Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Topic: Grammar Is Not Writing

10-second review: Base the teaching of grammar on problems that can be predictably expected in compositions. These problems involve sentence structure, punctuation and usage. Composition should be taught at the same time as grammar so that students can apply their knowledge of grammar to their compositions. The purpose for a knowledge of grammar in composition? To polish writing.

Title: “Grammar and Composition.” Teaching English, How To…. Raymond Stopper. Xlibris, 2004. pp. 164-206.

Grammar is not writing.

The problem with teaching English grammar has always been a lack of clear purpose. As a result, students may be taught grammar, but they soon forget it.

Throughout my elementary and secondary education, I had been drilled in grammar, particularly diagramming sentences. I was never taught to write. I know I wasn’t taught to write because when I went to college, I kept hearing people talk about term papers, and I honesty did not know what they were talking about. My first composition in my first English class at the university was returned with a surprisingly good grade, but with the comment that I had failed to include a summary paragraph. No one had ever told me about summary paragraphs.

But I do have memories of spending a great deal of time diagramming sentences. We did it year after year. Therefore, I was shocked when, in the summer before beginning my teaching career, our instructor asked us what we knew about diagramming, and almost no one in the teacher education class could remember what we had all spent such large amounts of time doing in our elementary and secondary English classes. In fact, the instructor had to show us how to diagram a complex sentence, knowledge we felt we needed as we began our English teaching careers. We were determined to perpetuate what we had been taught—even though I HATED diagramming, one of the most boring practices I had ever experienced in school. I was going to carry on that same boredom. I never thought to ask, “Why?”

However, several incidents in my first year of teaching helped me to change my approach to grammar and composition. Les Hornberger was the head of the business department in our high school. One of the sections I was teaching consisted of juniors who were business majors, his department. The year was 1956 and most of the young women in the business program and an occasional male would be going directly from high school to the working world. A local company that frequently employed our graduates was the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company (PP&L), the electric utility for the area. Les, a tactful man, mentioned several times to me that PP&L was complaining about having to teach high school graduates how to write.

I did not understand what Les meant. I asked him, “Don’t they know their grammar?”

“It’s not grammar,” he said. “It’s how to write. For example, they need to teach high school graduates to use the ‘you’ point of view when writing to customers.” Gradually, I began to understand something I should have known all along: grammar was not composition.

I remember going down to Philadelphia one weekend to the Gimbel’s Department store book section and picking up every self-help guide to writing I could buy. I came home and read these books, and began to realize that students needed to be taught how to organize their expression, how to introduce, develop and summarize their ideas—and that grammar really had little to do with good writing, other than usage, punctuation and certain problems in sentence structure. I went so far as to write for my students my own “book” on how to write, a folksy little pamphlet, which my dad, a lawyer, criticized because I had written it from the “you” point of view. I began to teach composition along with the grammar. but I was still teaching grammar without asking, “Why am I teaching it?” which is where Mrs. May comes in.

Next blog: Mrs. May: “Why did you teach it?”

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I am always fascinated when I read about people hating sentence diagramming. I wonder how your teacher used it. I am a teacher and my students LOVE diagramming sentences. They see diagramming as a fun way to solve a puzzle.