“Grammar, Grammar, and the Teaching of Grammar” and “The Erasure of the Sentence”

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            After reading these two texts, I am even more confused about how to approach teaching grammar in the high school classroom. With every text we read, it seems as if grammar is the least important piece to the puzzle of writing. These two articles were both very long and rather confusing in terms of audience and purpose. Were these writings supposed to inspire me to teach grammar? Or were they telling me what every other text is… that grammar is not as important as English teachers make it out to be?

            “Grammar, Grammar, and the Teaching of Grammar” is a long article about how professionals have not learned much about the impact of teaching grammar in the classroom. The text even refers to a study that showed that “no differences were detected in writing performance or language competence” after two years of formal grammar instruction in the secondary classroom (107). The article does not say there is no point in teaching grammar, but it does seem like grammar can be taught if educators can make it interesting, can make it skill centered, can deliver it in sequential order, and teach grammar in different levels accessible to different students.

            The article offers five meanings for the term grammar and it seems like Grammar 1 is the common grammar that most people have in common and that most people would have learned in grammar school. Grammar is “the set of formal patterns in which the words of a language are arranged in order to convey larger meanings” (109). It seems as most people acquire this grammar usage in the primary years of their education and then from there on out grammar is acquired through reading other works and through exposure to good grammar from adults and educators. The article ends on a disappointing note stating that “it is time that we, as researchers, move on to more interesting areas of inquiry” (127). Could the NCTE have put that on the first page? UGH!

            “The Erasure of the Sentence” reaffirms that educators are uncertain of what or how to teach grammar, writing, or analysis. After elementary school, secondary educators do not focus on direct grammar instruction. Grammar is mentioned aloud, seen on rubrics, or corrected in red ink, but there is no focus on the instruction of grammar. The article makes it seem like educators are just expecting student grammar to get better without skill and drill routines. I do think there is a place for grammar instruction in the secondary classroom, but I feel like it needs to be in small measurable doses. As a student of whole language, I believe my secondary education was modeled after imitation. If we read great works, we should model what we read in our writing. To a certain extent this method must be effective. I have gone through middle school, high school, and college with only one formal grammar and usage class. I cannot remember any of the tips from my college grammar class, so I cannot stay whether this class was effectively placed in my educational career or not.

What I was able to glean from this article is that it is important for people to learn how to first read, then learn how to analyze, and then compose compositions. There are methods of trying to improve students writing by using sentence writing exercises, yet there does not seem to be a tremendous impact behind these activities:

1.     Writing good sentences

2.     Imitation sentences

3.     Combining sentences

I can imagine using these lessons in class and making them humorous and light activities; however, I cannot imagine there being a great impact on my students writing from these activities. I would imagine students laughing and learning a few grammar rules, including one of two of these rules or tips in their writing and then settling back into the patterns that have been set in their mental stone of writing habits.  

            Once again, this article boils down to the point that grammar is not as important as English teachers make it seem to be. The greater focus needs to be on teaching students how to read, how to think, how to analyze, and how to compose essays. The text even highlights the point, “Students need training in higher-level skills such as invention and organization more than they need to know how to be ‘sentence acrobats’” (111). After reflecting on both of these articles, I will continue to teach the way I find most effective. I will try to include a few mini lessons on grammar and hope that these tips and tricks sink into those stone tablets.

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Unsolved Mysteries in Composition, and Grammar as an Issue of Equity: My thoughts on this weeks readings

My quest for empathy has slowed its roll as the stress of school, work, family, and the state of our nation has taken its toll on my mental state. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and I take a strange comfort in the collective suffering we are all going through, both because it puts my own worries in perspective and because it reminds me of why I am pursuing empathy in the first place. This quest for empathy is for the purpose of moving out of my little world, made even smaller by COVID-19, so that I can keep my eyes on the bigger picture; sadly, it is incredibly difficult for me to see your suffering if I am overly consumed by my own. This doesn’t mean I ignore my own suffering or that I invalidate my experience, but it does mean I try to keep myself open to seeing outside myself when all I want to do is clam up and hunker down within myself.

