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The Case for Teaching Grammar

While it is true that text is moving from the page to the screen, that does not mean the end or even marginalization of traditional reading and writing. If anything, it means more. And students leaving high school and entering university do not have, for the most part, the necessary skills to make themselves consistently understood in writing. This is not the fault of the social media, as some have claimed. We teach students skills in physical education class so they can play sports; we teach them skills in music class so they can play instruments. But somehow, since “process writing” revolution of the mid 1960s, skills have been seen as an enemy to writing. Without completely abandoning “process writing” instruction, we could teach our elementary and secondary students a few basic grammatical rules that would eliminate a whole galaxy of writing errors.

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It is not often that I get emails and faxes from strangers informing me that I am utterly unqualified to be a university professor and that I am personally responsible for the terrible condition of the English language in the 21st century. It is especially rare to receive such communications at the same time that my inbox is flooded with messages telling me that I am an astute observer of the modern condition.

This tsunami of contradictory correspondence was precipitated by a short interview I did with a journalist who was interested in the impact that social media – texting, blogs, Facebook, Twitter – was having on student writing. I prefaced my comments by pointing out that, first, I am not an expert on the impact of technology on literacy. There are many fine people in faculties of education who do such work. I am, however, interested in the subject and recently co-edited a book of essays on the usefulness of literary criticism to assess such media. Second, I emphasized that as long as I have been teaching – 20 years at a university in B.C. and five before that in the Ontario college system – instructors have been complaining about student writing. So yes, there is a problem with student writing, but no, it has not been caused by social media.

The journalist captured these points, but they seem to have been ignored by everyone who read the article, by the radio reporters who called me up for interviews, and by Maclean’s magazine, which ran a brief excerpt from the piece. These people seem to have come to the article with a set idea: social media is making young people into illiterate, emoticon-addled boobs, and it was brilliant of me to have said so.  At the same time, I was clearly a boob myself because in one quotation, not realizing I was being taped, I used the word “go” to mean “say”. Further, the journalist put an extra comma in one of my sentences, effectively making me an illiterate complaining about illiteracy.

Students leaving high school and entering university do not have, for the most part, the necessary skills to make themselves consistently understood in writing.

I am entirely innocent of that comma error. The journalist – or, oh I don’t know, the editor – should have caught that mistake. I am guilty of using the word “go” to mean “say”, but then I have never tried to speak the way I write. The people I know who do speak in perfect sentences, devoid of colloquialisms or common shortcuts, sound like pompous newscasters. Further, I talk to young people all day, I have young people in my household, and their speech shortcuts have rubbed off on me. Mea culpa. I shall endeavour in the future to speak like Stephen Lewis.

But my slip of the tongue proves a point about writing. Most of our casual speech acts are not recorded and parsed for grammatical exactitude – but writing, by definition, is a recording and is usually divorced from the originator’s tone of voice, gestures, and disposition. Writing stands by itself and must, therefore, be more precise than verbal communication or it risks becoming confusing.  This is the issue that I was trying to get at in my interview. Students leaving high school and entering university do not have, for the most part, the necessary skills to make themselves consistently understood in writing. And so here at Simon Fraser University, all students must take at least two courses that are designated as “writing intensive”. I recently taught one of these courses and found myself having to explain the rules of punctuation to a class of first year students who had just been accepted into what Maclean’s ranks as Canada’s top comprehensive university. These university students had no idea why or how to use a colon, semi-colon, apostrophe, or comma. They tended to guess. The better students guessed more accurately than the others, but they were still guessing. How can that be? How can they have passed through high school without ever being taught simple grammar and punctuation rules?

We teach students skills in physical education class so they can play sports; we teach them skills in music class so they can play instruments. But somehow, since the revolution of ’66, skills have been seen as an enemy to writing.

Well, I was never taught grammar in high school, and I graduated in 1975. What grammar I learned I picked up in Latin class. I didn’t really know the rules of English grammar until I began to teach composition in the Ontario college system. I sat down and memorized the rules so I could teach them to aspiring morticians, fashion models, automotive mechanics, and tool and die makers. In doing so, I discovered something quite surprising: they are easy to teach. Not the fancy stuff, not the subjunctive and past pluperfect, but the basic stuff needed by the majority of people to make themselves clear in a memo or e-mail is really not that hard to grasp or communicate to others. Why not teach it then?

To find out, I contacted a colleague in our Faculty of Education, Dr. Paul Neufeld. He told me that writing in grade school is largely taught through “process”. Students are asked to generate ideas, plan their writing, do the actual writing, get feedback (often from peers), and then “publish”. This is in accord with what my own children experienced in grade school: they regularly produced little “books”. They were charming and creative but, like much of the work my university students are doing, full of grammatical errors.

