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.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Your point about student-teacher ratios in 1650 is one I often think about. It makes a huge difference. And if I knew when I was writing the syllabus how many students I would have in the course I could steer between the "way too much for me to grade" and "way too little for them to learn anything" shoals rather better . I agree with pretty much everything you said. Yes, grammar makes a difference, and some students get really into it and are delighted to understand better how their language works. But it doesn't get people from D-level writing even to a B, and what does get people there is lots of reading, lots of writing, lots of experimenting with words and sentence structure in formats where they're encouraged to experiment rather than penalized for getting things wrong---and yet still get feedback about why an effort may not have worked. This is super labor intensive and also requires a considerable amount of trust between student and teacher, which is hard to develop without the kind of personal contact that you can get in a 1650's situation.

Also yes to everything you said about students with the distractions of jobs, children, aged relatives, housing problems, abusive marriages, friends with any of the same . . . .

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Grr. The "And I knew" sentence was between pointy brackets indicating that it was a rant particular to my university, but the pointy brackets got eaten. Sorry.

delagar said...

That point about trust and allowing students to experiment is a good one. In our current Comp I class, I tell my students I'm not going to correct their grammar, or even look at their grammar, until after midterm -- that I'm only interested in their writing and their ideas.

This seems to help *some*. It doesn't help as much as having six students who I could make read ten times as much would!

Bardiac said...

Thanks for taking up the discussion!

I think there's a time when learning grammar becomes helpful to a writer, but that's usually a time pretty late in development, when a writer learns what, say, an absolute is, and is ready to use one occasionally, the knowledge contributing to the writer's development just at the right time.

Most native speakers speak the grammar of their local idiom pretty darned perfectly by the time they're what, 8? If that local idiom isn't standard academic English, then writing standard academic English will be hard. But they totally know their grammar without necessarily knowing what grammarians name things. They use it perfectly every single day.

Getting stuff in writing is way harder, especially if standard academic English is far from their local usage. And when they're trying to write about intellectually challenging stuff, and using writing to learn that challenging stuff, the basics of standard academic English go to heck.

People who read lots, especially lots written in standard white/academic-ish English, tend to absorb lots of ways of structuring sentences to be effective. They don't need to know what a "noun" is, or what an "appositional" is, because they've read them tons and use them well. (They may need to learn appropriate punctuation for an appositional, even so.)

On the other hand, people who mark papers should darned well know their grammar well, because it sucks being told that a particular sentence is "wrong" when it's actually a perfectly good grammatical structure. And people who think they know more grammar than they do tend to be hyper-corrective. (That's my broad stereotype, probably.)

delagar said...

Yes to all of that!

I didn't "know" grammar before graduate school, but I had read so much that I knew how to use the language really well. On the other hand, I had no idea how to explain to my freshman students why their paragraphs and sentences weren't working -- I didn't have the language to explain why this comma or colon or phrase was wrong, and that one was fine. So learning grammar helped me there.

And yes to the hyper-correction! Holy hell, does that one cause problems at my university / in my town.

Nanani said...

I'd say teaching grammar is extremely useful, but not for the purposes discussed above. Rather, teaching native-language grammar is an important foundation before a student can effectively learn a foreign language - as an adult and not as a child with instinctive language sponge facilities.

You have a hard time learning grammar, and things like how to conjugate French verbs or figure out where the Japanese particles go, if you don't know how the grammar of your native language functions on an intellectual level. Native speaker instinctive grammar is not usually enough.

But teaching English grammar to improve English writing? For native speakers? Nah.

delagar said...

^^ Yes, this is true! When I first tried to learn Latin and Greek (as an undergraduate) it was next to impossible, because I had no understanding of English grammar. What was a participle? What was a gerund? What did the text mean when it told me this verb was in the perfect and that one in the imperfect?

Once I had learned English grammar, much of my trouble went away. (Well, not with the perfect. That had to wait until I studied African-American English Vernacular, which does a great deal with aspect, unlike English. BUT STILL.)

oldnuke said...

I thank my 12th grade English teacher for making me learn to write. We were required to write two 25 page or more papers, on on English literature (ugh) and one on a topic of choice. I think my report on Arthur C. Clarke just met the minimum. My second paper was over 150 pages on my research project, the results of almost three years work with a local chemical engineer. Typed on a manual typewriter (with carbons). No white out corrections. Painful!

He only found one typo in the whole production. I still love to write. Thank you Mr. Anderson!

Now I'm probably one of the few comp sci faculty at my school who correct writing errors on student papers.