Monday, August 31, 2009

What Is Literature? (3)

10-second review: Summary of ideas by writers and scholars that shed light on the nature of literature.

Title: Teaching English, How To…. Raymond Stopper. Xlibris. 2004.

The first question, of course, is “What is literature?” The immediate answer to this question is that literature consists of fiction, poetry, essays and drama. However, that definition suggests a related question: “What are the characteristics of literature that make individual short stories, novels, poems, essays and dramas worth reading (and, in the case of drama, attending)? The following ideas based on the preceding quotations suggest some answers to that question.

What Is Literature?

We never completely understand the meaning of great literature; we modify its meaning as we reflect on it in relation to our experience. Literature enables the reader to appreciate anew our commonplace experiences. Literature “freezes” the moment so that it can be experienced and experienced again. Literature plumbs the depths of the human personality and extends our understanding of the possibilities of human life.

Literature helps us to see the world as if we were experiencing it for the first time. Literature encourages compassion. Literature is complex and invites re-reading. Literature raises thought-provoking questions about life. Literature expands the human mind, helps to develop a comprehensive view of life. “Great” literature appeals to generation after generation. Literature contributes to the joy in living. Literature increases one’s sensitivity, deepens one’s sympathy and leads to a more intense experience of life.

Reading Shakespeare requires not just intelligence and scholarship, but an understanding of the emotional life of people. Literature helps us to understand the fundamental unity of all people. Literature helps us to put life in perspective.

Comment: For me, literature—fiction, essays, poetry and drama—provokes thought, deepens my understanding of the nature and possibilities of life, raises questions that require serious reflection, gives perspective to life, and, even when tragic, enhances appreciation of living. Works that continue over the years to provoke these responses in readers are what I mean by “great” literature. RayS.

Next: Why do writers create literature?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Topic: What Is Literature? (2)

10-second review: Quotations by writers and scholars that shed light on the nature of literature.

Title: Teaching English, How To…. Raymond Stopper. Xlibris. 2004.

The first question, of course, is “What is literature?” The immediate answer to this question is that literature consists of fiction, poetry, essays and drama. However, that definition suggests a related question: “What are the characteristics of literature that make individual short stories, novels, poems, essays and dramas worth reading (and, in the case of drama, attending)?" The following quotations suggest some answers to that question.

Sainte-Beauve: …Cervantes and Moliere, practical painters of life…who laughingly embrace all mankind, turn man’s experience to gaiety, and know the powerful working of a sensible, hearty and legitimate joy. Bate, Criticism: The Major Texts, p. 495.

I.A. Richards had reasserted…the ancient classical belief that art acts formatively in enlarging one’s sensibility, deepening one’s sympathies, and inducing a more organized and harmonious ability to experience life. Bate, Criticism: The Major Texts, p. 574.

Coleridge: Without that acquaintance with the heart of man…I am deeply convinced that no man, however wide his erudition, however patient his antiquarian researches, can possibly understand or be worthy of understanding, the writings of Shakespeare. Bate, Criticism: The Major Texts, p. 391.

Arnold: …and what actions are the most excellent…those…which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human affections: to those elementary feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent of time. Preface to Poems. Bate, Criticism: The Major Texts, p. 446.

Dr. James Billington, Librarian of The Library of Congress: But it was a wonderful bit of advice, ‘Go read War and Peace' because it taught me early in life that if you want to really learn about something, it’s better to read yesterday’s novel than today’s newspaper…where you get some wisdom, some perspective on things. Lamb, ed, Booknotes, p. 131.

To be continued.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Topic: What Is Literature? (1)

10-second review: Quotations by writers and scholars that shed light on the nature of literature.

Title: Teaching English, How To…. Raymond Stopper. Xlibris. 2004.

The first question, of course, is “What is literature?” The immediate answer to this question is that literature consists of fiction, poetry, essays and drama. However, that definition suggests a related question: “What are the characteristics of literature that make individual short stories, novels, poems, essays and dramas worth reading (and, in the case of drama, attending)? The following quotations suggest some answers to that question.

…great literature, whose meanings…can never be totally grasped because of the endless power to ramify in the individual mind. Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, p. 274.

…the reader’s happy conviction that Tolstoy enables him to see everything as if for the first time. Bloom, The Western Canon, p. 336.

What are stories but attempts to fix the permanence of the moment, to salvage it from the rushing impermanence of time? Mellow, Hawthorne In His Times, p. 8.