This “process” method became the standard after a seismic shift in the philosophy of writing instruction. In 1966, at a conference at Dartmouth College, a new pedagogical model that emphasized “personal growth” was proposed and quickly gained popularity.[1] This new model “sought to move the focus of curriculum and instruction away from traditional models of cultural heritage and skills” (emphasis added).[2] Now, I have no problem with moving away from teaching a specific cultural heritage to something much more inclusive; in fact I encourage it. But basic writing skills? How are they a problem? We teach students skills in physical education class so they can play sports; we teach them skills in music class so they can play instruments. But somehow, since the revolution of ’66, skills have been seen as an enemy to writing.

By 1973, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in the U.S. had fallen dramatically; students coming out of the public school system could not write.[3] The editors of the 2007 essay collection Best Practices in Writing Instruction cite studies that show that “the writing of approximately two thirds of students in elementary, middle, and high school [is] below grade-level proficiency. Moreover, one in five first-year college students requires a remedial writing class, and more than half of new college students are unable to write a paper relatively free of errors.”[4] This sort of negative outcome would, in most areas of human endeavour, be taken as empirical evidence of the failure of a technique. Even reading instruction methods have been re-evaluated in response to negative results: in 1987 the state of California passed bills promoting the teaching of whole language reading; reading scores went down disastrously within a few years.[5] The system was reformed with relative speed to produce much better results. But that does not seem to have happened with writing. Even though student writing has been demonstrated again and again to have deteriorated since basic grammatical skills stopped being taught, there is no impetus to go back and reintroduce them. There are thirteen essays in Best Practices in Writing Instruction, a book that tracks the decline of student writing in its introduction, but not one of them is on teaching grammar.

Rather than revisit the decision to abandon the teaching of writing skills, education theorists seem to have moved on to a series of new concerns. The most recent appears to be with alternative or multiple literacies. The argument here is that “the multiplicity of communications channels and increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in the world today call for a much broader view of literacy than portrayed in traditional language-based approaches.”[6] That proposal, made in 1996, has gained more urgency as technology and social media have become more prevalent. Donald J. Leu et al have argued that the Internet and what they call ICTs (information and communication technologies) demand “new literacy skills and strategies.”[7]

Here’s what I suspect will happen if the basics of writing continue to be ignored: not only will students become worse writers than they are now…they will become less adept users of new technologies.

Let us pause here. Yes, text is moving from the page to the screen. Yes, it is easy to incorporate image and video into web pages. But no, that does not mean the end or even marginalization of traditional reading and writing. If anything, it means more. The most popular websites are search engines; after that, they’re sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Wikipedia, sites on which users spend most of their time posting messages (i.e. writing) or reading. Even cellphones are encouraging more reading and writing; some of the most popular novels produced in Japan over the past few years were composed and – originally – transmitted on cell phones.[8] Now, certainly much of the writing being done on those social media is at the level of “U R GR8 ; )[MC1] ”, but that is hardly surprising. Because students haven’t been taught writing skills, they are going to take the most convenient shortcuts that the media interface they’re using allows. In other words, social media are not making young people bad writers; young people are bad writers who happen to be using social media. We are in the middle of an information revolution, and we have not given our students the tools they need to write clearly, tools that even Leu and his fellow researchers are forced to admit are crucial: “Slow readers and writers are challenged within traditional literacies; within the new literacies these individuals will be left far behind.”[9]

Here’s what I suspect will happen if the basics of writing continue to be ignored or are marginalized in favour of “new literacies”: not only will students become worse writers than they are now, requiring universities to spend more of their scant resources to teach them basic skills, they will become less adept users of new technologies. If the pedagogical ideology of our present education system is preventing students from learning simple writing skills, skills that have remained stable for hundreds of years, it will never be able to teach students skills that are evolving in parallel with technology that is changing at a dazzling speed. It will, instead, slow them down. Let us remember that Marc Prensky famously distinguished between digital natives – those young people who have grown up with new technologies – and digital immigrants – older people who have had to learn (or have simply ignored) those technologies. Prensky calls the discontinuity between these two parts of the population so fundamental that it is almost a “singularity” and supports his argument with statistics that may be alarming for the professor of literature: “Today’s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games.”[10] Put another way, reading accounts for 16.1 percent of the time that college students spend communicating in any one day. Of that 16.1 percent, 37 percent is spent reading on the internet or text messaging.[11] While media-savvy instructors can certainly learn about these new technologies, they will always be immigrants, never fully integrating the new technologies into their lives as those who grew up with them have. This process will continue as new technologies proliferate and replace each other.

