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Ahhh, But You CAN Teach Grammar!

This editorial provides a lead into a review of Dierdre Wolownick Honnold's English With Ease, but because the teaching of grammar is considered draconian by many educators, I felt it necessary to say up front why I believe the teaching of grammar can be effective and is desperately needed. It appears to me that the researchers have been designing studies which test the wrong thing and using that as an excuse not to teach grammar. Them's fightin' words. Let the flames begin!

In a former life, when I first started teaching freshman composition, everyone had a handbook, be it Prentice Hall or Harbrace. These handbooks were a marked step up from the various Warriners I had had in every grade of high school.

The Warriners were definitely into rules and fill in the blanks. The Prentice Hall and Harbrace were into rules, but with a bit more explanation of what was going on. The misplaced modifiers were there, but the Prentice Hall handbook had a really good section on logical fallacies, something we never got around to discussing, at least in my high school classes.

In truth, I never really looked at my own freshman composition handbook until, in graduate school, I had to figure out what number I had to assign to the themes I collected from my own students. As an undergraduate, my papers had come back with a few numbers on them referring to handbook sections. I looked them up, made the corrections, and that was that. I really hated correcting my own themes. I never, ever rewrote them, although this was encouraged. I simply corrected the simple errors.

Did I learn any grammar from these exercises. Not really. Since I had absorbed standard spoken and written English by osmosis from whomever I associated with, I had learned enough to pass standardized English tests. I didn't say "ain't" or the dreaded "them" instead of "these." And English was my native language.

Just the same, I vividly remember the study of transitive and intransitive verbs in the seventh grade. We had two student teachers, and as often happens, one was much better than the other. The woman had gray hair, so obviously was doing some kind of career change, although this was long before women went back to school in droves to take up different occupations. In fact, this was back in the days when your father worked for the same company from the day he was hired out of college until he retired. So this woman, in her own way, stood out. She was also an excellent teacher and had taught in Russia for a while, even though this was in Kruschev's time. So the poor guy who was paired with her in student teaching hadn't a chance.

To get back to the transitive and intransitive verbs. In his lesson on verbs, he wrote two sentences on the blackboard and started to tell us how the verb in one was transitive and the verb in the other was intransitive. One student -- it wasn't me, honest -- asked how you could tell a transitive verb from an intransitive one. His answer: "You just have to learn to tell the difference by looking at them." Hey, this was his answer. Really. I remember being stunned at the profound lack of information in this response. This was a non-answer. It was also before the days of Madison Avenue's death grip on advertising, which is perhaps why I was so shocked.

No, I didn't run out and find out how to tell the difference myself. I really wouldn't be required to learn to describe the difference verbally until I started teaching freshman composition as a graduate student. By that time, I had had German and French as well as a course in grammar. Real, old-fashioned grammar where you diagram sentences. I remember being delighted that I was taking my first course in German at the same time I was taking the grammar course. By some happy coincidence, as we took up grammar issues in German, we were concurrently studying the same thing in English grammar.

People are always telling students to take Latin to learn English. Well, Latin is fine for learning English vocabulary words, but English grammar is much more like the German grammar than the Latin.

I really do have a point here. When I was faced with using the same handbook numbers to mark my own students' papers as I had used on my themes, I actually had to learn what the explanations meant. Indeed, sometimes I had trouble figuring out which number to use because the sentence I was trying to find a description for didn't fit any of the neat categories.

After I graduated and began teaching freshman English in a local college, I found that these handbooks had some really useful information in them, as mentioned before, but the sentence exercises were really boring and useless. In desperation, I wound up explaining the rules in the handbooks by taking a subject and a verb and having the students change the sentence around, add words and phrases, and see what happened to the meaning of the sentences.

You know what? My students actually learned grammar this way. Even though all the research keeps right on saying that it doesn't do any good to teach grammar. As I continued to study English and eventually went on to get another degree in English, this time in rhetoric, I learned much about how we learn to write and the uselessness of what we called the "five star theme." By the time I hit graduate school this second time, we had now passed through the "feel-good" stage of teaching writing, the one where you read all kinds of warm fuzzy accounts of things where nothing happened and there was no point. I found this approach impossible to teach because there was nothing to discuss.

I began assigning essays that had a point, or a group of essays having conflicting opinions so there was something to discuss, teaching students how to back up what they said with sources. I was, without knowing it, teaching argument, something the freshman composition books called persuasive writing, which occupied only a very small portion of the usual curriculum. Argument, however, required the use of outlines, a writing tool which became unpopular once we got to the problem-solving approach to composition. With this approach, outlines are considered too rigid, likely to squelch creativity and enthusiasm for writing. Well, like anything else, there's a time for brainstorming, a time for free writing, and if whatever is being written is to have any merit whatsoever, a time for outlining. But that's a different subject.

Back to grammar. I kept asking myself why there was this general belief -- at times actual canon -- that insisted it did no good to study grammar. Once English researchers began setting up studies according to scientific research principles, they found time and time again that teaching grammar didn't help students write any better. Of course, the grammar they were teaching was always the rule-based form. Here's a rule, here's some exercises, and now, of course, you know how to write well and not make this mistake.

Anybody, even I, knew this kind of teaching grammar doesn't work. There is no correspondence between knowing a grammar rule and for using it in writing. I've at least come to learn a bit about why in my studies in rhetoric. But hundreds and thousands of teachers have given up on teaching grammar because of these studies. While the world still judges each and every one of us on our use of these rules. So how do we learn them. Not everyone, like myself, can teach freshman composition to learn them.

In my rhetoric studies, we looked at the difference between expert and novice writers in the process of writing. Researchers have found that there are differences in how expert and novice writers write, and one of the biggest, most obvious ones is that expert writers don't pay much attention to sentence level details such as grammar. Novice writers, no doubt traumatized by outlining in their formative years, get hung up on agonizing over the sentence level stuff like where commas go.

In defense of the feel-good school of writing, compulsion with grammar errors was something this method tries to overcome or avoid completely. However, at some point, you really do need to take a look at those sentence level errors. But how?

So how do expert writers learn to be comfortable enough with their language that they don't give conscious attention to grammar as they write. Research still doesn't give us much of an answer except to note that there's a correlation between reading and knowing grammar.

Patrick Hartwell, in "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar" (College English, vol. 47, nos. 2, February 1985) surveys the research on teaching grammar and does a very good job of sorting out the different kinds of things people are talking about when they use the term grammar. He talks about three types of grammar: (1) the grammar in our heads; (2) the explicit attempt to approximate the rules of this first kind of grammar; and (3) linguistic etiquette, or style.

This first kind of grammar, the grammar in our heads, is really not consciously available to us. We use it but can't really articulate why we make the choices we do. The second kind of grammar comes from trying to articulate the set of circumstances by which we make our unconscious grammar choices. Hartwell notes that all this does is produce a model of grammar. Unfortunately, it has been used as a source of rules for learning internalized grammar. The third kind of grammar, or style, is teachable, but doesn't have a lot to do with our grammar that's in our heads.

Hartwell notes that the research shows that language develops differently in readers and nonreaders, and he agrees that it's the manipulation of language in meaningful contexts that teaches one about grammar, not the formal study of grammar. (p. 114)

Hartwell then uses this conclusion, not to suggest that the mastery of the internalized grammar might be helped along by a study of sentences in context, but rather, as a way of declaring once and for all that it is futile to teach grammar.

This, of course, leaves unanswered why those doing the research haven't studied teaching grammar in context.

See my review of Dierdre Wolownick Honnold's book on how grammar can be taught in context, or go straight to, where other reviewers have commented on English With Ease.

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