 So, what does all of that have to do with the readings on grammar this week? In truth, it has very little to do with it, but in a round-about-way there are some salient points that can be taken out of the readings this week on grammar to help inform the quest for empathy. I will save these observations for the end of this reflection for the sake of setting the scene first, so, with that in mind, lets dive into Robert Connors’ article “The Erasure of the Sentence” and Patrick Hartwell’s article “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar”.  

 Robert Connors essay “The Erasure of the Sentence” explores the mystery of the disappearance of sentence-based rhetoric from the composition field (97-98). In the 60’s and 70’s, several techniques for teaching grammar and syntax emerged from the Darwinian swamp of rhetoric’s past to be reborn into three distinct techniques: Christiensen’s rhetoric, imitation exercises, and sentence-combining. Connors proceeds to take the reader on an Unsolved Mysteries-like exploration of the seemingly sudden disappearance of these techniques from the classrooms and research, and reveals an even larger mystery around the development of the field of composition.

Now, if you have ever watched an episode of the strangely intriguing but dissatisfying show Unsolved Mysteries, you know that the whole premise of the show is that what you are about to watch is unsolved. I repeat, you will not find out what happens by the end. And yet… there is always hope that maybe, this time, there will be an answer. The show further enforces this irrational hope by stringing along the watcher and planting findings here and there that point towards resolution; a missing body is found, a murder suspect is identified, a clue not found before is discovered when the case is reopened, etc. As I read Conner’s essay, I felt like I had entered into a literary episode of Unsolved Mysteries that strung me along with choice background information and clues, but by the end left me deeply unsatisfied by the lack of answers.

Where this analogy stops is in the fact that we do get answers about what happened in the disappearance of these syntactic rhetorics, but in solving one mystery, we are faced with an even bigger one – how did composition come to be built around ideologies that create an atmosphere where techniques like the sentence-based rhetorics cannot thrive? As Conner explains, these sentence-based techniques were booming during their heyday, with research to provide the empirical evidence needed to show they were working (120). The mystery of how the techniques disappeared is pretty straight forward; simply put – they were seen, explored, and then, in a somewhat apathetic way, cast aside when it was found they couldn’t stand up to the critiques leveled at them from critics in the composition field (109). So the body has been found, the clues are in place, but now we are left with a brand new ‘body’ and even more questions in the case of how the milieu of composition studies developed to the point that it could crush these techniques and the evidence that supported their use in the classroom.  

It is through exploring the criticisms against sentenced-base rhetoric that the reader begins to get that sinking feeling in their stomach that the discipline of composition might have been part of a strange ‘cover-up’ scheme. Connors lists the three types of criticism that were the final death blows to these syntactic rhetorics as “anti-formalism” (110), “anti-behaviorism”(113), and “anti-empiricism” (116). By look at these, we see that the discipline of composition had imbedded in it a natural suspicion towards any theory or practice that a) placed form over content (110), b) trained students to develop skill-based behaviors over creative exploration (114), c) and that was founded on social science practices as opposed to humanistic (118). The three techniques that were developed all stood in direct contrast to these principles and so it is no wonder they couldn’t survive the slow suffocation of composition’s suspicious nature.

I say all of that not to side with the author in a kind of wistful longing for the sentence-based rhetoric to be restored, but to simply capture the energy of this article. I don’t actually know what I think about this issue because I don’t yet have the foundation I need to make up my own mind. What I can say is that I feel very suspicious after reading this piece about the way composition as a discipline has been formulated.

In relation to this suspicion around the discipline of composition and its development, what stands out the most, due to my background in the social sciences, is how much it distrusts empirical evidence and research. I don’t yet fully understand why this suspicion exists, besides a vague sense that – just as is the issue in psychology – to quantify the qualitative is quite difficult and apt for error and false positives/negatives. Even as I read the description of some of the methods of researching the effectiveness of the techniques, such as having a group of English teachers read and rate essays, I found myself questioning the generalizability of the findings of the studies. Do I think this difficulty should mean that there should be no use of empirical research? In my lay opinion, no. There has to be some way to test theory and not just create it and assume it works. But again, I only have a surface level understanding of these issues and am open to being educated further on this topic. With that, the mystery of sentence-based rhetoric is complete and I am left casting out a plea to the public to send more information if they have any on the further mystery of composition studies.

