Curious about grammar instruction: common ground?

I have a strong response to McGee and Erickson’s essay on politics and MS Word and want to post something that makes a proposal and asks questions. The field of composition seems very rational and democratic in discussions of writing, but I observe a lot of conflict, political division, and polarization around the teaching of grammar. Although there is support in the field of stylistics for teaching grammar in context, as descriptive, and as part of that larger discussion of style, it seems that the majority of the field of composition wants to ignore grammar altogether as not contributing to better writing. However, my experience points to postsecondary teachers who teach grammar regularly and unsystematically (is it because of this lack of conversation within the field and the politicization of the topic?) and students who struggle with grammar, often avoiding content to deal with grammar issues. If the grammar checkers are students’ only coherent source for grammar instruction while writing, students use it. So McGee and Erickson offer good advice that teachers familiarize themselves with grammar checkers and talk about considering the settings of MS Word software. My question is–aren’t we missing the point? In a paper I wrote, I found support for finding an approach to teaching grammar that is descriptive, not prescriptive. If grammar engages student writing at the time when he or she is engaged in writing a paper, my experience in a tutoring center shows that students are interested.  My research shows that process, content, and sentence logic may not be all that far apart, and I’m curious what ideas, feedback, experiences-pro and con-others might have regarding grammar instruction or lack thereof.

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3 comments on “Curious about grammar instruction: common ground?

  1. Hello! I’m not in your class, but I was in TWINADA last year. I still get the blog posts sent to my Google Reader, and I just had to respond to your post! I’m in my second semester teaching at the community college in Monterey (MPC). Much like your research, I have found that teaching grammar with a constructivist and descriptive approach can be effective. I teach both developmental writing and freshman comp, and I treat grammar the same in both classes. Also, I only “teach” grammar if I notice a recurring problem in student drafts.

    I’m definitely the oddball in my department; most of my colleagues treat the developmental writing class as a grammar class, which is really unfortunate. I believe I am the only instructor who doesn’t assign a handbook or workbook. The students are drilled and expected to know regurgitate terminology and rules. I think this focus on prescriptive grammar lessons is ultimately what turns off a lot of the basic skills students from English, which leads to the high drop-out rate at the community college level.

    • Good to see you here, Ruthie. I think you point up a good distinction between different ways of approaching grammar. When comp. scholars say that grammar instruction has little effect, what they mean are the (unfortunate) decontextual, prescriptivist approaches of some of your colleagues. I think we have yet to really grapple with what a descriptivist, rhetorical approach could accomplish (though Laura Micciche has done some work in this direction). You might look up her stuff, if you aren’t already familiar.

  2. Hi Ruthie, To add to Kory’s recommendation of Laura Micciche, I would add Rebecca Moore Howard’s essay, “Contextual Stylistics: Breaking Down the Binaries in Sentence-Level Pedagogies.” I am also learning from Martha Kolln who advocates teaching second-order writing conventions that are different than first-order speech ability. Also, in CROSS-TALK IN COMP THEORY, Andrea Lunsford, in her essay, “Cognitive Development and the Basic Writer,” makes an argument for sentence logic that I found very useful as a language center tutor, finding that a student’s interest in and understanding of logic at the sentence level has applications to paragraph and overall logic of writing a draft that they find useful. I welcome any ideas or insights that you have gleaned in your work with students.

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