A Diagnosis and Prescription for Grammar Instruction
Debra Lynn Reece
It’s the age-old quandary of the writing instructor: How do we address student error? In the last fifty years, the trend in the field of composition pedagogy has turned away from traditional grammar instruction, condemning pedagogical practices that focus on preventing and remediating error. In the early 1960s, Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer compiled and analyzed well over one hundred studies in composition to discover what knowledge there was about composition and composition instruction. In a bold and uncompromising statement, they invoke the death sentence on formal, or traditional, grammar instruction: “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” (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer 37–38). Twenty years later, George Hillocks’s own compilation of research again showed study after study demonstrating the ineffectiveness of traditional grammar instruction. And Hillocks, too, is adamant that if “schools insist upon teaching the identification of parts of speech, the parsing or diagramming of sentences, or other concepts of traditional school grammar (as many still do), they cannot defend it as a means of improving the quality of writing” (138). With such scathing indictments against them, it’s no wonder the methods of traditional grammar instruction have been shunned by contemporary pedagogies. Having been enlightened by the experts, we’ve refocused our instruction to emphasize elements like writing process, collaboration, modeling, and prewriting. All of these principles are included in Steven Graham and Dolores Perin’s Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools as key elements of writing that will help our students develop the important rhetorical skills they need to be able to write effectively. As a result of this shift in pedagogies, we are helping our students to see writing differently. We’re teaching them that “good writing” is more than correct spelling and well-placed commas. We’re teaching them that writing is a way to create, share, and influence, not a tool for torture in school.
And yet, a large number of students still crave the red pen. They want their errors to be recognized and pointed out to them so that they can correct their writing. Maybe they’re just lazy and don’t want to focus on the much more difficult task of strengthening their writing by looking at global issues like argument and arrangement. Maybe they don’t yet understand the difference between correcting (e.g., adding and deleting commas) and strengthening (e.g., adding structure to an argument) writing—they just don’t realize that we are working on a higher plane by avoiding error and grammar instruction. But what if these students are actually seeing a gap in their learning that we, because of our own fear of traditional grammar instruction, have blinded ourselves to? We have a responsibility to our students to equip them with the rhetorical knowledge and skill to take command of their writing, inside and outside of the classroom. How can we be successful in this endeavor if we fill their knapsacks with skills like arranging an argument and working with peers but don’t include essential grammatical skills like structuring an effective sentence or using a semicolon to break up long, complicated lists?
These grammatical skills cannot on their own make a writer effective; a well-constructed sentence means nothing unless it has something to say. But take these skills away and, no matter how clever the argument or arrangement, the writer will find it difficult to reach any audience. Writing is a combination of both grammatical and global (e.g., invention, argument, arrangement, etc.) skills. The current curriculum model of the writing course already excels at teaching students the global skills they need. If we are going to prepare our students to enter any kind of written discourse, academic or otherwise, we must find a way to integrate grammar instruction into this curriculum. I don’t think that grammar should take precedent over higher-priority writing skills, but I do believe that there is a need and a place for grammar instruction in the existing curriculum model. In this paper, I will show that by replacing rule-based lectures and worksheets with strategy-based discussion and experimentation, we can give our students the grammatical skills they need without falling victim to the follies of traditional grammar instruction. But before we can integrate this new form of grammar instruction into our curriculum, we need to first examine the arguments against traditional grammar instruction and come to an understanding of why and how its methods have failed.
In 1980, David Bartholomae made an interesting observation while working to define “basic writing” in the context of students in firstyear writing courses. He suggests that proponents of traditional grammar instruction underestimate students’ understanding: “These are beginning writers, to be sure, but they are not writers who need to learn to use language. They are writers who need to learn to command a particular variety of language—the language of a written academic discourse—and a particular variety of language use—writing itself” (254). Referencing Mina Shaughnessy’s work on finding patterns in student error in Errors and Expections: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing, Bartholomae concludes (along with Shaughnessy) that grammatical errors are evidence of students constructing and following structured systems of language as they try to translate their ideas into the new language of academic discourse. Bartholomae goes on to explain that what our students lack, most of the time, is not the ability to perform “simple or ‘basic’ writing tasks” (256) but the “power to make decisions about the idiosyncrasy in their writing” (255). Students don’t need rules; they need strategies. By ignoring the context of error, traditional grammar instruction is trying to teach students what they already experience naturally instead of giving them the skills they need to improve.
