Authorology Lab: So Bad It’s Helpful

by Dan Elasky


In the writing class I teach for home schoolers, I frequently find that an obviously bad example of a writing topic helps kids get engaged with the discussion. They have fun picking it apart, which then makes them interested in fixing it up.

For example, seven- to ten-year-olds are as a rule not overly concerned with punctuations. The first paragraphs I ask them to write are full of run-on sentences, missing quotation marks, capital letters to begin sentences, and the like. The trick is to get them to realize early on that much of the writing they do from now on is written for readers, who must be able to understand what they are saying.

I ask them to read the following monstrosity:

The Big Farm

Uncle Horace and Aunt Middy said Petey come on out to the farm over the weekend I did and had a good time all the way home I could not stop talking about it when it was nine or so I went to bed.

A farm is a messy place therefore I could not wear my white linen suit Ha as if I would ever wear one I do not even own one when I got there Missy was in the barn milking cows who was to appear but Hank the hired hand Missy go in and eat lunch you must be hungry I said how long have you been at it?

Since six a.m. she said it was the same old same old but I gotta do it because if you don’t I said they’ll kick me out she said then where will I be?

I almost forgot about Uncle Fred living with Aunt Jen in that shack for fifty years and the dogs left The sky above and the mud below as they say Dad said what can you do

Now, reading aloud is probably the best way to hear, as well as see, what is going on in a piece of writing. And when we read this little essay aloud, children quickly notice what is missing. It’s not just a matter of bad grammar. Missing or misplaced punctuation makes for UNCLEAR writing, which is the one thing we don’t want.

Then, either individually or as a group, the children go through it and add the needed punctuation. After this exercise, students quickly become proficient at punctuation, as well as breaking up run-on sentences.

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