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My Rocky Marriage with Grammar

The grammar discussion is one that I am always scared of.  As an English teacher, I sometimes feel like I am in a relationship with grammar.  I know grammar.  I have grown to
love and respect grammar.  I am committed to teaching my students about proper grammar usage.  But sometimes, after grammar and I are fighting (usually after the 50th or 60th essay I’ve graded) a new, more exciting conversation begins to sneak into my head and I am
tempted.  Sometimes, when grammar frustrates me, I find myself wondering if content is really more important in my students’ writing.  Sometimes, I wonder how it would feel if I could cheat on grammar.  Don’t judge me…it’s not really cheating if it’s just in my thoughts, right?

Robert Connors’(is that apostrophe correct?) article Mechanical Correctness as a Focus in
Composition Instruction
brought up a few key questions that spoke to this issue for me.  First, I appreciated the historical background on the teaching of grammar.  I have grown up and been educated in an era when grammar was always a priority, and its instruction was never to be questioned.  Having a better understanding of how grammar instruction has evolved helps me know why it is that grammar became such a part of our current curricula.

Connors discusses the writing segment of the Harvard entrance exams as an example of how such exams have raised red flags about student knowledge of grammar and since informed instruction to the point where “error free” writing was the measure for “good” writing.  It is no surprise then that with such prestigious institutions putting so much focus on proper grammar that this has trickled down to the high school level.  If Harvard said it was important, then it must be important, right?  But, I worry that this kind of commitment to
grammar is dangerous.  Teachers and students alike can get this tunnel vision that set grammar as the one and only priority in writing, thinking that “good writing” is “error free.”  Perhaps the thought is that is the grammar is not correct, the content will not be effectively conveyed.  However, I’m sure there is plenty of writing that we have seen from our students that was not grammatically perfect, but moving nonetheless.  Should they be
penalized?  Institutions like Harvard and exams like the Regents and SAT say yes.
This is when grammar and I start fighting because I feel like it is being forced upon me and my students without any real reason behind it.  This is where Connors brings up another valid point.  Yes, grammar has its place.  There are standards that have been put into
place to help people express ideas in a clear and effective manner.  However, if all we teach students is the basic rules and they are only tested on these rules is isolated circumstances,
how can we expect them to remember to follow the standard conventions of grammar in every day writing?  Connors says, “Students failed the Harvard entrance exams because they had never been asked to do much writing, not because they failed to grasp their elementary
grammar lessons.”  I think this is right on.  My seniors have learned the proper way to use a comma sometime before they got to my English class, but I cannot hold it against them if they have not been consistently, across content areas, been asked to practice these lessons.

So, I am about to send a group of seniors into the collegiate world with less than perfect grammar.  In September, I was still faithful.  By the December break, grammar and I weren’t
on speaking terms.  At this point in time, I’m seriously considering cheating on grammar.  And, as in any relationship, if there are thoughts of infidelity, then there is obviously something missing in the primary relationship.  Where has grammar failed me?  I guess it was when grammar got too overbearing and demanding and forced my students to sacrifice content for fear of being grammatically correct.  Every relationship needs a little give and take, but sometimes I feel like grammar just doesn’t want to compromise.

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7 Responses

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  1. Rachel Duso says

    Unfortunately, you’re not the only sending students out into a world with less than perfect grammatical skills. I’m a few years younger than you yet grammar was still focused on in school for me and was seen as an important part of writing. Most college professors do not grade grammar or, if they do, it’s not a large part of the grade. I’ve seen professors hand papers back without a grade because it was unreadable. If more importance was placed on grammar at all levels I think students will feel obligated to have to work harder at it.

  2. mobrien says

    During our last class, we discussed grading methods and debated on whether or not it was useful to mark up student papers with red ink. As teachers, we hope this will draw attention to areas of weakness and inspire students to make improvements so that those red marks go away. The down-side to this is that students can get very easily discouraged if they feel like their teacher is just on an error hunt and completely ignoring the content of the work. I sympathize with the student anxieties, as I am a student that feels similarly. However, if what Rachel says is true, that placng more importance on grammar will prompt students to strive for better writing, we would have no choice but to bleed all over the papers with the dreaded red pen. How will they know what improvments to make if they are not being pointed out to students in an obvious way?

