What Killed Grammar Instruction?

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1. The preeminence of information over knowledge.

In the classrooms and offices of the modern world, we are putting out ever more information in ever shorter time spans. Grammar attends to those nuances of writing that go beyond basic information to eloquent communication; teachers and students have not had time for in-depth study of the writing craft.

2.The belief that the way to become a better writer is to read more.

There is a misconception that prolific reading leads to good writing. Certainly more reading can make you more familiar with and a better mimic of language, but it cannot teach you how to craft language to a desired effect.

3. The belief that teaching the process of writing is more important than the craft of writing.

If you ask any high school student what process they should use to write an essay, he or she will respond with something along the lines of brainstorm, organize, pre-write, draft, revise, and edit. However if you ask the same student what the purpose is of a participial phrase, he or she will be hard-pressed to give an answer. Because it is easier for students to master, teachers have focused instruction on the process of writing rather than teaching the more difficult and subjective craft of writing.

4. The grammar-elite browbeat the grammar-uninitiated with smug corrections.

Grammar gurus seem to focus on the most irrelevant points of usage and mechanics as if all meaningful communication is destroyed if the pronoun, each, is matched with the plural form. Focusing on these issues rather than the application of grammar to improve writing simply discourages students and teachers from serious study of the language.

5. Grammar textbooks are written to reside on a shelf not to be studied by writers.

Grammar textbooks are organized around the structure of word groups with the goal being to identify the structure. Conversely, a writer must know how the structure can be used. For example, a writer’s textbook would include all the words, phrases, and clauses that can be used as adjectives in one chapter. Aside from their organization, grammar texts have the added problem of devoting the bulk of their chapters to matters of usage and mechanics rather than grammar which leads to them being referred to only as a last resort in the face of persistent red-ink or squiggly underlines.

6. The belief that modern technology makes language education obsolete.

The advent of word processing with spell check and grammar check has led people to believe that once writing is free of noticeable errors it is good. There is no denying the usefulness of these tools to keep us from making errors in our writing, but they cannot suggest how to transform ideas into sentences that flow well. Another common belief about technology is that written communication is becoming outmoded and will be replaced entirely by audio/visual media. While there is no question that technology has made it very easy to combine writing in a multimedia format, complex ideas are still most effectively and efficiently communicated through writing.

What Will Resuscitate Grammar Instruction?

Grammar instruction will return when teachers and students see the value in teaching and learning the craft of writing. Specifically, that means that good writing will be as important as correct writing. That means that grammar education will not be taught from the lofty perches of arcane rules but from the messy trenches of crafting words to convey thoughts. That means that grammar will be taught as a writer’s toolbox with function as its most important aspect. In summation, that means that the art and beauty of crafting words will return to instruction.

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Posted in Education, grammar, teaching writing

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