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Applying Grammar

In 9th grade, I was required to take Linguistics as one of my English classes. It was taught by a grammar disciplinarian who lived and breathed grammar, his email address was “grammarstar.” He drilled our class, endlessly, with sentence diagrams, terms, quizzes and tests. I hated it and thus I didn’t do well and couldn’t tell you what a gerund was at the end of the semester. I didn’t care about the class because of how awful the 45 min were each day. The class was as fun as waiting in line at the DMV. It was as specific as the class’s title, only linguistic terminology was taught and we never incorporated what we were being taught into essays, short writing assignments or any other way besides writing a generic sentence and diagramming it. I believe if we had implemented our teacher’s grammatical knowledge into short essays during class, I would have retained the information better because I would be putting it to use. His teaching style had a negative effect on me and I rebelled against the course material.

After that class, through the rest of high school and college, I was never taught grammar again. My writing improved year after year not because of my grammatical knowledge but because of the repetition of writing. Martha Koln’s statement seems accurate in this case, “We teach them terminology in every other field-in science and math and history and geography and computer science and physical education, in literature, and in French. But not in their own language” (Koln 876). It seems like academic institutions assume students know everything about grammar after their early years of education. It’s an assumption that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Grammar courses should be required in college to refresh students so that they don’t lose their grasp on the mechanics of the English language.

Koln says, “The result is a generation (or more) of students who have no language for discussing their language” due to students learning to write by “writing-only writing” and not learning grammatical terms and fundamentals. I agree with this and I could perhaps be classified as member of this group. However, in my opinion, it’s not what you teach but how you teach. If my linguistics teacher had taken a different approach, such as practicing grammar in essays of our choice, maybe I would have enjoyed his class more and wanted to do well.

As I have said before on this blog, balance is the key to good teaching and in teaching grammar this also holds true. Robert J. Connors would agree, “Striking a balance in our teaching between formal and rhetorical considerations is the problem we now face, and it is a delicate one” (Conners 71). It’s difficult to separate the mechanics and rhetoric of grammar and without showing their relationship. They go hand in hand towards learning the foundations of writing. To truly understand grammar one must apply it to their writing rather than learning the basics like memorizing a glossary. I assume doctors become better practitioners when they are seeing a patient and using their learned knowledge in real time. The same can be said here.

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4 Responses

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  1. Guadalupe Bueno says

    I agree on the key of it all being: balance. Assuming that students have been sufficiently exposed to it is not the answer. I believe that grammar has been wrongly mystified as “evil” and a dreaded area of study for students, and its in part because of what you mentioned, the manner in which it is taught. Compromise, and practice can demystify grammar and lead a generation of students who can speak grammar and be as fluent in it as they are with their mother tongues.

  2. Johanna Sanchez says

    Travis I absolutely agree with you when you say that “writing improves not because of grammatical knowledge but because of the repetition of writing”. I was never a great writer in the sense that I sounded all intellectual but I was not the worst. I truly believe that I got better because of the constant practice of writing and reading other people’s writing. I have always told my student’s not to sweat the small stuff in writing because the more they practice the better they will become. The only problem is, will they ever take that advice seriously.

  3. mfox2012 says

    Practice does make prefect. It is very important for teachers to put into practice what they teach by giving assignments that check regularly for understanding, in this case, proper grammar usage. Instead of assuming or hoping that the students are grasping the information.Travis, I agree that, “it’s not what you teach but how you teach.” If the teacher does not have the necessary balance then the students will not respond well to the teacher or the important information given.

    • Victoria Fontana says

      Practice makes perfect… this I agree with as well. Connors writes, “Students failed the Harvard examinations because they had never been asked to do much writing, not because they had failed to grasp their elementary lessons.” The students didn’t have the time to practice. If great lessons are not practiced, they may be easily forgotten. It seems that, for the average person, repeating a task several times in a few different contexts is a successful way to learn a task, and to remember it. I hear from friends who are teachers that the common classroom doesn’t allow for much time to practice a lesson for the amount of time it takes to remember it. This isn’t the magical solution. But if teaching grammar is so important, then a student has to repeat the information. It’s too abstract to hear it just once and be expected to understand it. I would imagine that it should take learning the abstract concepts, applying them in a tactile and practical manner, and finally repeating it several times in different contexts to truly understand it.