Grammar and Writing-based Instruction

So my previous post unintentionally prefaced this one.

The textbook we’re using for the class I have been blogging for is called Inside Out, and talks about the importance of writing in the classroom, and helps to break down just what those important reasons and skills are that students will learn. In Chapter 1, the authors talk about the importance of grammar in students’ writings. Grammar, though important, is most definitely not the most fun to teach, and especially not to learn. The authors mention how easy it would be to just be able to teach writing as one “whole”, meaning everything would just come at once. But if we teach everything all at once, emphasis is lost on important elements of writing: fluency, grammar, structure, vocabulary, etc. By breaking it down one bit at a time, the students can then master one element at a time. Obviously this has been the practice since the beginning of written-language curricula, so I’m not saying anything new. As someone, though, who really respects and appreciates correct grammar (which in my definition includes spelling, too) I still see severe mistakes in students’ writing–not just grade school students, either, but university students who are in my age group–and it makes me worry a bit about what will happen to those students who don’t quite grasp the importance of the precise placement of a semi-colon or a comma; a capital letter or a dash. What about the differences between a dash and a hyphen?? (The latter question is one that I can tell is definitely going amiss in the classroom. I don’t think that it’s being taught, really, at all!)

Having this question in mind over the last couple weeks while sitting in my field placement at a local high school (we’ll call it…Rydell High…y’know, like from Grease),

which is an English classroom of 10th honors and regular American Literature and 11th grade World Literature, I started to pay more attention to their writing. My teacher

(let’s call her…Miss Lynch . Yup, another Grease reference.)

gives her students lots of writing assignments–the school just, in fact, switched to a writing-based instruction–and I was able to look at their writings. Keep in mind, these are Honors students, so their grammar was pretty phenomenal, but of course not perfect (few of ours is, though). However, last week I was able to read through some free writing they did and turned in for an administrator’s research about teacher qualities and I noticed a lot more students struggling with their grammar when the assignment wasn’t laid out for them in steps like their last assignment I had read.

The first assignment I read of theirs was a short piece about what it means to be American. This was a finely tuned, typed-up piece and from it, they were to choose their favorite line to include in a class-collaborative poem about what “American” means. The activity/project was phenomenal and eye-opening to both the students and to myself. I think ‘Miss Lynch’ knew generally what to expect from it. However, in the process of choosing these first lines, I was asked to help students narrow down their decisions. It was at this point I was able to read some of their work, and I noticed some over-excessive comma-usage and a few tense disagreements, but other than some small errors in mechanics, what stood out to me more was misspellings. By 10th grade, there are certain things that students, I would think, are almost masters at. Spelling pluralities of singular words definitely should be expected. (For example: tragedy –> tragedies)

So I saw a few of those from a few students…not a huge deal, but something that as a grammar enthusiast and an English teacher, I catch quickly and hang on to it until it’s fixed. However, when I pointed it out to Miss Lynch, especially after this student attempted to correct his classmate’s use of the wrong form of “there, their, or they’re” (and even though his correction was, in fact, correct), she simply shrugged and told me

“Yeah…that happens…”

This kind of threw me off-guard until the following Tuesday in another of my Education classes when my professor, Jodi, said something that tied it all together for me. She talked about her 9 year-old daughter coming home with misspellings in her work from school. She explained to us (specifically the English majors in the room who cringed at hearing that she spelled words like “grandma” like “Grnma” for a while because she just wasn’t hearing the “a” there) that this was a method of using phonics.  I’ve had a Reading Specialist class before, and knew what learning phonics does for students (in fact, I learned phonics in elementary school), but I still didn’t understand until she said “for some teachers it’s more important for the student to hear the sounds of the word and learn the spelling, than memorize and never know why they sound like that.”

I guess the same goes for grammar. If a student over-uses a comma…well…at least we know he/she knows that there is a short pause where the unnecessary comma is placed. If there are tense disagreements…well…at least the correct word is there, and that gives us, as the teachers, something to point out to them. It took me a LONG time to rid my writing of tense differences. It took a teacher pointing it out to me and working with me to understand what I was doing wrong. That’s where we come in.

As long as the students have the basics down, all we can do is tweak and constructively critique until they understand on their own.

This critiquing and individual attention not only helps students’ understand grammar, mechanics, and spelling, but it improves their fluency a little at a time, and it’s the fluency of writing that I think seems most important.