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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Questioning Education Folklore

Some things I was told turned out not to be true.

May 9, 2017




How many spaces belong after a period at the end of a sentence?

Your answer likely depends on a number of factors - your age, where and when you learned this bit of knowledge, how old the person who first conveyed this bit of knowledge was when they first learned it.

The answer is one. Only one period belongs at the end of a sentence. Some of you were taught two and re-learned it as one. Some of you are disbelieving. Some of you may even be angry, having heard this “one space” nonsense before and declaring that they could pry your second space out of your cold dead hands.

Still, regardless, the answer is one.[1]

Double spacing after a period is a small example of education folklore, a bit of “knowledge” passed down by an authority and absorbed and accepted, initially through some sort of threat requiring compliance (points off!), to later become “the way things are.”

There is much education folklore when it comes to writing. Unfortunately, this folklore often prevents us from having a more productive conversation about what, and more importantly, how students should learn.

Writing folklore is extremely persistent and powerful. This was demonstrated to me most recently in some of the comments on my post arguing that the “idea” is the base unit of writing, rather than the sentence. The traditional drilling of grammar and sentence diagramming in order to develop “basic skills” was invoked as a better approach to writing pedagogy than what I'd argued. 

However, the reality is that 60 years of research has shown direct instruction of grammar and sentence diagramming doesn’t help students learn how to write. As far back as 1963, the National Council for Teachers of English reported, “the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.”[2] 

I was taught to use two spaces after a period. I also spent a good portion of 8th grade learning how to diagram sentences.

Just because the folklore says something is true doesn’t make it so. I think we should question the folklore every chance we get.

I remember my first time to question the folklore.

Between finishing grad school and returning to teaching, I had a four-year a period when I worked at a marketing research consultancy, moving up from the typing pool to becoming a project director, a progression which frankly shocked me. The firm was larded with people with degrees in business, sociology, marketing, and other fields that seemed much more pertinent to the work of helping companies figure out strategies for selling more stuff than my graduate degrees in literature and creative writing.

But I’d been better prepared than I knew.

Moving through a series of positions at the firm exposed me to many different forms of writing with which I was previously unfamiliar, focus group reports, tracking study reports, phone and mall-intercept questionnaires.

While I had supervisors who were meant to oversee my work, they were not tasked with teaching me how to do things from scratch. When it came time to do something I hadn’t done before, I had to “figure it out.”

Fortunately, for a form and theory of poetry class in graduate school, I had to write a lengthy (5000-plus words) analysis and explication of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” 

When the paper was assigned, I had almost zero idea what a lengthy analysis and explication of a single poem should look like, or do. I figured I’d missed something important in college. (Not true, there were others among us who were also neophytes at this.)

Through work and study, I figured it out. I realized the important questions I needed to answer for myself were: Who is the explication for? What does an explication do? How does an explication work? I read examples, studied them, applied what I learned to my task while also integrating the course material, such as insights on the role of meter and scansion in poetic effects.

The paper went well. Dare I say, I was proud of myself.

Confronted with a focus group report, I realized I could use a similar process:

Who is this for? (Client.)

What does it do? (Summarizes participant responses and synthesizes responses into analytical conclusions based on original research questions so the client may ultimately make a more informed decision on marketing strategy.)

How does it do it? (Starts with background, summarizes response, finishes with analysis and implications going forward.)

Pretty quickly I demonstrated myself proficient or better at these writing-related tasks, which is how I was able to go from the typing pool to having an office with walls inside eighteen months.

Clearly, my extensive education in English and writing had allowed me to develop a way of thinking critically that served me well. Thank goodness for poetry explication papers, I guess.

At the same time, I realized the manner in which I taught as a graduate student, when the instruction focused on rhetorical forms (descriptive, narrative, persuasive, compare/contrast), wasn’t well-suited to developing the skills I’d put into practice both as a graduate student and in a business setting. While the assignments progressed over the course of the semester, there was very little transfer from one form to the next. It was apparently supposed to happen through osmosis. A grade was earned by averaging the relative proficiency in each form, rather than assessing something more meaningful, like the ability to understand and break down a particular rhetorical situation.

I followed this program because it was what we’d been assigned to do. I figured whoever made that decision must know better. The approach was handed down without explanation or rationale. At least to me, it was a form of folklore that I’d accepted without question.

My experience after grad school caused me to more critically examine the folklore, and I found it wanting.

My suspicions were strengthened when I spent three years at Virginia Tech, teaching not in English, but communication, a year-long first-year course that combined intro to communication, first-year writing, and public speaking.

By viewing writing through the lens of communication, and seeing students “re-mix” their writing into oral presentations, I gained additional perspective that has since informed my teaching. In the communication skills course, audience was central (their needs, attitudes, and knowledge), and I realized that requiring students to consider audience (something absent from the rhetorical forms I’d taught in grad school), instantly sharpened their thinking, and therefore their writing.

By the time I returned to English at Clemson, the same questions I’d used to solve my dilemma of needing to write both a lengthy poem explication and a focus group report became central to every writing course.

Who is this for?

What does it do?

How does it do it?

Things I used to do routinely, such as isolated grammar and sentence exercises, dropped out of my teaching, almost without me noticing because they were no longer useful in this different context.

By questioning the folklore, I was able to arrive at an approach that both fit my values as an instructor, and has proven effective in engaging students with what I believe is most important when it comes to writing, the kind of approach that I’ve made use of in my own scholarly and professional pursuits.[3]

Of course, we should not expect every instructor to come up with the same answers when posing these questions. I’ll always believe the most effective instruction is rooted in the specific needs of specific students, and must be consistent with the instructor’s values.

Different people will come up with different answers, different stories.

But if we don’t question the folklore, it’s hard to know how much of what we do is simply based in unsupported myth.





[1] There are some remaining special cases where two spaces may be used, but every style guide now prefers one space over two. In the typewriter age when courier, a “monospace” font – meaning every letter is the same width - was dominant two spaces after a period did help with document readability. But we don’t use typewriters anymore and variable-width fonts are the norm. In fact, in most digital mediums, like text messaging, blogging platforms (such as Medium), or online comments, it’s impossible to put two spaces after a period.

[2] The NCTE affirmed this in 1985 following a meta-analysis of the existing research, saying: "Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction." 

[3] I used the same process when I first started blogging at Inside Higher Ed, I had to “figure out” what it meant to blog. It took months (or years), to get comfortable with the form, but the underlying process was no different.


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