Reflections: Is Grammar Worth Teaching?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I teach English and I write professionally, but I don’t remember how I learned grammar.  I’ve always been a reader, and my father is an excellent editor who helped me with many high school and college papers.  But as far as former classroom instruction goes, I have zero recollection of effective teachers and teaching methods relating to grammar.  I’m probably not alone with this sentiment. 

Several times a year, our department bemoans the state of student grammar, but we have a hard time coming to consensus about how to teach it.  How often?  What methods, texts, or strategies should we use?  Is it possible to become grammatically proficient without having a strong foundation in reading?  Are high school students who don’t, or haven’t, widely read traditional texts–beyond Tweets and Facebook feeds–relegated to a post-secondary and professional life rife with common grammar mistakes in their memos, e-mails and reports?

Wordle fromlearningaboutmethodology.blogspot.com

Over the course of my almost nine years in the classroom, the strongest student writers in my classes have always been voracious readers.  Their parents didn’t drill them with subject-verb agreement worksheets as soon as they could talk, nor did they receive extra tutoring in complex sentence construction after completing preschool finger painting bonanzas.  They read as youngsters, and continue to read.  I’ve never met a student who has a strong writing voice, shows command of the language in various ways, and aces grammar quizzes while shunning reading for pleasure.

While these observations, and my subsequent efforts to teach non-readers grammar have been frustrating, I’m not about to jettison grammar instruction from my lesson plans–I’m still testing out various methods and resources.

Walt Gardner’s recent piece in Education Week rekindled the ongoing grammar debate, as Gardner reflects on a pedagogical shift in the 1970’s, when English teachers were influenced to deemphasize grammar:

English Department meetings stressed the importance of considering a student’s essay based overwhelmingly on its content. The not so subtle message was to get with the program. So I did. The result was that students were shortchanged. I’m not talking now about circling every grammatical error to the detriment of understanding the thesis. That’s counterproductive. Instead, I’m talking about gross errors in usage and sentence structure that detract from that goal.

This pedagogical shift is still relevant today; I just finished grading some student essays about women serving combat roles, and the required scoring rubric first places emphasis on audience and purpose, idea development, organization, and finally grammar and mechanics.  Gardner’s correct–I simply don’t come across any student writing that is able to effectively develop a thesis, back up claims with evidence, and display sound organization without command of basic and more advanced grammar rules.  Understanding grammar enables us to be creative writers and thinkers, leading to more effective communication.

Gardner’s text inspired plenty of reaction–here are some highlights from the comments section that address the following issues:

How does grammar instruction reinforce power structures?  Is grammar instruction be a friend or foe of creative expression and thinking?

We de-emphasize the importance of the grammar mistakes that the culture of power tend to make but emphasize the mistakes that are the most common in low-income, low-status cultures…But we need to be careful not to do what we did in the past, which is put all of the privileged students with educated parents into one group (called “the smart kids”) and teach them the rules for a language in which they are already very fluent, and put all of the other kids in English classes where they are taught the abstract rules of a language that nobody they know speaks and then “corrected” every time they speak in the version of English that is spoken in their community.

–One of the obstacles is that some minority students don’t hear standard English at home or in their neighborhood. As a result, their ears become accustomed to grammar that is different from what is taught in school.

–I’ve examined the research on this issue. Conclusion: FORM in writing comes largely from reading (consciously learned rules can help you a little bit in the editing stage of the composing process). Writing itself can help you solve problems and make you smarter.

–We learned that there are certain indispensable rules. I never regarded them as obstacles to creativity. On the contrary, I viewed them as allies.

–It’s interesting that learning grammar is disparaged by the same constructivists who favor critical thinking skills over content. Grammar is nothing but critical thinking — you learn what the parts of speech are, you test various ways of putting them together that are in alignment with overall principles, you aim to help the students develop the ability to communicate as powerfully as possible.

 

Lastly, it seems as if many students don’t understand the need to know grammar beyond those who care to earn a higher grade on an academic task.  After all, the texts they create and consume–mostly digital–aren’t necessarily adhering to traditional language guidelines.  Students need to be shown various models of professional and workplace writing that still demand good grammar, and they need to explore–or be shown–the consequences of poorly written inquiries, resumes, e-mails, and grant requests, among other real world forms.

Do you remember how you learned grammar?  Should schools emphasize grammar, or do our new forms of communication diminish the need to be proficient?  For teachers out there, what do you do to teach grammar–do you have any tips?  Do you have any examples to disprove my claim that you can write well without being a reader?