Someone once said—and I am quoting most inexactly—‘A writer who manages to look a little more deeply into his own soul or the soul of others, finding there, through his gift, things that no other man has ever seen or dared to say, has increased the range of human life.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald On Writing, p. 20.

So shall we come back to look at the world with new eyes…. Emerson, Nature, p. 48.

Euripides could so write as to show the hideousness of cruelty and men’s fierce passions, and the piteousness of suffering, weak, and wicked human beings, and move men thereby to the compassion which they were learning to forget. E. Hamilton, The Greek Way, p. 262.

Cyril Connolly: Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism, what will be grasped at once. Plimpton, ed., The Writer’s Chapbook, p. 256.

[Reading literature]…may lead to questions that you spend your life trying to answer. N. Franklin, The New Yorker, Dec. 15, 1997, p. 64.

Sainte-Beauve: A true classic is an author who has enriched the human mind…. Bater, Criticism: The Major Texts, p. 492.

Special attention [according to Samuel Johnson] should be given to those works that have persisted beyond a particular age or locality, for what the majority of intelligent and discriminating people persist in valuing over different periods of time can greatly assist us toward a flexible standard for judging what will continue to appeal. Bate, Criticism: The Major Texts, p. 205.

To be continued.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Topic: Purposes for the Next Several Blogs on Literature

One-Minute Review: This and the following blogs have several purposes. In them, I quote from a number of writers and scholars about the characteristics of literature in an attempt to define it. Second, I suggest reasons that authors write literature. Third, I offer my point of view on why people should read literature. Fourth, I shift to the study of literature and offer a method for organizing a K-12 literature program. Fifth, I list some important concepts that are important in constructing and interpreting literature. Finally, I outline how I would prepare students to read a literary classic, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Title: Teaching English, How To…. Raymond Stopper. Xlibris. 2004.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Topic: Typical Literatue Class

10-second review: A typical method for teaching literature in the secondary schools.

In Lynn Johnston’s comic strip, For Better or For Worse, a teachers is assigning the reading of a novel.

Panel #1: The teacher speaks: “O.K. class. You have each chosen a novel from my list and I expect most of you have finished them.”

Panel #2: The teacher continues: “Your outlines are due next week. I want a summary of the predominant ‘theme.’ What was the writer trying to say?”

Panel #3: The teacher continues: “I want an analysis of the story development. Separate the main plot from the subplots. List the outstanding characters and establish their relevance to the story.”

Panel #4: And on: “What elements were used? Where was the ‘tension’? Where was the ‘turning point’? And what was the ultimate ‘resolution’?”

Panel #5: Two students are leaving the class. One to the other: “Man! She sure knows how to kill a good book.”

Another example of a typical class in literature: In the movie Peggy Sue Gets Married, Peggy Sue, who has returned from the future to the 1960s is in English class. The teacher is “discussing” Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. All of the students are sitting passively listening to the teacher, while a single student disagrees with the teacher’s interpretation. The teacher’s explanation is cut short by the bell, and as the students gather their books to leave class, calls out the homework for the night: “Don’t forget. The first chapter of The Great Gatsby. Enjoy.”

Comment: What is wrong with these two scenes? RayS.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Topic: Why High School Students Don't Like to Read

10-second review: Too much required reading kills the joy of reading. Students do not know how to connect to the classics.

Title: “Curricula Turn Book Lovers into Book Haters.” Valerie Strauss, Washington Post. Chicago Tribune On Line Edition. May 30, 2005.

Summary: “There is no ‘making meaning as readers’—allowing students to bring their experiences and thoughts into the analysis of meaning. Because many students don’t understand what they have read [in the classics]…teachers are left to ‘tell them what it means.’….”

Comment: Credit the New Critics for analyzing literary traits in the literature and not “tainting” the analysis with the students’ own experiences. As a result, students do not connect to literature. I think we all have had the experience of teachers interpreting the classics for us. And what the teacher says is the meaning that we put down in our blue books at test time. We’re also used to having to answer someone else’s questions at the end of the chapter or the book. That’s no fun. I think it’s far better to have the students ask and discuss the answers to their own questions before moving on to the questions in the book and before moving on to a sampling of professional criticism concerning the work.

In my next blogs, I am going to offer another model of reading literature, one that puts student question in the center of the reading experience. I’m also going to suggest how to teach a classic. RayS.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Topic: Strategies for Reading on the Internet

10-second review: Suggests that teachers use think-alouds to demonstrate to students how to read information on the Internet.

