Response to Grammar and the Teaching of Writing

By: Elizabeth Tang

“Just as long as you understand what you’re writing down now, you can go back and revise later.” I say this at least once to every student of mine. I always urge them to jot down their ideas while brainstorming in whatever format/language they wish before they forget them. “When students relate that they have ‘nothing to say’ in their writing, the remedy lies not in more grammar instruction but rather in activities such as brainstorming,… which can be… best conducted without recourse to formal grammar” (Noguchi 9).  I find that when I brainstorm, I must have a pen in hand to scribble across a blank page key words and ideas, all of which are later crossed out or renumbered. The resulting map of idea with criss-crosses and arrows becomes one only I can read. Physically holding a pen is the only solution to any writer’s block I encounter. Otherwise, if I brainstorm while typing on a computer, I attempt to get my ideas out in proper grammar. I encounter what Mel Levine refers to in “The Myth of Laziness” as “output failure,” which occurs when “a mind is forced to strain excessively to meet production demands” (Levine 4).  The computer is my mental block. Like Levine points out, students “crave structure” (Levine 114). Every student’s “structure” is different. My map may be illegible to others, but to me, it’s bloody brilliant and makes all the sense in the world.

Regarding structure again, many of my students – even the native speakers – complain that there is no rhyme or reason to the English language. “Frustrated students frequently complain that studying grammar is like studying math” (Noguchi 6), but at least math follows strict formulas with no room for deviation. The English language has an obnoxious degree of exceptions: why does the singular “goose” turn into the plural “geese” when the singular moose” remains “moose” in the plural form? The “structure” of formal grammar unfortunately is quite unstructured. Consider how we word our sentences to place emphasis on particular words or phrases to elicit a certain response from the reader. In math, we must follow order of operations if we are to arrive at the correct answer. In English, though, we can use the active and passive voice to communicate the same message:

“A  bee stung me” and “I was stung by a bee” convey essentially the same idea – in both cases, the reader understands that I had physical contact with the bee, but the first places more blame on the bee because it performs the action of stinging. In this way, the writer connects the dots for his readers to tell them what to think.

Forcing formal grammar rules down students’ throats will not translate into better writing because “people who have acquired knowledge in one domain do not [necessarily] transfer that knowledge, even though it is possible to do so, to other domains” (Noguchi 7). This is why I believe that grammar should be taught and learned naturally. As I mentioned in my response to Curzan’s “Says Who? Teaching and Questioning the Rules of Grammar,” instead of teaching formal grammar rules, I encourage my students to simply read. Our writing should improve over time as we begin to unconsciously mirror the writing style of what we read.

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