Sunday, March 2, 2014

The wrong way to communicate about grammar

One of the most popular articles running on the online Atlantic right now (1062 tweets, 111 google plus shares, 57 shares on LinkedIn, and over 16,000 Facebook shares) is entitled The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar. So far, so good. But next comes the subtitle: "No more diagramming sentences: Students learn more from simply writing and reading."

Good writing, as this subtitle suggests, involves more than good grammar. In terms of linguistic factors, it also involves good pragmatics. What good pragmatics does is anticipate what your readers' presumed knowledge and biases are and how these people will therefore read between your lines. And what a good writer does, among other things, is ensure that what readers read between the lines is more or less what s/he intends to convey.

So let's look again at that subtitle. What does "No more diagramming sentences: Students learn more from simply writing and reading" convey? It conveys that a lot of today's teachers are having their students diagram sentences. And, particularly among the majority of readers whose only experience with school grammar (if any) is in labeling parts of speech and in diagramming sentences, it also conveys that teachers should minimize grammar instruction.

But if you know anything about what's happening in classrooms today, you know that sentence diagramming is extremely rare. And if you read the article more closely, you see that minimizing grammar isn't exactly what the writer recommends. Here's how the article opens:

A century of research shows that traditional grammar lessons—those hours spent diagramming sentences and memorizing parts of speech—don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers. Yes, they need to learn grammar, but the old-fashioned way does not work.
"Yes, they need to learn grammar."

Here's more:
Once students get ideas they care about onto the page, they are ready for instruction—including grammar instruction—that will help communicate those ideas. We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones.
Schools that have shifted from traditional “stand-alone” grammar to teaching grammar through writing offer concrete proof that such approaches work.
If 30 years later, you or your child is still being taught grammar independent of actually writing, it is well past time to demand writing instruction that is grounded in research rather than nostalgia.
All this is very true. I've been researching grammar instruction, and, as I've long suspected, traditional grammar goes nowhere. What works, as the study that the article links to makes clear, are exercises in sentence construction. Such exercises, in fact, involve a much deeper and more interactive engagement with grammar and syntax than does traditional "grammar" does--the latter being so linguistically superficial that we linguists regularly deride it. There is, in other words, a big distinction between "traditional grammar" and actual grammar.

Here's something, however, that the Atlantic article doesn't mention, but that another article makes clear: this actual, sentence-focused grammar used to be common practice back in the 1960s and 1970s. Here's an abstract from that article:
Sentence-based pedagogies of the 1960s and 1970s have been completely elided within contemporary composition studies despite the evidence that they did work to improve student writing. Three sentence-based rhetorics of the New Rhetoric were the generative rhetoric of Francis Christensen, imitation exercises, and sentence-combining. The first full-scale empirical study of the Christensen system did demonstrate statistically significant classroom results; imitation was also tested and determined successful in helping writers to internalize sentence structures and design. Kellogg Hunt’s work on syntactic maturity and his concept of the T-unit paved the way for important experiments on sentence-combining, with confident results that sentence-combining exercises improved both syntactic maturity as well as perceived quality of writing in general. Reasons for the erasure of the sentence and the devaluation of sentence rhetorics can be linked to anti-formalism, anti-behaviorism, and anti-empiricism, and to the changing demographics of composition studies as it became a subfield of English.
So a more accurate, if much less catchy, subtitle for the Atlantic article would have been "No more traditional grammar: a more dynamic grammar applied during the actual writing process works better."

One of the reasons the article's actual subtitle is so catchy is that it meshes with what most people want to believe. Most people think grammar is tedious and would prefer students not have to learn it; teachers in particular have long been indoctrinated in the Composition Studies mentality the above excerpt alludes to, which holds that students best learn writing simply by writing.

So could it be that there's another reason for the pragmatics of headlines (and titles and subtitles) than effective, accurate communication? Perhaps the real thinking behind that subtitle was--dare I suggest it?--those tens of thousands of Facebook shares.

We've long lived with sensational headlines, but some are more problematic than others. These particular headlines make the article's most likely takeaway not that we need more grammar-focused instruction (in the sense of actual, sentence-focused grammar), but less. In a world in which Writers Workshop, Balanced Literacy and peer-editing reign supreme, and multiple revisions based on sentence-focused feedback are minimal, this is the exact opposite of what people need to be hearing.


Auntie Ann said...

Another thing to keep in mind is that sentence complexity is often discouraged. "Clarity" is the watch-word, and that is supposed to be achieved through short declarative sentences.

Also, MSWord hates complex sentences and wants everything written like a clipped, to-the-point business letter. Following its grammar recommendations leads to bad writing, and lots of people use the grammar check on there as a guide--and it is often the only feedback they get on their writing.

Sridhar said...

True. In fact, I knew what a noun, verb, preposition, conjuction is but when it comes to writing I don't know how to practically use them.