Teaching Grammar

“How much grammar instruction do my Basic Writing students need?” “Will my students really get anything out of it if we spend 20 minutes in class going over run-ons and fragments?” “If they haven’t figured out comma splices by now, how can I make it stick?” “Do I really need to teach grammar at all?” The following articles address these and other questions regarding the place and importance of grammar in a Basic Writing curriculum.

On that last hypothetical — probably the question of most interest to beginning Basic Writing instructors — the broad consensus of these authors is a “Yes, but…” Well aware of decades of research showing grammar instruction only minimally improves student writing, even those (like Sarah D’Eloia) who tout the benefits of grammar study both for composition and its own sake encourage teachers to minimize time spent on the topic. Here, though, “to minimize” does not mean “to exclude entirely” — as you’ll see, the authors least sanguine about grammar’s prospects for building better writers (like Patrick Hartwell) still recognize its importance, and offer strategies to make your presentation of key concepts more efficient and effective.

Some common suggestions for instructors:
* Be highly selective in what you address, focusing on those errors any reasonably attentive reader will notice (versus enforcing rarely-observed rules “because they’re the rules” — think split infinitives, “different from” vs. “different than,” etc.)
* Draw on the knowledge your (native-speaking) students already possess as speakers of the language
* Dispense with terminology
* Integrate writing into all grammar instruction

and of course,

* Plan your lessons carefully

D’Eloia, Sarah. “The Uses — and Limits — of Grammar.” Journal of Basic Writing 1.3 (1977): 1-48.
Acknowledging the vast body of research showing grammar instruction has only a modest impact on student writing, regardless of educational level or approach taken (traditional, structural, or transformational generative), D’Eloia encourages Basic Writing teachers to minimize time spent on the topic; nevertheless, she rejects the view that students can become proficient writers merely through composition practice and exposure to standard forms via literature. Instead, D’Eloia argues that grammatical study offers a host of benefits to student and teacher alike, and calls for a limited amount of carefully-designed, error-oriented classroom instruction. For maximum effectiveness, the author insists on coupling grammatical concepts with writing as closely as possible, since students will perceive greater relevance and achieve more permanent results when they produce rather than merely analyze texts. As an example, D’Eloia’s lengthy appendix of sample activities demonstrates how studying conjunctions can lead naturally into argument structure and generation. Other keys to success include minimizing terminology, using inductive reasoning to help students “discover” concepts on their own, and being sure to teach all topics as completely as possible, rather than the bare minimum. D’Eloia closes with a sample lesson plan for teaching the verb phrase. For those teachers who want to provide their students with grammar help but are uncertain how to do so in an efficient (and time-saving) manner, this article may prove very useful.

Harris, Muriel and Katherine Rowan. “Explaining Grammatical Concepts.” Journal of Basic Writing 6 (1989): 21-41.
Harris and Rowan suggest that many students’ difficulty with editing stems from their imperfect grasp of key grammatical concepts. A research study by the authors shows, for instance, that students with a flawed or incomplete understanding of sentence fragments will find fragments of one type while missing others of a slightly different kind; they may also incorrectly identify complete sentences as fragments, and vice-versa. Coupling their own work with insights drawn from the field of concept learning, Harris and Rowan describe four key problems students have in learning and utilizing grammatical concepts: recalling background knowledge; controlling all critical features of a concept; recognizing new instances; and discriminating apparent from real instances. In providing strategies to combat each issue, the authors stress the importance of complete definitions, of giving students the full spectrum of examples (and non-examples) they need to recognize the concept in all its iterations, of combining practice with feedback, and of offering background information where necessary.

Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English 47.2 (1985): 105-127. Acknowledging that the ongoing, highly-polarized debate over the efficacy of grammar instruction for composition is unlikely to be settled by any amount of additional experimental research, Hartwell tries to re-articulate the problem in different terms, focusing primarily on the multiple ways in which “grammar” is defined, and the power dynamics implicit in the various models. Using W. Nelson Francis’s “The Three Meanings of Grammar” as a springboard, the author explores five distinct “grammars”: the internalized, unconscious rules of a language absorbed by its speakers; the branch of linguistic science; linguistic etiquette/usage; “school grammars” based in logic and Latin grammar; and “stylistic” grammar used to teach prose style. Demonstrating that rhetorical competency increases knowledge of language as language, not the other way around, Hartwell advocates a learner-centric approach grounded in writing practice, which, leveraging students’ abstract knowledge of grammar, develops their metacognitive and metalinguistic awareness. One especially useful takeaway is “COIK” — “clear only if known.” If your students haven’t already tacitly absorbed a grammatical concept through exposure (spoken language, reading, etc.), formal grammar rules may only confuse them. Before you send students to a handbook, think about how you might assess, draw out, and build on their innate knowledge to make that rule clear to them.

Horner, Bruce. “Rethinking the ‘Sociality’ of Error: Teaching Editing as Negotiation.” Rhetoric Review 11.1 (1992): 172-199.
Against a tendency to acknowledge writing “errors” as culturally-constructed conventions while continuing to construe students’ failures to spot the same “mistakes” as individual failures of perception or cognition, Horner calls for a more truly “social” understanding of error. This understanding does not stop at recognizing how a student’s political and social background may cause her to conceptualize “problematic writing” differently than the academic mainstream, but goes beyond that to explicitly characterize “error” as a site of negotiation. Horner contends that when students approach editing not as “correcting” their work to meet a single, monolithic standard, but as a process of identifying, evaluating, and weighing the variety of “correct” alternatives for a given context, students enjoy a sense of agency and become more invested in their writing — even when they select the conventionally “right” option. To that end, the author suggests in-class discussion of historically-shifting standards of correctness, peer workshops, and individual conferences of drafts in progress, with the instructor highlights differences between his reading and the student’s, but not imposing the former as authoritative. Instructors interested in the ethical stakes of teaching revision and/or improving students’ metacognitive skills will find this piece useful.

Williams, Joseph M. “The Phenomenology of Error.” College Composition and Communication 32.2 (1981): 152-168.
Writing in part to suggest what kind of grammar and usage errors are most worth instructors bringing to students’ attention, Williams proposes that the primary criterion for evaluating the seriousness of an error should be whether the violation of a grammatical rule elicits conscious awareness during “normal” reading — that is, when the reader is not actively looking for mistakes. Numerous examples of major grammarians (E. B. White, Jacques Barzun, and H. W. Fowler) laying down edicts they ignore elsewhere (sometimes violating a rule in the very process of explaining it!), as well as “ungrammatical” usages that are more instantly comprehensible than the “correct” version, shore up Williams’s contention that the writing teacher should prioritize those errors that the majority of attentive readers will pick up on. A corollary is that instructors must adjust their own reading accordingly, applying the appropriate level of scrutiny to student writing. And if you’re not sure just how different “normal reading” versus “reading for scrutiny” is, well, just read the article…

Winterowd, Ross. “The Grammar of Coherence.” College English 31.8 (1970): 828-835.
Claiming Noam Chomsky’s transformational generative grammar offers few resources for rhetorical invention and organization,Winterowd proposes an alternative “grammar of coherence” based on three types of relationships that constitute form in discourse: case (between nouns and the verb); syntax (between two sentences combined into one, by any means apart from coordination); and the author’s own contribution, transition. Transition describes all relationships beyond the single sentence, from connections between sentences in a paragraph to chapters in a book, and includes seven major types: coordination; obversativity; causativity; conclusivity; alternativity; inclusivity; and sequential. Each can function as a topic for invention or organization by supplying one possible linkage between existing content and what might follow (ex. “Light rail will spur Detroit’s economic growth” + obversativity = “On the other hand, this may adversely impact the automobile industry”). Teachers could utilize Ross’s transitions as an alternative to invention via stases arguments, but may find them even more useful as a means of helping students understand how their sentences and paragraphs build (or fail to build) on one another.


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