Title: “Teaching Online Comprehension Strategies Using Think-Alouds.” Angel Kymes. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (March 2005), 482-500. The secondary school publication of the International Reading Association (IRA).

Summary of strategies when reading on the Internet:

Awareness of purpose.

Skimming or scanning text to determine relevance to purpose.

Reading selectively, focusing on sections relevant to purpose.

Making associations with new ideas to prior knowledge.

Making assumptions and hypotheses and then revising them, if necessary.

Maintaining a dialectic between new ideas and prior knowledge and revising prior knowledge that is inaccurate based on text or rejecting new ideas from text that are inconsistent with prior knowledge.

Discovering new meanings of words.

Rereading or note-taking to remember key ideas.

Questioning and interpreting or paraphrasing text to the point of having imaginary conversations with authors.

Evaluating text structure and quality.


Thinking about how to use the information in the future.

Comment: This article helped me to become more conscious of what I do when I read online. The suggested technique is to read something on the Internet and think aloud as you read it to demonstrate to students how you read on the Internet. RayS.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Topic: Cringe Words in Writing

10-second review: What expressions make you cringe? What words make you shudder? Then don’t use them in your writing.

Title: “Clear Out the Cringe Words.” Arthur Plotnik. The Writer (April 2005), 15-16. The Writer is a magazine by writers for writers.

Comment: Some of my cringe words? “irregardless”; “impacts” (as a verb); “disinterested” for “uninterested”; “”flaunt” for “flout” and vice versa.” My most hated cringe word in the English education professional vocabulary is “scaffolding” for “preparing.” You could have an interesting discussion with your writing students in completing a dictionary of class cringe words. RayS.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Topic: Reading

10-second review: The NCTE’s view of reading.

Title: NCTE Guidelines: “On Reading, Learning to Read, and Effective Reading Instruction….” By the Commission on Reading of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Quote. Definition of Reading: “Reading is a complex and purposeful sociocultural [society and culture, RayS.], cognitive [thinking, RayS.] and linguistic [language, RayS.] process in which readers simultaneously use their knowledge of spoken and written language, their knowledge of the topic of the text, and their knowledge of their culture to construct meaning with text.”

Quote: “…few are aware that they use their life experiences to interpret text, and that as life experiences differ from reader to reader and from community to community, so, too, do interpretations of a given text.”

Quote: “…redundancy permits readers to sample print, using only what they need to construct meaning effectively and efficiency” [i.e. the reader does not have to read every letter of every word in order to construct meaning. RayS.]

Quote: “…make predictions concerning what the print says, to confirm and disconfirm [not confirm, RayS.] their predictions….”

Quote: “Readers read for different purposes. Sometimes they read for pleasure. Sometimes they read for information. Their reason for reading impacts [affects, RayS.] the way they read. They may skim or read carefully depending on why they are reading.”

Quote: “The more children interact with spoken and written language, the better readers they become.”

Quote: “The more children read, the better readers they become.”

Quote: “Read to [young, RayS.] students daily using a variety of text types, including…fiction and nonfiction and multicultural literature, on a variety of topics to build their students’ familiarity with written language and their background knowledge on a variety of topics.”

Quote: “Focus on the ideas represented by written language rather than the words on the page.”

Quote: “Teach before— during —and after— reading strategies for constructing meaning….”

Comment: Students learn to read by connecting the printed word with the words they already know in listening and speaking.

The basic instructional technique in teaching reading is the Directed Reading Approach (DRA). Build up students’ knowledge of the topic. Pre-teach unfamiliar words. Set purpose for reading. After students have read, ask them to apply what they have learned from their reading about the topic. Try to go beyond the questions that inevitably show up at the end of the chapter. Questions at the end of the chapter tend to be a boring routine. RayS.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Topic: Ambivalence about Teaching Grammar

10-second review: Reviews the issues in teaching or not teaching grammar for the purpose of improving writing. And he remains ambivalent.

Title: “Our Ambivalence Toward Teaching Grammar.” Bill Gribbin. English Journal (January 2005), 17-19. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary: When the author was student teaching, his cooperating teacher assigned him to teach a unit on verbals. He was afraid to admit that he did not know grammar. And he wondered why.

The two sides of the issue? The professional organization of English teachers (NCTE) does not believe in teaching grammar in isolation. [The organization goes further: It does not believe teaching grammar has any value in improving writing. RayS.]

