Let’s Talk About Grammar

I know the research on direct grammar instruction shows it has no effect, sometimes even a negative effect when it takes away from composition instruction (NCTE affirms these findings here).

As I read Warner’s piece on Inside HigherEd (here) about pushback comments to direct grammar instruction I considered the times when I’ve lectured on grammar.

Style

When discussing rhetorical moves made by academics in different disciplines, part of the discussion looks to grammar structure too. The passive construction of methodology details provided in the sciences is very important to that field, so it needs to be discussed as part of the style of the discipline. In understanding style and noticing these choices, the complexities of audience become more clear.

Well, let’s be honest, the goal of this conversation is to help students realize there are different grammatical values in different disciplines. All disciplines care about presentation, academic support, proper use of MLA/APA/AP/Chicago/IEEE/etc., argument support, clear argument development, consistent format and organization. The problem is, the grammatical details catch faculty members, so their significance to writing takes on more weight.

When discussing this with a freshmen class, it’s necessary to provide an example. So I use my son.

Marshall was accepted to [insert prestigious school here].

[insert prestigious school here] accepted Marshall.

These style choices rely on some element of grammar knowledge – students must identify the subject of the sentence, the verb, and the object to understand how the style choice significantly changes the meaning of the sentence.

This first step is where many students often struggle. They struggle to identify the parts of the sentence.

After I help them with the first sentence they are rockstars with the second. BONUS: I can see learning transfer across a short time period – which is amazing.

Grammar versus Style

At this point I often wonder, am I directly lecturing on grammar with this style example. Will this style example/discussion carry weight in their learning so they access these ideas in new writing situations.

It’s such a small part of the overall curriculum (again, focused more heavily on the argument presentation ideas above) that I doubt it carries – but it holds so much significance. While it’s grammar, I’m imparting knowledge on basic grammar functions, the real focus of these discussions is style. What is the place of style in composition teaching?

Based on disciplinary feedback, my department has considered the idea of creating stand alone style courses (there are amazing books on style that can be incredibly helpful). But not all students will volunteer for this approach to writing.

As I work through final grading for the Spring 2017 semester I begin to plan my next courses. While I’m teaching mostly Grad classes this summer, I will also be planning a curricular overhaul of FYC in the Fall. Is there a place for style discussions? I’ll also be teaching a Junior level composition – are juniors more prepared for this discussion?

Also, if I work it into the curriculum, where would it be 1) the easiest to teach based on surrounding assignments (hello scaffolding)? 2) the most meaningful to students (hello transfer)?

While I don’t think I’ll have THE PERFECT (imagine this in a big booming voice) answer, I will play around with this idea as I create new curriculum.

This might be a bigger project requiring a shift in disciplinary understanding of their own writing practices. While they often point to comma errors and split infinitives, is the underlying concern more one of style, or truly grammar. On a side note –  we all make these grammar mistakes. And may I remind these faculty of the most famous “To boldly go” split infinitive?

Now, on to exploring the place of style in an updated, Teaching for Transfer modeled composition curriculum.

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