On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing: Once Again, the Grammar Debate

In 1971, after years of scrounging and clawing, my parents were able to build their dream home on the largest lot at the new golf course in my home town. This was a redneck working-class vision of what it meant to achieve the American Dream.

As a consequence, I lived on and worked at this golf course (called a “country club” without a speck of irony) throughout my adolescence. Some of my formative moments, then, occurred on the golf course while I was working—including discovering that when a teen has been covertly drinking mini-bottles of liquor for hours virtually every adult can see that in about 2 seconds.

The grass on the course itself was over-seeded a couple times a year, and this required the work of all the employees and many of the club members simply volunteering, including my father.

One fall, I believe, I was told to drive around the old pickup truck used exclusively on the course. I was likely a year or so away from driving legally.

The truck was a 3-speed manual shift on the column and a transmission that worked about as well as you’d imagine for a work truck that never left the fairways of a redneck golf course.

My father hopped in the passenger seat and told me what to do, throwing around terms such as “clutch” as well as all the intricacies of column shifting. I was overwhelmed and terrified.

Within moments, he had me start the truck, and lurch forward, coaching me along the way about using the three pedals and finding the sweat spot for engaging and releasing the clutch (I would drive manual transmission cars with glee well into my late twenties when a broken ankle proved to me the practicality of automatic transmissions).

Soon I was left alone with this beast of a truck to shuttle whatever was needed all over the golf course. Within hours, I was pretty damn proficient despite the rolling berms of the fairways, the steep hills, and the idiosyncratic transmission in this truck well past its prime.

Once again on NCTE’s Connected Community’s Teaching and Learning Forum questions about teaching grammar surfaced, and as I often do, I thought about how we learn to drive cars.

Driving a car and composing are quite similar since they are holistic behaviors that require many seemingly simultaneous decisions performed in some type of “rules” environment (driving within laws and writing within conventions, what people commonly call “grammar” to encompass grammar, mechanics, and usage).

As well, I am convinced that both are best learned by actually doing the whole thing, preferably with an experienced mentor guiding the learning process.

And thus we come to a recurring and powerful question whenever the grammar debate claws its way zombie-like out of the dirt: Do teachers and students need common terminology for the teaching of writing to be effective?

This is a very practical retort to those who caution about isolated direct grammar instruction and a rules-based approach to how language works. It is a very common complaint I hear from teachers of second languages as well.

Let me return for a moment to my adventure in a 3-speed pickup truck. My hearing the term “clutch” did me no good at all in terms of engaging and releasing the clutch and actually maneuvering the truck around the golf course.

In fact, my dad immediately added “the pedal on the left.”

So my first response to the question about the importance of common (grammar) terminology in teaching writing is that we must all step back and critically examine if this is really essential.

My sense gained from teaching writing for over 30 years is that students do not need the technical language that teachers must have and that the terms students should acquire are incredibly few.

None the less, my professional concern as a teacher and a writer is not if students will acquire common terminology (they will and they should), but how and to what extent.

The grammar debate has one aspect in common with the phonics debate: too many see the argument as a yes/no dichotomy (and it isn’t).

So a foundational guiding principle for the role of grammar and common terminology in the teaching of writing is to provide students with the least direct instruction and acquisition of terminology needed for the students to be fully engaged in the whole behavior. And then during that whole behavior, students continue to build their grammatical awareness and technical terminology storehouse.

And that begins to address the how.

I learned to drive the 3-speed truck by driving the truck very badly for an extended amount of time and among a group of experienced drivers who were also incredibly patient and encouraging.

There was no pass/fail, and I never took a test on the parts of the truck or how to drive a 3-speed manual transmission.

Our students need low-stakes and extended opportunities to write by choice while receiving ample feedback from their teacher, who models the writing process and the technical terminology that helps those students learn and improve.

Ultimately, then, when our goal is to foster students as writers, let’s critically interrogate our own assumptions about what students must have to learn to write, and then let’s be vigilant about protecting that goal; in other words, prioritize the time students have to practice the full writing process in low-stakes and supportive environments over time spent on isolated and direct instruction that detracts from that foundational commitment.

I will set aside driving a truck for a final example from my teaching writing. In a first-year writing seminar, I use a text that frames effective writing in broad concepts such as cohesion and clarity.

I assign the text; students read weekly and submit response journals on key points and questions. In class and during writing conferences, I use these terms—cohesion, clarity—but we have no test and I never explicitly say they need these terms that I typically use along with some concept or analogy building on their existing schema (my father adding “pedal on the left” after “clutch”).

Regularly and often throughout the semester, students begin to say “I was trying to work on cohesion like Williams says in our book.”

Teaching writing is not well served by either/or debates, especially when warranted practice is about not if but how.

My students throughout my 18 years teaching high school (in the same redneck town when I grew up) and then at the college level have almost all acquired common terminology in context of what they do without a doubt learn—my writing classroom is about composing, and everything we do is in service to that one essential goal.

Just as the recalcitrant grammar debate spurs in me nostalgia for my formative years gaining the All-American rite of passage, driving, it also pulls me once again to my (abrasive) muse, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant, who confronted in 1953: “It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need.”

