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The Writing Teacher’s Schizophrenia about Teaching Grammar

When it comes to grammar, the discipline of composition is afflicted by a fundamental schizophrenia.

On one hand, a thriving, decades-long tradition of scholarship has portrayed grammar as a pedagogically unhelpful waste of time, when compared with whole-language instruction. Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock document the progression of this tradition, which has both produced a litany of influential scholarship and shaped official NCTE and CCC policy. Richard Connors refers to this phenomenon as “The Erasure of the Sentence” from the professional discourse of composition teachers.

On the other hand, if we look to what actually happens in the classroom, as well as what appears in handbooks and textbooks, we see that the teaching of grammar continues to hold a significant place at all levels of post-secondary composition. I’m not the first person to note this schizophrenia. Brock Haussamen writes that “[G]rammar continues to be taught at all levels, the textbook industry thrives, but the topic is taboo as both a recognized part of the English curriculum and a subject for professional attention” (30).

The mere mention of the term grammar is polarizing. Many teachers have strong opinions about some detail of grammar or usage, and many insist that their unique way of teaching it has enhanced the writing of their students. To others, grammar brings to mind the oppressive image of the drill-sergeant instructor. The fact that the term grammar is in many ways ambiguous only ramps up the tensions. Over a quarter century ago, Patrick Hartwell pointed out that the term grammar can mean many things to many people—rhetorical grammar, pedagogical grammar, generative grammar, grammar for ESL, prescriptive grammar, and so on—an ambiguity that has led to countless misunderstandings. A quarter of a century after Hartwell’s influential article, the grammar debate is beginning to look like the case of the old married couple having the same argument over and over, and each still thinks the argument is about something totally different.

The vacuum of scholarly interest in analysis of grammar has effectively allowed the discourse on grammar instruction to be outsourced to the textbook publishing industry. This is unfortunate, since most textbooks, workbooks, and handbooks that deal with grammar are most notable for their sameness, and for their hesitance to deviate from tradition.

Most teachers lack the expertise to effectively challenge what the textbooks say or construct new pedagogical approaches. Training in grammar is required by few institutions that hire (non-ESL) teachers of writing and few of the graduate programs that produce these teachers provide anything more than a cursory training. Therefore, when they find themselves in the unavoidable position where they must talk about grammar, which is mandated by many course descriptions, most writing teachers can only fall back on definitions they gleaned as undergrads, the tips they picked up in the teachers’ lounge, or what they read (or assign to their own students) in textbooks.