Unlike Connors mystery filled essay, Hartwell’s essay is a bit more straightforward, despite the fact that there is yet again little resolution. In Hartwell’s essay, he also picks up the issue of focusing in on the smaller elements and form of writing by exploring the argument around grammar being taught directly as opposed to being taught through practice by trial and error in writing. Hartwell lays out the issues in the field between the anti-grammarians and the grammarians and why each interprets the evidence available on teaching grammar in ways that serve their purposes. The issues he focuses in on to explore this topic are a) how to define grammar, b) how to get at the real issue of teaching or not teaching grammar, c) how to understand the findings around studying learning, and d) identifying what theories exist that inform our understanding of language (108). Hartwell then proceeds to explore each of these by breaking down grammar into five distinct definitions and shows how they inform theory development.

I am not going to spend much time discussing Hartwell’s thoughts, but one part of his piece that I want to draw out is that of grammar and the way an understanding of where it comes from can cultivate empathy. I think this part stood out the most to me in terms of a practice of empathy because of the implications of adopting a pedagogy of ‘proper’ grammar. I am currently taking a Linguistics class and it has helped immensely in understanding where language and the rules of language came from and just how arbitrary much of it is. I think having an understanding of the arbitrariness of language opens up the door to see that the way people talk – bad grammar vs good grammar – has nothing to do with their intelligence or worth as a human and that anything that says otherwise is part of larger systems of oppression. Hartwell defines grammar 1 as the rules that we learn when we are babies learning our native language (111). So, though we may not be able to articulate the rules of our language, we can naturally display understanding through our use of our language (111).

This gets tricky because, though English may seem like one language, it has many dialects which results in different understandings of how it should be spoken and how the rules of grammar work. For instance, English in the South will be somewhat different from that of the Midwest. When this comes out in writing in the classroom, and the student is suddenly faced with the more prescriptive rules of a ‘proper’ grammar, there is possibility for prejudice. This isn’t to say that there can’t or shouldn’t be rules for a formal grammar, and that people can write in whatever form they wish in any context; but it does mean that grammar is a tricky subject that can lead to some people being further marginalized because they don’t have the natural grammar of the ‘majority’ – which is often the rich, privileged, and white majority. Therefore, with any development of theory or pedagogy around grammar, I think it is vital to keep the more descriptive understanding of grammar at the forefront of development. These are very simple thoughts on a very complex issue, I know. I don’t have the knowledge to further the conversation at this time, but I do have a sense of the importance of incorporating equity into any further research or conversations about the teaching of grammar, especially if it is a primary marker for success in writing.   

This blog was as sidetracked as my focus on empathy has been in the last weeks. I continue to struggle to know exactly how to apply all that I am learning and where to take it in my own education and career aspirations, but I find that being able to ramble about the thoughts that come to me when I read in these blogs does help to process the information in a big picture way.

Works Cited

Connors, Robert J. “The Erasure of the Sentence.” CCC, vol. 52, no. 1, 2000, pp. 96-128.

Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English, vol. 47, no. 2, 1985, pp. 105-127.

Grammar & Sentences. Important yet Complicated.

The Erasure of the Sentence by: Robert Connors

This article was a little tough to get through, learning about the history of sentences, isn’t my favorite past time I have to admit. “The sentence itself as an element of composition pedagogy is hardly mentioned today outside of textbooks.” Interesting enough when I found out that our readings for this week were about sentences, I immediately thought to myself.. Well that’s new. New in the sense of I don’t really ever remember dissecting a sentence other than in my elementary school days. Although I think having a refresher might have helped me out a lot. I think of sentences as something that were invented right alongside words, and definitions, very old school. To be totally transparent there are still so many times I have to question my own run on sentences and grammar when it specifically comes to my over and under use of commas, to insure that I am actually using sentences properly. Which I am almost positive I am not. Which is kind of interesting because I would consider myself to be a good writer when it comes to story telling. But according to Christensen his beliefs were if you could write a good sentence than you could be a good writer, and I am pretty sure many educators would probably feel the same. I actually respect that he wanted to push his students beyond the standard, he wanted them to take writing and sentences to the next level. I mean, if you are going to believe and teach something why not do it to the highest power.