However, normal, ordinary people believe that you can’t write if you don’t know your grammar. “How is it, then, that the general public still believes that grammar is a necessary component of the English curriculum…. It is un-American to believe that grammar instruction will not result in great improvement in students’ writing. You and I have met many well-intentioned grammar devotees who testified that when they learned grammar they learned to write.”

Comment: The purpose of grammar instruction in writing is to polish writing. Teach writing while teaching grammar. They are not the same thing. Focus on grammatical problems that will predictably appear in students’ compositions. RayS.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Topic: Titles of Books and Articles

Title: Article or Book Titles

10-second review: Titles that will entice readers.

Title: “24 Ways to Organize Your Book Idea.” H. Rachlin. The Writer (February 2005), 39-42. The Writer is a magazine by writers for writers.

Summary: How to…. Handbook of…. Dictionary of…. Encyclopedia of…. Art of….. 1001 things, etc. …. 100 Greatest…. 30 Minutes or less…. You can be…. Women’s guides…. Almanacs (Historical chronologies of subjects)…. First book of…. Beginner’s guide to…. Making of…. Made simple…. Fun with…. Myths about…. Secrets of…. Expert’s guide to… Brief history of…. Connoisseur’s guide to….

Quote: “This is only a partial list of formats; there are many other formats you can use to frame your idea, and endless variations or combinations to consider. For example, you could write Life Lessons I Learned from Caring for My Dog or 100 Things Einstein Said Made Simple.” p. 42.

Comment: These titles help you to organize your nonfiction writing and, in addition, help you with a catchy title. These formats are almost guaranteed to entice readers. RayS.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Topic: Primary Trait Evaluation of Composition

Topic: Primary Trait Evaluation of Composition

10-second review: An example of primary trait scoring. The traits being scored in this evaluation are integration of secondary sources and development of the writer’s ideas.

Title: “Appendix C: Primary Trait Scoring Guide.” S McCloud and H Horn. College Composition and Communication (June 2005), 576. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Directions: The following is a primary trait analysis scoring rubric. You are not being asked to grade the paper, but to respond to two primary traits: integration of secondary sources and development of the student writer’s ideas. Please check only one line under each trait, since they are cumulative (e.g., a score of 4 assumes that 1-3 are also present in the paper. Please do not mark on the paper itself.

A. Integration of secondary sources.

1. ………. minimal, ineffective

2. ………. supports the argument of the student writer, no more

3. ………. Furthers the argument of the student writer, no more

4. ………. the student writer questions, challenges, or disagrees with the source (s)

B. Development of the student writer’s ideas

1. ………. an idea from the prompt, a source, or the student writer is repeated, no more

2. ………. ideas are developed by example, no more

3. ………. ideas are elaborated through analysis, no more

4. ………. ideas are elaborated through counterargument

Comment: You or I could disagree on the steps in support of each trait. But the idea of the primary trait scoring is interesting. Should give students a good idea of what is expected in their writing for this particular assignment. I would probably discuss the criteria with the students before the students write. RayS.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Topic: Goals for Writing in Electrical Engineering

10-second review: Document procedures, definition of problems, proposals, abstracts of technical documents, selling an idea, document a project and explain technical information.

Title: “Electrical and Computer Engineering University of Arizona, Writing Outcomes.” EM White. College Composition and Communication (June 2005), 598-599.A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).


1. Document a procedure, how something works, how to perform an operation, or how to solve a problem.

2. Write a clear and succinct definition of an open-ended problem including a summary of known attempts to solve the problem.

3. Write a proposal to perform a project, undertake research, develop a program, solicit funding or some combination of the above.

4. Write an abstract or summary of a technical document.

5. Write a letter or memorandum taking a clear position defending or selling an idea to an audience.

6. Document a project in a professionally written design report.

7. Explain technical information to a nontechnical audience.

Comment: No doubt about it. Writing programs need to be developed for every profession. Part of those programs should consist of models. Raises questions in my mind about the usefulness of the five-paragraph essay model that is taught in almost every high school and college general writing program. My guess is that the model, “Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them” probably applies, but until I see models of each type of writing I can’t be sure. Perhaps, after teaching the five-paragraph essay model and its counterpart, the essay test, students should have the opportunity of trying a variety of different types of professional writing. And where does that leave the research paper? Is the research paper necessary? Can it be taught more efficiently? RayS.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Topic: Goals for Writing Instruction

10-second review: Says succinctly that learning to write takes a life time. One course will never do it.

