8 hours ago
Friday, December 02, 2016
Teaching Students Grammar -- Useful Y/N?
Over at Bardiac's place she wrote a post about strawmanning -- the ridiculous perceptions of what professors do and how we teach (or ought to teach).
In my comment there, I kind of went off on a tangent, orthogonal to Bardiac's original point. That tangent is one I'd like to take up here.
Basically, does teaching our students English grammar help them write better?
I came up in the Louisiana public school system. Our schools were pretty awful. As I frequently tell my students when I don't know something basic, hey, y'all are lucky I can read and write.
So I didn't have any formal knowledge of grammar until I got to graduate school, when I was compelled to take Grammar for Teachers in my first semester. This was because the first semester of the year-long Freshman Comp class at the university in those days was, essentially, a grammar class.
So I was taking grammar -- learning it -- and then going into the classroom and teaching it to freshmen students. This, by the way, is not a good model. I was maybe two days ahead of my students, and often they understood the grammar better than I did. I still remember one kid, when I was trying to teach gerund phrases, raising his hand tentatively and saying, "Ah, miss? Miss? I don't think that's right?"
And me: "Yes! Yes it is!"
It was absolutely wrong, and I had to come in the next class and say so, and then teach it correctly.
But anyway! Did spending an entire semester teaching our freshmen grammar make them better writers?
Not so much, I have to admit. Even if I had been better at teaching grammar at the time, it wouldn't have. I can say this because I am now excellent at teaching grammar -- I teach it every year, for our ENGL 3663 class, required for several of our majors, a class which many of our students love, and many others take even when it isn't required -- and although almost all of them end up learning grammar, knowing that grammar doesn't improve their writing much.
Did learning grammar improve my writing? Well, you know, maybe a little. It helped to know what a misplaced modifier was, or a dangling participle. It helped to understand what an unclear pronoun was, and what parallel structure was. It's nice to be able to explain why we use may in this sort of sentence, and might in that one.
But, frankly, these are all fiddly details. They'll take a student's writing from an A- to an A+. What teaching grammar won't do, ever, is take a student who writes on a D level and move him to the A level, or even the B level.
To do that, we need to teach that student to read, and to think about what he's reading. That student needs to read a lot, and talk about what he's reading, and then he needs to write -- a lot -- about what he's read.
All the grammar exercises in the world, all the lessons about the difference between there/their/they're, none of them will substitute for extensive reading and extensive writing.
tl;dr I'm not opposed to teaching grammar to students. But let's not lie to ourselves. It's not the path to making them better writers.
ETA: Given that the above is true, why then do we teach grammar, instead of having students do a metric fuck-ton of reading, and then another metric fuck-ton of writing?
I don't really have to answer that, do I?
But I will!
The education model in 1650 was about six students per teacher. A professor's ability to give his attention to a student's writing, to coach a student through a course of reading, can be extensive when his teaching load is six students.
Students, moreover, were creatures of absolute leisure. They did nothing except attend university. I mean literally nothing -- other people cooked for them, other people made their beds and washed their dishes, other people did their laundry, and damn sure other people supported them.
Here in 2016, I have, in any given semester, between 100 and 150 students. How much attention do you suppose I am able to give to any one student's writing? I can assign reading, certainly -- and perhaps I can assign one or two papers over that reading. Any more than that, however, and I lose the ability to monitor and respond to the writing.
Further, my students almost all have jobs -- many of them are working full-time. Some of them have children. (I have one student who has four children, including an infant.) Almost of them do their own laundry, maintain their own living spaces, cook their own meals. How much reading and writing are they able to do? I can assign sixteen books, ten short stories, and nine critical articles in a semester, but how many of them will find the time or energy to handle this reading load? Especially if I am requiring extensive writing on all these works?
Grammar, on the other hand -- this is relatively easy to teach. I give lectures, I give homework, I give exams and quizzes. The reading is simple, my grading is simple. Even their learning is (relatively) simple. At the end of the semester, we have accomplished something. Everyone is happy!
True, no one has learned to write better. But never mind that!
Again, tl;dr: we can educate people. But not in an education factory like the one we have here. If we truly wanted an educated population, we'd act like it.