Around the same time, Joseph B. Williams also explored the way we read error in student texts. Williams compares our “reflexive” impulse to search for error in student writing with the “contract” that we make with many other texts to read with the assumption that the writer is competent and therefore to largely ignore error (159). In “The Phenomenology of Error,” Williams charts different violations of grammar rules and examines reader response to those errors, showing that there are different categories of error which illicit different responses. Some errors are so egregious that they are easily recognized and prompt a negative response from the reader. Others are more difficult to recognize and often go unnoticed. Still other violations engender a positive response if the violation in question leads to added simplicity or clarity in language. The more we recognize the complexity of the context behind error, the more we realize that traditional grammar instruction is far too prescriptive to allow for real improvement.
While Bartholomae and Williams looked into the context of error, Thomas Friedmann explored a different flaw in traditional grammar instruction. Friedmann applies the same pedagogical strategies common in traditional grammar instruction to other fields of instruction, showing how ineffective these methods really are. A basketball coach has the poorest player on the team demonstrate how to shoot the ball, with the rest of the team “carefully observ[ing] the details of his failure” (390). A piano teacher tries to teach her student a certain note by playing four different notes and asking the student to pick the right one. These methods are ridiculous, and yet much of traditional grammar instruction involves having students select from a variety of errors the correct item, instead of demonstrating and practicing effective uses of grammar principles. As Friedmann argues, traditional grammar instruction doesn’t allow students to apply the principles taught in writing; it fills students’ minds with images of error instead of strategies for success, and (again) it ignores any kind of context for error.
Later, in 1988, Richard Haswell also saw the gap in traditional grammar instruction and conducted a study examining the correlation between error and maturity in writing. Haswell took his data from writing samples gathered from college freshmen, sophomores, and juniors and from a selection of employees in the work place. In the error coding process, Haswell looked at both the raw rate of error in each group as well as the rate of error in context of essay length and opportunities for error. Surprisingly, while the raw number of errors often increased with the experience of the group (from freshmen to juniors), the rates reflecting error in context (e.g., essay length and opportunity for error) showed a plateau or, in several cases, a decrease in error (495). As Haswell looked deeper into the different contexts of error, he observed that errors in the more experienced writers’ samples often coincided with more mature styles of language, more sophisticated vocabulary, and longer, more complex sentence structures. As Haswell states, using a phrase from Albert Kitzhaber’s earlier study (the results of which Haswell contests), “The evidence seems to portray less a slump, less an ‘increasing carelessness,’ and more an awkwardness in handling something new” (495). These students weren’t being lazy, nor were they ignorant of language structures. On the contrary, they were working strategically toward mastering the language of “written, academic discourse” (Bartholomae 254). The fact that these students made some natural mistakes in the process is not a call for more grammar instruction in college classrooms. Rather, it shows that students learn better by experimenting with language. Following this logic, teaching students a set of grammar rules to follow would only discourage them from experimenting, thereby keeping them from improving as writers.
In fact, just last year, Edgar H. Schuster argued for a change in grammar instruction based on his observation that successful writers often intentionally violate the rules of grammar. In his article, “Beyond Grammar: The Richness of English Language, or the ZeroTolerance Approach to Rigid Rules,” Schuster has compiled and examined samples of successful writing from both professional and student writers. In each sample, the writer chose not to follow certain traditional grammar rules, and Schuster’s analysis shows that the writing is actually more effective than it would have been if the writer had not broken the rules.
It’s important to note that these scholars haven’t sought to condemn grammar instruction per se. Instead, they recognize that there is a gap between the rules and the functions of grammar, between teaching the rules and helping students learn how to use grammar effectively in their writing. As Schuster says, “Effective writers—professionals and students—break traditionally taught rules frequently. So why teach students rules that writers don’t actually follow?” (71). What we learn from the research and studies that have been conducted on grammar instruction is that traditional exercises and recitations
don’t work, that rulebased discussions and activities keep students from experimenting and growing as writers.