Instead, let us try an experiment and re-introduce grammar to students at some point in their K-12 experience. I know it won’t be easy; our schools are largely staffed by teachers, like me, who were never taught these basic writing skills themselves in high school or, indeed, at university. This goes a long way to explaining some of problems I’ve had with my children’s teachers over the years (one instructor told my son that the word “the” was an adjective) and a number of school newsletters that I’ve read. So step one is to give the teachers the basic skills they need to teach grammar.

Step two is to carve out a bit of time in the K-12 years to teach those writing skills. I am not calling for the complete abandonment of process-based writing instruction. I really do mean “a bit of time.” This is what needs to be taught: first, that a sentence is a complete thought. Next, that a sentence, which can also be called an independent clause, is different from a dependent clause, which is an incomplete thought. Once students grasp the difference between an independent and a dependent clause, they can tell the difference between a sentence fragment, a run-on sentence, and a comma splice, and they have the basis for understanding the proper use of commas, semicolons, and colons. Six of the most common and confusing writing errors can be clarified by teaching our students two grammatical terms. I know; I’ve done it. Now, explain the proper use of an apostrophe and you will eliminate another whole galaxy of writing errors. Set that as the base minimum and then, if time allows, add some instruction on agreement of verbs and pronouns.

I will leave it to the education experts to decide at what point these skills should be introduced, in grade school or high school. Perhaps we should split the difference and do it in the first year of high school as a sort of rite of passage into the world of adult communication. I’m willing to pick up the fancy stuff at the post-secondary education level, the dangling participles and infelicities of style, if my students show up with the basic skills.  

There are two objections to the teaching of grammar that still have to be addressed. The first, which comes up again and again, is that teaching these “rote” skills stifles the creativity of students. I doubt it. I have seen many high school students become fascinated with musical theory, chess, and sports. Learning the complex skills (and rules) of those activities heightens, rather than diminishes, the students’ creativity. A more serious objection is that teaching traditional writing skills imposes the arbitrary standards of a hegemonic cultural elite on a youthful population who are creating new forms of literacy. Maybe, but it will also give them the tools to critique that hegemony with clarity and precision. And I think that would be GR8 ;).

EN BREF - Bien qu’il soit vrai que le texte se déplace de la page à l’écran, cela n’implique pas la fin ou même la marginalisation de la lecture et de l’écriture conventionnelles. En fait, elles augmenteraient. Pour la plupart, les diplômés du secondaire entreprenant des études supérieures ne possèdent pas les habiletés requises pour que leurs écrits soient toujours bien compris. Les médias sociaux ne sont pas à blâmer, comme d’aucuns le prétendent. Dans les cours d’éducation physique, nous montrons aux élèves des habiletés leur permettant de pratiquer des sports; en musique, nous leur enseignons des techniques pour qu’ils puissent jouer des instruments. Mais depuis la révolution des « processus d’écriture » des années 1960, les habiletés ont, pour une raison ou une autre, été considérées comme nuisant à l’écriture. Sans abandonner l’enseignement des processus d’écriture, nous pourrions enseigner à nos élèves du primaire et du secondaire des règles grammaticales de base qui pourraient éliminer une foule d’erreurs d’écriture.


[1] Martin Nystrand, “The Social and Historical Context for Writing Research,” in Charles A. MacArthur et al, eds., Handbook of Writing Research (New York and London: Guilford P: 2006), 12.

[2] Ibid, 13.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Steve Graham, Charles A. Macarthur and Jill Fitzgerald, eds., Best Practices in Writing Instruction (New York and London: Guilford P, 2007), 3.

[5] Slanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (New York: Viking, 2009), 220.

[6] The New London Group, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” Harvard Educational Review 66, no. 1 (1996): 1.

[7] Donald J. Leu, et al. “Toward a Theory of New Literacies Emerging From the Internet and Other Information and Communication Technologies,” in Robert B. Ruddell and Norman Unrau, eds., Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading, 5th ed. (Newark, DE.: International Reading Association, 2004), 1579.

[8] See the website Textnovel <www.textnovel.com > for a collection of such works.

[9] Leu, 1597.

[10] M. Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” On the Horizon 9, no. 5 (2001): 1

[11] see Richard Emanuel, et al., “How College Students Spend Their Time Communicating,” The International Journal of Listening 22 (2008): 22.