Sure, sentence combining as a rote exercise has little if any
value -- but Hongxing is right that academic (or any form of
complex) discourse rarely comes naturally. Rather than simply
deride people who seem to be looking for ways to teach this
we should be able to offer some constructive advice.
Susan--are you in a position where you can suggest alternative
exercises or problems? As mundane as these disussions can get,
they ultimately have more relevance for policy and for what
happens in the general public.
Could you note that the exercises seem to address important
issues (summary, taxonomy, coherence, and relevance)
but that "sentence combining" as an exercise has not
been proven to teach these skills for 3 reasons:
1. It does not address concision
Christopher Turk in "Do You Write Impressively?" _Bulletin of
the British Ecological Society_ 9(3): 5-10 (1978) found that
concision was not only linked to ease of reading and
appropriate style but that scientific writers with a more
concise style were perceived to be "more competent" than those
with a wordy style. (See Huckin and Olsen _Technical Writing
and Professional Communication_ (p. 478-479). Simply combining
information does not teach students to be precise or thoughtful
writers. In fact, it encourages wordiness and sloppy organization
because it does not allow a writer to use punctuation, bullets,
lists, numbering sequences, etc. -- characteristics of
excellent scientific writing.
2. Sentence combining does not teach appropriate taxonomy.
Successful Academic writing uses sophisticated ways to
order its information. Linguists often talk about
"given and new" structures (Gillian Brown and George Yule,
_Discourse Analysis_ p.153-155) and characteristically,
writers will order given information before introducing
new information. Since all of the information in
sentence combining is "new" the exercise is artificial
and does not test the ways a student would actually
order information. In addition, the exercise is
too broad and unfocused to specify parallel text
structures, light vs. heavy noun phrases, and because
the writers can not include "new ideas" they will be
dissuaded from introducing conjunctions, signal words,
or other forms of cohesion -- the very things the
exercises seem to want to test.
In addition, because the exercise is devoid of context
the writer is unable to accurately judge the most
appropriate organizing structure.
3. There is no audience focus
Combining teaches writers to inflate their prose rather
than write for the needs of a specific audience. The
questions do not even include the audience the writer
Other than abandoning the entire test (probably not an
option) as an alternative I'd suggest:
1. Take a random scattering of data and organize it
for three different audiences.
2. Edit existing paragraphs/sentences.
I hope this helps. If you need more info on other references
(time is an issue) please let me know, or perhaps others
on the list could help. As well, I could photocopy
stuff if you need it.
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