  3. Guadalupe Bueno says

    I believe that if a teacher focuses solely on mistakes the student will inevitably be fearsome. This however, is the current practice going on in classrooms, and it’s just in grade school but in college as well. This stems from a distorted view of grammar that has sprung from classroom practices fixated on error free….everything. I think this has a detrimental impact on the students just as on the teacher. Grammar definitely needs to be front-center because with every writing assignment it will play a role on the final grade. A compromise should be made, so that student and teacher will not dread reading red marks or making them respectively.

  4. Johanna Sanchez says

    I agree with you Guadalupe. Students fear grammar because of the emphasis that teachers put on it. I agree that it is essential to use proper grammar in formal writing but what is the big deal if a mistake comes up? I used to fear writing for that same reason. I was afraid to write something wrong and then be criticized and penalized for it. I know that that is the reason revision is there, to pick up those mistakes. When I read my student’s writing, I first look at the content of their writing and try to see if they actually understand the assignments. THEN, i will pinpoint common errors that continually come up in their writing and direct them to the proper usage of whatever the mistake is.

  5. Dana Choit says

    I agree with a number of points made here even though they may somewhat conflict- I think yes, students do need to see what errors have been made in order to understand what needs to be improved upon- as well as what Johanna and Guadalupe have written about fear of a marked up paper (with the need for compromise). This idea of balance and compromise between marking or perhaps over marking student work (creating fear, hatred, etc.) and allowing content to become the stronger focus can come back to what we discussed about revision and the writing as a process. If we show our students that writing is indeed a process, mistakes will be made and writing can be improved upon (no matter how strong a writer you start out as) I think and I hope that this will create less of a stress on teacher’s marking for the student. In addition, teachers may want to first focus on content and then on grammatical and mechanical errors – creating a more processed form of revision that has a separated form of grading and a little less cramped hand. Also, if meaning is altered by grammar this will be able to come forth through the dialogue about the work’s content.

  6. trevor11 says

    It’s funny, the way you describe your relationship with grammar is startlingly appropriate. I think about grammar much the same. I too sometimes am unsure of exactly how well my relationship with grammar is going as when I want to be more flexible I find myself locked into place. Grammar is not flexible it is what it is and it everyone needs it. The unfortunate side to all this is however that in many ways content takes a back seat to grammar. We get fixated on the structure and form and where the apostrophe goes and then forget what the purpose of the piece of writing was to begin with. I wish that grammar was a like a middle school relationship, you know, you were attached at the hip but then someone else on the playground had cuter pigtails so you break up but you never forget how great it was when you were together? But no, its the relationship you have the tail end of high school going into college that continues on and off and results in tumultuous outcomes because grammar just “won’t let go.” womp womp.

  7. johnjparente says

    After taking Edmund Epstein’s grammar class at Queens, I feel like I have a tool in my language arts kit that nobody else has. I learned from that class how grammar can affect the line writing of poets and wordsmiths. The highlight of the course was definitely Epstein’s choices of masterful poetry, served up as shining examples of the very technical grammar he taught.

    He loved to read aloud. He developed codes for each piece of known English grammar. He and a colleague invented and developed their own text in Epstein’s younger years. The course was nothing more than a comprehensive study of that book, which he had reviewed a million times before. I still have the book.

    Epstein taught grammar as an open English elective back when I did the second half of my undergrad here. He also taught my senior seminar class, James Joyce’s Ulysses. He loved poetry and witnessed many a grad student at CUNY QC. He will be remembered fondly and remain a cherished piece of my family’s fabric as my wife also took two undergrad classes with him.

    Thank you Eddie, wherever you are. Rest in peace old friend. – John P.