Why I Teach Grammar

MaryAnn Duffy

With this blog I would like to begin an informal and open discussion about teaching grammar.  During some of our calibration Brown Bags, we’ve had at least one paper whose primary weakness was at the sentence level.  This spurred a discussion about how to address grammar mistakes.  It seems there are as many approaches as there are instructors, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  I am hoping that sharing our approaches to grammar in a more focused way will provide new ideas for instructing students whose share why I teach grammar as part of the writing process.

At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students when they last studied grammar.  Only about two students will have had some grammar instruction in high school, and most don’t remember having any grammar instruction since grade school.  I, myself, remember seventh grade as the last time I had grammar instruction.  This is no surprise because in 1963 and 1986 respectively, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published the meta-studies Research in Written Composition  and “Research in Written Composition: New Directions in Teaching” which caused the pendulum to swing, in a very short time, from teaching formal Latin-based grammar to lack of any grammar instruction at all.

I will confess, I have ignored this research and the trend to not teach grammar.  In fact, I spend a good amount of time—say 25% at the beginning of the semester—teaching foundational grammar.  Recently, I felt compelled to revisit the research behind this trend because I am getting results.  In my research, I was happy to find that in November, 1996, The English Journal devoted an entire issue to teaching grammar.  In this issue, Martha Kolln’s article  “Rhetorical Grammar; A Modification Lesson” critiques the NCTE’s  meta-studies and attributes the radical shift away from grammar instruction to two factors: faulty interpretation of the research, and a definition of grammar that is too narrow.   It is her call for a new definition of grammar that interests me most.

Fifty years ago, when the NCTE’s first meta-study came out, grammar meant formal Latin-based “school” grammar.  Rote memorization, endless exercises, sentence diagramming all did little to improve a student’s composition skills when taught in isolation of their writing.   Kolln agrees with the NCTE’s conclusion that teaching with this narrow definition of grammar, formal Latin-based grammar taught in isolation and in a rote manner, has little effect on student writers’ progress.  It is like a chemistry student who learns the periodic table of elements but then does not apply the properties of those elements to doing science.  The writing student who learns grammar in isolation of his writing has little use for learning grammar.

Kolln argues that the definition of grammar be expanded to mean rhetorical grammar.  Grammar is defined not by learning parts of speech, a word-based definition, but learning the effects of syntactical structures, a sentence-based grammar.  And, I was equally happy to find that by the 1990s, the NCTE’s  recommendation was not to eliminate grammar instruction entirely, but, to “teach only grammatical concepts that are critically needed  for editing writing” and to discuss “grammatical constructions and usage in the context of writing.”  It recommends students practice sentence combining and manipulating.  Thus, the NCTE was advocating teaching grammar, but an expanded definition of grammar – rhetorical grammar.

Nevertheless, I do teach foundational grammar at the beginning of each semester to give students grammar vocabulary.  Teaching foundational grammar can be overwhelming for both student and teacher.  It’s hard to know where to start.  An easy method I developed over the years, however, is to apply the cognitive learning theory of “chunking.”  Chunking—grouping information to more easily remember it, breaks down the myriad of grammar rules and exceptions into manageable units.  (See this article on “Chunking and Learning.” ) Students need only remember two types of clauses, (independent and dependent) and two types of phrases, (prepositional and verbal).   (I leave absolutes, appositives and adjective phrases for the end, if time permits.)  My chart looks like this:


Duffy2Once the students become adept at identifying subjects and verbs in independent clauses (I use those dreaded isolated exercises for this), we move on to memorizing subordinators and identifying dependent clauses.  Next, they learn that if there is no subject verb combination in a group of related words, it must be a phrase.  The nine most common prepositions are memorized easily because I have been pointing them out as we go through clauses.  Last, and most difficult are verbal phrases. Here, I emphasize the role of helping verbs, or rather lack thereof, in identifying whether a word is a verb or verbal.  Finally, we look at the clause connecting rules and begin to talk about commas, periods and semicolons.  I emphasize that all punctuation revolves around clauses and phrases and their order in a sentence.

At this point, I stress that the only unit not a modifier is the independent clause, although it may have modifiers within it.  This opens up a whole new discussion of why and when to choose certain types of adverbial or adjectival constructions over others and where to place them.  ‘70s reformers will be happy to know that I use as little grammar terminology as possible so that the students stay focused on chunking this information as either clause or phrase, and on keeping constituent parts together.  I spend about twenty to thirty minutes each week on foundational grammar at the beginning of the semester.

Once the grammar vocabulary is learned, then learning the rhetoric of grammar can begin.  Problem sentences from the students’ essays are pulled out and analyzed as a class, starting with identifying the clauses and phrases.  They quickly realize that practice exercises differ greatly from how they (we) actually write.  Now they have the vocabulary to identify the parts of their sentences and explore why their sentences do or do not work.  By the end of the semester, students tally types of errors from their essays to see what their patterns of writing are (weak and strong), and they come away with the grammar knowledge to fix their most common misconstructions and to celebrate their writing strengths. Finally, they write an informal essay based on their tally and writing self-analysis.

