Rationale for Teaching The Hunter Writing System: Sentence Sense Text

The  Hunter Sentence Sense writing system benefits students in three key areas especially: 
  (1) It instills a command of sentence structure that stems from experience-based learning.  
  (2) It teaches grammar and usage by means of spoken-English based, hands-on strategies that leave no room for student confusion or error.  
  (3) Its paragraph-and-essay component is appealingly simple, innovative, and comprehensive.

An Overlooked Cause of Incompetence in Writing

Too many students complete not only middle school and high school but even college without having gained adequate competence as writers.  Though critics point to a multitude of factors that are partly to blame, too few have pointed to the inadequacy of the type and scope of instruction in grammar that for too many students is likely the primary contributing factor.

The Role of Structural Insight

Linguists maintain that a sentence derives meaning not only from the dictionary-recorded sense of words but also from the structural meaning that stems, in part, from each word’sand word group’srelative position in the sentence.  Since this is true, students must become aware of the reason for the positioning of words and word groupsand punctuation marksas used by others … and must control these as they use them in their own writing.  In other words, they must gain an insider’s sense of how word order and punctuation (as well as choice of words) shape the meaning and impact of their own and others’ sentences.  Initially this learning should take place experientiallythat is, by carrying out exercises in which they rearrange sentences and thereby internalize a sense of the role of the foremost parts of a sentence.

A Fail-Safe Method to Find Subjects–and Its Benefits

To illustrate the above point, one type of exercise has students turn a statement such as “My answers were clear” to its question form “Were my answers clear?” (They do this out loud.) In the process they learn an infallible way to find the main subject of the sentence: The main subject will always be all the words between the two positions of the helping verb (here the word “were”) that can shift in this wayin this sentence, the (complete) subject is the wording “My answers.” In addition, they have gained important awareness of a key role of helping verbs.

Such strategies establish for students the parameters of the sentencethat is, the position, nature, and role of the key (structural) parts of the sentence.

The Ways Sentences Begin: Sentence Patterns That Matter

Such instruction, in addition, instills in students access to at least ten of the fourteen chief ways in which sentences can start. (Traditional teaching, in contrast, confines almost all of its instruction to the subject-followed-by-a-verb way of starting a sentence.) For example, another kind of rearranging strategy has students test whether introductory wording (often followed by a comma) can shift to the end of the sentence without changing the sense of the sentence.

In other words, for a sentence such as “Because of the sleet, the roads were slippery,” students would change the sentence to “the roads were slippery because of the sleet” and find that the rearranging does not change what the sentence says. This opens the door to all kinds of instructional insights, not least of which is student awareness that such introductory wording supplies an alternative way to begin a sentenceany sentence.

Benefits for Retention of Rules

This experience-based type of learning also causes understanding of the structural contexts in which the rules of usage and style apply.  Therefore, students absorb and retain these rules more easily.   For instance, from the example sentence above, students gain such a sense of the role of the commas that writers use to separate longer introductory wording from the rest of a sentence that they instinctively startand continueto use them themselves.

Fail-Safe Methods to Find Verbs

For students to be able to rearrange sentences (their own and others’) as described above, they must identify verbs with unerring accuracy. There are two strategies that make this possible. One strategy is for students to recognize helping verbs on sight and use these as a springboard to find each/any main verb that follows and accompanies it. For example, for the sentence “One must marvel at the beauty of sunsets,” the student notices how the word “marvel” follows the helping verb “must” and completes its sense (how students are to do this is spelled out step by step in the text).

The other strategy is for those verbs whose presence is not “marked” by one of the so-called helping verbs. For each such word, students must use a “do/does/did” substitution. For example, for the sentence “Sometimes time flies,” students can substitute “does fly” for “flies” and the sentence remains acceptable English“Sometimes time does fly.” This confirms that the word “flies”in this sentencefunctions as a verb. In contrast, they cannot substitute “do time” for “time” (they may not write “sometimes do time flies”). Because the “do time” substitute does not work, the student has confirmation that the word “time” does not function as a verb in this sentence. (The steps that enable students do this without error are spelled out in the text.)

Ultimate Benefits of Structural Immersion

This way of internalizing structure is the secret to empowering students as writers. What students gain is self-confidence and the means to excel as writers.

This is confirmed by the English Journal article “A Grammar That Has Clearly Improved Writing” (Nov. 1996, 102­107)* and by testimonials from users.

Testimonial from a User of the Text

In conclusion, note what Barbara Stubbs, a teacher of low-ability seventh and eight graders in New Jersey, has said of the nature of this text and its benefits:

“It worksthe whole thing. . . . It’s so systematic it’s easy. . . . The students approach each writing task with confidence. . . . They know how to correct their own work. . . . After twelve chapters, they write not only with maturity but also with sophistication. . . . I would never return to the old way of teaching.”

*This article reports on a study in which there was a 59% improvement in “overall writing competence” (as judged by the criteria of the Test of Written Language ­2, a nationally normed test) in the differences in post- over pretest scores of 15-minute writing samples of 9 slightly learning disabled 7th graders. The students had completed 10 chapters over 6 months. The improvement was significant at the .02 level of confidencethat is, there was only 1 chance in 50 that it was not due to this instruction.