Composition Theory and Pedagogy
Developing Grammar Through Writing
by Brendan S. Casey
Its time to come clean, face the facts and admit the truth - students are scared of grammar. From the days of crayons and nap time straight through high school they always hope and pray that a random fire drill, a.k.a. a gift from God, will disrupt the dreaded grammar lessons and exercises. As the semesters continue to pass by students become elated as grammar turns into nothing more than a minute beep on the radar screen that is the weekly lesson plan. However, nearly every student walks into English class dealing with the fear that he will be called on to explain even the simplest rules of possession or number. So why do most students fear and loathe the perplexities of grammar? Perhaps this trepidation has something to do with the fact that most teachers treat grammar like the ‘redheaded step son’ of the English curriculum; hiding its study somewhere between spelling exercises and vocabulary worksheets. While most teachers avoid discussing grammar, or discuss it incorrectly, they still threaten students with low marks if such mistakes rear their ugly little heads in class assignments. The way we, as scholars, view the discussion, acquisition and knowledge of grammar must be modified to suit the realities of the modern classroom and world. Grammar should be seen through the lens of the entire writing process to make the students use of grammar seem completely natural and easy.
Although every coin has two sides, the research arguing against the formal teaching of grammar in the classroom appears stronger than that which supports the old regime’s strict approach to grammar. However, logic dictates that this argument will not be settled merely by choosing sides. Perhaps some middle ground can be found between the militantly formal study of grammar and a complete disregard for its study. Grammar cannot and must not be ignored, if only for its importance in everyday communication, as well as in professional areas of business, law, academics, science and medicine. Ideally, certain ideologies and exercises will be developed, not to teach grammar, but to allow grammar to teach itself. The following discussion will highlight the controversy and complexity surrounding grammar, while attempting to modify the normative notion of grammar in the classroom. It stands that grammar cannot be taught in solitude, but within the hierarchy of the writing process. Finally, I hope to develop some fresh pedagogical alternatives to the typical, boring and unsuccessful grammar activities in an attempt to bring together those opposed to and in support of the formal teaching of grammar.
The debate over grammar continues to passionately rage on, providing students, teachers and writers the necessary forum to work towards some universally sound ideology. Patrick Hartwell discusses the depth of this grammar war during Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. “But the grammar issue, as we will see, is a complicated one. And, perhaps surprisingly it remains controversial with the regular appearance of papers defending the teaching of formal grammar or attacking it” (Villanueva, 183). Such a division amongst interested parties stems from the enormously vague and gray shadow cast by the term grammar. The first step in developing a complete dialogue on grammar deals with recognizing the inherent complexities surrounding its definition alone. Hartwell recognizes five basic definitions of grammar, while Constance Weaver develops six rough descriptions of the term during Teaching Grammar in Context. Grammar must be seen as much more than the basic set of rules regulating correct or proper English. Under the larger heading of grammar I feel safe in placing ideas such as organization, description, word choice and style. Weaver identifies the various levels of grammar, “Most teachers conceptualize grammar as descriptions of the structure of a language, prescriptions for its use, perhaps as sentence sense or style, and as the kinds of books designed for teaching all these” (Weaver, 2). Theoretically, the term grammar acts as an octopus; gaining stability from a central point and spreading its arms into various areas of written and spoken language. How many discrepancies take place when the teacher and student are simultaneously working with different arms of the ‘grammar octopus’? With so many facets of grammar in existence it seems impossible to include them all into one English course, let alone into one twenty minute session each week. The basic undertones of grammar should be heard at least faintly in all areas of the English classroom and subsequent exercises. The teaching of grammar must be integrated into both the reading and writing process naturally so students don’t have the chance to realize dealing with something so boring as grammar, and can focus on improving their writing.
Upon recognizing the enormity of what we call grammar, it is necessary to determine how students come to learn, understand or grasp grammar. Naturally, certain scholars assert that students learn the inner workings of the grammar mystery through formal teaching, while others claim that students come to grasp grammar intuitively through personal development, writing and reading. Rather than defend or attack one particular viewpoint, it stands to benefit all interested parties to find some point of unity. Perhaps the lynchpin of this argument can be found in the notion of cognitive learning. I should hope that grammarians on either side of the fray can agree that the process of learning involves much more than ones ability to memorize facts, but to use those facts as the foundation for the construction of larger concepts. We must never forget that there are large intellectual notions at stake in this discussion, far more important than a simplistic attempt to memorize certain obscure rules for a ten-minute quiz. As Weaver maintains, the revolutionary new research and thinking has developed the idea of an unconscious learning and understanding of grammar. Similarly, Hartwell claims, “We need to attempt some massive dislocation of our traditional thinking, to shuck off our hyper-literate perception of the value of formal rules, and to regain the confidence in the tacit power of unconscious knowledge that our theory of language gives us” (Villanueva, 201). This reasoning highlights a student’s ability to write with proper grammar without explicitly knowing or understanding the ‘rules’ he is following. Conversely, during his anthropological study of the Hopi language, Benjamin Lee Whorf determined that although he had a complete understanding of specific conjugations and larger rules, he could not speak the Native American tongue (Adams, 710-723). Likewise, a student could grow to understand the complete rules of grammar, but may still be unable to follow the rules in speech and writing. It seems that being able to state the basic rules of grammar does not directly correlate to an understanding of the rules, or to correct usage of the rules. It seems safe, although somewhat awkward, to say that most students know the basic tenants of grammar, but they don’t know that they know.
