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.

1 comment:

Mark Pennington said...

True enough re: the NCTE's stance. But to define the issue a bit more... It seems to me that the key lines of division within grammar instruction (meaning syntax, word choice, usage, punctuation, and even spelling—a catch-all term that most English language-arts teachers use to describe the “stuff” that we “have to , but don’t want to” teach) have been drawn between those who favor part to whole and whole to part instruction. As a brief aside… isn’t this much akin to the graphophonic (phonics-based) and whole language reading debate? Anyway, here is my take on the assumptions of both positions:

Advocates of part to whole instruction believe that front-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language will best enable students to apply these parts to the whole process of writing. Following are the key components of this inductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar to provide a common language of instruction.
2. Identification of grammatical constructions leads to application.
3. Familiarity with the rules of grammar leads to correct application.
4. Teaching the components of sentence construction leads to application.
5. Distrust of one’s own oral language as a grammatical filter .

Advocates of whole to part instruction believe that back-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language, as is determined by needs of the writing task, will best enable students to write fluently and meaningfully. Following are the key components of this deductive approach.

1. Minimal memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar and minimal practice in identification of grammatical constructions.
2. Connection to one’s oral language is essential to inform fluent and effective writing.
3. Reading and listening to exemplary literature and poetry provides the models that students need to mimic and revise as they develop their own writing style.
4. Minimal error analysis.
5. Teaching writing as a process with a focus on coherence will best enable students to apply the discreet parts such as subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, and transitions to say something meaningful.

Of course, how teachers align themselves within the Great Grammar Debate (See http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/the-great-grammar-debate/) is not necessarily an "either-or" decision. Most teachers apply bits and pieces of each approach to teaching grammar. I take a stab on how to integrate the inductive and deductive approaches in How to Integrate Grammar and Writing Instruction (See http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-to-integrate-grammar-and-writing-instruction/).