I honestly can’t argue with, ” In the early 1960s, a few scholars in composition determined to update the ages-old notion that students needed to be able to write good sentences before they could write good essays.” If you take your mind back to when we learned how to structure an essay, it was all about the intro, body paragraphs and followed by our conclusion. However none of that could be complete without full correct sentences. When a teacher would mark up your papers it would usually be about grammar and how your sentence structure was put together. If the sentence wasn’t right, the entire piece wouldn’t make much sense.

Overall this scholarly article for me was a full blown timeline of the history of sentences and the importance of them. Although it didn’t technically break down the structure of a sentence as I assumed it would, it displayed the many criticisms, imitations and rhetoric functions of sentences and how they were developed. I always find it interesting to read through history of things that were around way before I was, and how they became a staple in the writing world.

Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar by: Patrick Hartwell

“The grammar issue, as we will see, is a complicated one. And, perhaps surprisingly, it remains controversial.” Grammar has always been one of the biggest issues when it comes to writing. It seems like no human, or computer software can fully get it right 100% of time. In almost all of my graduate courses it is always brought up that nobody really has the same ideas about grammar. Even a word document will set you up for incorrect corrections only to confuse you even more. (speaking for myself) I have actually heard students and teachers argue with Word about the placement of a comma. Pretty confusing if you ask me. Who is right and who is wrong? are there multiple ways to have correct grammar? If so then why the confusion? Where is the grammar Bible when you need it? Grammar has always made me question myself and my sentences. I have literally have had the same writings looked over by different people who would mark up the grammar in completely different ways, which just in case you were wondering wasn’t very helpful or productive for me, the author.

One of the questions asked in this article that caught my attention was the first one, ” Why is the grammar issue so important? Why has it been the dominant focus of composition research for the last seventy-five years? I thought about this for a minute before I continued to read the possible answers. I wanted to see what my own thoughts on this answer would be, and the first thing that came to my mind was language. In order for everyone to speak the same writing language somethings just have to match, and that would be grammar. The best way I can explain this would be, when writing, there are many different styles, there are many different genres of writing, but over all in my opinion what do all of these styles have in common? Grammar. The grammar has to be correct across the board for the reader to be able to fully understand what they are reading, right? I would think yes. After we learn how to spell and actually combine letters to make words, the next thing is how to formulate a complete sentence, and going along hand in hand with that sentence is the grammar aspect, which for me can be a complicated piece. Mostly because of so many different rules for one little sentence must be followed in order for it to be correct, and understandable to the grammar police.

I found it not so surprising that native English speaking all put together the group of words ” French the young girls four” in the same order which goes as follows ” the four young French girls.” Because we usually see things, like a group of words and automatically rearrange them in our heads to make sense the way we would speak it. Ideally I think that is the same idea when it comes to writing correct grammar in a full sentence, but for some reason it isn’t always that simple. Usually people, and yes native English speaking people get so caught up on the proper way to put something together, and I honestly believe it is because of how they were taught and the inconsistent way it was instructed. Also I can’t leave out practice making perfect, and the lack there of. Example, throughout this article Grammar 1-4 was discussed and explained, and this was the first time me seeing, reading, or hearing these different Grammar rules, so imagine my confusion if I were to attempt to adopt these into my current writing style.

I have to be completely honest when I say after reading this it just confuses me a little more about grammar over all, too many rules and too many different views. And the diagrams, lord help me please. I am curious to see if anyone feels the same or does this make complete perfect sense and I am just behind in life. IF so that’s okay too.