Of course there is the argument that we can’t expect students to know what we don’t teach.  However, the biggest reason I feel compelled to teach foundational grammar comes from a socio-linguistic perspective.  Most of my students come from non-Standard English speaking communities.   My rationale is based on studies that demonstrate knowledge of the grammar of one’s mother tongue aids in learning a second language, and I reasoned by extension, learning a second dialect.  It is important to recognize that non-Standard English dialects have unique and set grammatical rules which are often inverted Standard English constructions.  Students who speak different dialects learn their grammar the same as everyone else, by hearing it, reading it and being immersed in a homogenous, often segregated, grammatical community.

These students don’t stand a chance of learning a new grammar system in one semester if they are not taught the differences between their dialect and Standard English.  When we talk about these differences, often these lessons turn into discussions as to why dialectical differences emerged in specific regions, which adds a cultural value to grammar knowledge.  More importantly perhaps, it puts all grammar communities on equal footing.  Not only does teaching grammar provide students with one more tool for thoughtful analysis to apply to their own writing, comparing different dialects is also a way to acknowledge the diversity in America’s regional linguistic communities.

Finally, I teach grammar because it aids in reading comprehension and analysis.  Figuring out why Hemingway doesn’t punctuate his independent clauses that are joined by coordinating conjunctions in The Old Man and the Sea, and how that lends to the overall theme of the story adds a level of analysis that students might otherwise overlook because they did not know the clause connecting rules in the first place.  Comparing James Fennimore Cooper’s luminous description of the landscape, laden with clause and phrase modifiers that go on for the length of a page compared to Hemingway’s one word modifiers, informs a students’ understanding of trends in writing styles and how they are connected to eras in history and art.  One can’t understand difficult texts like those of Virginia Woolf’s without understanding why she punctuates the way she does, in say   “Monday or Tuesday.”   And for me, facilitating a deeper understanding of difficult texts like Virginia Woolf’s is reason enough to teach grammar and its rhetorical implications in real writing.

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5 Responses to Why I Teach Grammar

  1. Roger says:

    This is interesting, and thanks for prompting the discussion on grammar! I teach grammar as well, though probably differently than you might. As you say, the range of approaches is, I’m sure, wide and impressive. I admit I probably approach it with less emphasis than you seem to. In fact, it’s funny that while reading your entry, I felt myself engaging in an argument in some way, as though I was in opposition to you about the importance of grammar, when I don’t think we really are. I suspect that is some sort of internal trigger being pushed that’s worth my taking time to suss out, but I can identify that one point of divergence is my sense of when to place discussion of grammar. My sense (am I right?) is that you place grammar at the beginning of the semester because it is foundational to written expression, and if I understand right, it looks like you teach a rather intensive sequence of assignments around grammar as the focus of the course early on in order to address issues the students may have. I suppose I diverge in that, while I think grammar is foundational to written expression, I conceive of the class structure and sequence as itself rhetorical, and part of what I’m trying to persuade my students of is that they already have a grammar with which they are fluent. If I approach them from the beginning as needing grammatical remediation, then I worry that grammatical correctness becomes a kind of defacto focus of their own writing process throughout the semester. So, instead, I tend to place grammar in the context of the semester’s work, discussing as part of the process of composing, typically drawing, like you, from their own writing, but doing so after discussion of rhetorical issues. I take to heart Gary Tate’s old saw that errors in grammar are more often than not errors in usage, by which he meant that “error” was probably more linked to reasoning than to actual rules. It is very rare that when I speak to a student that he/she cannot communicate in a grammatical way with me. I see part of my job is recognizing that strength of my students and helping them discern precisely how they can ensure similar grammatical constructions on paper. So, in early papers, I comment on grammar only when something causes a genuine disruption in meaning. Then, when it does disrupt a meaning, we have a context in which to discuss it that is linked not to some abstraction, but to the meaning, purpose, and audience they are communicating with and about. Anyway, I don’t know what my ultimate point is here, I guess only that I know I had a reaction to some of the entry, so wanted to comment and take up your invitation for discussion.
    And, before I end this, I also want to say one other thing by way of confession though it is not particularly related to any of this: I love diagramming sentences! Always did as a kid, and still do.
    Thanks for writing your entry!

    • MaryAnn Duffy says:

      Hi Roger. Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting that you noticed your resistance to teaching foundational grammar, yet you love diagramming sentences! You must have had a nice grammar teacher way back when. I suspect there is some resentment that the students don’t know this information already and you feel they should (as do I). I do zip through foundational grammar with the WRT 102 students so that they have a base from which to remember the myriad of rules. For those who intuitively know standard English grammar, it serves as part review and part learning the reasoning behind their intuitive knowledge. The fun part for them comes when I have them scrutinize their own writing for style. Do they tend to write long complex sentences with a mix of clauses, or do they tend toward more simple constructions. (This can reflect their level of argumentative reasoning as well.)

