The Teaching Writing Series #3~ “The Imitation Game”

I continue the series by discussing the classical writing technique of “imitation” and how to apply this today.

stones buildingIn the classical education renewal movement there are attempts to get back to the art of imitation in writing. Traditionally this meant that scholars would imitate classical writers in a detailed manner, creating phrases and clauses which directly mimicked the grammar of the master they were modeling their work after. All of these present programs and efforts are laudable, but it is important to take into account the background of today’s students before offering up the most traditional kind of imitation curriculum. Here’s why:

In previous times a fully classical education included an exhaustive understanding of grammatical concepts, both in English and in Latin. While many “classically schooled” students today receive some solid grammar training, most don’t get the “full story.” (There are a few programs such as Rod and Staff or the Seton Home Study School which do provide the full complement of grammar.)

Students who receive only the rudiments of grammar in their early years should not try to “imitate” in the fully classical way in middle school and high school. Rather, they classical booksshould be given assignments in which they model their work after others without trying to directly imitate their sentence structures. I base this suggestion on my experience attempting to get students who don’t have a full understanding of sentence structure to “imitate” in the traditional way. What happens with these students is that they end up struggling so hard to replicate structures they do not understand that they never move past that to produce good writing themselves. They often complete the assignments in stilted ways, just trying to get through them. At the crucial time when they should be learning to argue and analyze texts, they are instead caught up in the weeds for the sake of a “classical” education, which will in all likelihood not help them to be better writers in the long run.

If students have received genuinely complete training in grammar, they can benefit some from imitating the great writers in the traditional way.  However, all students should be given assignments which focus on the diction of the works they study. This is the etch booksemphasis of the AP® (Advanced Placement) approach to teaching and testing in English and composition. First, by analyzing the diction (literary devices, tone, etc.) of great writers, all students come to understand the “nuts and bolts” of how the best authors communicate through both synthesis and analysis. Second, by responding to short assignments requiring them to compose in such a manner themselves without “worrying” about the specifics of grammar they have not learned students begin to truly model themselves after and “imitate” the finest writing. I believe that for most students today, this approach is the most helpful.

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Beginning the fall of 2019 Integritas Academy will provide an approved College Board AP course online for English Literature and Composition. Please check out our course page at http://www.integritasacademy.com/about-register.html or email Cindy@integritasacademy.com

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Cindy Lange, MA

The Teaching Writing Series #1~ “Logically Speaking”

When you write, you connect the dots between language and logic. It’s a two-way street: The more you write, the more logical you become, and likewise, the more logical you are, the better writer you become.

This series of mini-articles will present specific ways in which teachers, and specifically homeschool parents/teachers, can teach writing well. These steps will not be formulaic, but they will be structured. There is a big difference.

Structured writing is writing which has purpose and direction. It is a given that for students to learn write in a structured manner, they must have the basics of grammar under their belts. They use the “tools” of grammar to build the structures, or frameworks, of their essays. All writers should strive to be consciously structured in their writing. In other words, they should attempt to control their phrases and sentences, and the ways in which they express themselves.

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Formulaic writing is writing which demands that students use particular kinds phrases and clauses to create their work in particular and specific order–for instance, when a student is required to use phrases in assignments starting with certain types of words, such as prepositions,  adverbs, verbs, etc. While it might be helpful to train students in this sort of formula for a year or so, in the long run there are negatives which supersede the positives. The significant problem with this method is that it is an overly regimented way of teaching students how to think about how to write. What should be part of a comprehensive grammar program (usually not taught now) has been tacked onto the larger writing curriculum in an attempt to belatedly teach the students these grammatical constructs. I admit that the opposite problem, that of not teaching any rules of writing at all, is not good.  In fact, it’s worse. But that doesn’t make teaching writing formulaically a good solution. It’s not.

I think this gets back to the recent interpretation by “classical” learning advocates of the Dorothy L. Sayers essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In this interpretation and application of how to teach, recent “classical” educators write curriculum based on a legalistic misunderstanding of the stages of learning. This is preposterous and Sayers, I am sure, would not agree with its extremity and rigidity. Children can think logically and independently from an early age; they can put their own thoughts together logically, although of course their levels of maturity must be taken into account. But to separate out their ability to think for themselves according to age is a completely fallacious approach to learning.

All that to lead up to my Point #1 for teaching writing:

Point #1: Teach the student how to focus and think logically. This is the background for learning to write a “unified” essay, but a thesis is merely a result of this kind of good thinking. You can do this by helping the student focus on whatever you discuss during the day, not just during school time.  Teach the child how to draw logical conclusions from opinions, no matter what the subject.

Next time #2: Learning Isn’t Just about the Facts

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Cindy C. Lange, MA

http://www.integritasacademy.com