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Grammar Terminology and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy

For literacy educators, E.D. Hirsch’s dubious yet influential Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1988) is a must-read—partly because Hirsch often gets caricatured in graduate seminars as the stand-in for what Paolo Friere calls the “banking method” of education. But Hirsch also indirectly helps explain a key problem teachers encounter when we teach about grammar and mechanics, a problem which—in this post—I will focus on.

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Hirsch’s thesis holds that the K-12 educational system leaves students with a low level of literacy because it over-emphasizes teaching general skills (word decoding, summarizing, or making text-to-self connections), and it under-emphasizes the importance of familiarizing students with the broad range of background knowledge shared by highly literate Americans; Johnny can’t read, according to Hirch, because he doesn’t understand our cultural symbols.

It’s hardly controversial that background knowledge helps readers more deeply understand a text. What English teacher hasn’t seen a class of students overlook crucial textual allusions to things that most teenagers know nothing about?—things like the filibusters, Sodom and Gomorrah, or Jim Crow. That’s why reading teachers, as part of a venerable pre-reading activity, build and activate students’ schemata.

But Hirsch’s undoing stems from the way the book exemplifies a genre that today seems all too familiar. This genre:

1. starts from the premise that the K-12 education system is failing.

2. focuses not on what students can do, but on what they can’t.

3. takes a glib approach to examining competing pedagogies.

4. presents the author’s prescriptions as a panacea.

When it comes to our sentence-level pedagogies, how are Hirsch’s ideas relevant? He infamously ends his book with a 65-page list of items titled “What Literate Americans Know” —everything from “abominable snowman” (152) to “Zionism” (215). Introducing the list, Hirsch professes that he’s describing and not prescribing, but his list betrays his prejudices, since it includes “a rather full listing of grammatical and rhetorical terms because students and teachers will find them useful for discussing English grammar and style” (146). (Hirsh holds a Ph.D. in English)

Here Hirsch implies that college writing teachers cannot assume all students enter college knowing common grammar terminology. He’s right. But this doesn’t mean our high schools are failing. It’s just an objective fact about our students.

A comparison: I once taught in a community college that served high schools dominated by whole-language instruction. In such contexts, many of my students sat mystified when I first mentioned terms like subject, verb, and preposition. Over time, I learned to presuppose that only one group of students was familiar with common grammatical terms—those with coursework in ESL.  That was in California. Now I’m in Illinois, and things are different: my current writing students mostly tell me that in high school they already learned grammar terminology. Neither high school system is inherently better; each chooses to emphasize different things.

When students enter our classrooms without background knowledge in grammar terminology, it constrains how much we can teach when it comes to sentence-level pedagogies. Conversely, when students bring such knowledge into the classroom, we’re enabled to do more. (And even when they have that background knowledge, their prior teachers may have used differing definitions for the same term, a problem I discuss in another blog post.)

A practical example helps: how do you address subject-verb agreement if most students don’t know what a subject or a verb is—not to mention related terms like noun, suffix, tense, grammatical number, auxiliary verb?

This obstacle certainly can be surmounted. I see two general approaches:

1. The traditional approach: you could start by explicitly teaching students the definitions of subject and verb. When we label the parts with jargon, the jargon makes the discussion easier to follow. But this approach has some pitfalls: it can bore students; grammatical definitions lack inherent sexiness. This also subtracts more instructional time from other topics. And you risk walking down the slippery slope of having to define many more grammatical terms.

2. The inductive approach: the concept of agreement can be taught through intuitive example sentences, while skirting the technical names of the sentence parts and thus saving time. I discuss the advantages of this approach here. The major disadvantage is that students do not acquire knowledge and definitions of grammatical jargon that they can use in the future.

Either way, it’s a trade-off.

My point is this: if you have an ambitious agenda when it comes to sentence-level pedagogies, think carefully about what your students already know. You might need to scale back your ambitions.

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