One of the first things I casually mention to my students on the first day of class as we go over the syllabus is that I honestly genuinely do not care as much about grammar as I do content. Technicalities bore me to death, and I consider grammar technicalities. I am nowhere near saying that reading a paper with atrocious grammar does not bother me. But the reason for a student’s quality of grammar could be numerous. English may not be one’s first language and they may still be struggling to learn all the intricacies of the English language. They may have not been fortunate enough to go to a school that had quality resources to educate their students: the tools for music, science classes, updated textbooks, extracurricular activities or college readiness programs – never mind grammar, of all things. They may struggle with a learning disorder. But do any of these possible reasons necessarily mean that these students are not capable of holding rich, deeply complex thoughts and ideas within their minds? Certainly not. Can horrible grammar get in the way of understanding a student’s ideas effectively? Yes, and I clarify to them that if it gets in the way of conveying your ideas effectively, or hinders me from understanding your ideas, I will recommend that you go to the Writing Center, or a tutor. I write this on the feedback for their essays. But otherwise, I do not want to hold grammar over my students’ heads in such a way that the fear of a grammar mistake cripples them or hinders them from being able to get their thoughts down onto paper or screen. Students have enough anxiety about writing. Writing is difficult enough of its own. The process of trying to extract something you cannot touch (thoughts, ideas and emotions, which can be haphazardly scattered or vague or blurry) – from your mind, and produce them into enough of a legible, coherent sentence that captures effectively what you hold in your head – is enough of a difficult process on its own. (Was that a long, rambling sentence? It certainly was, but right now I am more concerned about trying to get my ideas down).
I do not want the fear of grammar to begin to censor my students’ thoughts and ideas. Once they have written down whatever they can get down, once we can enrich the writing further or clarify the ideas, then we can work on grammar, or even get past it if that is possible. To me, it is the last step; not really the first.
I think the reason why grammar is associated in society with “laziness/sloth/uneducated” – as Patricia Dunn writes – is more due to a societal association of grammar with law and order, strictness and rigidity of rules. Laws and rules can be important — but not when the richness of thought, humanity, morals, and free-flowing ideas are sacrificed at their expense. There have been many social, political and educational laws and rules throughout history that were morally wrong. It was once a practice to punish Native American children in school if they spoke their own native language over English, even in a casual conversation. Segregation was once the law, slavery was once the law and the rule. (I am going overboard with the examples but I am sure you get the point). So to abide by the principles of only law and strict rules, without leaving the freedom of space to allow for ideas to flow, is I think ignorant and can even be dangerous. So I really do think that the lamenting of the loss of grammar isn’t always accurate, but also negligent. I think upholding grammar as the only standards of education has more to do with an association of grammar to law and order than anything else. And sometimes, we need to break the rules – or at least not glorify them – if it means creating something genuine, true and meaningful. The “eureka!” moments of scientists, artists and writers throughout time did not occur when they always stayed within the lines, but sometimes, outside of them.
I learned grammar myself by reading voraciously, and remember the long slogging classes of my middle school years diagramming sentences without fondness. I bet I would enjoy it now, as I love word puzzles to distraction, but when I think about those classes all I remember is torpor, droning, and interminable afternoons. I must have doodled and looked out the window through three years of Language Structures, and it wasn’t until years later that I actually committed the rules themselves to memory.
I did learn to love grammar eventually, because I loved playing with syntax as I wrote: the jazz and flow of the sentence, sentences that waddled and skipped through clauses or traversed the light bridge of the semicolon from one idea to the next. Grammar is part of that, and probably shouldn’t be separated so much from the whole of communication, or vilified, or disparaged. Of course, it’s based on convention, and conventions are interesting, both to learn on their own, and to learn how to break most effectively.
I’ve tried many techniques over the years to teach grammar, conventional approaches like worksheets or mini-lessons on specific topics, and felt sometimes like my own enthusiasm might take the students part of the way. Sometimes they loved the grammar best, and we would laugh and talk through the lessons. I don’t know why that is, but it does make it hard to believe that nothing was gained from the old-fashioned grammar lesson. An entirely motivated classroom is something in and of itself, I think.
