Giving students the language of language

Katie and I gave a talk at the ATEG conference weekend before last. 

One of the presenters made the point that most anti-grammar advocates don’t actually oppose teaching students grammatical correctness in written English.

What they really oppose is teaching students the names of grammatical concepts. They’re against teaching labels. 

But, she said, when you refuse to teach labels, you deny students the language of language.

To underline the point, she and her co-presenter acted out an extended dialogue in which the only nouns were “thing” or, alternatively, “things.” It was pretty funny. Completely incomprehensible, but funny.

This reminds me of a friend of mine, who was talking about having a hard time, as she gets older, remembering what things are called. It drives her college-age son nuts, she said. 

“It’s not a doohickey, Mom!”

She hears that a lot.

I said He should just be grateful you didn’t say thingamajig.

Or thingamabob, even worse.

Half the time the opposition to teaching knowledge amounts to no more than an opposition to teaching vocabulary.  

I don’t get that.

People learn vocabulary fast. In fact, vocabulary learning is the one area where adult L2 learners excel. (I’ll find a source for that & post…)

All these people lobbying against teaching content …. they seem never to notice that in real life it’s not fun, not knowing the names of things. 

Not knowing, or not remembering. Either one.

One thought on “Giving students the language of language

  1. As one of those who opposes many elements of the way that we currently teach grammar in American schools, it’s probably up to me to comment on this one:

    A knowledge of formal grammar of the language you are speaking or writing is a useful tool in some circumstance. So are a solid understanding of the Pragmatic Sanction, an understanding of the tactical challenges presented by breach loading rifles, an understanding of the decay path and chemical toxicity of Pu-239, the ability to find the second derivative of ArcTan(x), and countless other subjects.

    The question, then, is not whether it’s useful, but whether it’s more useful than other things that could be taught to the same students in the same time.

    The usual argument I’ve seen for teaching formal grammar is that it’s useful for communication, and specifically that it’s useful for formal, written communication. Hearing no objection (8-) ), I’ll address that. (Please let me know if that isn’t a fair characterization; I’m not trying to knock down a straw man here.)

    I assert that grammar is just about the last tool necessary for that task, not the first.

    In my experience, the problems of weak writers, even weak beginner writers, are seldom grammatical. (Ask a linguist how often native speakers exhibit true grammatical errors in speech in their own language.) Much more commonly, you’ll find an infelicitous choice of dialect or register, non-standard punctuation, non-standard spelling for the desired dialect, poor word choice, weak arguments, and uninteresting style … or a violation of the rules of a house stylebook rather than an actual error of any sort. To treat any of those as a grammatical error is to make a category error that will obscure the problem and make correcting it more difficult, not less.

    Each of those sorts of problems should be correctly identified and addressed with the student by discussing the type of error, why it is an error in the type of writing that you’re discussing, and how it should be fixed in the instant case.

    Formal, written, Standard American English is a special-purpose dialect that is useful to know, but it’s not somehow more correct than other dialects. It’s useful enough, frankly, that it should be taught to every child capable of learning it, but using something else is not incorrect, just less useful in some contexts.

    Further, the most common tool of formal grammar, at least when I was in school, was the dreaded sentence diagram. I have never seen a sentence diagram be useful in actual writing, though I’ve definitely seen it be detrimental to the understanding and motivation of students. If you are so unsure of the structure of your sentence that you have to resort to that extreme, you’re at least 10 minutes past the time that you should have recast the thought in a form that is more understandable both to yourself and, more importantly, to the reader.

    And then we get to the labels. What part of speech is “run”? How is it helpful to know that, depending on use, it can be called a noun, verb, or adjective (attributive nouns are adjectives)? In particular, how is that useful to somebody who is already using “run” idiomatically and fluently in all those roles without thought? When you’re trying to correct things that actually inhibit communication, I don’t see much value in discussing the formal definitions of those parts of speech rather than discussing actual writing problems.

    So, when might teaching elements of formal grammar be useful?

    If you’re learning a new language (or dialect), having the words to discuss how your own language differs from the new language can be useful for some people. (Though some people really work best with pure immersion and find that thinking about the grammar as they speak just causes difficulties in fluency.) Knowing, or instance, that AAVE/BVE/Black English has a frequentative verb form that SAE is lacking could in theory be useful to explain why “We be eating chicken” is not the correct choice in a formal context and how you might translate that to a standard form for formal usage. But that would require a knowledge of both languages or dialects that is entirely divorced from at least the kind of grammar teaching that I was exposed to in primary or secondary school.

    And that’s without considering that far too many teachers at all levels teach that a split infinitive or ending a sentences with a preposition (or pick another shibboleth) is an error. Teaching error is far worse than not explicitly teaching. I would be far more willing to support teaching actual grammar if I had more faith in the ability of those charged with that task. But I would still question spending the time and effort on that subject rather than on the infinity of other useful skills.


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