Cycles of Life:
Death and Rebirth in Grammar Instruction
Almost fifty years ago, a group of influential scholars concluded a study on the effectiveness of grammar instruction with the damning words that “the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or . . . even harmful effect on improvement in writing” (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer, qtd. in Hartwell 105). Much of the scholarship that followed would make oblique or direct references to this study and its conclusions. Some would wholeheartedly endorse the claims made by Braddock et al. Others would question their research techniques and the veracity of their findings. Most would discuss the implications of their words and how they apply to composition classes. Rather than settling “the grammar issue” as one follower would write twenty-two years later, the Braddock study stirred up a debate concerning grammar pedagogy that still endures in modern composition studies scholarship (Hartwell 105).
This debate concerns BYU’s English 150 teachers—instructors of a freshman composition course that requires, at least to a small degree, some mention of grammar in the classroom. The course design includes five mandatory “punctuation exercises” that test the implementation of grammar information found in a “grammar packet” that the Composition Office provides for teachers and students alike. The actual amount of classroom instruction devoted to grammar components is left up to the individual instructors, as is the manner in which it is taught. When, how often, to what degree, and how grammar is taught in BYU’s freshman composition courses seems to have few formal guidelines. I hope to provide some useful suggestions on a meaningful approach to grammar instruction after my analysis of the more current grammar scholarship and its conclusions.
On the far end of the debate spectrum, there are scholars like Patrick Hartwell who argue that grammar, as it is taught, is a prescriptive, arbitrary, and changeable set of rules. Many opponents to grammar instruction in the classroom argue that it creates an authoritarian environment in which the teacher holds all the keys to success—i.e., the grammar “rules”—which students then have to memorize and apply in order to succeed. In his study on grammar, Hartwell defines grammar by breaking it down into five different categories. He contends that the primary meaning of grammar—patterns of language used to convey meaning—is learned intuitively as children learn to speak, and cannot be taught formally (111–14). Most other forms of grammar, he adds, do not have any function in the life of a typical, nonprofessional writer (e.g., 114, 119, 124–25). Thus, according to Hartwell and others like him, despite all the reasons some might advance in favor of formal grammar instruction, it ought to be dropped and “we, as researchers, [ought to] move on to more interesting areas of inquiry” (228).
Fortunately (or not), the issue is not so easily dismissed—especially among composition instructors who are required to include an element of grammar instruction in their classrooms. How do we decide how to incorporate and accommodate grammar instruction with our weightier obligations in the classroom? I propose taking a deeper look into the arguments of those who advocate some form of grammar instruction and weighing their reasoning against our English 150 learning outcomes and typical classroom experiences.
Among those who defend classroom grammar instruction is Ed Vavra, an English professor and a founder of the Association for the Teaching of English Grammar (1990), which became an Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (1995). Though Vavra supports the inclusion of grammar in composition curriculums, he suggests drawing away from technical terminology long associated with formal grammar pedagogies and replacing that with a new paradigm for viewing grammar. Instructors should explain grammar usage by teaching how the brain processes language—by “chunking words together within short-term memory” (35). Vavra argues that as students grasp the principles of how the mind processes language and connects these principles to the “grammatical constructions in their own writing,” they will, first, understand the benefits of applying grammatical principles in writing and, second, feel motivated to write in a more “grammatically correct” (or at least clear) manner (37).
However, many of the current champions of grammar pedagogy prescribe a different approach. Rather than linking grammar instruction to the brain’s language processes, many of the current more prevailing methods involve linking grammar instruction to principles of style and/or rhetoric instead. As instructors of a writing and rhetoric course, this is where I believe we may find many of the most applicable answers to the grammar issue in freshman composition classes.
To be clear, we must first try to clarify how scholars are using the terms style and rhetoric to describe their approaches to grammar instruction. Is there a difference between a “stylistic approach” and a “rhetorical approach” to grammar pedagogy, or is it merely a matter of “rhetoric”? (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.) Rhetorical language is, of course, language designed to persuade or influence others. Historically, style has been included as one of the five canons of rhetoric. Ancient rhetoricians defined style as “persuasive or extraordinary uses of language” (Crowley and Hawhee 278). Both rhetorical and stylistic language, then, seeks to influence its audience. Advocates of a rhetorical/stylistic approach tend to make use of the words and principles almost interchangeably.
For instance, Nicole Amare advocates “teach[ing] grammar as style” (160). However, throughout her argument, she refers to broader rhetorical principles, such as rhetorical situation, audience awareness, and decorum (160). Rather than distinguishing between rhetorical language and stylistic language, Amare uses both in her argument to combine grammar and style. Similarly, Laura R. Micciche uses the term style along with other related issues found in Amare’s article in her own article, entitled “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar” (emphasis added). Micciche also seems to view both terms more or less reciprocally. She moves between discussing language in terms of style to those of rhetoric without indicating any substantial differences between the two (see 717). Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, writing about ancient rhetoric, discuss how anciently, “a good style” needed to meet four criteria: “correctness, clearness, appropriateness, and ornament”—all of which pertain directly to effective rhetoric (280). It easily follows that style and rhetoric are both used to refer to a pedagogy that combines teaching grammar with a concern for persuasive writing.
