The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Teaching Grammar By Not Teaching It.

on September 19, 2016

As a reader of many different sources of information, I came across the essay below a couple of weeks ago. Because I was disturbed by it I will not reveal the source or the name of the author. But I will add the comment I originally wrote in response, edited for this blog. I feel justified in editing my comment because of my feelings and my haste in writing it after reading the essay.

The Essay

I’m a novelist and a relatively new teacher of freshman composition (going into my 4th semester). I’ve been searching for effective teaching methods to help my students improve their writing at the sentence level. To give you a sense of the problems I’m trying to address, here are a few sentences from their essays:

Because now in today’s age if it were opposite and it was a group of males in a store shirtless and a male manager walked in he would 9 out of 10 times ignore it and say that they weren’t doing anything stupid or unnecessary, holding women to a different standard.

The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones.

The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.

I’ve read books and articles on integrating grammar instruction into a writing curriculum and have adapted the strategies that seemed most promising. I’ve also invented lessons of my own, including “Recognizing Awkward Sentences” and “Improving Awkward Sentences.” But even students who seemed to get the idea when we practiced usually forgot the lessons when they wrote their essays. And, though it hurts to admit this, very few of my students improved significantly—at the sentence level, at least—by the time they handed in their final essays.

I expect awkwardness in a first draft, in student writing and in my own; but I know that I can clear up most of the problems by going back and revising. That’s the skill I’ve tried to teach my students. So far, I haven’t found a way that works.

Frustration has led me to rethink my search. Instead of trying one teaching strategy after another, I want to find teachers who have gotten better results and ask how they did it.

Have you seen significant improvements in your students’ grammar and style between September and June? If so, would you be willing to share some of your methods? The more specifics you can provide, the better.

I want to encourage my students to think creatively. The challenge is to build their confidence at the same time that we teach them to write graceful, grammatically correct sentences. If you’ve accomplished that, please take the time to explain how.

My Response

I have always believed that the way to learn how to write is to become an avid reader. It worked for me and my children. It worked even better at the elementary and middle schools where I was the principal. I found that it is easy for sensitive readers, without any special effort or specific instruction, to absorb the structure, vocabulary, and grammar of literature, non-fiction, newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, songs, poems, letters, and anything else that is well written.

I first became aware of the power of reading to create good writers when my youngest son wrote a fairy tale in first grade that he named, “The Bat Who Eats Children”.  Actually, his story was a close imitation of “Hansel and Gretel”, added to by what he saw and heard on “Sesame Street,” a television show for children.  He was six years old, but had absorbed the basics of writing a fairy tale, along with sound sentence structure and fairly good spelling from reading on his own and being read to.

Later on, when I was an elementary school principal, I worked with teachers who also understood that reading good writing was the foundation for children to learn the structures of prose and poetry.  One special advantage of using a piece of professional writing as the starting point for your own writing is that you can take as much or as little from a book or a story as you need. For instance, one of the books our teachers frequently chose for young children to read was “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day” by Judith Viorst. After reading and talking about that book, children would be asked to write about a bad day, a good day, a surprising day, a magical day, etc. in their own lives. It was up to each one of them to choose the kind of day he or she wished to describe and to use as much of the the original book structure and language as  needed. Their finished products varied widely, according to their interests, abilities, and experiences, but they always showed some degree of learning about the basics of good writing and correct English grammar.

In addition to fiction, teachers used examples of other types of writing to teach students how to write newspaper articles, poems, greeting cards, advertisements, personal and business letters, and even academic essays. It was not a matter of having students read a piece once and then writing something similar, but of getting them well acquainted with a particular genre and using its basics for support in creating something of their own to fulfill their purpose.

I can’t go on to explain the full range of writing students worked on in this brief(?) comment. What I wish to emphasize is that it is  possible to teach the basics of good writing-along with correct grammatical structures-to students of any age by having them read pieces of high quality professional writing and then use them as the foundation of their own work.















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