Grammar, Go Your Own Way

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • May
  • 11
  • 2006

If I had reasons to accept grammar into my classroom, I would. As it stands, I have to tell grammar to take a hike.

Against Grammar Instruction

Where is the research that suggests grammar instruction equals better writing? Just because I know the rules of football doesn’t make me a good player. And it doesn’t even mean that I have the skills necessary to play the game. Just because a student knows what a dependent clause is doesn’t mean that he knows how to use it. Too many student do just fine on worksheets where they have to circle certain parts of speech or particular phrases or draw arrows to the words modified, but cannot apply the same principles to their own writing. While a student might be able to correctly identify the correct tense of a verb on a handout, his own construction of a sentence is still “Using the language every single day assisted me when I arrive in Timbuktu.”

Using the sports metaphor again, the way I become a better runner is to practice running. Learning the nomenclature of a shoe doesn’t make me a better runner, though it certainly makes me more able to discuss problems with my local shoe shop. But my goal isn’t to talk more competently with the shoe salesman, it’s to run a 5-minute mile. In order to do that, I need to run more. Similarly, students need to write more if they want to improve. The brain is a muscle and, like any other, it needs a work out in order to become stronger.

If we want students to become better writers, we need them to write. Learning what to call “-ing” phrases (present participial phrases) doesn’t help them use such phrases more effectively. Putting the students into situations where they need to use those phrases, introducing writing prompts that might necessitate such variety, requiring pieces that demand such sophistication pushes students to reach for such eloquence. That’s often the only way students truly learn something, to make it necessary for them. Otherwise, it’s just so many words on a page.

I sure wish I had some research to back up the idea that more writing creates better writers, but I sadly do not. I’m literally hanging my head in shame right now. Anecdotal evidence, while really not evidence at all, is the only evidence I have. I see my students grow as writers with practice, typically the more writing I give them in a short amount of time and the quicker I provide feedback. No surprise there.

Several other teachers have shared the same experience with me, improvement on a rubric after multiple writing assessments, with more dramatic improvement as those assessments are spaced over a shorter time with and feedback is more prompt.

Why is it important that students know what a conjunctive adverb is? Using such jargon makes writing seem like alchemy, some arcane art that mere mortal students could never hope to master. Even words like participle and relative clause frighten students away from something they are already all too willing to shy away from: writing. Should we be in the business of making writing look even more complicated than it already is by springing seemingly-foreign words on them to describe what they struggle so much to do? Is it important that a student know a sentence is a compound-complex sentence? What if that student calls it a hella-hardcore sentence? Isn’t it more important that the student be able to use various grammatical structures than be able to pick them out of a lineup by name?


1. Tom says:

[5/11/2006 - 7:26 pm]

I agree completely.

When I’m done with this video project I’ll expand at length.


2. Todd says:

[5/11/2006 - 8:00 pm]

You tease…

But this just gives me another reason to anticipate you finishing the video!

3. Debbie says:

[5/14/2006 - 10:28 am]

I was a pretty good writer in high school, although not an enthusiastic one. My best grammar instruction came from a writing teacher in college who, upon going through a stack of papers, would assign each of us a mistake we made to correct and present to the class. We had to use our grammar books (GASP!) to look up the problem, look for examples in our reading, and then teach it to the class. Amazing. I often want to take our syntax unit, turn it on its head, and do just that.

Interesting read: Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, one of the books that helped shape my writing prof’s writing curriculum.