Therefore, for our purposes, I will limit the discussion of this type of instructional approach to “rhetorical grammar,” by which I refer to all pedagogical principles and practices that would combine teaching grammar issues in conjunction with both general rhetorical issues and any corresponding style issues.
Though rhetorical grammar is only one of a number of pedagogical approaches to grammar instruction, it has become one of the most popular—but it still has its critics. Hartwell criticizes what he terms “stylistic grammar” because it “encourage[s] overuse of the monitor [i.e., instructor]” (124). He appears to agree “that one learns to control the language of print by manipulating language in meaningful contexts” and that one might learn metalinguistic skills through “active manipulation of language with conscious attention to surface form,” such as stylistic effect (125). However, he contends that discussions of grammar do not have a role in such education: “The grammar issue is simply beside the point” (124). By all means, teach students that language can be “molded and probed, shaped and reshaped, and, above all, enjoyed”—just leave grammar out of it (125). Whether grammar is used to teach style or for any other purpose, Hartwell condemns the instruction of grammar “rules” and terminology as both authoritarian and unnecessary.
However, among those who favor some form of grammar instruction, not much debate has arisen against rhetorical grammar, though much has been published in support of it. If one of Hartwell’s main concerns is that grammar instruction promotes an authoritarian classroom—he does conclude his anti-grammar argument by championing the movement “to take power from the teacher and to give that power to the learner” (127)—then there are a number of scholars willing to argue that rhetorical grammar pedagogy can make that change. They contend that rhetorical grammar promotes an environment that empowers (and interests) the students and changes the instructor from a banker depositing knowledge (a metaphor conceived by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed) to a mentor encouraging progress in practiced skills.
One way in which rhetorical grammar changes this teacher/student power relationship is that the pedagogy transforms “rules” into “choices.” Martha Kolln, a leader in the rhetorical grammar movement, stresses this notion in her book on practical applications of rhetorical grammar in writing courses. She writes, “Grammatical choices. Rhetorical effects. These two phrases tell the story of rhetorical grammar, the marriage of grammar and rhetoric for the composition classroom. Writers who recognize the choices available to them will be well-equipped for controlling the effects of their words” (xi). Micciche, too, emphasizes this reconceptualized nature of grammar, urging her students to pay “particular attention to grammar as an art of selection” (723). Because instructors would no longer be pushing blind obedience to rules, they can take on the role of a mentor, guiding students into a better understanding of language and how to use it to influence others.
Moreover, grammar instruction no longer needs to be presented as dehumanizing. It does not need to create artificial, rigid boundaries of power between teacher and students. It does not need to be viewed as cut-and-dry rules of usage. It does not, in short, have to turn creative writers into mathematicians punching in noun phrases and punctuation as directed by autocratic instructors. In fact, Micciche argues that rhetorical grammar instruction “encourages [her] students to think about grammar as a crucial tool for both communication and the expression of identity” (723). Rhetorical grammar is a tool, something to be used and manipulated to meet the communicator’s needs, rather than the other way around. Like language itself, it is humanizing as it leads students to consider what they truly are trying to express and how they can best express that in accordance with their personal voice, style, and even values. In her discussion of rhetorical grammar as an empowering pedagogy, Micciche writes how “teaching grammar as a study of how language does work in (and sometimes against) the world . . . [can] profoundly shap[e] [one’s] intellectual and political orientation” (729). For example, she notes how composition courses have become sites of politicized debates and discourse communities, a place which “requires careful consideration of self/other relations” which are “relevant to grammatical choices that writers make because it is part of the conceptual work that we as writers do” (729). Studying grammar rhetorically provides opportunities to analyze “how writers use language to construct identity—both that of self and other—and to position themselves” in discourse communities (730). Rhetorical grammar encourages students to see relationships between what they are writing and how they are writing, relationships between their personal identities as writers and the identities of their audience members.
In addition, in response to arguments like Hartwell’s that grammar instruction is unnecessary, many demonstrate how rhetorical grammar benefits composition courses. Rhetorical grammar can help students attain learning outcome goals, such as developing critical thinking skills, rhetorical skills, and citizenship concerns—and the practical ability to write well in future academic and career settings. For instance, formal grammar instruction can be “perceived . . . as contrary to creative and critical thinking,” but there are a number of logical refutations of this denunciation (Amare 158). In addition to Kolln’s argument that rhetorical grammar offers students a language “toolkit” filled with their “conscious knowledge of sentence structure” and of what each bit can do (xi), Micciche argues that “rhetorical grammar analysis promises to offer students more tools for analyzing culture” as students study relationships between language and identity and “cultural attitudes and assumptions” (731, emphasis added). Patricia A. Dunn and Kenneth Lindblom also examine the benefits: “First, it would teach students what they need to know about grammar and usage to avoid condemnation by the grammar harumphers, thus helping them negotiate linguistically in the business and professional worlds. Second, it would help them alter and improve the world a bit” (49). How could it help students improve the world? Students would learn more strategies, first, to understand the world, and second, to effectively persuade others through well-formed language. Amare proposes that such instruction “would allow our students to learn effective writing strategies that would improve both their cognitive processes and their final written products” (162). She adds that “good writing style is essentially linked to cultural capital” (155) and that “it is difficult (if not impossible) to discuss style without including grammar” (158). Rhetorical grammar will not only help students learn critical thinking and rhetorical skills and become more interested and effective citizens, but it will also improve their writing and increase their academic and career opportunities.