Meeting one on one in office hours always seemed the most effect way to look at grammar issues, but it doesn’t work as well on Zoom as at a desk in the same room going over a paper together.
I’m going to try sentence combining exercises, as that seems like a fun and interesting assignment, and the practical strategies Harris recommends seem like a helpful way to look at the problem.
I have to say I find the amount of resistance to making grammar secondary in college level writing courses odd. As expressed by Dunn, “decades of research” has shown that this is not a valuable use of class time, and even acknowledges that “future studies” will also follow this trend of being ignored. I find it odd because since I started studying composition and rhetoric (which I guess was about ten years ago now when I started undergrad) there has always been a heavy emphasis placed on teaching higher order concerns to students, rather than lower order concerns (which includes most grammar). Yet, even though I have only encountered a few people in the field who still place such a heavy emphasis on grammar, almost all students continue to place it at the top of their writing concerns. Working as the associate coordinator for the writing center at Pace, I have plenty of anecdotal experience to back this up. I would say that, when a student is asked what they want to work on during a tutoring session, there’s about an 80% chance that they will say grammar, and it takes some finagling during the tutoring session to break the students out of this focus. Now, most of these students are in their beginning years of college, either freshman or sophomores, who are just beginning to realize that college english courses are much different from high school english courses. So, this leads me to believe that while this is certainly a pedagogical issue at the college level, it’s going to be almost impossible to solve unless there is a shift at the grade school level as well. I remember having the exact grammar assignments described by Dunn in her article when I was in high school, which were mostly quizzes or tests trying to identify grammatical mistakes or defining these terms. But, I can’t say that I really learned much from them. I think in my own experience, I learned grammar by reading, which is in line with what Dunn was saying about the difference between knowing a definition of something and actually applying that thing in practice. As an instructor, one of the ways I try to deviate from a focus on grammar is by having its contribution to the overall grade of the paper quite low, typically 5%, in the hopes that students will pay more attention to the higher order concerns that are more heavily weighted. I also appreciated Dunn pointing out the arbitrary nature of grammar, with disputes over what is proper even in standardized english, such as the Oxford comma. I think that as instructors, if we can really highlight this point to students, it may help get their attention of grammar, or at least allow them to see how it can be fluid. This approach pairs well with the focus on discourse communities and genres as we can show grammar to be one of the features of writing that changes based on the circumstance you are writing within. In regards to Harris’ piece, I found much of what she was saying to be aligned with writing center tutoring strategies. For example, having students read out loud to listen for grammar, rather than trying to visually recognize it, is common practice in writing centers. I always tell my students that their ears will pick up on things that their brains will “auto-correct” like an iPhone fixing a typo, so they should always read their papers out loud before handing them in. Another point to take into consideration is that there is so much variability among students in regards to their grammatical fluency. So our approach to grammar can sometimes be case by case. I’m sure we are all familiar with receiving a paper that has so many grammatical errors that there is little to no clarity. In this case, I would say grammar does take on a higher priority, but there is only so much we can do given the limited time (especially one on one time) that we have with students. So, with students like this, I always suggest that they make routine trips to the writing center. That way, I can continue providing a fair amount of focus to higher order concerns, while knowing that the student is receiving help on lower order concerns in tutoring sessions.
Hi everyone! By next Weds, April 14, please watch and answer the questions on THIS EDPUZZLE. There’s kind of a lot of writing there, so leave yourself some time. Edpuzzle is a cool program which allows you to ask questions mid-video, so that you can have conversations with students and, let’s be frank, see if they’ve watched. In the video, I talk about the 1121 Unit 2 assignment as is and also ask for your input as we think about revising it to make it a bit better.
Here are some resources I refer to: You do not need to read them, but they are there for you if you find them useful:
For Weds, April 21:
Please read “Teaching Grammar Improves Writing” and “Grammar Should be Taught Separately” from Bad Ideas About Writing (below) and write a blog post here on Open Lab about… grammar. How you teach it, what your thoughts are about it– what you think works teaching it and maybe where you are stuck.
When we meet, we’ll talk about the possibly not-unrelated topics of teaching grammar and using mentor texts in the classroom.
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