Workshopping Sentences in the Writing Classroom

It was in a graduate course on advanced French grammar topics that I had an ahha! moment: one of the most simple and easy exercises to create to improve writing is to closely study and reword sentences that students have already written. There is no better way to tailor a writing workshop to the students’ needs and return to the problem areas with which many students continue to struggle.

After my students write a composition I always correct them using a code to indicate the kind of error made, without giving the correct form, word, or structure to use. That way, the students have the chance to correct it themselves and better commit to memory the structure or usage issue at hand. But before returning the first drafts to the students, I collect a sentence or two from each composition to work on together in class. This is an excellent opportunity to address mistakes made across the board and to combine several grammar topics into one class period. It is all too often that we focus on only one aspect of grammar in a unit: we’ll spend a week on relative pronouns, another week on prepositions, and another on tense agreement… By the time you get to the subjunctive, everyone has forgotten how to figure out if we need to use qui, que, or dont. That is why I choose sentences that seem to be repeated mistakes, anglicisms, and those that relate to topics already covered in the course.

I try to do an exercise like this after each composition is turned in. I compile the sentences into a word document – without including the correction codes – and then distribute copies to the students in class. They work in partners to decipher the errors made and think about what the correct form would be.

There are problems with verb agreement, missing or incorrect prepositions, missing or incorrect articles, etc. Because the students work in partners, they can talk out the problems and often find the errors in each sentence.

The students have given me great feedback about this exercise, saying it is one of their preferred activities in class. Sometimes we can spend the whole time working on these sentences, without noticing the time fly by. It is a custom exercise, personalized, and relevant to their experience writing in French. When we are through workshopping the sentences, we all have a feeling of accomplishment, that the class period was time well spent.

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