However, the solution cannot be to ignore grammar altogether. In 2004, the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges (NCW) surveyed “120 major American corporations employing nearly 8 million people” (“Ticket to Work,” 3) on the effect that writing skills have in the employee selection and promotion process. The results show that “writing is a ticket to professional opportunity, while poorly written job applications are a figurative kiss of death” (“Ticket to Work,” 3). The survey also indicated that employers are spending a lot of money annually to remediate writing deficiencies in their employees (“Ticket to Work,” 3). Another report in 2005, focusing on state government jobs, showed similar results (NCW, “Powerful Message,” 3). Clearly, employers and businessmen in America value grammatical writing skills in their employees. And as Larry Beason argues in “Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors,” “Our effectiveness [as
writing instructors], perhaps our ethos, can be impeded if we . . . trivialize points [other professionals] deem consequential” (34). Beason’s goal in conducting the study he presents in this article was to discover what business professionals saw in grammatical errors. What he found after analyzing the results of his interviews with fourteen business men and women was that their responses to errors came from two separate contexts: the readability of the text (seeing error as a roadblock to communication) and the ethos for the writer (seeing error as evidence that a writer is incompetent). He cautions “that the extent to which errors harm the writer’s image is more serious and far-reaching that many students and teachers might realize” (48). In an article describing her personal shifts in perspective regarding grammar instruction in her classes, Deborah Dean makes a similar observation. She asserts that as technology opens up new writing spaces for student writers and brings them closer to their readers, the negative effects of error on the writer’s ethos are amplified. Dean paraphrases the attitudes of reader-commenters attacking the language of online news articles, “How can anything you say be valid if you can’t even use language effectively?” (24).
The poison in the well of grammar instruction, the reason traditional methods are so deadly to student progress in the writing classroom, is that these methods teach grammar as a rule-based system with a right and a wrong answer to each question. This simply isn’t an accurate depiction of grammar. In fact, we learn from Patrick Hartwell and his concept of multiple grammars that grammar is a much more complex term that refers to several different systems of language use. Hartwell adds to Nelson Francis’ three grammars (1. an internalized system of meaning; 2. a scientific system of language; and 3. a social system of “linguistic etiquette” [qtd. in Hartwell 310]) two more grammars: 4. “school grammar” and 5. “stylistic grammar” (310–11). This “school grammar” is the grammar of traditional grammar instruction, and as Hartwell suggests, it is not based on either the internalized patterns of grammar 1 or the scientific understanding of grammar 2 but is instead constructed out of “appeals to ‘logical principles,’ like ‘two negatives make a positive,’ and an analogy to Latin grammar” (310). Both the appeals and analogy here are antique and absurd. Grammar is a function of a fluid, changing language. What used to be hard, fast rules are now quaint antiquities. The English language is full of exceptions to the rule. Teaching by the rules simply doesn’t make sense, and as we’ve seen from the research previously cited, it doesn’t work. As Schuster says, “The argument that one must learn the rules before one can break them has no validity if the rules to be learned are not rules in the first place” (71). So, how do we give our students the grammatical tools they need without falling into the trap of rule-based teaching? We appeal to Hartwell’s grammar 5, “stylistic grammar,” to change the rules of grammar instruction.
