DISCUSSION FORUM: linguistic diversity vs. “basic grammar”

What are your concerns about the teaching of grammar in the classroom? How do you teach grammar? When do you forgo the teaching of grammar? 

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12 thoughts on “DISCUSSION FORUM: linguistic diversity vs. “basic grammar”

  1. Brad Fox

    I think grammar is a relevant part of 1101. I’m not sure how you can help students to repair things like subject-verb agreement errors, missing -ed’s on the ends of verbs, or sentence boundary issues without it. Students have to be able to identify verbs and know the kinds of verbs if they are going to be able to fix verb endings. They also have to able to identify the subject in a sentence and not get tricked into agreeing the verb with a noun that’s a part of a prepositional phrase. On that note, being familiar with a category like “prepositions” also helps students to recognize a sentence pattern with which not all of them are familiar–starting a sentence with an intro word or phrase, followed by a comma and then the rest of the sentence. I also think that covering the 5 major uses of the comma helps students to add details quickly (ex. using appositives) and to build longer, more complex sentences using relative clauses, etc.

    1. Ian Ross Singleton

      I’d like to point out that Laurie McMillan herself uses a comma in a place where I wouldn’t. In a complex sentence (an independent clause and a dependent one) she adds a comma before the conjunction “because.” As I’ve been taught this is a comma splice since if the independent clause comes before the dependent one there is no need for a comma. Had she begun her sentence with the dependent clause (the clause beginning with “because”), the comma would have been appropriate. I write all of this by way of saying that it’s difficult to pinpoint a kind of ur- or “standard” grammar when there are such nitpicky considerations as the above.

    2. Colleen Birchett, Ph.D.

      I teach grammar in context. I first identify the errors that likely obscure the meaning of the text. Then I focus on one or two, include a hperlink and some hyperlinks to exercises. I encourage the student to edit the essay to remove the most serious gramamtical errors during the revision process. For students with multiples of such errors, I focus on the one or two most serious, per essay. I avoid the risk of overwhelming them and making it a center of pain. I do NOT ignore all grammar, seeing that the student has paid tuition to learn how to write correct written English.

  2. Carrie Hall Post author

    I want to be totally clear here: I am NOT saying that we shouldn’t teach grammar! Only that I prefer to teach grammar in a way that’s contextualized (students learn grammar when it relates to their own writing, as opposed to simple grammar exercises) and also I prefer not to indicate (subtly or otherwise, though I’m positive I’m far from perfect at this,) that one form of grammar is superior to another. In other words, all vernaculars have grammar– and the academy tends to favor only one vernacular. “She don’t have no shoes” is no less grammatically sound than, “She doesn’t have any shoes,” but it may not be the grammar that academia prizes. It’s okay to teach the grammar that academia prizes, of course (we ARE in an academic setting after all,) but I find students learn it better when I teach Standard Written Edited English as a rhetorical choice, as opposed to a rule of behavior.

    When we get to this (the meeting after next,) We’ll talk about some strategies for best getting grammar learning to “stick,” but I can tell you now that there is one way in particular that works better than any other for learning grammar and that is: reading. I’m not saying that we can’t teach other strategies (and grammar acquisition is different for people who learned to speak English in a classroom rather than through immersion,) but instilling enjoyment in the act of reading is the best thing we can do to help students’ grammar improve. It’s also worth thinking of strategies to help students seek out their own information on grammatical issues, so that when something comes up and the professor isn’t around, they know where to look. I still look up comma rules– all the time!

    Edited to add: while rereading this, I see a number of grammatical and punctuation errors, but I’m gonna go ahead and leave those right there.

    1. Ian Ross Singleton

      I’d like to point out that Laurie McMillan herself uses a comma in a place where I wouldn’t. In a complex sentence (an independent clause and a dependent one) she adds a comma before the conjunction “because.” As I’ve been taught this is a comma splice since if the independent clause comes before the dependent one there is no need for a comma. Had she begun her sentence with the dependent clause (the clause beginning with “because”), the comma would have been appropriate. I write all of this by way of saying that it’s difficult to pinpoint a kind of ur- or “standard” grammar when there are such nitpicky considerations as the above.

