Grammar is Good!

While I generally resist modern society’s tendency to change things that are so deeply rooted in our history just to make life as easy as possible, I can’t help but agree with much of what Rei Noguchi suggests in the first two chapters of Grammar and the Teaching of Writing.  It would certainly be a severe disadvantage to suggest that grammar has no place as a subject in schools. Grammar informs our way of communicating ideas and messages to one another in a cohesive and cogent manner. However, I do agree that the teaching of grammar should hark more on its place as a writing tool than as an academic subject.  Similar to the concerns of the teachers in Mel Levine’s “The Myth of Lazy”, about students merely memorizing instead of learning,  Noguchi suggests that current methods of teaching grammar as an academic subject seem to only facilitate the memorization of grammatical terms.  When it comes to the actual act of writing, the meaning of the terms is completely lost. In that case, a knowledge of grammatical terms is completely meaningless. In hopes of bridging the gap between grammar instruction and its implementation, Noguchi suggests a new approach to teaching grammar; one that sifts out the less severe aspects of the subject and zeroes in on the guts of formal grammar.

Before Noguchi determines what is and is not most important in formal grammar, he locates the areas where grammar and writing overlap. I first found it problematic for his argument when he states that grammar has no large part in the content of writing, something that I focus most on when I am tutoring students. Noguchi states “Although sentences offer a form…to convey content, a knowledge of sentence structure can offer no help if writers have little, no, or inappropriate content to convey,” (9). Here, it seems Noguchi wants us to understand that a knowledge of grammar will never create a great writer, if the ideas are not there, the paper might as well cease to exist. When he moves the focus to style, however, we see that grammar can aid a writer at any level in being more easily understood. We can question our thoughts on content with style now in mind and wonder, “what is the use of having great ideas if they cannot be understood anyway?” It appears we cannot have a well-written paper if one of these aspects is left out. Thus, if grammar is transferable to the aspect of style, then a knowledge of it continues to have use and is necessary to be learned.

Noguchi delves deeper into the necessity of understanding basic parts of grammar over more specific areas in chapter 2. He introduces the notion that many teachers overlook obvious errors in papers and only mark ones that really hinder their paper’s progress. I find that I do the same thing when I am reading over a student’s papers during tutoring sessions.  If a grammatical error seems to be confusing his or her idea, I will point it out, but when it comes to the nit-picky errors, I leave them at the lowest slot on our list of priorities. I believe that when you focus so much on grammatical errors, you lose what is most important, the student’s voice.  Yes, there needs to be a common knowledge of the basics of proper grammar, but if a misplaced comma seems to hold the same weight as what a student is saying, he or she will feel like their ideas are not as important as they most certainly are.

Ultimately, Noguchi proposes that we teach grammar through the simplistic formula of “sentence vs. non-sentence”. He believes that by breaking down grammar into the simplest means, we can make it more accessible for students to understand.  He asserts that if we avoid large issues, the smaller ones will follow along. Furthermore, in order to facilitate not only an understanding of the basics of formal grammar, but of its place in the act of writing, grammar needs to be taught with some kind of writing involved.  Picking apart sentences is great for memorizing general location, but to prove understanding through the actual act is what will produce most long lasting understanding.  If we practice grammar as a physical exercise, it will become more natural, rather than something that is forced upon us and generally seems to get in the way of our thoughts.

Joanna Kamouh

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