Rhetoric and Composition/Teacher's Handbook/Teaching Sentence Structure


Since 1890 sentence pedagogy was an integral part of composition instruction. Sentence types were classified, grammatical types were taught, and students would practice by writing each of the different kinds.

Francis Christensen published "A Generative Rhetoric of Science" in 1963, advocating that students be taught sentence construction by beginning with simple sentences then gradually make them more complicated. And in 1978 Lester Faigley conducted experiments that proved this method's effectiveness. At this same time, other schools of thought developed. In 1963 Edward P.J. Corbett advocated for the use of imitation as a tool for teaching sentence construction, and in 1957 Noam Chomskey theorized that sentence combining could help students produce better sentences. And some petitioned for the elimination of formal grammar instruction, arguing that it stripped context, was dehumanizing, and lacked creativity.

Of the three forms of sentence rhetoric (the “generative” rhetoric of Francis Christensen, classical imitation, and sentence combining) this article will concentrate on classical imitation as evidence indicates that copying and writing to sentence patterns as the most effective way to teach students sentence rhetoric.

Objectives and Benefits of ImitationEdit

In imitation, students study a sentience and then attempt to imitate its structure. This process encourages students to engage in problem solving and to use analytical skills to achieve their objectives. It engages students in an active manner and allows students to practice stylistic dexterity.

An added benefit of imitation is that it provides students with the opportunity to practice their critical reading skills, and to write in a number of different styles which they can use to develop their own authorial voice. Imitation also helps teach the subject of sentence composition in a way that avoids dry, academic terms, and instead offers students a hands-on approach that empowers students by letting them write.

This is not to say that students can’t (or shouldn't) learn the eight parts of speech. Identifying them in the models is a can be an integrated way to teach enough traditional nomenclature that you and your students can actually talk about language. [edit]

Why Daily Oral Language Doesn't WorkEdit

Daily Oral Language is the most widely used set of sentence construction activities. This method of instruction uses exercises in which students to correct mistakes in sample sentences. This method is ineffective as it includes only negative examples and it concentrates on small aspects of sentence construction, such as spelling and punctuation. Daily Oral Language is divorced from any kind of context, involves very little critical thinking, and does not engage students in actual act of writing. In contrast, classical imitation encourages the use of positive examples, and focuses on larger and more important issues of sentence construction.

As an instructor, be aware of the limitations of activities like Daily Oral Language, which seem like quality activities but fail to reflect a proven pedagogical theory. Although Daily Oral Language is fine to use on a day to day basis, avoiding its presence when writing a research paper makes for a better presentation of the idea at hand.

The ExercisesEdit

The linked exercises are examples of various types of sentence forms (simple, compound, complex, etc.) which instructors may use for imitation activities.

Once the models are copied, student write pastiches—their own sentences, but using the form, perhaps even the verb tense or person, of the model sentence that they have copied. These sentences can be reviewed as a class, or they can be written in writing journals and checked periodically.

Some of these are simple creations of the author. Others are examples taken from books that were models of this type of instruction in the 1960s and ‘70s but have gone out of print (Gorrell, Weathers). They are listed in the bibliography, and probably can be found via an internet search.


Connors, Robert J.. "The Erasure of the Sentence." College Composition and Communication 52(2000): 96-128.

Corbett, Edward P. J.. "The Theory and Practice of Imitation in Classical Rhetoric." College Composition and Communication 22(1971): 243-250.

D'Angelo, Frank J. . "Imitation and Style." College Composition and Communication 24(1973): 283-290.

Enos, Richard Leo. "Ciceronian Dispositio as an Architecture of Creativity in Composition: A Note for the Affirmative." Rhetoric Review 4(1985):108-110.

Gorrell, Donna. "Controlled Composition for Basic Writers." College Composition and Communication 32(1981): 308-316.

Gorrell, Donna. Copy/Write: Basic Writing Through Controlled Composition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1982.

Johnson, Charles. ""A Boot Camp for Creative Writing"." The Chronicle Review Oct 31(2003).

Weathers, Winston, and Otis Winchester. Copy and Compose: A Guide to Prose Style. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.