Teaching Grammar Rhetorically, Part 1

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As an English teacher, I always assumed that the expectation was for me to be a Jack of all trades.  I had to teach reading, writing, speaking, listening, proper classroom behavior, a college-bound student’s mindset, empathy, and life skills–all while incorporating current events, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, textbooks, and technology into instruction.  So, naturally, when faced with the additional task of teaching grammar, something that I had never been explicitly taught in school (but something that always just made sense to me, as a voracious reader and writer), I did what every other English teacher in my position would do.  I handed out worksheets, graded them, gave them back to students, and spent many perplexed hours not understanding why the grammatical errors I had given the students to correct, and which they had done so meticulously on the double-spaced worksheets, were prevalent in their writing.  That is, after all, how you teach grammar, isn’t it?

As it turns out, no, it isn’t.  In The Atlantic‘s “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” Professor Michelle Navarre Cleary cites a study wherein three groups of students were studied for gains in their grammatical skills.  One group received rule-bound instruction, the second received an alternative form of grammatical instruction, and the third received no instruction in grammar.  The three groups had no significant differences between them.  And what’s worse, “both grammar groups emerged with a strong antipathy to English.”  Cleary goes on to advocate grammatical instruction through student writing (not before student writing, as in standalone lessons).  She proposes that “grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones.”

This sentiment was echoed in the Bay Area Writing Project’s Teaching Grammar Rhetorically course I was fortunate enough to experience this past summer.  Taught by the stellar Professor Greta Vollmer of Sonoma State University, I learned how to model proper grammatical instruction for students–by using published authors’ writings as mentor texts and mentor sentences that students could discuss and mimic.  We discussed sentence structure, why we felt it was effective or ineffective, and why.  We write our own sentences that mirrored the sentence structures we saw in published works.

And then, Professor Vollmer did something that opened my eyes forever: she gave us examples of published authors who had broken the most taboo of grammatical rules: run-on sentences and fragments.  These authors had used these “errors” as rhetorical devices; they broke the rules on purpose, and through our class discussions, we realized that the most important message we could give our students was that their writing must be done with purpose.  If they are using run-ons, are they doing it for rhetorical effect?  If not, they must change the sentence.  But if they did use run-ons purposefully, and this effect translates to the reader, then our students were learning and growing as writers.

In the coming weeks, I will post a presentation and materials I have been using to train teachers at the Alameda County Office of Education on teaching grammar rhetorically; and, I will share a compilation of sentences from published writers to use with students as mentor texts.  Stay tuned for more!

-Maria Vlahiotis, Literacy Specialist, ACOE Core Learning

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