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). Effective teachers are experts at working with "unexpected events" in the classroom. In education, we call such episodes "teachable moments." When these occasions arise, good teachers adjust lessons for the needs of their students, the climate of the classroom, the content, and other factors.
RULE #5: REVISE AND REWRITE
Ideally, teachers can alter lessons in the midst of the activity. With little or no hitch, the teacher redirects students to a more appropriate or meaningful learning experience. Sometimes, however, teachers must wait for a later moment to stop and reflect on their lessons. During these periods of self-evaluation, effective teachers are honest and earnest in their efforts to improve.
Often, changes require minor tweaks. Other times, they require a complete overhaul. The best teachers become their own harshest critics, valuing the process of lesson revision and rewriting. The same is true for writers, as White explains:
Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can
produce what they are after on the first try. Quite often the writer
will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are
serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for
transpositions. ... Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat
that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a
common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers. (72)
Reread the previous excerpt about the importance of rewriting. This time, replace write (as well as writing, writer) with teach (teaching, teacher) and substitute lesson for manuscript. Masterful works of writing and teaching both rely on the diligence of reflection and revision.
RULE #7: DO NOT OVERSTATE
This rule relates to Rule #1: placing oneself in the background. Part of getting out of the way of the reader and learner is to know when to be silent. According to White, writers who overstate put their readers "on guard," having lost confidence in the writer's judgment or poise. Similarly, teachers who use too many words create bored, inattentive students. Children will grow deaf to excessive "teacher talk" and will discover that they can quietly pass the time daydreaming.
White identifies overstatement as a common fault among writers. Teachers exhibit the same flaw, often out of unbridled enthusiasm or nervous discomfort with the content or classroom.
Despite its prevalence, overstatement does have a simple solution: Talk less. Or to use one of Strunk and White's classic phrases: "Omit needless words" (17).
RULE #11: DO NOT EXPLAIN TOO MUCH
In accordance with Rule #7, the best teachers (and writers) do not tell all. They avoid excessive explanation. For a long time, learning has been defined as a mentally active process in which students must negotiate meaning through their experiences and ideas (Posner et al. 1982). Learners should not be silent, but rather active participants who can openly share their thoughts. In the classroom, therefore, students must do most of the talking.
In terms of writing, White describes how dialogue should reveal characters' moods, manners, and motives. Effective writers leave out redundant adverbs and instead let the reader make sense from the content of the conversation. Likewise, effective teachers create conditions in which students can directly experience and examine content. They encourage the class to discuss ideas and to come to a consensus.
Such classroom conversations do not occur spontaneously. A critical role of the teacher is to pose purposeful questions, challenges, and illustrations (Penick, Crow, and Bonnstetter 1996). This open-ended approach advances student responsibility.
RULE #14: AVOID FANCY WORDS
Teachers are highly educated, as they should be. However, we sometimes have a tendency to flaunt our scholarly intellect. This exhibition typically arrives in the form of a decorative vocabulary. The best teachers do not needlessly show off.
As White instructs writers: "Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a $20 word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able" (76). In the classroom environment, stuffiness suffocates learning. Instructors who use grandiose language confuse their classes and convey an uncaring attitude. They are more interested in their own wealth of knowledge than in their students' understanding.
Vocabulary is indeed a significant component of every learner's education. Therefore, it is necessary to expose students to relevant and meaningful words. Effective teachers emphasize the terms appropriate for their students. They use language not to impress, but to instruct.
RULE #16: BE CLEAR
At first glance, this rule may seem to contradict Rule #11 about not explaining too much. Indeed, most teachers err on the side of giving students too much information at the cost of engaged, prolonged learning. Effective teachers intentionally avoid giving students more information than necessary. They create contexts in which students must indeed struggle to make sense of their learning. In writing, "there are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning"(79). The same motivation arrives through classroom complexities (Colburn 2000).
