Thursday, April 28, 2016

Classroom grammar instruction, fallacy II: teaching grammar rules to native speakers

So what predominates in public school writing instruction is neither:

- useful, explicit grammar instruction that facilitates the understanding of style rules (dangling modifiers, parallel structures), foreign language grammar, and complex sentences in English


-opportunities for implicit learning that come from expert feedback on multiple drafts.

In terms of writing, the results of this are evident in student papers, in written instructions, in promotional materials, and even in published articles.

What keeps most of us complacent about this are two phenomena

1. to some extent, it’s mostly the good writers who recognize bad writing for what it is (keeping the general malaise about the State of Writing in equilibrium)

2. there will always be a decent number of decent, self-taught writers: people who read enough high-quality prose to pick up the conventions; people write intuitively by ear.

It occurs to me that, besides the false choice between part-of-speech drills and peer-editing, there’s a second fallacy afoot. People forgot that, when it comes to native speakers, only certain aspects of grammar need to be taught. No native English speaker needs to be taught how to conjugate English verbs or form the comparatives and superlatives of English adjectives—and yet, I’ve seen this happen.

Self-taught writers aside, what English speakers need to be taught isn’t the syntax of their native language, but how to make active use of that syntax: call it “applied syntax.” One example of applied syntax is identifying and fixing dangling modifiers and un-parallel structures. Another is deploying options like active vs. passive voice (“I was astounded by his tone”), clefting (“what particularly astounded me was his tone”), and inversion (“particularly astounding to me was his tone”) to control emphasis and flow.


Anonymous said...

"people who read enough high-quality prose"

That isn't very many people these days.

Auntie Ann said...

Anon: having two teenagers around and seeing what books sell to kids, it's hard for them to even find high-quality prose. Most of the stuff out today is dreck.

Anonymous said...

@Auntie Ann
"Anon: having two teenagers around and seeing what books sell to kids, it's hard for them to even find high-quality prose. Most of the stuff out today is dreck"

Then they should read classics. I was doing that as a kid over 40 years ago: Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne. Stuff that was old even then.

- Anon

momof4 said...

Agree. The classics are the way to go - and I deliberately seek out old versions, from the used sellers linked to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, because the newer ones have been watered down, both in vocab and in sentence structure. Rosemary Sutcliff's historical novels (young adult) and version of classic legends (juvenile) are great. I was reading Agatha Christie early in ES and later discovered Josephine Tey, Patricia Wentworth,Patricia Moyne, Dorothy Sayers and Ellis Peters - all mysteries and far better-written than most of the modern stuff. Good HS readers can easily handle Tom Clancy - many of my 12yo's teammates were reading his books.

Auntie Ann said...

That's good advice on a family level, and at the moment I'm trying to get the 14 year old into classic science fiction. But on a society level, we need to see better quality writing aimed at our kids. They're not going to pass by Mockingjay or Maze Runner just because the writing is bad, when everyone else is reading them.