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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Grammar, the Archenemy of Joy?

Why do people assume that sustained instruction in grammar (including sentence parsing) will rob students of joy and do irreparable damage to the soul?

The other day, Dana Goldstein’s article “Why Kids Can’t Write” (accompanied by an ironically distracting animated gif) appeared in the New York Times. She describes the work of Judith C. Hochman, founder of The Writing Revolution, which, according to its website, “brings proven strategies to underserved schools that enable students to improve their writing skills, become better readers, speak more coherently, and elevate their thinking in all content areas”–through extensive and deliberate practice in grammar. Goldstein contrasts this with the freestyle approaches of educators who encourage their students to write without inhibition.

Ms. Wanzer led the students in a freewrite, a popular English class strategy of writing without stopping or judging. First, she read aloud from “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott’s 1995 classic on how to write with voice. “You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind,” the memoirist writes. “Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”

I am easily  annoyed by those who claim that you will “write with voice” when you just “make space” for intuition. Voice comes with practice, maturity, play, concentration, and knowledge. Some writers are more rational than others; moreover, rationality comes in many forms. Beyond that, voice and substance are interrelated. I have found my students writing with voice (and verve and insight) when they had something to write about.

So I was inclined to favor Hochman’s side of this implied debate. But according to Goldstein, Hochman favors giving students worksheets that illustrate and drill a given concept. For instance, they might practice using conjunctions to “add complexity to a thought”:

Fractions are like decimals because they are all parts of wholes. Fractions are like decimals, but they are written differently. Fractions are like decimals, so they can be used interchangeably.

For the first sentence, I prefer “in that” to “because” (which falsely suggests causality). I also see a logical problem with the third sentence (similar things are not always interchangeable, but “so” suggests a logical conclusion). Those quibbles aside, I like what Hochman is doing but believe that it requires some sustained instruction in addition to practice. Accurate use of conjunctions requires not only “strategies” but knowledge. (I don’t know whether such instruction is part of her model.)

It’s the idea of sustained grammar instruction that Goldstein seems to reject. Toward the end of the article, she argues for a synthesis:

All of this points toward a synthesis of the two approaches. In classrooms where practices like freewriting are used without any focus on transcription or punctuation, “the students who struggled didn’t make any progress,” Dr. Troia, the Michigan State professor, said. But when grammar instruction is divorced from the writing process and from rich ideas in literature or science, it becomes “superficial,” he warned.

Earlier in the article, she refers, in passing, to “dull topics like subject-verb agreement,” the “stultifying” grammar lessons in a Catholic school, and the “soul- ing” focus on basics.

Is grammar instruction necessarily loathsome and lethal? First of all, some dullness is perfectly fine in learning. It’s part of the larger picture. I often disliked technical exercises on cello (but knew they were important, and enjoyed them once I could play them well). Dancers spend hours on warmup, technique, and minutiae of a particular performance. It’s delightful to see Sutton Foster in rehearsal of Anything Goes–she seems to be having so much fun–but you can bet your tap shoes that many hours of practice preceded this.

Let there be dullness, then. But beyond that, these exercises–and the instruction accompanying them–have inherent interest. When you diagram a sentence, you come to understand the logical relation between the parts. Combine that with cadence and imagery, and you start to develop a keen sense of writing and speech. Of course you don’t want to diagram every sentence you read or write–but some careful, thorough parsing can carry you a long way.

There’s real satisfaction, for instance, in learning the correct uses of “who” and “whom” in constructions like this:

Please give the scooter to whoever asks for it. Please give the scooter to whomever you choose. Tell me who you are.

I still hear, among educated adults, the hypercorrective use of “whom” (or “whomever”) in sentences like the first one. Parsing makes it all click.

Please give the scooter to (whoever asks for it). Please give the scooter to (whomever you choose). Tell me (who you are).

(I have put the subordinate clause in parentheses and bolded its subject. There’s much more parsing to be done here, of course, but this alone clarifies the who/whom question.)

Some will protest that “research has shown” that grammar is best taught in context, not on its own. (I suspect that the findings are not nearly so general or absolute.) But when you teach it exclusively in context, you lose structure and continuity. Why not do both? Why not have one day a week devoted to grammatical principles, and then reinforce them as they come up? On grammar day, why not study a concept thoroughly, with concentration?

That seems to be the big taboo: concentration. No one in Goldstein’s article seems to favor having students listen, with intense focus, to an intellectually demanding lesson. But without such listening, a student will hit the mark now and miss it later, not knowing which way is right. Through listening, you come to grasp the concept; through practice, you make it fluent and flexible. That can’t be all bad for the soul, or even devoid of glee.

Cartoon from via Pinterest.

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