Title: “Arizona State University Writing Programs Course Goals….” Appendix in EM White. College Composition and Communication (June 2005), 596. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Quote: “Since learning to write effectively is a complex task that requires lifelong practice, any composition class should never be seen as ‘the’ course that will make the student an effective writer. Rather, any writing class, including our first-year courses, should be seen as a step toward gaining the strategies necessary to engage in that practice.”

: My experience has been that every time I take on a writing task, I learn new skills and gain new understanding of what it takes to accomplish that particular task. I never stop learning to write. RayS.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Topic: Goals for English Majors

10-second review: California State University, San Bernadino, Department of English Goals for English Majors.

Title: EM White. College Composition and Communication (June 2005), p. 595. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Goals for English Majors

Major Works in English and American Literature

I. To be familiar with the major works, periods and genres of English and American Literature, and to be able to place important works and genres in their historical context.

Writing about Literature

II. To be able to analyze, interpret and compare literary works, and to write about literature in a clear, coherent, literate way that demonstrates a high level of understanding both of a text’s technical merits and of its emotional impact.

Literary Criticism

III. To know that literature can be studied in a variety of ways, and to be familiar with some of these critical approaches.

Non-Western, Ethnic and Women’s Literature

IV. To have read several important works in non-Western, ethnic, and women’s literatures that illustrate the diversity of literary studies and the interconnectedness of literary traditions.


V. To understand writing as process and, in their own writing, to demonstrate an awareness of audience, purpose, and various rhetorical forms as well as a high level of control of the conventions of standard written English.

Structure of English

VI. To have some basic understanding of the phonological, morphological, and syntactic structures of English and their development, as well as to be familiar with theories of sociolinguistics and language acquisition.

Teaching English

VII. In addition, students who are planning to teach English should be more specifically acquainted with pedagogical approaches to literature, language and writing and with the theories that underlie those approaches.

Creative Writing

VIII. Students taking the creative writing track are expected to be able to demonstrate a high level of competence in some genre of imaginative writing and the forms and techniques of that genre.

Comment: I don’t ever recall seeing a list of goals for the English program at the university at which I matriculated. If I had seen such goals, I might have been much more goal directed in my program. Interesting that California State at San Bernadino’s goals include one for those who are going to teach English and one for those who are going to major in creative writing.

I never saw any goals for the master’s degree either. I was simply handed a very long reading list of works I was supposed to have read before taking my qualifying exams.

But then, I never clearly articulated my goals for my English classes either. Ouch! RayS.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Topic: NCTE Guidelines for Teaching Writing

Topic: National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Guidelines for the Teaching of Writing

10-second review: Most of the major points in these guidelines are common sense. Some are arguable. But the guidelines give the teachers of writing some issues to discuss, to agree with or to disagree with.

Title: “NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing.” Writing Study Group of the NCTE Executive Committee. November 2004.


1. Writing can be taught. [We might not be able to teach artistic genius, but we can teach expository writing. RayS.]

2. People learn to write by writing.

3. Writing is a process . [–and a product. RayS.]

4. Writing is a tool for thinking.

5. Writing has purpose. [And an audience. RayS.]

6. Conventions of language are important to readers and therefore to writers. Readers expect correct spelling, capitalization, usage and punctuation. It is important that writing for the public be “correct.”

7. Writing and reading are related. “People who read a lot have a much easier time getting better at writing.”

8. Writing has a complex relationship to talk. [Writing as one speaks might be a good way to begin to learn to write, but educated students must learn to write in degrees of formality. The less formal, the more reader-friendly and conversational is the writing. The more formal, the more concise. RayS.]

9. Writing formats differ: “Even within academic settings, the characteristics of good writing vary among disciplines: what counts as a successful lab report…differs from a successful history paper, essay exam, or literary interpretation.” […legal brief, business report, executive summary, etc. RayS.]

Comment: I think these guidelines offer some good discussion points. RayS.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Topic: Study Involving Grammar and Composition

10-second review: I will define three approaches to teaching “formal grammar,” and compare their effects in holistically-scored evaluations of quality in full-length compositions and in error counts of problems in sentence structure, usage and punctuation.

Comment: I would define the teaching of formal grammar in three ways, using traditional grammatical terminology, when it is helpful. This study could be used most profitably with ninth-grade students. RayS.

Chronological Chapters: The Vocabulary of Grammar.

