Where Grammar Fits

It is difficult to separate the concept of “good” writing and grammar. It seems that you can’t really have one without the other. Yet, consider the following question:

What is good writing?

Good writing is about telling a story, whether it is to entertain or to prove a point. It is about connecting to the audience. It is about informing the audience. It’s about making the reader feel or think something that they never had prior to your words hitting their eyes and filtering into their consciousness.

That definition would likely be accepted by the majority of people, both in education and in other fields. Grammar is nowhere in that definition, yet it is one of the biggest impediments when it comes to writing instruction. The reason as to why is clear. The field’s execution has left a muddled message for developing writers.

Even the most talented of writers can get in the way of that definition of a good story. It can be a result of wordiness, disorganization, or just bad execution of a good idea. And, yes, poor grammar can get in the way too.

We have developed good techniques when it comes to addressing style issues or organization issues. We do a good job of addressing execution and guiding young writers to find a better, more clear way.

It is the last part that is the most tricky and perhaps the single most polarizing topic for a teacher of writing. If you ever want to start a riot, just whisper the word “grammar” at an English Department Meeting.

Grammar instruction is one area that every English Teacher struggles with. In most cases, it has nothing to do with knowledge of the concepts. It is all about how we teach grammar and how much we teach it. It is a struggle in our individual classes, but we also get the pressure of having every other content area Teacher complain to us about student writing and their poor control of conventions. And, even the students seem to believe that they simply “don’t get” grammar.

In fact, I had one of my 10th grade Advanced Placement students tell me that just the other day. He, along with a group of kids in the class, is prepping for the SAT’s. Their tutor, who has the charge of helping them attain a high score on the exam, has identified grammar weaknesses. That conclusion is valid because that is what the test is asking them–to identify and correct certain grammar rules. Because the tutor is excellent, this group of students is being taught how to “game” the test. They will know certain grammar rules as a result. They will get higher scores.

And, likely, none of that will make a bit of difference when it comes to their real world writing.

That statement may seem harsh or a criticism of SAT tutors. It isn’t meant to be that, at all. SAT tutors have a job to do and learning a set of grammar rules that the SAT frequently tests is a smart test taking strategy. It will raise scores. Those scores are important because, sadly, they are one of the leading factors in gaining acceptance to college. It is a smart strategy and there is value in teaching that grammar in isolation for the purpose of raising SAT scores.

But, none of that correlates to good writing. In fact, almost every published study indicates that teaching grammar in isolation has detrimental effects on student writing. It was said in 1984. It was said again in 2012. Nothing has changed. Even The National Council of the Teachers of English agree; the organization put out the following statement:

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.

None of this should be mistaken for championing the idea of disregarding grammar. That is not the point. Grammar has value in writing. To be clear, this is challenging how grammar has been traditionally taught. Most people reading this are probably familiar with the Warriner’s Grammar text book filled with banal sentences that test your knowledge of gerunds, dangling modifiers, and participles. My generation used these every day in class. In fact, even my favorite teacher used this book as our opening activity many days. We’d take grammar quizzes and complete those awful exercises.

Some may jump to the conclusion that those exercises are the reason why I have a command of the language and that I am able to write coherently.

Here’s the thing: we also wrote something every single day in his class. There was a culture of writing. We wrote. He gave feedback as we went. He showed us the missteps in our writing. We revised. We edited. We read each other’s work. We talked about our purpose of writing. That’s what made me a better writer, not the sheets. As an English Teacher for 20 years, I still have to look up the definition and find examples of a gerund. Yet, I can write and have been published. The daily practice of writing and the daily feedback gave me the tools to command the language. My Teacher was so good at that. He was following what he believed to be proper teaching by giving us grammar exercises. But, it was his actual lessons that made me the writer I am today.

His culture of writing is what made us improve our writing. It is that culture that we must create for our students in today’s classrooms. We have an obligation to students to create writing opportunities, both big and small, both informal and formal. And, it must span all genres. It should not be exclusively about writing for standardized tests–that’s its own genre–and it should not be done with formulaic organizers, fill in the blanks, or pre-made, fake assignments. That culture must be made from authentic, varied texts that give opportunities for kids to write with passion and practice various techniques for different purposes and audiences. That culture must be established. It is only in that culture that grammar can be efficiently addressed.

So, what does that mean for kids in classrooms today? First and foremost, it means sending a message to some great kids, in this case my group who somehow got a message that their grammar and, consequently, their writing is “horrible”.

