Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Teaching Grammar

Posted: May 23, 2013 14:05;
Last Modified: Jun 26, 2016 14:06

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As a supplement to the unessay, Dan asked me to take a quick look at whether or not teaching the formal rules of grammar has any use; Does it improve a student’s writing?

The short answer is an unequivocal no. In the article “Responses to Error: Sentence-Level Error and the Teacher of Basic Writing” Foltz-Gray argues, through a series of studies spanning several decades, that teaching grammar has no positive impact on student writing, and in may cases is detrimental. Below are a few of the studies.

Richard Braddock’s landmark 1963 study for the National Council of Teachers of English, Research in Written Composition, concludes ‘in strong and unqualified terms’ that the teaching of formal grammar “has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on improvement in writing” (19).

Study conducted twenty-years later: “School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice which should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing” (19)

2004 study University of London: “published a review of over 4500 studies on the effect of formal grammar instruction on improvement in the ‘accuracy and quality’ of writing in learners aged 5 to 16. The reviewers found no ‘higher-order’ evidence that formal grammar instruction has a beneficial effect on writing performance” (19).

These studies were done independently of one another, across time, and across space, but they all came to the same conclusion: teaching grammar is unimportant. This is not to say that grammar is unimportant, rather, we understand the rules of grammar intuitively and teaching the rules tends to make us self-aware of things we do quite naturally. But what does all of this have to do with the unessay?

Teaching grammar and the smaller constituents of language is known as “bottom-up writing” (letter-word-sentence-paragraph-essay). The thinking is that a solid base can be built on. We master the basic components of language and then move on to essays. The unessay represents the opposite end of the spectrum: top-down writing which is “the entire essay, not sentences or paragraphs, should be the focus–and starting point–of instruction” (24). This theory assumes that we understand the basics of language because we are exposed to them all of the time. Top-down writing, based on the research, seems to be the more successful of the two approaches.

Interestingly though, there are parts of the unessay that represent a bottom-up approach, making it a sort of as yet underutilized hybrid. The unessay focuses on the whole of the work–an entire paper–but it does not employ the rigid rules of the formal essay. Instead, the unessay allows the writer freedom to explore his/her ideas and form, with the belief that this will eventually liberate him/her when writing a formal essay. Perhaps merging these two styles will be the key to producing consistent, quality writing.

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