First, I would use the grammar text in chronological order from Chapter 1 to the final chapter dealing with grammar. Emphasis is on understanding both the concept and the terminology. The purpose of this approach to grammar is mastery of the terminology. The teacher will do whatever it takes to master the terminology, both within the text and in activities beyond the text. Success in this approach will come when the teacher is able to explain problems in full-length compositions, using that terminology and the students understand both the terminology and the explanation of the problems.

From Part of Speech to Problems in Application.

Second, I would use the text in an unusual way. First I would teach a part of speech and then I would move to the chapters in which problems involving the part of speech are explained. From identifying the noun, for example, I would move to chapters dealing with capitalization, plurals and possessives.

Text as Reference: 10-Minute Essays as Bridge to Writing.

Third, I would use the text only as a reference. The students in this group would write ten minute essays at the beginning of class on any topic of their choice. At night, I will re-write the students’ 10-minute essays, correcting, literally, the students’ mistakes in sentence structure, usage and punctuation. We will refer to the text to provide explanation of the problems and exercises to reinforce understanding correction of the problems.


I will follow each unit in grammar with a unit on writing. I define teaching writing as 1) brainstorming the topic; 2) formulating the thesis; 3) writing a draft beginning with the thesis, through the middle paragraphs with topic sentences and a summary paragraph; 4) construct an introduction to precede the thesis; 5) revise and 6) edit, including problems in sentence structure, usage and punctuation.


I would then compare students’ pre-test writing samples with post-test writing samples to determine if one of the methods (the text with chapters in chronological order. the text focusing on the parts of speech related to problems and the text as reference) proves superior in quality in holistically scored full-length essays. The essays will then be scored, counting the number of problems in sentence structure, usage and punctuation.

I will have defined formal grammar in three ways and I will find out whether there is any relationship between the students' knowledge of formal grammar and the students' writing through the quality of writing measured by holistic scoring and error counts. Anyone willing to try it? RayS.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Topic: Grammar and Composition

10-second review: The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has worked hard to suggest that the practice of teaching formal grammar has no relationship to improved writing—in spite of the fact that the research on which the claim is based is not very good.

Title: “The Future of Grammar in American Schools.” Martha Kolln. Keynote Address. [No Date. Possibly 1990].

Quote: “We’re here because we think there’s a place in our classrooms for the study of grammar; we think that grammar has a future.”

Quote: “Back in 1963 the NCTE published a report called Research in Written Composition [written by Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones and Lowell Schoer]. There is one sentence in that report—a one-sentence paragraph on pages 37 and 38—that has kept the report from disappearing into oblivion, one sentence that has been quoted probably thousands of times in the past 27 years. I’m not exaggerating—it is quoted over and over again. It is the only sentence in that report that has lived on. Here are the 56 words that changed our profession’s attitude towards grammar. I call it the ‘harmful effects’ statement:

In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.

In an article in the October 1977 issue of College Composition and Communication ['The Relation of Formal grammar to composition'], Janice Neulieb took the authors of that report to task for making such a strong and unqualified statement in light of their own previous paragraph, which begins: ‘Uncommon, however, is carefully conducted research which studies the effect of formal grammar on actual composition over an extended period of time.’ …. Some of those studies are so badly designed they are laughable. In one, the grammar lessons consisted of usage rules which the students memorized and recited in unison. Why would anyone expect such an activity to improve writing?

No one has designed a study in which grammar is taught in conjunction with writing, in a functional way, and then tested the results.”

Comment: To reinforce Kolln’s point, I offer the results of an informal study I completed a number of years ago:

For years, experts in the teaching of English have been saying that a knowledge of formal grammar has no effect on the improvement of composition. I have read the more recent research, proclaimed at the time to be conclusive evidence for this lack of relationship (Mellon, 1969), and Elley, et al., 1976), and I discovered that neither study gave the formal grammar group the careful, articulated instructions that they gave to the experimental group: that is, the researchers never defined clearly what is meant by teaching “formal grammar.” They seemed to imply that simply following a textbook, page by page, was teaching “formal grammar.” No effort was put into establishing a relationship between the grammar students were being taught and writing. In fact, writing was not even being taught at the same time as the grammar. But in spite of that, in one of the studies, the formal grammar group actually outscored the experimental group in ratings of writing (Mellon, 1969).

In my next blog, I am going to suggest a study in which I define “formal” grammar as it relates to writing. RayS.