Philosophy on Teaching Grammar

Confessions of a Former Self-Proclaimed Grammar Nazi

 

When considering my current ideas concerning appropriate approaches to teaching grammar, I find it perhaps most helpful to take a glance at where I began on this quest of self-discovery—which coincidentally only began in January, when I sat down for an 8:00 a.m. class titled “The Teaching of Grammar,” thinking that I already knew all there was to know about the matter.  Right was right, wrong was wrong.  Despite the fact that I find myself disturbed by the mere idea binary constructs such as right and wrong, I didn’t apply this abhorrence to the concept of grammar.  In my mind, there were clearly defined rules that mandated users of the English language to subject to those regulations at all times—regardless of audience or purpose.  It was an extremely difficult mindset to remove myself from, as in my entire educational career I had been instructed with these rules and informed of their supposed rigidity.

It’s necessary to see the dark place from which I’ve emerged to understand how radical my new philosophy concerning educating young generations about the grammatical structure of the English language actually is.  I’ve gone from viewing grammar as being as simplistic as “right” vs. “wrong,” to realizing that the structure of our language does have certain rules, but these are often flexible when it comes to style, audience, and purpose.  Furthermore, if you tell a sixteen year old that they have to ‘learn’ grammar, then chances are they will either tune you out, or let it go in one ear and out the other.  Most teenagers are somewhat rebellious anyway, so adding another set of hard and fast rules that they need to follow is not a smart option.  In my classroom, I plan on teaching grammar as something that is flexible in a way that is fun, encourages making mistakes and highlights the learning process rather than the outcome, while giving students guidance that helps them develop their own knowledge.

In her book Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing, Constance Weaver writes that “teachers do little good and often a great deal of harm by making numerous “corrections” on students’ papers” (7).  I agree with this wholeheartedly (judging by class discussion, so do most of my classmates) and I plan on demonstrating this idea in my classroom.  Seeing a ton of red marks on a paper when you get it back from a teacher is disheartening, and fairly overwhelming.  You either feel like you can’t do it at all, or you get so beleaguered with it all that you don’t even know where to start—so you don’t even try to revise it.  However, if a teacher is patient and understanding enough to realize this (like I plan on being) then they can focus on one or two large grammatical ‘issues’ throughout the paper, and instead of marking everything that they do wrong, only marking these couple of bigger issues.  That way, the student can focus on fixing these without getting so overwhelmed and shutting down to all criticism.

In class we’ve also discussed this idea, and in conjunction with this, we also talked about how students NEVER learn if teachers correct every single mistake on their paper for them.  Instead, I propose that teachers mark the recurring error a couple of times, demonstrate how to fix it, and then put a note with the assignment that explains what the student needs to go through the essay and look for themselves.  If a teacher makes all of the corrections, then the student does not grow—they only jump through hoops to get the grade.  And if this happens, then their writing will never improve.

In my current field experience, my host teacher often asks me to finish grading student writing for her.  The first time I sat down to do this, she gave me explicit instructions to NOT mark everything that they did incorrectly, and instead mark a few of the larger errors, and put a Post-It on the top of the paper letting the student know what mistakes they need to comb their paper for and correct.  Through the course of the semester, I have observed that some of my students who have had troubles with specific grammatical errors have significantly improved upon those.  For example, I had a student who had issues with run-on sentences.  I corrected a few of those mistakes, wrote a note on top of the paper about what he needed to fix, and told him that he could ask myself or his teacher for help if he needed it.  The next paper that I graded for him was much better, as I was not distracted by multiple run-on sentences.  His writing wasn’t “perfect,” but it was progress – something which means much more to me than being able to insert corrections into a revision of a paper.

While I know that given the amount of time in a school year, it is impossible to grade three or four revisions of the same paper per student, I like the idea of allowing my students to revise until they are satisfied with their grade, because I believe that this highlights the learning process over the outcome.  Though I am not a superhero, I think that I would at least like to try to allow my students multiple revisions of a paper in order to get it right and learn something—even if this meant a few sleepless nights.  I could compromise
with this, and assign a fewer number of papers to write in a semester/year, and mandate that students submit at least one revision of the same paper.  I know that some high school students probably won’t do anything aside from the bare minimum, but if I had been given the chance for unlimited paper revisions when I was in high school, then I would have definitely taken advantage of that opportunity.

Another practice that I could make use of is peer editing.  Sometimes, it’s hard to see the mistakes in your own paper, but much easier to see them in someone else’s.  Our brains automatically correct what we write as we read it, because we know what we mean to say.  However, when reading someone else’s paper, errors become much more obvious to us because we have some distance from the project.  We don’t really know what the writer means to say, therefore spotting mistakes becomes a great deal easier.  Furthermore, what we write ALWAYS makes sense in our own heads—run-ons and fragments included.  However, when trying to read someone else’s writing that contains these errors, we recognize them because they don’t make sense to us at all.  I also think that students can learn from peer editing because it does sharpen the eye and ear to error—or at least it as for me.  Peer editing also extends the process of writing itself, and if process is to be stressed over progress, then that would mean that peer editing would be something that is beneficial.

Furthermore, instead of teaching grammar through worksheets and boring things of that nature, I plan on making it fun.  When I was in high school, I was taught grammar using a worksheet series called, “Daily Grammar Practice”—or DGP for short.  What did I learn from this?  It. Was. Awful.  My usage of grammar improved, but I had absolutely no fun getting there.  And I also received grades on these worksheets, so I grew to fear errors—because that meant I would get points taken off.  You might not realize this, but I’m somewhat of a perfectionist, and a grade lower than a 100 makes me feel terribly inadequate.  So, I became afraid of playing with grammar—I did what was safe, and what I knew would please my teachers.  However, if I can get my students to do activities that play around with grammar, and not penalize them for errors by giving them bad grades, then perhaps they will turn in pieces of writing to me that are not only grammatically correct, but also interesting (as opposed to safe and boring).  Teaching my students concepts such as modifiers could be turned into something wildly imaginative and fun.  An idea that I borrowed from a friend of mine was to put two circles on the board.  One would say “adjective” and one would say “adverb.”  I would call out words, and the student in the front of the line would have to use a Nerf gun and shoot a dart into the middle of the circle that corresponded to the correct part of speech.  He did this as a demo in one of my education classes, and even the math majors absolutely loved it.  It proved that grammar can be both instructional and fun—it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Thankfully for my future students, my rigid outlook on grammar has definitely become significantly softer.  Learning doesn’t come from reading red ink marks on a paper, but instead from making errors (as scary as that may be) and learning from them.  Also, I will make grammar fun to learn (though I know that the words “fun” and “grammar” are traditionally only juxtaposed in a sarcastic manner).  Students are going to put effort into what they want to put effort into, and if they’re afraid of failing then all they’ll ever do is write the same, safe, boring, formulaic paper.  However, I will break that mindset from my students, and instead show them that though mistakes can be scary to make, that once they become comfortably acquainted with error their journey to improvement can truly begin.  Simply put, Constance Weaver is correct in saying that the process should be stressed rather than the outcome.  As a teacher, I will demonstrate to my students that they should not be afraid of making a mistake, and I will be there to guide them through the learning process—not do it for them.  After all—when all was said and done, the best teachers that I ever had were ones that made me work hard for the knowledge that I gained, and who showed me that it’s absolutely okay to make a mistake—because in doing so, I just might learn something new.

Works Cited

Weaver, Constance. Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing. Comp. Constance Weaver.           Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2008. Print.

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