Grammar for Teachers: Attitudes and Aptitudes

By Hoffman, Melvin J. | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Grammar for Teachers: Attitudes and Aptitudes


Hoffman, Melvin J., Academic Exchange Quarterly


This article discusses the role of grammar in educating Secondary English Teachers and Elementary Education Teachers with an English Concentration. The term "grammar" is difficult, with varied referents in varied contexts. Students learn to associate a different number with each of five common, but different, definitions of grammar (Hartwell 1985). They must link one such number to the term's every occurrence in their writing. Students learn grammatical labels to discuss writing and to read descriptions in dictionaries and usage books which employ these terms. Students are taught traditional labels but not with traditional definitions. Students learn to read sentence diagrams but not to draw nor teach them. They learn not to teach grammar separate from writing. The preferred texts for analysis are authentic, not canned, e.g., pupils' or students' writing, speeches, literary passages. Final results in terms of both student attitudes and accomplishments are mixed.

Questions

If grammar returns or remains within Secondary-English curricula--what kind, when, how much, and how effective and interesting? These questions, raised more vigorously recently in English-teaching fora, occupy Secondary-English teachers' attention more than in the past decades. Necessarily then, grammar instruction must also concern those who educate teachers. My colleagues and I teach in a state-supported urban commuter campus. Besides considering current curricula, we also monitor curricular developments with implications for the future. Although our course treats language areas other than grammar, grammar considerations alone will occupy the rest of this presentation. The term "grammar" is difficult, with varied referents in varied contexts. Possibilities for miscommunication when using the term, and terms related to it, has evoked constant commentary. Dates with the names below illustrate how long and how pervasive the problem with language-arts terminology has been.

John S. Kenyon (1948) insisted on the importance of distinguishing public and private uses of Standard English from Standard and non-Standard uses. James B. McMillan (1954) lamented issues present then, ensuing from 19th century failure to distinguish philology, linguistics and rhetoric. W. Nelson Francis also (1954) wrote an article which--among other topics--defined three uses of "grammar." Karl W. Dykema (1961) briefly discussed grammar history from classical to medieval times, providing four separate definitions. Much later, Patrick Hartwell (1985), building upon Francis, distinguished five meanings for grammar, the best known schema among those listed above. More recently, Ed Vavra (2001) posted one issue to the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar's list-serve. Consensus on grammar teaching is greatly hindered by how people differently define the term. Hartwell's definitions are used in the course. Students must associate a Hartwell's number with each use of "grammar" in their essays. Students must show that they know what they mean when they use "grammar." Further, they must identify the term's use by the respective authors whom they cite in their essays.

Students are exposed to Hartwell's five definitions in detail. However, students have trouble grasping definitions which relate to anything but a body of content such as definitions one and five below.

1. Innate rules which people know but cannot consciously explicate, though they know when rules are broken. Pedagogy can most closely approach natural grammar teaching through foreign language immersion techniques.

2. Any modern linguistic theory's explanation of language, particularly syntax.

3. A set of usage prescriptions; what people mean by "good" and "bad" grammar.

4. Any traditional grammar version, a body of knowledge including parts of speech and word group labels; prescriptive and Latinate.

5. Uses of labels from grammar 4 (sometimes with help from 2) descriptively in mini-lessons. …

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