That message has to be this: You are writers. You are good writers. What you have to say is important. What you have to say has the potential to change the world. Your thoughts and your stories are powerful. Grammar is one component. You are still a great writer, even if you don’t know the name of some obscure grammatical term. You still have to learn conventions, but that comes secondary to getting your story out. The story has to come first or there is nothing to work with. And, we, as an industry have to do a better job of teaching you. We owe it to you to change.

Change One: Listen To Research

Our first change has to be listening to the piles of research about the isolation of grammar. It has to be scrapped, even if that’s what they did back in the day. It didn’t work then. If it did, everyone who is 40 years old and up would be able to recite, on command, the definition of a gerund. Very few can. Even fewer actually need to.

Thankfully, many in the field have moved away from this practice. But, the issue now is that grammar instruction is generally being ignored. That’s not the point of the research either. Grammar must be addressed in the context of their real world writing. If a culture of writing is established, students will have an ample amount of work to edit. This is the opportunity to address grammar.

This is another reason why it is important to conference with writers, each day. It is the only way individual grammar deficiencies can be addressed. This is the only way to show kids, practically, how to clarify their message, how to make their story more powerful, and how to make their point more impressive. This needs to be done as they are in the process of writing, not when it is submitted for a grade. Kids need the opportunity to “play” with the language, fix errors, and learn why those are errors. All of that must be done before they are “done” or that feedback and even quality instruction will be lost.

Change Two: Purpose Of Reading

The English classroom can no longer be just about reading to read. Literature, non-fiction, poetry, and any other genre has to be read with a purpose. It has be read to model good writing. Young writers need to be exposed to all types of writers. They need to see a variety of styles. They need to see models of “proper” writing. It needs to be seen in the real world. Developing writers need to see those proper exemplars. Advanced writers can take another step. They need to see how Hemingway used so few words, yet still created powerful characters and imagery. They need to see how Hemingway could also use the run-on in certain situations. They need to see Cormac McCarthy’s constant conjunction use and his purpose for using those. They need to see Cummings’ lack of regard for traditional structure. They need to see how Stephen King’s powerful imagery creates such a mood that readers literally jump out of their seat when reading his books. They need to see Jane Austen’s use of double negatives, normally a grammar “don’t do”.

After seeing these techniques in real world, published writing, young writers need to time to experiment with those techniques to see what works for them. The advanced writers can play with the advanced concepts and breaking the rules. Developing writers can see proper sentence structure and work on their own. Without real world examples and the opportunity to practice them in real writing, writers cannot develop a control of grammar. Grammar worksheets and concept identification does not correlate to effective implementation of proper grammar in writing. We must read literature, news articles, and all other genres for more than content. We must examine it for form. This can be done across all curriculum areas, not just in English classes.

Change Three: Use Tech To Individualize

Writing development is a life long process. To think that it can be solved in the period of one academic year is foolhardy. But, we can help accelerate improvement. We can instill a culture of writing that will last a lifetime. And, we can provide individual opportunities for students to improve grammar.

There are a number of great grammar sites available. Sites such as NoRedInk or Quill allow for Teachers to assign students individual exercises on certain areas if additional practice is needed. There are numerous sites such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab that contain examples and notes. Students can be directed there for those examples.

A project that I would like to develop for my department is to compile a Youtube channel of mini-lessons for students to refer to as they are writing. If they are unsure of something while they are writing independently, they would be able to go to our channel for a reference. This allows for differentiation, rather than having a class of 30 students sit through a grammar lesson that may or may not be useful for more than 10 of them.

And, of course, there are the services that every adult in every field uses. Everyone uses some sort of spell check and grammar check. Why can’t students become proficient with those? Why do we frown upon students using tools that professional adults use? I know…they need to learn the concepts. But, if we truly learned the concepts, why do we use them? It’s a bit hypocritical, no?

Final Thoughts

Grammar is polarizing because we are often judged on it. It leaves even the most experienced of Teachers with a sense of insecurity. It is difficult to teach. But, research clearly indicates that the traditional method of isolated teaching is ineffective. We must push past traditional methods because they never did work. We must push past the notion that we must teach directly to tests. Test preparation is its own genre; it should never be intertwined with real world writing.

We must give kids ample opportunity to not only read quality writing, but to actually write. It is only then that we can address grammar. We must not let grammar get in the way of creation. We must use that creation to allow for growth in control of language. It is how the real world works; we write and then revise, fine tune, and correct grammar. Why are we doing anything different in class?