[journal entry] on Kolln and Hancock’s “The story of English grammar in United States schools”

October 21, 2007
Journal Entry on Kolln and Hancock’s “The story of English grammar in the United States schools” from English Teaching: Practice and Critique (December 2005, 4.3, 11-31). http://education.waikato.ac.nz/research/files/etpc/files/2005v4n3art1.pdf

This article explains a lot. While at the YVCC Writing Center, I wondered a lot about the place of grammar in the teaching of writing. On one hand, I observed most of the English instructors keeping grammar instruction in their classrooms to a minimum. I heard that the studies showed that teaching grammar didn’t help students’ writing (I’m sure I even heard and read the oft-cited Braddock quote that Kolln and Hancock mention). And I could see the advantages of focusing on actual composing rather than grammar. But, on the other hand, some students begged me to teach some of it to them. And I felt empowered by my own knowledge of grammar (though I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how and where that knowledge had helped my writing beyond the sentence level). So I wasn’t sure what to think.

I agree with Kolln and Hancock that grammar needs to be included in any discussion of the teaching of writing. Of course, it may still be true that some grammar pedagogy may be, in fact, not helpful to students’ writing. But, if not, that just brings up the question, “What grammar teaching is helpful?” And, if not, isn’t the question also, “What grammar teaching is helpful to students’ writing and thinking?” But my questions assume that grammar should always have some place in English studies. But obviously, as Kolln and Hancock point out, that assumption wasn’t shared by many, starting around 1960. Grammar got thrown out like the baby with the bath water.

I can see now, though, how this anti-grammar stance paralleled many other culture-wide changes. I can see how the process movement, how the emphasis on process over product and on the personal over the “standard,” would lead to a de-valuing of grammar (at least in the way it was being taught). The larger post-modern movement seems to have spawned process movements, and the process movements, instead of only emphasizing process, went too far and jettisoned too much to do with product.

But at least seeing the pendulum swing one way gives me a sense of inevitability that grammar will return. It does seem almost incredible, though, how the NCTE and others could have so completely rejected grammar as part of the curriculum. Reading this article, it occurred to me that if we teach students how paragraphs work, if we teach them how essays are structured, how can we stop short and not teach them how sentences work? We want to give students enough knowledge of structure and form to give them options (to meet their own personal preferences as well as rhetorical situations). But we rarely go the next step and give students knowledge of the structure and form of sentences. One difference, of course, is that within sentences, unlike within paragraphs and larger pieces, the structure is more definite, more liable to be presented as unbreakable rules (as prescriptive). But that just raises the question, “How can we best teach sentence grammar?” And I expect the pendulum will swing back, especially with the help of The Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG). It’s grammar “war” now, but I’m hopefully the pendulum is swinging back to discussion on how to teach it, not just whether it should be taught. I hope so, at least.

And even if we don’t have to teach grammar to help students write interesting sentences (since they have a natural grammar, anyway), we do have to teach it to enable those students to punctuate those sentences (since no one learns punctuation naturally). And we have to teach it to enable them to analyze their own and others’ sentences, in order to craft even better sentences later.

And to teach grammar but avoid language-imperialism, I wonder if one idea would simply be to have students examine/diagram sentences from different Englishes, from non-standard not just from standard English to see what the sentences are doing, what’s going on underneath. We want to empower their writing and thinking in whatever English they’re writing in or whatever English they’re analyzing. And that power includes ability to understand and describe (with a meta-language) what’s going on.

Excursus. Another process movement I’m thinking of is process theology. I never thought about it before, but when reading this article, it clicked how much a part of the larger postmodernism process writing pedagogy is. Process theology has become, if not a dominant, a very influential school, too. It emphasizes becoming over being, God as relational instead of authoritarian, God as persuasive rather than coercive over the freedom of human beings, and individual experience as the all-important ingredient in the larger process of reality. Sounds like a rough parallel with process pedagogy which emphasizes process over product, teacher as relational/collaborative instead of authoritarian, teacher as coach rather than knowledge-giver, and students’ self-expression as contributing to society’s improvement. And if there’s any parallel to the jettisoning of grammar, it might be the de-emphasis on the study of biblical languages and/or training in exegesis. In this article, Hancock points out that “general ignorance of grammar allows prescriptivists to impose nonsensical mandates …” (28). It makes me wonder how much that is happening amongst clergy who don’t have a grounding in historical texts or biblical languages: they can be manipulated by nonsensical (e.g., unjust?) doctrines. Finally, though, I don’t think that less language training has weakened Christian faith/spirituality as much as absence of grammar has weakened English studies. The former is not solely text based, while the latter certainly is.

Note to self: see http://education.waikato.ac.nz/research/journal/view.php?view=true&id=10&p=1 for more articles on grammar, especially “Ways of knowing: Writing with grammar in mind” which gets into the role of grammar in the teaching of writing.

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One thought on “[journal entry] on Kolln and Hancock’s “The story of English grammar in United States schools”

  1. One thing students need to understand grammar is the parts of sentences. I have had huge discussions with community college students as to whether “is” is a verb! and whether “love” is a noun. “It’s not a person, place or thing” the student exclaimed indignantly. What we are up against are the rules from elementary schools (which, by the way, used to be called “Grammar Schools”).

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