The normative high school routine of boring grammar assignments, quizzes and tests amounts to little more than a series of late night cramming sessions coupled with some temporary memorization. Accordingly, one of the only legitimate reasons for such a formal approach to grammar instruction comes from the teacher’s need to evaluate and grade students. Were it not for the power of the almighty grade, chances are discussions of grammar would not be forced into such confined quarters as worksheets and tests. A true understanding of grammar, and of language in general, stems from an extended experience in writing and reading. Continuous writing should be promoted not only in English classes, but across the curriculum so students will be guaranteed ample time to write and revise each day. Due to the fact that half the time spent in English class deals with literature, teachers must choose interesting works for their students. The material must closely relate to the general experience of all students. If students seriously and continuously work to improve their literacy skills, then they will come to grasp the concepts of grammar, either consciously or unconsciously.
While grammar can be learned unconsciously, it should be discussed consciously of course. Dealing with grammar, rather than ignoring it, will allow students to understand the difference between correct and incorrect writing, in terms of certain specifics. Focusing on grammar in the classroom means that certain exercises must be developed enabling students to improve all aspects of their writing. The teacher must devise types of exercises that will allow grammar to teach itself. A students ability to pinpoint sentence fragments within a textbook assignment created for that purpose carries with it no assurance that the student understands the fundamental aspects of fragments as opposed to grammatically correct sentences (Weaver, 148). It seems altogether beneficial then, to immerse students in activities dealing with more realistic applications. Rather than relegate grammar lessons to worksheets and textbooks, grammar should be approached while students can focus their energies on the composition and revision of personal writings. The teacher need not hover over each piece of writing, picking out each and every mistake, but should merely offer suggestions that will serve to benefit all students. Grammar becomes apparent to the student on a natural level when he or she engages in a continuous dialogue, both spoken and written, with the English language. Therefore, discussing the basic tenants of grammar on a consistent basis may ingrain the regulations into the student’s memory more effectively than a lifetime of detached quizzes and worksheets.
The importance of attacking the demons of grammar throughout the entire writing process must not be overlooked. If a student writes two drafts before the third and final is handed in for grading, the teacher should pay careful attention to each rough draft. Allowing the student to realize their mistakes during the revision process provides them with a sense of discovering the error, rather than enduring the insult of having the error red flagged when it counts most. Constance Weaver asserts, “our efforts at teaching grammar should probably focus on helping students revise and edit their writing, partly because whatever is learned during revision and editing may eventually be incorporated into drafting, or into rehearsal for writing” (Weaver, 104). It is important to provide the student with the reason why his sentence is a fragment, or why the subject does not agree with the object, rather than simply highlighting the mistake. It also seems sensible and helpful to provide the student with a few grammar options to their mistake. Simply because a teacher circles an errant apostrophe with red ink does not mean that the student will be able to understand his error, let alone fix the problem. Similarly, students will come to understand the importance of the entire writing process, especially that of revision, instead of merely fixing a few spelling errors.
It is nothing but productive and profitable to develop new approaches to grammar within the realm of the writing process. I feel confident in suggesting that a greater emphasis must be placed upon editing and revision, rather than upon completing the process. With this in mind students could be asked to correct, revise and edit their own work. Once each student has evaluated his work he may bring his draft along with his notes of correction to class for further discussion. Whenever a student makes a grammar correction he should attempt to write down what he thought was wrong and what was done to fix the problem. Now the teacher can step in and merely give the student a hand, rather than dragging him towards grammar salvation. I also feel it would be extremely interesting to see how students describe grammar mistakes in their own words. This exercise could also be translated into a peer editing session with relative ease. Allow students to read and evaluate each others work, with the only stipulation being that each student must come up with five specific corrections and three broader suggestions for improvement. The teacher should collect the written corrections and suggestions to determine what mistakes have been made the most. Naturally an informal lesson to correct such mistakes will benefit the entire class.
It is the duty of the teacher to instill in each student the necessity of the ability to mold and sculpt language to fit the particular context at hand. Therefore, students must be made aware of when to sound familiar, when to sound academic and when to sound professional. The teacher holds the responsibility of familiarizing each student with the important terms and phrases regarding the study of grammar. Furthermore, a list of over fifty rules and regulations of the English language should not be given to the students in an avalanche of information. Teachers should bring in specific rules and notions of grammar as they become relevant to the writing assignments and revision process. Perhaps most importantly of all the idea of grammar should be made appealing to students of all levels and abilities. Wait a minute, did I just write that? Can grammar be made fun or even appealing? It can if teachers put forth a little extra effort with some creative planning. Perhaps a weekly prize contest can be held to see what student can pick out a grammar mistake in a newspaper or magazine. Then this mistake can be turned into a mini lesson without becoming boring or overbearing. Teachers simply need to remember that it’s ok to throw away the worksheets from 1975 and put down the trusty textbook for a fresh approach to grammar.
Hartwell, Patrick. "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar." In Cross Talk in Comp Theory. Edited by Victor Villanueva. National Council of Teachers of English. Urbana: 1997.
Weaver, Constance. Teaching Grammar in Context. Boyton/Cook Publishers. Portsmouth: 1996.
Whorf, Benjamin Lee. "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language." In Critical Theory Since 1965. Edited by Hazard Adams. Florida State University Press. Tallahassee: 1986.
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