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“Should I Teach Grammar?”

It’s a common question that gets raised in graduate seminars and in teachers’ lounges. But it’s the wrong question to ask. Here’s six reasons why:

First, framing the question this way tends to promote polarized and polarizing reactions. The questions needs to be reframed in a way that allows for the full complexity and range of options that we face as teachers.

Second, the question has already been answered for you. As a writing teacher, you are expected to have something to say about grammar, even if it’s not a centerpiece of your teaching. Many course descriptions mandate some form of teaching about grammar and mechanics, and our students, our institutions, and the public at large all look to writing teachers for answers to their questions about grammar. Does anyone expect that to change?

Third, what exactly does “grammar” mean? Patrick Hartwell raised this issue a quarter century ago. As I discussed in another post, each person seems to take “grammar” to mean something different. To one person, grammar means teaching students the conventions of comma usage, to another it means teaching students to diagram sentences, and to others it means enhancing one’s style for rhetorical effect. If you don’t know what you’re referring to, how can you answer the question?

Fourth, it depends on what your strengths are as a teacher. Some of us are good at leading open-ended discussions, some of us are good at working one-on-one with students, and others of us are good at talking about sentence structure. If you excel at this last category, and you can translate it to a specific improvement in your students’ writing, then why not teach to your strengths?

Fifth, you need to have a sense of who your students are and what their needs are. For instance, my developmental writing students produce prose that contains countless errors with sentence boundaries, including comma-splices, run-ons, and fragments. These errors often trip me up when I read and obscure my understanding in serious ways. It would be negligent of me to ignore this in my teaching and pretend like the problem will correct itself. At the same time, many of my developmental students enter the class without the meta-linguistic vocabulary to allow us talk about grammar issues, which places a substantial limit on how much I can teach them about grammar in a semester.

When I taught advanced undergraduates at a selective university, things couldn’t have been more different. Most of their mechanical errors were minor, and could be quickly corrected by students if I underlined them in drafts and reminded them to proofread. At the same time, these students entered my class with substantial meta-linguistic vocabulary, which could have enabled me to teach them much about grammar. (I chose not to spend much time on grammar beyond what the course description required, because this would have taken away time that I thought would be better spent on other activities.)

Sixth, you need to consider what activities your grammar teaching is taking time away from. I’ve begun to think about the teaching of writing in the following way: the things a student needs to know to be an effective writer far exceed what could reasonably fit into a single-semester (or year-long) course. When we plan our courses, much of what we have to do is make a series of trade-offs and prioritizations, and sadly, many important topics won’t make the cut. In every class I’ve taught, there are countless topics that rank more highly than grammar and mechanics–but never so much so that I decided to entirely drop grammar and mechanics from the course plan.

So the next time you find yourself in the debate of “whether to teach grammar,” consider the issues above and then reframe the question: Given who I am, who my students are, and what my institution requires of me, what should the goals of grammar instruction be? Once you know the goals, what pedagogical methods would best meet them? It’s crucial to separate the goals from the methods. When many people object to “the teaching of grammar,” their objection is often more about the methods than the goals.

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