Monday, September 29, 2008

Topic: Grammar and Writing

10-second review: The issue of grammar and its relationship to writing is still alive. We need to recognize that research has not been able to prove that a knowledge of grammar improves writing.

Title: “Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburger.” C Van Zalingen. English Journal (March 1998), 12-13. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Quotes: Question to a presenter on writing workshops at a convention: “When do your students learn the difference between a gerund and a participle?”

“…the formal study of grammar, whether transformational or traditional, improved neither writing quality, nor control over surface corrections.” Patrick Hartwell, College English (February 1985), 106.

“Unfortunately, the premise that students need to know all the parts of speech before they can write well continues to pervade the teaching of writing in spite of the mountain of research which clearly contradicts it.”

“They [adherents of grammar] suspect that writing workshop teachers turn their students loose with wild abandon and allow them to write to their ‘hearts’ content without regard to usage, punctuation or spelling because they ‘don’t matter.’ ”

“Furthermore, when we ourselves write, we do not stop mid-sentence and think to ourselves, ‘I’ve just used the prepositional phrase as an adjective,’ so why do we think drumming the difference between a prepositional phrase used as an adjective and one used as an adverb will enhance our students’ writing?”

Summary: After summarizing the different points of view on the teaching of grammar, the author concludes that grammar is best taught functionally, by helping students learn to correct problems in usage, punctuation and sentence structure within the students’ own writing.

Comment: I think English teachers who are supposed to teach students to think fall into the trap of the “either/or” fallacy. Remember the big brouhaha over process vs. product in writing? You need both. The same is true of formal grammar vs. functional grammar—you need both.

There are times when key concepts like “sentences,” “clauses” and “phrases” can best be taught at one time rather than having to teach it over and over again as each individual student needs it. And, of course, students need to learn to proofread sentence structure, usage, punctuation and spelling in order to polish their writing.

And it’s not grammar vs. writing. You certainly need to teach grammar within the context of writing. However, I do remember that when I was in high school, my English teachers believed that grammar had to be learned first BEFORE they taught writing. As a result, I was never taught to write, went to college and my first composition was returned with the comment, “Where’s your summary paragraph?” I had never heard of a summary paragraph. When my college English teachers mentioned “term papers,” I asked, “What’s a term paper?” I know that is ancient history, but that’s the way it was when I was in high school.

By the way, common sense should tell you that studying grammar will probably not improve writing. Compositions involve quality of content, organization, paragraphs, unity and coherence. Grammar focuses only on the sentence. Judgments of writing focus on the total composition, content, organization, paragraphs primarily—and correctness at the sentence level.

I made up my mind a long time ago on the issue of formal grammar and writing.

1. I do not teach grammar BEFORE teaching writing. I teach grammar and writing at the same time so they can be applied to each other.

2. I always ask and answer the question, “Why?” when I teach grammar. How will the students use what they have learned about grammar in their writing, especially as applied to usage, sentence structure and punctuation. The purpose of grammar, so far as I am concerned, is to polish writing.

3. I teach grammar formally to the class when all the students need to learn the concept as applied to their writing. I teach students to proofread and to use a reference text in order to find answers to their questions about sentence structure, usage and punctuation. RayS.

The purpose of this blog, English Education Archives, is to review articles of contemporary interest from past issues of English education journals.

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