Is it okay to teach grammar?

“Yes.  In context.  But since it is a highly individual thing, encourage major offenders to go the Writing Center.

“The 20 Most Common Errors are good to go over, too, before the first paper is turned in.  But really, the Writing Center is the best resource for those students who could really benefit from somebody sitting beside them and talking with them about every stage of the writing process, and all their problems, from grammar to organization to focus, etc.  Plus, it is a resource that will continue to be there for them throughout college, so encourage them to use it.”

“Yes; I teach ‘the 5 BIGGIES of grammar’ and tell my students that these are the mistakes they make, and if they master these, I don’t care about any others. This makes them very happy. I quiz them later, and if they mess up, they can revise in an all-or-nothing bet.”

“Yes, it is OK to teach grammar.  But remember that you cannot teach writing by teaching grammar.  In other words—and despite the way we all sometimes feel—teaching students how to put word and phrases together in grammatically correct sentences will not make them good writers.  Also remember that you cannot teach grammar unless you yourself understand it.  In my ten years of teaching writing, I have determined that the best way to work grammar into the writing classroom is to take grammatically problematic sentences out of the students’ own writing.  I figure out what’s wrong with them—or better, what’s making them rhetorically ineffective—and I put them on an overhead (or project them from the computer or a document projector).  WE THEN READ THE SENTENCES OUT LOUD.  This is key b/c they do not hear grammar/style problems when they write.  Then you can ask them to describe what’s not working grammatically/syntactically.  After that, you need to be able to diagnose the problem (if they have not) and correct it.  Punctuation problems are a little different.  But I do the same thing: pull sentences from their writing, point out the problems, offer solutions.  This method also works well when you’re teaching them to do things like integrate quotations and use transitions b/t paragraphs.”

“Students ask for it; they often say that they feel weak in that area.  So, yes.  When?  When you see a recurring problem.  Not every day, I’d say.  How?  I cut and paste sentences or paragraphs from student papers, and bring them to class as models of successful and problematic grammar usage.  I try to bring several examples of the same grammatical construction.  I don’t identify the student work, and I often mix in work from previous semesters.”

“Grammar counts, of course, but only when a document is about to go live, when it is about to be published.  Up until the very, very, very end of the process, grammar is NOT important.  Grammar, mechanics, punctuation, and spelling are surface matters, like the paint job on a car.  It makes absolutely no sense to spend time and energy polishing the fenders if the car has no engine or no wheels.

“Moreover, since grammar issues are notoriously idiosyncratic, and since finding errors in someone else’s prose is definitely not the same thing as not making errors in your own prose, it makes very little sense to teach grammar in the abstract.  Deal with grammar in the context of the students’ own evolving writing for a major project in the class.  Whole class lessons about grammar, punctuation exercises, and the like have very little carryover to an individual’s ability to avoid making errors in his or her own writing.

“Finally, individualize and piecemeal the instruction.  Remember that grammar is a behavior, a well-worn habit of language.  Habits are very hard to break.  You can’t quit gambling, drinking, and biting your nails all at the same time.  So, when you are looking at grammar issues in a given student’s evolving draft, flag the two or three most egregious kinds of errors only, the two or three kinds of errors that most grate on you as a reader.  Let all the other kinds of error go and don’t even mention them.  Just note the two or three worst kinds.  Keep a record of the student’s name and the errors you have flagged.  On the draft, name these errors.  Explain what they are.  Explain how to fix them.  Point out the relevant section of the handbook.  And let the student know that you will not accept any documents in the future that contain these particular errors, that you will simply turn it back without a grade.  And on the next project, flag the next two or three kinds of errors that most grate on you as a reader.  Repeat the process.  If you can help students to stop making a half dozen grammatical errors in a semester, you are a god.”


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