  3. Andrew Stone

    So I can’t speak to any of the prevailing theory, and to that extent I can’t really speak as an authority on the subject, but i think it’s safe to say that teaching standard english grammar depends on context and the needs of a particular class. The whole discussion of grammar, as Carrie mentioned, seems best framed as a set of decisions based on a situational necessity. Not that anyone would frame it as an absolute, but its worth recognizing the advantages of explicitly teaching standard grammar as a response to the demands of a circumstance that requires it. Teaching it this way allows for students to feel in control of their decisions, to feel they are not being told what to do. So yeah, in my experience, framing grammar in these terms imparts to students a greater sense of freedom, a more agile rhetorical awareness, and a critical perspective on how different grammars operate, and in what context.

    I’ve found, so far this semester, that teaching students about literacy with respect to standard english has motivated the students to reclaim their own languages. At the same time, they see recognize and see the need to negotiate and adapt to other rhetorical contexts. They are excited at the sense of freedom they feel, and have expressed, in journals, a greater eagerness to be in class. Some students have even gone so far as to say that where initially was once fear for them, is now a sense of relief or comfort even. They also are able to turn around and admit readily that they won’t be able to write so freely in their other classes, but they don’t feel so daunted by this, and I think this class has actually freed up their thought-to-writing process generally, which will likely be to the benefit of their performance in other courses.

    Now this may not directly address the explicit “teaching” of standard grammar, but I believe that instigating this sense and desire for reading and writing more generally is valuable to the end of learning grammar. If they can be excited about articulating themselves, and can relate to other authors doing the same, then through reading, both critically and at the level of engaging the rhythms of prose, I think they can begin slowly to get a better sense of how to operate and write in standard academic settings. Once the framework (of different grammars) is established, then texts can be read with an eye to their rhetorical features, of which grammar is a part. Through these texts/readings, certain grammatical topics can be addressed, and the topic of prose rhythms can be discussed as well.

    Of course, I always and continually offer students the opportunity to meet to discuss grammar if they wish, and point them to resources through which they can begin to learn on their own. There’s more I think I could say but that’s all I’ve got time for now.

  4. Robert Lestón

    Whew. Oh boy. Me? I personally like grammar, A LOT! But I have my limits about how far I’ll go with it. I went to Catholic school and all 7th grade English, we diagrammed sentences. I owned it. I was so into it. Did it help me write better? Of course it did, in some kind of mysterious, osmotic way. Did it help everyone write better? I have no idea, but there’s plenty of research out there that says that the direct teaching of grammar can actually hinder a person’s ability to write. Now, that may be because people get hung up on correctness rather than on expressing ideas. If you read Donald Murray’s essay “Internal Revision: A Process of Discovery,” Murray would put grammar in “external revision,” what is basically a lower order concern.

    To Brad’s point, I agree. They should know all that. To Carrie’s point, They should know all that, but they should know more than just that. They should know that those choices, SAE, correctness, and so on, are bound to power, to white supremacy, and to the long history of colonialism. SAE and correct grammar is indeed rhetorical. People around City Tech, but around everywhere actually, will say: If you want a job, you have to write and speak correct English, which is another way of saying you have to speak the language of the hegemon. And students need to know that stuff in order to be able to impress those who will make decisions about their employment prospects. But, at some point, students also need to know that SAE is bound to power and that writing or speaking in that style is a rhetorical choice. That doesn’t make it less important, just a greater context.