      I am wondering how you handle those few students who still habitually write with fragments and runons, have subject/verb agreement issues or have other sentence level weaknesses? I think my main interest is to discuss how to deal with those students, who perhaps, make up the minority of our freshmen writers.

  2. klucenko says:

    Thanks so much for this entry, MaryAnn. One source that I’ve found helpful over the years is this online “Guide to Grammar and Style” by Jack Lynch (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/index.html). Lynch’s approach is very down-to-earth and helpful (like yours). In my teaching I tend toward teaching usage and style rather than grammar; maybe because, to me, these terms (usage and style) emphasize what works to move a reader rather than what’s correct. Looking forward to your Brown Bag on grammar in the spring!

  3. Roger says:

    Hi MaryAnn,
    It’s a good question you ask at the end of your comment. Even though it may sound a bit like beating a dead horse, my first strategy is to make sure that such errors are in fact the problems themselves. In other words, I want to make sure (if you’ll forgive the medical metaphor) those issues are not symptoms, in which case I need to figure out what is actually going on. I use as an example a former student who apparently had no sense of how to control a sentence. Every other sentence was some sort of run-on….and on and on and on. It was brutal reading. In his case, it turned out that he simply did not draft and wrote things typically the morning it was due. He ultimately did not pass the class (no surprise I suppose), but I can say with confidence that we got his supposed “run-on” problem under control by addressing issues with his writing process.
    Of course, all that doesn’t really address the issue of whether a student really just does have some grammatical deficiencies. In that case, I prefer to lean, even though it may sound not like a great idea, at first on peer work. I like to cull from student papers a series of sentences with grammatical problems. I then distribute the sheet of with these sentences to class, and I have them work in groups to talk through, identify, and try to correct the problem. Most frequently, the groups can not only identify, but solve the problem. The student with particular problems gets to hear 1) that he/she may not be the only person with struggles around some basic (or some nuanced) grammatical structures 2) that talking to others can often times provide a solution 3) that the solution can be discussed in terms that he/she can understand. The last part to me is the most important. Students sometimes develop incredibly insightful ways of discussing a grammatical issue, and they often do so in terms that are more clear to other students. When we discuss the things together as a class after the group work, I take that as an opportunity to name the structures or errors they are seeing. I would also note that from time to time, I also have in my class someone like us—a person who actually thinks grammar is really interesting and has a clear grasp of it. In those instances, I think students can often hear those names better from that person than from me.
    Of course, all of this is all perfection described, an Edenic class with wonderful students who all do the work conscientiously and seriously. I know such things aren’t always the case, and I do have students I work with one on one. In those cases, I see my job as first identifying the real problem and any pattern. To do that, I have the student bring in his/her paper BEFORE trying to make any revisions/editing. Many times, a multiplicity of problems turns out to be a single problem that the student is simply trying in multiple ways to solve, and thus riddles the paper with all manner of craziness. So, before I go through all those problems, I want to make sure I am certain that we don’t actually just have one or two problems that have been poorly solved, instead of 15 problems.
    Maybe that answers it? I ramble again, but that’s simply because I like the topic and am glad you brought it up here. I guess to sum it up most simply: I tend to be a glass half-full kind of guy, and I tend to see error as symptomatic and not the issue itself. I’m wrong plenty of times, but I think I’m not too far off enough of the time to keep me encouraged.

  4. Cynthia Davidson says:

    MaryAnn, (and Roger),

    while in fact our students are unique and diverse, in introductory writing classes (I’m including 101 and 102 here), I tend to find three major groups that make sentence-level errors containing what I’d called grammatical mistakes (as opposed to spelling mistakes, occasionally leaving out of words, and blatant typos). Those would be NNS students who formally studied English as a second language and are still learning things through practice, hybrid native speakers/second-language strong influence who went to school in the States and may or may not have had instruction in English grammar, and native speakers who are fluent but make run-ons and fragments habitually. Everything else seems to be for the most part incidental errors, usually due to lack of time-management for proofreading and lack of focus on proofreading because they are distracted by other concerns about the paper.

    It’s because the needs of these groups are so different that I’ve pretty much stopped teaching grammar in class. If there’s a prevalent sentence boundary issue in a class as a majority, I’ll spend a class session or half of one putting real sentences (or parts of them) on the board and asking them to fix them, and talking about them. They usually enjoy this. But one-on-one discussions during conferencing, with a paper in hand, is when it seems most useful to talk about grammar. DIscussion and practice, practice, practice is what seems to help the most. Some people need more time to practice, and they need to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

    We have talked on and off for a few years about a 1-credit course, face to face or online, in grammar review for WRT students. It could review the elements of the sentence and review areas like sentence boundaries and subject/verb agreement, noun and verb phrases and clauses and their relationship to other parts of the sentence (which is also an area of contention for many), etc. I don’t think that would be a bad thing at all, and might be a good use of online instruction…something students could do over the summer or the winter break on their own schedule.

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