Before Turning Students into Writers, Teach Them Grammar

Troy Camplin

In a recent lecture I gave on teaching developmental writing, I discussed at length the importance of grammar, of learning the rules of the game in order to play the game well. I equated the job of teaching writing to that of being a basketball coach – someone who teaches the players/writers the rules of the game/grammar and various strategies, with the players/writers finding their individual expression within that well-defined play-space.

My emphasis on learning the rules of grammar resulted in my being asked if I thought students should be taught how to write well, or if they should be taught how to be writers. It was pointed out that it was generally agreed by all who taught composition that students should be taught the latter, not the former, whereas I seemed to be recommending the former.

Teaching the writing process (or teaching students how to be writers) means emphasizing how to come up with ideas, first draft, peer review, revision, and editing; teaching students how to write, on the other hand, emphasizes learning how to write sentences using standard grammar, logical construction of arguments, clarity, rhetoric, and syntax. It might seem that “revision and editing” would include all of the elements of learning how to write, but in fact to the degree that any of these elements are in fact directly taught, they are only given lip service. More likely, the professor will engage in a variety of “interventions,” telling the student he has a fragment or a run-on, but without the student having had any instruction on what a well-constructed sentence actually looks like. We can tell him he has a run-on, but if he doesn’t know what a complex or compound or compound-complex sentence is, he cannot understand how to fix the run-on – or even understand what a run-on really is.

I have taught English composition at both community colleges and universities. I have also taken more than my fair share of writing classes. And the emphasis, no matter what side of the desk I have been on, has always been on learning the writing process, on trying to turn people into writers. This emphasis comes about from the postmodernists’ emphases on process and on diversity. The objection to teaching standard English grammar stems from a belief that when teachers teach standard English grammar, we are taking away from the students how they “really” talk, that we are teaching them to be “inauthentic.” Oddly, this approach to maintaining diversity treats the students as though they are not in a process – receiving an education – that will and should transform them. Thus, deep transformational processes are avoided by emphasizing superficial processes.

So pervasive is this emphasis on teaching the writing process rather than how to write, that it has now reached kindergarten. Somehow, children who have not even learned to read are supposed to learn the writing process. Why? Because the writing process is “higher order” learning. From my experience, this implies that the future is increasingly bleak for students learning writing.

Let us start with the purely practical issue of the fact that the vast majority of our students will never be writers in this sense. Once they leave our classes, they are rarely if ever going to engage in the writing process again. Still, they are going to write, and it seems to me that it is up to us composition professors to try to make them able to write good, clear sentences. To the extent that teaching the writing process helps students do that, it’s more by accident than design. Those who do learn to write good, grammatical sentences do it despite our efforts to turn them into writers.

This is not to say that learning the writing process doesn’t have its place. It does. But the way we teach writing is as a top-down process rather than as a bottom-up process. We want to teach the higher order processes while ignoring the lower order ones, ignoring the fact that you reach higher order processes by building on the lower order ones. We want them to read and analyze texts (without really understanding how to read, without having enough knowledge to do an analysis of anything), show how ideas fit together and create an argument (having never had logic), and write good sentences (without having learned much if any grammar since grade school). In this sense, teaching university composition is much like teaching critical thinking: it is somehow believed that one can teach the process without having to worry in the least about the content. Never mind that it is the content that makes each piece of writing (or thinking) distinct, or even possible.

When professors focus on “higher-level” aspects of writing, it is often at the expense of “lower-level,” foundational aspects, such as grammar. It is as though we think we can build a house without worrying about the foundation. Yes, the façade of the house is important – lovely bricks, trim, painted walls, etc. – but without a good foundation, the walls won’t even stay up for long. Yet most of the time, we are dealing with teaching students the writing process (brainstorming, note-taking, first drafts, workshopping, revision, second drafts, editing, etc.), controlling ideas, details, description, narration, examples, definitions, comparison and contrast, division and classification, processes, cause and effect, argument, style, research, and using and documenting sources. When is there time left to discuss grammar and punctuation? Oftentimes, there is not much time. And not only are professors not encouraged to teach grammar, we are often explicitly told by administrators not to spend much if any time on grammar. They apparently have never heard the story about the man who builds his house upon the sand.

Universities would go a long way in helping improve their students’ writing by requiring students to take a basic logic class that deals with formal logic, comparison and contrast, division and classification, cause and effect, and argument. Then English Composition I could focus almost exclusively on grammar, punctuation, word choice, syntax, and paragraphs, with Composition II focusing on overall essay structure, rhetoric (pathos, logos, and ethos), style, the writing process, and research. I would argue that each college in each university should also have a “writing within the discipline” class that focuses on the specific writing requirements of each specific discipline, the kinds of arguments and controlling ideas used within the discipline, content requirements, research, and using and documenting sources.

For my part, I have already begun to move more toward grammar-based instruction. This is certainly true in my developmental writing classes, but I also see a continued need in my Composition I classes as well. Indeed, when I started teaching grammar, rather than simply marking sentences as “fragment” or “run-on,” I began to see a real difference in how quickly students improved their writing. When students know what a compound, complex, and compound-complex sentence is, they stop writing run-ons. When students know what a subject and a predicate are and what they do in a sentence, they stop writing fragments. When the rules are clearly articulated to them, and when those rules become clearly articulated within their minds, students write better. And as they write better sentences, they get fewer marks on their papers; this encourages the students in their writing, which in turn puts them in the mental state to improve their writing. Some may even become writers.

University composition classes have been emphasizing teaching students how to become writers rather than teaching them how to write well for several decades now. Over that same period, student writing has gotten worse and worse. This is not to say that we should abandon trying to teach students how to become writers; rather, it is to say that that has a time and a place. That time and place is after we have taught them how to write well.

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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