In 2017, we stand on the same worn path, and I conclude here by urging us all who teach writing to keep our bearings: “writing is learned by writing,” and anything else we do must not detract from that truism.

Suggested Reading

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writingElementary English, 30(7), 417-420. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41384113

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to writeEnglish Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/808778

Avoiding The Adjective Fallacy

Reclaiming “Direct Instruction”

After I posted two blogs on authentic literacy instruction (see here and here), several readers tripped over my use of the term “direct instruction.”

Before examining the value in that term (and what it means), let me offer a couple of anecdotes.

While I was teaching high school English, a colleague teaching math had a classroom directly across from my room, separated by a court yard. With, I think, equal parts joking and judgment, that teacher used to say often, “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Not unimportant here is the distinct pedagogical differences among math and English teachers—one that I believe we can fairly say is a tension between math teachers being teacher-centered and sequential while English teachers can lean more often toward student-centered and workshop approaches (although my caveat here is that English teachers can be some of the most traditional teachers I have ever met).

In my story above, the math teacher’s comment is an excellent example of the confusion over “direct instruction.” Yes, many people see direct instruction as lecture—thus, mostly if not exclusively teacher-centered with students relatively passive.

For this colleague, my students working in a writing workshop with me responding to drafts, conferencing, and the other purposeful elements of workshopping did not meet her definition of “teaching.”

Another illustrative story involves my daughter.

Her second grade teacher was a colleague of my wife, who teaches PE at the primary school. One day in passing my daughter’s second grade teacher told my wife that my daughter had been doing extremely well on her spelling tests until she began intensive and direct phonics instruction. Since then, she noted, my daughter’s spelling grades had suffered significantly.

This second example represents the ultimate failure of a narrow view of teaching having to be a certain limited type of direct instruction.

Now, when I use the term “direct instruction,” as one person perfectly commented about my blog post, I am addressing purposeful and structured or organized instruction, but I am not using the term as only teacher-centered practices.

To be direct, or purposeful, then, I see teaching as an act with several goals: curricular (including standards and high-stakes tests addressing those standards), disciplinary, and student-centered.

In any given class, teachers must address all three, but pedagogically, teachers often have some degree of autonomy over how to address these goals.

As I champion “direct instruction,” I am cautioning against placing curriculum and discipline above student, but I am also calling for building all instruction on some evidence of need.

Curriculum guides and standards justify a need; the discipline (ELA as literacy, literature, and composition) justifies a need; and students come to all courses with needs.

“Direct instruction,” then, is purposeful and organized teaching targeting one or all of these needs.

As a critical constructivist, I maintain that we must start with allowing students to produce artifacts demonstrating what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are confused about in the context of our curricular and disciplinary obligations.

Direct instruction is simply teaching with purpose to address those needs.

A failed view of direct instruction is grounded in covering the curriculum or the obligations of the discipline regardless of the students in the course.

Teaching algebra sequentially, likely with the textbook determining the structure, in order to document that you taught algebra; teaching a phonics program, again, in order to document that you taught reading—this is the failure of a narrow view of “direct instruction” that supplants the needs of the students with the needs of curriculum and the discipline.

If and when a child is spelling and decoding well, to go over phonics is a waste of time, but also very likely harmful—just as many studies of isolated grammar instruction show students becoming more apt to make “errors” after the instruction.

So here we can begin to unpack that the problem is not with “direct,” but with “isolated.”

The problem is with teaching the discipline, teaching a program, teaching to the standards and/or high-stakes tests instead of teaching students.

I am advocating for direct instruction built primarily on student needs—purposeful and structured lessons designed after gathering evidence of student strengths, weaknesses, and confusions.

And I must stress that my argument here is wonderfully confronted and unpacked by Lisa Delpit, who came to this debate because she recognized the other side of the coin I haven’t addressed yet: so-called student-centered practices that cheat students (mostly our vulnerable populations of students) by misunderstanding the role of direct instruction, by misreading progressive and critical practices as “naturalistic” or unstructured.

Writing and reading workshop are not about giving students free time to read and write; workshops are about time, ownership, and response that is purposeful and structured.

Student-centered practices are not about letting children do whatever the hell they want.

As Delpit has addressed, that isn’t teaching, and it certainly cheats students in similar ways that bullheaded and narrow uses of teacher-centered practices harm students.

If a teacher isn’t guided by needs and grounding class time in purpose, that teacher isn’t teaching.

But until you have a real breathing student in front of you, you cannot predict what that direct (purposeful) instruction will (should) look like.

Ultimately, I believe narrow uses of the term “direct instruction” are designed to shame student-centered and critical educators.

I refuse to play that game because I am directly (purposefully) teaching when I place the needs of my students before but not exclusive of the needs of the curriculum and the discipline.

And, yes, while I also hope someday more teachers can teach while sitting at their desks, I am more concerned about how we can come to embrace teaching as purposeful and structured without reducing it to a technocratic nightmare for both teachers and students.

Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

[W]e should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness.