Martha Kolln calls this new grammar “rhetorical grammar,” emphasizing the marriage between “grammatical choices” and “rhetorical effects” (xi). The first step we make toward this marriage is to debunk the prescriptive myth that grammar instruction involves right and wrong answers. Instead of teaching our students the rules of grammar, we need to be teaching them the principles of grammar, describing the function of different structures and punctuation marks and demonstrating how they can be used most effectively. As Kolln puts it, we need to teach our students to “consider the conscious knowledge of sentence structure as [their] toolkit” (xi). Deborah Dean talks about making this shift in her own teaching practices. She describes changing from textbook grammar instruction which reinforced the right-and-wrong pedagogy to sentence imitation and combining activities that encouraged students to experiment with language. Not surprisingly, Dean observes that this shift in pedagogies got her students talking “about sentences, not just for their rightness or wrongness, but for what effect they had” (22). If we thus shift our focus from following the rule to doing what is necessary to keep an audience engaged, then our students will be better prepared to make effective rhetorical choices in their writing. This method certainly requires more ingenuity than providing a list of errors and having students correct them after a short discussion on the rule. It could be argued that it’s just as difficult, if not more so, for students to make this shift in perspective as it is for instructors, and as Dean suggests, it takes a lot of modeling (using examples from effective authors in different rhetorical situations to examine the grammatical strategies used) and a lot of talking (asking for discussion from the students about differences in grammatical strategies and identifying as a class which strategies are more effective in a given situation). But while it requires more preparation and flexibility from us as instructors, this shift in pedagogies is not an impossible task, and it works.
To test this shift in pedagogies, Dr. Zane K. Quible, of Oklahoma State University, conducted a study comparing strategy-based and rule-based review materials for grammar and punctuation exercises in three sections of a business communication course. The materials prepared for the study discussed the same principles and concepts of grammar and punctuation, but the control (rule-based material) presented each principle as a rule, while the treatment (strategy-based material) presented each principle as a strategy (182). After selecting a control group of 21 students to receive rule-based review materials and a treatment group of 45 students to receive strategy-based review materials, Quible tested all participants to make sure their performance levels were statistically similar prior to providing the review materials (182–84). The students were then given time to review the material provided in preparation for three different assessments: five grammar and punctuation quizzes, a course writing assignment, and a posttest narrative activity. The posttest was identical to the pretest activity used to assess the students’ performance prior to instruction; in both activities, the students were asked to identify, label, and correct errors in grammar and punctuation (184–85). After coding, compiling, and analyzing each of these assignments (using percentages to account for the difference in the number of students in each group), Quible found a significant difference in the performance of the two groups. Students in the treatment group performed better than the control group in all three assessments (186–87). Granted, this study still carries the tradition of labeling and correcting error, which is part of the traditional grammar instruction that we are trying to avoid. And it focuses on written material rather than class instruction. But the results show that when students are taught grammatical principles as strategies, and not as rules, they retain and apply those principles more readily than students who are taught the rules.
The second step to changing the way we teach grammar in the writing classroom is to stop thinking of grammar instruction as something that is wholly separate from the more global aspects of writing. Deborah Dean recognizes that this “dichotomy suggests a separation between what we say and how we say it” and suggests that it may represent “the conflict between the writing process movement and traditional instruction” (20). In other words, this myth of separation could be the reason for the divide between scholars who are for and against traditional grammar instruction. The current trend in writing courses is to create an open environment that encourages students to share their ideas and writing with their peers. This automatically provides a sample audience (made up of classmates and the instructor) and a working text (the students’ writing) for rhetorical grammar instruction. We can then easily integrate short discussions and activities into our existing curricula one principle at a time, having students experiment with these principles using their own writing and test their ideas on their audience.
It isn’t surprising that many new teachers like myself are timid about grammar instruction. The arguments against grammar and punctuation instruction are formidable, and the problems inherent in traditional methods of grammar instruction are real. But ignoring error and avoiding grammar instruction in favor of higher-priority discussions in class is not the answer. The problems with traditional grammar instruction arise from the methods used, not the material being taught. Students still need to know the basic structure of a sentence. What they don’t need is a list of example sentences riddled with error and a lecture on what is right or wrong about each one. So how do we solve the problem of grammar instruction? We give students the grammatical tools they need by teaching the functions and effects of grammar principles, and by integrating this instruction into the existing curriculum of higher-priority skills (e.g., invention, arranging an argument, etc.) with short discussions and activities, each centered around one grammatical principle or skill. If we follow this pattern of teaching, our students will leave our classes with a rhetorical repertoire that is complete with a working knowledge of both the global and surface-level principles of writing. Teaching grammar rules that are isolated from student writing does nothing, but teaching grammar principles and strategies within the writing process prepares students to take command of the public and academic discourses that they enter when they leave our classrooms.
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