However, teachers--like writers--must always use clear communication, even in the midst of challenging perplexities. White concludes, "clarity can only be a virtue" (79). In the classroom, teachers can be clear even as they are creating a task that confounds students. Learning the content may be confusing, but communication of the expectations and support for completing the task must be clear and straightforward.
RULE #19: DO NOT TAKE SHORTCUTS AT THE COST OF CLARITY
One may wonder how this principle can be justified with other rules that clamor for simplicity and efficiency. In fact, this element of style encapsulates all of the rules before it. Teachers and writers must avoid overstating and explaining too much, but not at the expense of clear communication:
Many shortcuts are self-defeating; they waste the reader's time
instead of conserving it. ... The longest way round is usually the
shortest way home, and the one truly reliable shortcut in writing is
to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry the reader
on his way. (81)
Like writing, effective teaching occurs in a precarious state of equilibrium. A balance exists between sufficient structure and information to sustain the learner and enough mystery and freedom to engage the student in the learning process. How much weight one puts on either side of the balance depends on the situation. Occasionally, the teacher may first need to provide ample direct instruction up front in order to provide a solid foundation for learning. In most cases, however, students find learning much more meaningful and memorable when they have opportunities to actively explore, investigate, apply, and reflect on their experiences.
A CAVEAT AND CLARIFICATION OF STYLE
Like writing, teaching requires the translation of abstract ideas into concrete situations. However, one must be careful to not attribute all effective teaching to a matter of "style" and nothing more.
Throughout this article and in Strunk and White's book, the word style does not refer to a current custom, fashion, fad, or craze. Rather, the featured elements are timeless traits linked to style's other definitions: a distinctive way of expressing oneself; the approach used to do something; behavior through which one reveals one's personality. This type of style is synonymous with the terms method, manner, mode, and demeanor.
With respect to writing, E.B. White frames his definition of style "in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing" (66). Measuring or explaining such elements is often ambiguous. Effective teaching, too, is difficult to define and often looks effortless. As a result, many attribute the success of master teachers to personality traits or personal style only. The danger in such an inaccurate assessment is that one can dismiss the elements of high-quality teaching and replace them with individual taste, opting for easier and less-effective methods.
White discusses how style is an "increment" in writing, adding to the firmly established conventions of English usage. Similarly, by themselves, the traits described in this article are not sufficient for effective instruction. The best teachers add these stylish elements to enhance--not replace--an already solid, research-based understanding of how people learn.
We encourage everyone to find a copy of The Elements of Style and read all of it. The wealth of insight it provides will benefit writers and
teachers and, ultimately, our readers and students.
Brophy, Jere. "On Praising Effectively." Elementary School Journal 81, no. 5 (1981): 269-278.
Colburn, Alan. "An Inquiry Primer." Science Scope 23, no. 6 (2000): 42-45.
Cremin, Lawrence A. The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957. New York: Vintage, 1961.
Good, Thomas L., and Jere Brophy. Looking in Classrooms, 6th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Neill, Sean, and Chris Caswell. Body Language for Competent Teachers. London: Routledge, 1993.
Penick, John E., Linda Crow, and Ronald Bonnstetter. "Questions Are the Answer." Science Teacher 63, no. 1 (1996): 27-29.
Penick, John E., Robert E. Yager, and Ronald Bonnstetter. "Teachers Make Exemplary Programs." Educational Leadership 44, no. 2 (1986): 14-20.
Posner, George, Kenneth Strike, Peter Hewson, and William Gertzog. "Accommodation of a Scientific Conception: Toward a Theory of Conceptual Change." Science Education 66, no. 2 (1982): 211-227.
Rowe, Mary. "Wait-Time: Slowing Down May Be a Way of Speeding Up." Journal of Teacher Education 37, no. 1 (1986): 43-50.
Strunk, William, and Elwyn B. White. The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1979.
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"I'm not chewing gum. It's my homework."
DANIEL J. BERGMAN is an assistant professor and program chair of secondary science education at Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. CATHLINA C. BERGMAN is an Advanced Placement and honors English teacher at Newton High School, Newton, Kansas.