“Analysis of Cliches and Abstractions,” Lou LaBrant (1949)

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

Henry David Thoreau

Let us start with two writers from the monuments of “great authors”—Chaucer and Shakespeare (like Prince and Madonna, from the land of one-name people). Both Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote with double negatives and double comparatives/superlatives. In their eras, these constructions were emphatic, not breaking some rule of grammar.

Now for context: On the Teaching and Learning Forum of the NCTE Connected Community a battle has been waged (one rivaling Beowulf versus Grendel) over the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

That’s right, while a presidential election is brewing, we teachers of English are hotly debating pronoun/antecedent agreement.

So it is here, as a 30+-year English teacher and teacher of future and current English teachers, I would like to make a stand for descriptive grammar as a compromise for the unrelenting grammar war.

How, I can feel you asking, can taking a side be a compromise? Let me try to explain.

My journey to how I teach grammar, mechanics, and usage has been profoundly informed by the history of the English language and linguists—both of which strongly support a descriptive view of language that recognizes and embraces change.

As well, I am a writer, one who uses the language in the service of my craft, and thus, one who does not work within rules, but through an awareness of conventional usage.

Two key points are worth examining more fully—conventions and awareness.

Language does not function under rules (fixed and prescriptive) but under conventions that are both situational and temporal. Again, read Chaucer or Shakespeare with a keen eye on their usages that became “incorrect,” or peruse Nathaniel Hawthorn’s writing for Olympic gold medal amounts of commas, many of which in our contemporary time would not be used with absolutely no loss of meaning.

Language conventionality, in fact, is a much healthier view of language usage than rules since those conventions are organic, growing out of actual language usage that gravitates toward effective (and even efficient) communication of ideas.

“Why are these homies dissin my girl? Why do they gotta front?” from Weezer reflects the tendency of language to clip—”dissin” for “disrespecting” and “front” for “putting on a front.” Again, Rivers Cuomo and Weezer are representing the exact manipulations of language found in Shakespeare, who is nearly the pinnacle of “authors we worship.”

Next, the key to my argument that a descriptive view of language is a compromise in the grammar war is teaching convention awareness instead of rules acquisition (see Johns for a parallel examination of genre awareness versus genre acquisition).

Taught with a descriptive approach to language (for example, noting that many if not most people use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun), convention awareness addresses both that conventions exist, and often with status marking consequences (see Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context), and that some conventions are in flux (I was taught a rigid distinction between “shall” and “will,” one now defunct with dearly departed “shall,” and contemporary students remain confronted with a similar rigid view of “who” and “whom,” whilst poor “whom” is barely breathing and Hospice surely is on the ready).

In other words, the descriptive view of language acknowledges the prescriptive view, and ultimately renders the student an agent in their use of the language (see what I did there?). However, the prescriptive rules-based approach to language necessarily ignores or marginalizes the much more historically and linguistically sound descriptive view.

I teach my students that pronoun/antecedent agreement remains a status marking usage convention for many in the academic world—highlighting that while common usage of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is increasing, many in academia or formal publishing remain committed to “they” as always plural, noting, however, that many in academia also strongly conform to gender-neutral and gender-sensitive usages of language.

Ultimately, I want my students to recognize that conventions (and especially viewing language through rules) is about power—who decides what for whom (a few short breaths and chest compressions).

For our students to be aware, then, of both descriptive and prescriptive views of language, for those students to gain a recognition that language use is about purpose and choice, bound by situation and audience, is for them to become agents in how their own credibility and authority is viewed.

As a final plea from someone who teaches first-year writing to college students, I want to note that students who have been taught a rules-based view of language are often disillusioned as soon as they see how often professional writers are not conforming to those rules. Like fragments. Those students tend to struggle with gaining their own voices and their own autonomy over language.

In other words, a rules-based view of language tends to erode a student’s appreciation of the beauty and power of language—while teaching convention awareness fosters in students both the moves for and enjoyment in investigating language usage.

Encouraging students to enthusiastically wrestle with language is a goal of our English classes worth fighting for (wink-wink, nod-nod).

So this is my modest proposal, one dedicated to a full and complex appreciation of language usage.

It is also a plea for a much healthier approach to language that understands “they” most certainly will be a gender-neutral singular pronoun soon, just as “whom” is about to join “shall” in the great archaic constructions in the sky.

All that is sure to remain is the language itself, and it is ours to treat it and our students with the kindness and dignity they deserve.

See Also

From Ken Lindblom on the Teaching and Learning Forum:

For more, please see our book, Grammar Rants (includes the introduction for free) or our freely-available English Journal article, “Analyzing Grammar Rants: An Alternative to Traditional Grammar Instruction.” 

Another great resource is Edgar Schuster’s Breaking the Rules.

Students: Do Experts Follow the Rules You’re Taught?, Judith Landrum

Steven Pinker: ‘Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions’

Singular “they” and the many reasons why it’s correct

Here Is Why We Need Transgender Pronouns

The Washington Post will allow singular ‘they’

The Singular “They” — When Pronouns Get Personal

It’s time for gender-free pronouns, Katharine Whitehorn