Writing: Practice Makes Perfect

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No matter what benchmark my students have in writing (I teach levels 5-7), almost all of them need to improve three things: run-on sentences/comma splices, punctuation (mostly commas) and the use of transition words.

Two things make me wonder. First, are run-on sentences acceptable and are commas used in completely different ways in languages other than English? I am not familiar with all the languages my students speak, but I am familiar with a good number of languages, and they are similar to English in this respect. Second, since almost 90% of my students are highly educated, have done a number of university courses and presumably read a number of books, I wonder why they make mistakes that, at least to me, seem basic.

I came to the point where I assumed (based on my informal statistics) that I should teach each student how to avoid run-on sentences/comma splices, how to use punctuation appropriately, and how to use a variety of transition words correctly. And that I should do that before I even look at their writing.

Run-on Sentences

Here is a typical run-on sentence from one of my students (benchmark 5):

“I have interest in home décor I wanted to become interior designer or something related to art but when I completed my study I don’t have enough knowledge and guideline to become a artist or interior designer  I love to decorate home that’s why I wanted to chose that as my profession.”  

I wonder if the same student would, if asked, translate this sentence into her native language the same way: stringing a few ideas together that should be either separated or connected with transition words.

On a positive note, run-on sentences are teachable, and after an explanation, a few exercises and another writing attempt, they are much less common. It seems that even raising awareness and pointing out errors works in this case.

Here are some online resources on run-on sentences:

Walden University Writing Centre Grammar – Run-on Sentences

Guide to Grammar

Commas

The prospects are less encouraging when it comes to the use of commas, both in comma splice sentences and in relation to dependent/independent clauses and transition words. One of my students (benchmark 6) wrote this:

“Also I felt relaxed during the interview, because of your helpful advices.”

The use of commas in English seems to be more confusing. Students tell me they don’t know when to use commas; sometimes it seems to them they use commas too much, sometimes not enough. Interestingly, some of them say that were they to write in their native language, they would do the same as they did in English. This, at least for some students, seems to be a matter of transfer. In my experience, it takes more effort and time to correct the use of commas.

This resource is pretty thorough in explanation and practice:

Grammar Quizzes – Comma Uses

Transition Words

Transition words seem to be pretty notorious, especially more complex ones. I commonly find that “although” and “despite/in spite of” are used incorrectly, as in the examples below:

“Although I like ice cream, but I cannot eat it.”

“In spite of my daughter has high marks, …”   

This is where extensive reading becomes useful, as do grammatical exercises. Unfortunately, as extensive reading requires a book a week over a longer period of time, students can rarely commit to it.

Transition words can be practised at this site:

Grammar Bank

Since writing is a skill, one cannot learn to write unless one writes. Our students do not practice writing enough and, generally, people do not write extensively, simply because there is no need for that in everyday situations (unless one is a professional writer); on the other hand, speaking, listening, and reading skills are practised more often.

Right now, I have two students whose writing is quite exceptional in many ways. One of them likes to write; she has written a lot in school and on her own for years. The other student spends an enormous amount of time on a writing assignment, putting a lot of effort to make it look good.  

Do you have a similar experience, and, if so, how do you tackle this challenge?         

POST COMMENT 9

9 thoughts on “Writing: Practice Makes Perfect”

  1. Hi Milica,

    I enjoyed reading your post and relate to it! And thanks for the resources.

    I agree that our students need more writing practice, particulary since it’s an important skill in both academics and the workplace. We are often judged by our writing quality, particularly by potential employers. I would add “writing concisely” to your list. My students love to use tired, overused, lengthy expressions. A good resource is Kim Blank’s wordiness list at https://web.uvic.ca/~gkblank/wordiness.html

    1. Thanks for the resource, Jennifer!
      “Writing concisely” is definitely important. Different cultures, different writing norms. Some students come from cultures where long sentences and extra formal expressions/words are the norm. They need to adjust their writing style.

    2. Thanks Jennifer, for the wordiness link, and Milica for posting all her comments and link suggestions.

      Could I add that the one “transitional word” I disparage is “Also” — with a capital A to start a sentence. No – It joins, not introduces. The issue, though, is that so few people read enough (well-written) English to see the many other phrases and words that would be more effective — and not just ‘furthermore’ and ‘moreover’. Don’t get me started on “Firstly”.

      1. Yes, reading is crucial, lots of reading. Unfortunately, many students have no time for that. Actually, oftentimes they tell me they use English only with me.
        It’s upon us to encourage them.

  2. Great resources ! I am teaching in a college ( basic English skills) and these are such common writing problems for our “Native English ” and ESL students. Thx again, Natalia Kostiw

  3. Hi Milka. How is the summer going?

    Your student examples are so real. I don’t know how many times I’ve corrected the comma before because.

    I was thinking of opportunities for students to write. Some of them might send emails or message people.

    You are also right about students not being able to find time to read a lot. What about short stories? Students might be able to slot in time for a short story.

  4. Hi Milica,
    Thank you for the resources. Yes, we all share a common problem with writing. I would encourage my students to do journaling, writing a few sentences every day. Though I don’t do this on a daily basis, I always give them this assignment to do during Christmas and March break. We have a school newsletter where articles written by students are published twice a year. Topics differ and it is a good motivation for them to write.

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