Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

Is Knowledge of Grammar Useful?

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In some respects, the history of education is a patchwork of fads.  Gurus in the field of education quickly come and go.  In schools of education at universities, professors rise to fame by giving new names to old ideas and for making proposals that re-invent the wheel. (A note to readers who have come of age recently: “Re-inventing the wheel” used to be considered a ludicrous expression because it was thought that once a thing was invented, it could not be invented again.)

These fads would be laughable except that they can lead a whole generation of students into the wilderness.  For example, the back-to-basics movement that began several decades ago was a reaction to an earlier fad in public schools which advocated–among other things–teaching children to read without using phonetics.  As a result, private companies today are making money by teaching phonetics to students who aren’t learning to read that way in public schools.

Colleges and universities have their share of fads too.  For some time now instructors of English composition have been told that research shows no correlation between writing ability and a knowledge of grammar.  Many instructors have embraced this conclusion wholeheartedly.  They hate the drudgery of teaching grammar and prefer reading poetry and fiction in their composition classes.  My guess is that most college English instructors today don’t know grammar well enough to teach it because they weren’t taught grammar themselves.

How valuable is a knowledge of grammar to students taking writing courses?  Some people do write very well without being able to name the parts of speech and without being able to distinguish a dependent clause from an independent clause.  In a similar way, some students are able to organize essays without preparing a formal outline before they begin to write.  English instructors love such students because they don’t need much instruction and their papers are easy to grade.

But such students are relatively rare.  Typically the ones who write well without a knowledge of grammar have  high verbal aptitudes, and they have learned the language but not with formal instruction.  They have absorbed the principles of grammar through reading and hearing good models of language spoken in their early years, an age when children are most impressionable.

But there is no art without its technical aspects, and the technical aspects are the things that can be taught.  So it is with writing.  The kind of instruction that struggling students want and need is technical. Typically the students who are really interested in learning demand some reason for each mark of punctuation.  They can benefit from rules to guide them.  In their attempts to understand, they ask questions that an instructor without technical knowledge cannot answer.

Even the student with great natural ability in language benefits from such knowledge.  Indeed, linguistically gifted students are the very ones who should study language in depth.  They are the logical ones to teach language courses to the next generation of students.

Courses in composition are lame when taught by an instructor without a knowledge of grammar.  Imagine a conference between students and such an instructor.  Their discussion of a recent writing assignment goes something like this:

Instructor: “Well, Sean, how do you feel about your paper?”

Sean: “I  feel real good about it.”

Instructor: “You do have some good ideas in it.  But do you think this sentence could be improved?”

Sean: “I guess so.”

Instructor: “Then go back to your desk and try to make these places I have marked sound better.”

Sean: “But I like the way they sound; that’s my way of writing.”

Instructor: “Okay, but what grade do you think it deserves?”

Sean: “An A.”

Instructor: “Okay, take your seat.  Misty, come up and let’s talk about your paper.”

Any person passing along the street could teach English composition this way and with the same effect.  If the art of writing has no technical content worth teaching, why make it a college course?  Why bother with such a course at all?

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Written by polemicscat

July 8, 2008 at 10:19 am

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