method, which assumes a false split between expressive writing and explicit teaching of grammar and mechanics. The Calkins advisor in the school told him to accept incompetent sentences as reasonable efforts to self-express and not correct them. Against his instincts, Pondiscio found himself rewarding and reinforcing incompetence. 

Therefore students who have been poorly trained, thanks to rigid education-school theories like Calkins’s method, move through the system, graduate not knowing a sentence from a fragment, and go to college. There they are stuck.

Poor freshman course design. Even though half the incoming students are completely incompetent at the sentence level, colleges pretend it’s not so. In this piece that explains why so many young Americans can’t write well, Natalie Wexler states, “Colleges simply assume students already know how to write sentences.” Course syllabi and textbooks all peddle the fiction that students can produce grammatical sentences at will, without crude errors like fragments, run-ons, or subject-verb disagreements. That’s grotesquely untrue.

Novice teachers are sent in front of lovely young people and given huge textbooks to use that are based in fantasy, because they assume a grammar-proficient incoming college class, as one would have seen in 1960. But it’s not 1960, and the small chapters called “Grammar Brush-up” are laughable. 

Colleges should design and test sentence-based writing courses, but they do not. Instead, out of laziness and inertia, colleges let the adjuncts fumble their way through.

“When I got a few classes into the semester,” a very smart but innocent PhD friend told me recently, “and I began talking about subjects and verbs, I could see they weren’t following me. It was going over their heads. So I stopped and put in a class on basic grammar to bring them up to speed.”

Anyone in her situation would stop the course and devote one class—or maybe even a week—to catch-up grammar. What she did was natural, but it didn’t and couldn’t work. A brush-up class only helps those who once knew grammar. A few days of instruction cannot reverse years of positive reinforcement, via passing grades, for being ungrammatical.

A logical prescription would be that colleges design and offer sentence-focused composition courses. These would assume students know nothing about sentences, and would build sentence understanding from the ground up. I have suggested one way of doing that on this site.

Another problem, in both two-year and four-year colleges, is that administrators create classes much too large to allow students—especially remedial students—to learn. A study in 2009 found that not one college met the group’s standard of a 15-student cap in remedial writing courses. 

Reflecting on his efforts at teaching Georgetown undergraduates to write, Jacob Brogan called it “a cruel joke universities play on humanities grad students” in this piece.

“You will never teach anyone to write well,” he wrote. “As you are preparing to step into a classroom, they assign you an impossible task, one they cloak with a label like ‘Introduction to Rhetoric’ or ‘English Composition.’ Here are 20 undergraduates, they say. Show them how to make their prose sing.” 

Writing standards through senior year are non-existent. The term paper quoted above, about Waco, was submitted to a tenured professor I know (let’s call him K.F.) in the liberal arts at a state university. He isn’t an English professor and has no pretensions of knowing how to teach writing. When faced repeatedly with mangled sentences from sophomores and juniors, he was baffled.

K.F. angled for an appointment to his university’s 12-person writing committee, figuring they would hold the same concerns he had. Here’s what he told me about that:

I offered myself as a candidate for the University Writing Committee (and won!) to try to address the dismal state of student writing, thinking the heads of the committee would offer new pathways to new writing-teaching ideas. I served three deadly years on a committee that wouldn’t deal with the problem. The agenda was always full, but there was never time to discuss the state of student writing, nor to look at student samples, nor to invite people in to talk about making improvements.

The committee had professors, but the writing center director ran it. While the committee didn’t want to look at student writing samples (one wonders why!), it did collect course syllabi and writing center data from about a hundred different colleges around the country. “They were quite proud of this,” K.F. said with some irony.

When he asked why the committee gathered course syllabi, instead of pulling together examples of actual student work, or effective writing assignments that could be used to improve student performance, K.F. was told the writing center needed to do this in order to look active to the administration and not be defunded.

Today’s college writing is a big, knotted mess, decades in the making, and I don’t know for sure how to untangle it or what sword will cut through it. Still, if you can’t write a sentence, you can’t write, and too many of today’s students just can’t write sentences. Many graduate without that fundamental skill.

A few years ago I argued in this Pope Center article for a new kind of college writing course where the central point is sentence clarity and readability.

A college that experimented with such a course would make a difference.