Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Jenna Griffin Mulford
I have a knack for creating a series of run-on sentences and calling them an essay. I have a knack for beginning sentences with And or But. I also have a writing degree. I still have not mastered the use of the comma and somehow the Academy granted me that little piece of paper anyway. You, reader, may be wondering my point. My point is this: that despite my ill-formed paragraphs and run-on sentences I have existed and prospered within the formal writing environment. And so, I was elated to read Patrick Hartwell’s essay that contests that teaching grammar has a negligible effect on the development of a student writer (183).
Clearly, there are different types of grammar, which Hartwell distinguishes in his essay. Borrowing from Francis’ “The Three Meanings of Grammar,” and his lengthy definition of grammar in three parts, Hartwell extends to the five categories of grammar. In dissecting grammar, Hartwell divides and conquers the argument that formal grammatical training is of great use to a developing writer. Instead, Hartwell sees grammar as a recognition tool, a way to keep the writer and reader on the same page. It is a tool of orientation rather than a prerequisite for “good writing.”
Harvey Davis, an author I found by way of Hartwell’s end-notes, makes a great distinction between the necessity of grammar texts for educators and students. In his book, Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered, Daniels recognizes that grammar books, “while they may be good for the publishing business, and may comfort anxious teachers, they are unlikely to help students much” (241). Books devoted to the teaching of grammar or the integration of grammar into writing programs simply create names for lessons and rules already used by students. Grammatical terminology does not improve the quality of student writing. For some students there is the possibility that learning the names of the rules may create a more organized way of remembering how to “properly” construct sentences, paragraphs, and on down the line. But knowing these monikers certainly does not change the quality of student writing. The ability to recognize the rule of subject-verb agreement does not create more insightful and intriguing arguments or story lines.
Other than spelling there should be less of a focus on the rules of writing, and more of a concentration on the production of writing. The only way to grow as a writer is to write. The “regularity” of grammar will come by way of recognition of how we speak, rather than how we write. One major goal of writing is to engage both the writer and reader in a topic- leading to a better or new understanding of a field of study or opinion. If we spend time working with the sequential element of grammar, we lose the scattered growth of writing craft. As Hartwell mentions, to remove formal grammar study creates a “rich and complex interaction of learner and environment that has little to so with sequences of skills instruction as such”(Hartwell 186).
Turning to grammar as the cornerstone of writing seems to negate the importance of content. If a thirsty man says “Water, I need” do we not recognize the exigency of his claim? If we do not allow for a vast amount of experimental room, we will only be creating grammatical mimics. Some theories of teaching grammar call for rote memorization. If all twenty students in a class use the same sentences and keywords to remember the rules, a teacher will have created twenty students with similar tendencies for syntax when writing. Students taught in such a manner run the risk of never even knowing that there are many ways to break the rules. I used the word regularity when referring to the practice of grammar in the previous paragraph. I put the word in quotations for the simple reason that grammar is anything but regular. The rules bend and shift so much that there is hardly a time when a student can write something considered absolutely wrong.
Granted, while writing is a technical, learned task, it is what we attempt to say in our writing that carries more weight than whether or not the sentences in the writing begin with conjunctions. When a baby cries, that is instinct. She is hungry or tired. It is the fact that the child is crying, not the way that she cries. Whether a whimper or a scream, there is content in the cry. Similarly, when students learn the technicalities of creating the alphabet and constructing words from the letters, it is instinctual of them to want to create words that have meaning to them. What the educational system imposes instead is not a foreground for a better writer, but the groundwork for a better student. Formal grammatical training creates a well disciplined student who will be able to regurgitate or sit for long periods of time. If there is a problem with discipline, by all means teach grammar. (I doubt anything else would bore them into submission the same way). As for better writers, students do not need discipline in the same way. Other than the discipline of writing for a certain amount of time each day, writers of any age should be encouraged to communicate in a way that is meaningful to him or her. Otherwise, what is education? The point of composition is to make students more aware of their surroundings by giving them an outlet to better articulate their experience of life and discovery.
Grammar 1, Hartwell’s “Grammar in our Heads” (189) is the usable, unconscious knowledge we carry with us. To teach this element of grammar formally is redundant and confusing. Students know how to use certain grammatical rules, learned mainly through speech. To teach students what they already know is a waste of time. Re-teaching the names of rules that are already second nature is a waste of time that could be spent working on composing itself. Composition teachers should be more inclined to let their students become architects and not builders. Students need the opportunity to create new ideas. There will always be time, computer programs, and editors for the nitty gritty.
Grammars two and four, Hartwell’s “Grammar Two” and “Common School Grammar” deal with the scientific, sequential limitations of the formal study of grammar (193, 198). Much like Grammar 1, these two distinctions of grammar seek to confuse the student writer with sequential information that is already stored in the brain in an non-sequential manner. Elements such as parts of speech and sentence types are legitimate to know but can be obtained erratically through the quest to write more and differently. As Daniels point out in his book, “clarity is often the end result and not the precursor” (245). Writers do not approach a task with grammatical rules marking writing territory. Instead there is an exploration of all threads of thought, with a process of shaping afterwards.
Grammar lay waiting for the guillotine in the arena of composition. The main concern of any composition teacher, as well as his students, should be the production of writing. Since the rules are so flexible and easily changed for matters of style, grammar should be an afterthought, rather than a pre-writing tool. To take writing time away from our students and force them to familiarize themselves with formal grammar does them a disservice.
Daniels, Harvey. Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered. Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. ed. Victor Villanueva, Jr. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 183-212
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