What was the pedagogical value of complete sentences?

In school, we had to answer all of our tests in complete sentences.

If the question was “What color is the fence”, we couldn’t just answer “White”. Instead, we had to write “The color of the fence is white”. Over the course of 20 or so questions, this quickly got tedious and I never really understood what the point of it was.

What was the pedagogical reason for teaching this way? I had it across several schools and I just discovered some of my friends were also taught this way in school.

Presumably the point is that it helps you to learn to write in complete, grammatical and correctly spelled sentences, and gives you practice in doing so.

That would have annoyed the hell out of me. I’d probably answer it like so:

“White” is the answer to the question that you asked.

The purpose is to teach you from an early age that success in life depends partly on slavishly following pointless rules.

I think part of the purpose is to try to encourage the pupil to communicate above the level of grunted monosyllables. Not sure it works, but it’s a nice idea.

Except it didn’t teach anything of the sort. “Writing in complete sentences” meant a rather mechanical translation of the question which could be mastered in all of 5 minutes. And actually holding a dialogue in complete sentences as an adult is more creepy than anything else.


I think you mean 'This is the reason you must answer in complete sentences."

Simple one word answers are at the lowest levels of educational attainment and they do not give much for the teacher to assess.

Forming a proper sentence allows the learner to put more of themselves into the answer, for example,

“The fence was white, so white that when the sun shone it stood out in the whole street, everyone could see our house from miles away”

This would give the teacher so much more to assess the ability and attitude of the child.

So in answer, the formulaic response is not much use either, and betrays a weakness in the teaching method, also in the assessment, and probably in terms of time and syllabus.

Students need to be able to personalise their responses, this has been proven to be a better way to ensure the material has been learnt.

Short and sweet:

“It’s white.”


Although it would be better expressed as:

Chapter 42 - The Whiteness of the Fence.

While the exercise may have seemed pointless and obvious to you, you are not the entire class. From the other side, the teacher, along with every other responsible adult who devised tests for your school, undoubtedly saw that certain pupils absolutely required the instruction to write in complete sentences, even if that meant something as simple to you as figuring out how to turn around a question and phrase it as a complete answer.

Teachers can’t - or shouldn’t - teach either to the top of the class or the bottom of the class. They have to aim for about the middle and try to accommodate the extremes. Sometimes that means the best students will be bored and sometimes that means the worst students will be lost.

And all too often, judging from the continuous series of remarks here about school, that means that people don’t get that school wasn’t about them, but about the class. Or even the entire cohort of people in your grade for the entire school system or even the state. Yeah, it would be nice if schooling could be individually personalized. That doesn’t happen.

The fence felt the unbearable whiteness of being.

'Cause, you know. Even adults. Not the best with complete sentences. And stuff.

The OP’s question does evoke, however, the nature of the event - a quiz, test, or some other type of assignment. And some teachers do not know how to probe for or identify the depth and richness of a student’s understanding beyond asking a question with a one-word recall type answer, which only provides minimal insight. IF the OP were subjected to this type of assessment exclusively, or even predominantly, I think it does reflect to some degree the paucity of imagination and skill on the part of the teachers.
However, there is one other way of thinking about this. If the teacher is asking a question that requires some degree of thought and reflection, then a complete sentence will clarify any response from a student, where a one-word answer or simple phrase will not communicate to the teacher what the students was thinking. Therefore, a teacher will require that the student make clear her answer so that the teacher is not in the position of trying to be a mind-reader. How much time should a teacher spend listening to students claiming, “Well, that’s what I MEANT,” when their answers are incomplete or ambiguous?

Uhhhhhhh, the fence is, like, all white and stuff.

Now that my lame attempt at a joke is finished, I can chime in. Some of my teachers did this, too. It drove me absolutely batty. I hated writing things out. I hated the mundanity of the task. I hated that it forced me to restate information that would be assumed by any sane individual.

When I got older, I tried what AHunter3 suggested. No dice. I also tried Joe Frickin Friday approach. Also no dice. This bugged me for years. I’ve just recently sussed it out. My thoughts go as follows:

1.) Most of the people in my class were not as academically inclined as me, and may have needed the practice.

2.) School is just as much about thinking and behavior as it is about memorizing answers. They wanted us to think about how to make complete sentences. They also wanted us to learn how to follow instructions and do as we were told. This latter bit, incidentally, is likely why the entire exercise drove me goddamn insane.

3.) Requiring some amount of uniformity likely makes it easier for the teacher to eliminate ambiguity in grading. This makes it easier for the teacher overall.

As Exapno Mapcase said, this is all teaching to the middle. Teaching to the middle is great in theory. But for those on either side of the spectrum, it is inefficient and maddening. As far as I’m concerned, the ideal solution would be to allow for classes to be based on ability rather than random assignment. . .but then you get into whether that’s the best socially for young kids, and how much does it cost, and what about the people who are on the cusp, or who are still outliers. . .

I don’t want to change this to a debate on ability grouping, but I want to point out the falacy in that commonly held position - namely, that you could meet everyone’s needs and abilities if you just had a class that had people of common ability. First, there’s really no good way to determine (or even define) learning ability. That no two people have identical abilities, let alone 15, 20 or 30 of them, is the problem. In any group, there will be some who get one concept or another quicker or more meaningfully than others. There is no way to teach to YOU unless it’s a one-on-one situation. Which public school is not. If you have a class of three people, someone will “get it” first. Someone, last. In a homogeneous class of 25, the range is much narrower than a heterogeneous class, but there is still a bell-shaped curve of abilities, talents, and proclivities that feed into the mix that is How (and how much) Children Learn. Nope, the answer is not grouping practices. It’s about the teacher.

I accept all this, I was just curious which principle it was emphasizing towards the “middle” of the class.

I mostly remember this in reading comprehension assignments where you had to read a passage and then answer a bunch of questions. The answers to every question were designed to be an unambiguous, one word answers. The teachers were no looking for anything but a mechanical rephrasing of the question to append to it. Any attempt to deviate from this script was marked down.

As much as I overestimate the intelligence of my peers, I have a hard time believing even the dumbest child would not find this trivial to master.

I don’t. I think it’s commonplace. I think it’s been commonplace forever.

Here’s an excerpt from Roger Angell’s memoir Let Me Finish.

People talk about the bell curve, but without fully grasping what that implies.

If you assume a standard normal distribution with IQ set at 100, then 34.1% of the population has IQ’s between 84 and 100. Another 13.6 percent will have IQ’s between 68 and 84. That’s almost half the population, not a few special dumb individuals. You can’t hide half the population away. They will be half your school. They may not be half of your particular class, but unless you’re in all honor classes [or whatever your local term is], they’ll be mixed in with you. Teachers have to account for them, have to make special efforts for them. Doing so and boring you hurts you less than ignoring their needs does them.

You can’t escape this. Everybody is different and everybody learns differently and everybody proceeds at different rates, and everybody has some subjects, topics, concepts, skills on which they are superior and some on which they are inferior. There is always something that is non-trivial, even for the brightest student, even though that something others grasp instantly.

This is why teachers don’t get no respect, nowise. :slight_smile: