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:
Once 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.