Elements of Stylish Teaching: Lessons from Strunk and White: Good Teaching Is like Good Writing. the Principles of Good Writing from One of the English Language's Best-Known How-To Books Can Help Teachers Improve Their Style

By Bergman, Daniel J.; Bergman, Cathlina C. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Elements of Stylish Teaching: Lessons from Strunk and White: Good Teaching Is like Good Writing. the Principles of Good Writing from One of the English Language's Best-Known How-To Books Can Help Teachers Improve Their Style


Bergman, Daniel J., Bergman, Cathlina C., Phi Delta Kappan


This year is the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style, the classic text on English usage for writers. This concise handbook came from the work of Cornell professor William Strunk Jr., along with material added after his death by his former student E.B. White, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for his children's classics Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan.

In his introduction to the book, White describes The Elements of Style as a "summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English" (xi). These traits--and the corresponding elements or rules presented in the text--are not only essential for effective writing, they're also elements of effective classroom teaching.

To honor the golden anniversary of Strunk and White's compositional classic, we've highlighted a few of their rules on writing, along with how these principles apply to classroom teaching. In particular, we'll focus on White's work in "Section V: An Approach to Style." While successful teaching requires much more than mere "style," teachers will find many of White's tenets helpful in enhancing their classroom instructions. (Please note: All page references given for The Elements of Style come from the text's third edition, published in 1979.)

RULE #1: PLACE YOURSELF IN THE BACKGROUND

White tells writers to "write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author" (70). Likewise, teachers must direct students' focus to learning content, as opposed to simply following the teacher's instructions. Education is not a spectator sport. Learning requires active participation--not passive acquiescence. Teachers, therefore, must get out of the way.

A common maxim in education is for teachers to avoid becoming "the sage on the stage" and instead act as "a guide on the side." Teaching is not telling. Students truly learn when they find meaning in the concepts and attach this understanding to their prior knowledge. One size does not fit all, as each individual makes unique connections in his or her mind. Good teachers facilitate this complex process.

In becoming "a guide on the side," however, one must be careful not to become the "slouch on the couch." Teachers are essential for cultivating student learning. Research repeatedly recognizes the teacher's critical classroom role (Cremin 1961; Good and Brophy 1994; Penick, Yager, and Bonnstetter 1986). Facilitation of learning occurs through effective use of questions, responses, wait-time, and other nonverbal behaviors (Brophy 1981; Neill and Caswell 1993; Penick, Crow, and Bonnstetter 1996; Rowe 1986).

Although good teachers--like good writers--get out of the way in favor of the featured content, they are still purposeful in their efforts. Such intentionality starts at the very beginning.

RULE #3: WORK FROM A SUITABLE DESIGN

Consider how the following instructions on writing relate to the teacher's role of planning lessons: "Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design" (70). Teachers write lesson plans in order to identify objectives and monitor students' progress toward these points with purposeful measures. This element of style also appears earlier in Strunk and White's book under Elementary Principles of Composition: "The first principle of composition [or lesson planning] is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape" (15).

As all good writers and teachers know, a successful creation--whether it be composition or lesson--does not adhere stubbornly to the initial design. Mastery often appears amid modifications. However, one must first have a model in order to improve it. Strunk and White describe the relevant lesson in their description of working from a plan: "The writer will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to his skill, his needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition" (15).

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