  5. Brad Fox

    I did find that addressing the question of language diversity with my classes led to lively discussion about the politics and power dynamics behind SAE, and it seemed to elicit a strong desire on the part of many students to master SAE as a way to succeed in college and on the the job market. Along with discussing language diversity in their communities, students really got into debating an op-ed piece by Stanley Fish alongside Vershawn Ashanti Young’s response to it. We also established the British Parliamentarian Jacob Rees-Mogg as the evil embodiment of prejudicial ideas about grammar and correctness: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/29/jacob-rees-mogg-language-rules

  6. Tricia C. Clarke

    My concerns about the teaching of grammar is that it interrupts students’ writing process. If taught in a vacuum, depending on students’ respective literacy backgrounds and development, the mention of “grammar” can conjure images of a teacher hovering over them with a red pen. In other words, students come with “grammar baggage.” If they are (or were) learning English as a second language, their experience learning grammar is (or was) mixed–often on the negative end–which can lead to (or has led to) an association with grammar instruction as judgmental, as they feel (have felt) that it is an indictment on their identities, culture, nationalities, etc. It is for this reason that I forgo the teaching of grammar when students are in a drafting stage, when they are in a process of discovering what they have to say, their ideas, the content of their writing. This process “gives” students the freedom to craft their ideas without the distraction of wondering if they are communicating their ideas in the “correct” way.

    I teach grammar within a writing process. After students have written some content, and after I have read their writing–in the later stages of drafting–I determine which grammar conventions to teach based on what I would have seen in their writing, and this is if there are several students with a similar grammar “issue.” For example, if I notice that several students are unclear about the use of semicolons, I would teach a lesson on the use of the semicolon. If fewer students have difficulty with this, I will meet with those students separately. I have found that teaching grammar in the context of students writing for the purpose of an assignment or for an authentic purpose has the most traction as, at that time, students care more about making the corrections to their writing. Along with this, I find that it also works to provide students with a resource that directs them to find out the rules for themselves (e.g. the Grammar Girl series).

    Overall, I think the dilemma of to teach grammar or to not teach grammar can be addressed within our work of teaching rhetoric. By helping students understand how writing works, the writing process, and about audience, purpose, the situation of their writing, etc., we are teaching them the tools to choose when to apply a particular grammar to their writing/communicating. Mainly, though, I think it is empowering students with the tools, with the knowledge of how grammar works, and why, and for whom, and when, that they can begin to feel confident in learning it and we (I) can feel comfortable teaching it.

  7. Ian Ross Singleton

    I am trying to set up group grammar presentations based on grammatical choices made in their first unit, which I’m grading at the moment. I’m also giving them the option of analyzing the grammar of languages such as patwah and even other languages entirely (one of my students is considering discussing Belarussian). Now I plan on guiding them through this carefully. However, I don’t think that their reading about, learning, and then presenting on, say, a descriptive grammar for Spanglish is problematic. The trick, I think, will be in the sources they use for their ideas and claims.

  8. Dr. Z

    I am making an effort in my course to lean into linguistic diversity. The concept, the first time I encountered it, seemed glaringly wrong. Grammar seems so obvious and necessary on the surface. But after looking into it, linguistic diversity makes far more sense to me. Grammar has never just been a single grammar but rather several grammars. The necessary grammars for an email, a medical journal, a high fantasy novel, and a beer ad are all different. This is what we are trying to convey with genre analysis. And if we are working to get students to understand and learn to learn and recognize context, the idea of teaching a single official “Standard English” grammar seems counter productive.

    Rather than teaching a single “standard” grammar, I am making the effort to include linguistic diversity and contextual grammar as part of my explanation of genre and rhetorical analysis. This does not mean that I am letting my students write however they choose and consider it correct simply because it exists. I am addressing issues of grammar in my assessment of their writing. But I am doing so with caveats. I am making an effort to demonstrate that writing is a series of choices and must be intentional. Thus, as low stakes reflection assignments, I am asking my students to think about and then justify their grammar choices in their major writing assignments. Choices that can be justified – writing in a particular vernacular, writing multilingual, or using the jargon appropriate to a specific discourse community – are welcome and encouraged as an exploration of voice and to increase buy-in. Choices that are based on an unwillingness to edit or proofread are not an example of linguistic diversity. This is a fine line in some cases and I am not certain how effective it will be.

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