How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders

How should introductory college writing be taught to today’s nonreaders? E. B. White said to “make the paragraph the unit of composition.” But the paragraph is made of sentences, so why not start with the sentence? Francis Christensen did, and his original Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 6 Essays for Teachers (1967), is today available as Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 9 Essays for Teachers (3rd Ed., 2007).  A preview of his “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” can be viewed here.

“The teacher of writing must be a judge of what is good and bad in writing,” Christensen said, but “from what sources do they say ‘Do this’ or Don’t do that?’”

Christensen used a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach based on his “…close inductive study of contemporary American prose.” In part, his work was a response to the “many English teachers [who] abide by the prescriptions of the textbooks they were brought up on. This preference is one that I cannot understand,” he said, “since it means taking the word of the amateurs who hack out textbooks that talk about language (fools like me) as against the practice of professionals who live by their skill in using language.”

Christensen’s inductive study resulted in his new method because he realized that, for example, there existed “…no textbook whose treatment of grammar and syntax could cope with more than a small fraction of its [Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man] sentences, but I would venture the claim that there is not a sentence whose syntactic secrets could not be opened by the key fashioned in the first two essays [of his Notes Toward…].”

Christiansen’s descriptive method recognized that grammar knowledge does not necessarily result in good writing. But Christiansen’s descriptive method does not ignore grammar. He said, “…the rhetorical analysis rests squarely on grammar,” but that “it should surprise no one that no experiments…show any correlation between knowledge of grammar and the ability to write. One should not expect a correlation where no relation has been established and made the ground for instruction.”

But neither should that be used, he goes on, to argue “that the only way to learn to write is to read literature [because] what is true over a lifetime is not true of the fifteen weeks of a semester. In practice, this position throws the burden of learning to write on the student. It expects him to divine the elements of style that make literature what it is and apply the relevant ones to writing expository essays about literature – a divination of which the teachers themselves are incapable. If reading literature were the royal road that this argument takes it to be, English teachers would be our best writers and PMLA would year by year take all the prizes for nonfiction.”

But why shouldn’t students be made to take on “the burden of learning to write”? And why does Christensen make the assumption that English teachers are so well-read? They have that reputation, but how much reading, in the midst of a full load and stacks of student papers to get through, are they able to get done “over a lifetime”? Consider, for example, this typical Christensen observation, made from his inductive study: “…our faith in the subordinate clause and the complex sentence is misplaced…we should concentrate instead on the sentence modifiers, or free modifiers.” But how do we know that without making the same inductive study he made? Indeed, Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, in sum, while not at all ignoring grammar, recommends taking the inductive study into the classroom, reading literature to teach writing.

“Oh, teachers, are my lessons done? I cannot do another one.
They laughed and laughed, and said, ‘Well child,
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?’”

…from “Teachers,” by Leonard Cohen, 1967.


Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major

Notes toward a New Rhetoric
Francis Christensen
College English
Vol. 25, No. 1 (Oct., 1963), pp. 7-18
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
Article Stable URL:

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