Therefore, it becomes clear that rhetorical grammar offers us a way to “inform our students about grammar issues in a more meaningful and useful way” (Amare 158). It supports an open classroom in which students are empowered as they learn to make educated decisions concerning their use of language, specifically in rhetorical situations. As Amare writes, “Our students will, for example, see their diction and syntax choices not as grammar rules but instead as a critical means of reaching and impressing their target audience” (159). By making these language choices, they strengthen their critical thinking skills and their practical understanding of rhetorical principles. These skills are valuable, transferable. Most students appreciate developing them more than they “appreciate” memorizing rules and highly technical terminology as formal grammar instruction demands.
This being the case, how might we implement rhetorical grammar instruction in our freshman composition course? As rhetorical grammar encourages students to evaluate rhetorical goals and to make grammatical and stylistic decisions based upon that evaluation, instruction would best begin after basic rhetorical principles have been discussed in class (e.g., rhetorical situation, audience awareness). Building upon these concepts, short rhetorical grammar lessons could be integrated into classroom lessons (Kolln provides many possibilities which can be readily adapted); such lessons could even provide short, practical examples of a rhetorical principle and then serve as a “practice ground” for the students as they apply the principle in a brief rhetorical grammar exercise. The English 150 punctuation packets provide some direction—a place to begin—for instructors designing their own brief lessons. For instance, some of the punctuation exercises designed by Debbie Harrison allow for multiple correct answers, so that if the students grade the exercises as a class, the teacher has an opportunity to point out and discuss these multiple possibilities and why a writer might choose one over another depending upon the rhetorical situation. An instructor could build upon and create more opportunities like this to discuss grammar rhetorically, using specific examples.
It would be most useful to teach these short lessons while students are writing the first major assignment, the opinion editorial (a shorter assignment focused on writing in a clear, persuasive manner and thus well-suited as a testing ground for rhetorical grammar). Rhetorical grammar usage could be one of the elements discussed in peer review workshops or in conferences with the instructor. I tried this as I offered revision suggestions on my students’ first drafts of the opinion editorial. We analyzed how they represented their ideas and arguments, and whether their grammatical choices were appropriate (or most suited) to their audiences and rhetorical purposes. It turned into a small exercise that they could perform as they reviewed their papers and looked for links between their ideas and their language usage with its rhetorical effects. Specifically, we discussed how they were developing a sense of ethos, logos, and pathos. I mentioned how correct spelling, punctuation, MLA format, etc. would influence their credibility as writers and thinkers among their audience. I explained how a clear organization of paragraphs and smooth transitions with the repetition of words and phrases would create a logical flow in their argument, helping their audiences. In addition, as we discussed logos, we talked about the value of clear and concise sentences (e.g., how the subject and predicate should be within four to six words of each other and the value of parallel structure). Finally, in analyzing their development of pathos on a grammatical and stylistic level, we reviewed how thoughtful word and punctuation choices would influence their readers’ responses and the meanings understood (e.g., relationships between ideas). The feedback I received was rather positive. My students appreciated the opportunity to ask grammar questions in a one-on-one setting and, more, they found the rhetorical grammar ideas to be interesting and clearly applicable.
Rhetorical grammar instruction does not need to be the focus of freshman composition by any means. In fact, it is probably one of the less important elements taught in the course. However, it provides us with an exciting and meaningful way to teach grammar principles to the writers in our classes, one that is suitable to the classroom environment we strive to cultivate. We need not dread discussions on grammar or feel cheated of classroom time spent on punctuation exercises. Rather, we can use rhetorical grammar issues to support our instruction on rhetorical principles. We can use rhetorical grammar to improve our students’ writing skills as we expose them to the variety of choices that are available to them as they work to make their written language persuasive and effective. We can use it to help them become effective citizens and capable workers. Rhetorical grammar is not only well suited to composition courses, but it can also be a valuable part of the class instruction.
Amare, Nicole. “Style: The New Grammar in Composition Studies?” Refiguring Prose Style: Possibilities for Writing Pedagogy. Ed. T. R. Johnson and Tom Pace. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2005. 153–66.
Crowley, Sharon, and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2004.
Dunn, Patricia A., and Kenneth Lindblom. “Why Revitalize Grammar?” The English Journal 92.3 (January 2003): 43–50.
Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English 47.2 (February 1985): 105–27.
Kolln, Martha. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2007.
Micciche, Laura R. “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar.” CCC 55.4 (June 2004): 716–37.
Vavra, Ed. “On Not Teaching Grammar.” The English Journal 85.7 (November 1996): 32–37.