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Out with “Teaching Grammar,” in with “Sentence-Level Pedagogies”

February 15, 2013 1 comment
Chalkboard at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

Chalk at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

After many years of thinking, I’ve decided the term “teaching grammar” is problematic. If I could control how English is used, I’d abolish this term from the vocabulary of writing teachers.

Here’s the problem: first, the term “grammar” is in many ways ambiguous, as I’ve discussed at length in this post and this one. It could mean anything from helping students learn to proofread for run-on sentences, to sentence diagramming, to rhetorical style, to teaching students Chomskyan transformational grammar.

If something doesn’t help us disambiguate, each speaker interprets “grammar” however they want. And often times each teacher has a different assumption guiding their interpretation. To most, the most salient interpretation holds that “grammar” means a rigid set of clear-cut prescriptions on the correct structure of English (whatever that means).

Now the common phrase “teaching grammar” carries all these problems, and more. “Teaching grammar” seems to entail the following:

  1. Students lack “grammar.”
  2. Teacher possess “grammar.”
  3. The act of “teaching grammar” is completed when teachers have deposited “grammar” in the minds of their students.

So when we say we’re “teaching grammar,” it seems to suggest we’re operating in some sort of authoritarian, anti-Freirean regime—contrary to what I think most intend. (Interestingly, if we talk about “teaching writing,” I don’t think it carries a parallel set of entailments.)

I propose replacing “teaching grammar” with the less explosive “sentence-level pedagogies.” Why? Because it more accurately captures the meaning I think most intend when they say “teaching grammar.” As a plural, it entails multiple approaches. It defines the domain it encompasses—everything that goes on inside the sentence—from spelling, to syntax, to mechanical correctness, to style.

The rest is left conspicuously vague. And that’s good! “Sentence-level pedagogies” suggests nothing about what the end goal is. It says nothing about the pedagogical methods used to reach the goals. It says nothing about whether our pedagogy is Freireian or the banking method. It practically forces teachers and scholars to clarify the rest.

To be fair, my proposal here will probably prove futile. For one, “sentence-level pedagogies” sounds clunkier. And If I followed my own advice, I’d have to change the change this blog’s URL. I’d also lose traffic from search engines. When I Google “teaching grammar,” I get over 400,000 results, compared with less than 1,000 for “sentence-level pedagogies” and “sentence-level pedagogy” combined.

But more broadly, communities of language users naturally resist schemes to replace one word with another. For a classic example, consider the countless failed attempts to artificially engineer a gender-free replacement for the expression “he or she.” These sorts of proposals only gain traction amongst the highly educated and self-conscious, and rarely for long.[1][2]

I’ll keep campaigning in favor of “sentence-level pedagogies,” but I’m just one teacher in California. In the meantime, I’d be happy just to see teachers and scholars clarifying exactly what they’re talking about when they’re talking about “teaching grammar.”


[1]  John H. McWhorter. 2001. Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution. In Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. 2009. 10th edition. Edited by Paul Escholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. p. 373 – 379.

[2] The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996. p. 172 – 174.

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