The Grammar Headache

The “Grammar Headache”:  The Vexing Problem of Instruction

Susan Wright

 

Abstract

In the 1990s, college grammar instruction was largely discarded for holistic, content-based instruction.  However, students typically enter college with poor grammatical skills.  Scholarship has encouraged a return to grammar instruction and has highlighted earlier studies that proved methods such as sentence combining effective (e.g. R. J. Conners, 2000; S. A. Myers, 2003).  In this study, I used a pretest and a posttest to determine whether the sentence-combining method could be taught effectively in minimal time.  Between the two tests, I spent a total of 75 minutes between two class periods teaching subordination and parallelism and assigned take-home sentence-combining exercises.  The tests indicated only slight improvement in recognition of appropriate sentence structure, and this result was not statistically significant.  I concluded that I did not allot enough time for effective teaching of grammar.  In future studies, I suggest assigning four to five partial class periods to teaching and modeling grammar and sentence combining and two or more homework assignments.

 

 

Let us be honest.  Most of us composition instructors are bothered by grammatical and syntactical errors, such as our students’ misplaced apostrophes and sentence fragments.  We strive hard to focus on content and organization, to grow “lush foliage,” and even to promote social awareness; yet at the same time, we are bothered by subject-verb agreement and tense changes.  We readily admit that grammar and syntax need to be addressed, but we do not generally condone the “correct every grammatical mistake” approach.  Even after decades of research and exploration, we have no clear ideas on how to address grammar in our first year composition classrooms.  I propose that we reopen The Grammar Question, that is: “How do we effectively and concisely teach grammar without collapsing students’ creativity (and interest)?”

Many methods and theories of grammar and mechanical instruction have been proposed over the last century.  While an exhaustive discussion is not possible, a few bear inspection, especially three variations of sentence combining.  First, let us consider Christensen’s generative rhetoric, which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s.  R. J. Conners (2000) describes generative rhetoric at some length:  “According to Christensen, you could be a good writer if you could learn to write a good sentence.  His pedagogy consisted of short base-level sentences to which students were asked to attach increasingly sophisticated systems of initial and final modifying clauses and phrases” (pg. 99).  Several experiments seemed to prove the effectiveness of this instruction (pgs. 99-100).

A second method of teaching syntax revisited by Conners is imitation, which was also popular in the 1960s and 1970s (pg. 100).  This instructional exercise asks students to first copy complex sentences and then create sentences based on the arrangement of the copied passage.  The practice of imitation is ancient and based on the notion that one learns by studying good models (pg. 101).  Experiments found that imitation was an effective method (pg. 102).  Likewise, a third pedagogy proven to be successful was Chomskian transformational-generative grammar, otherwise known as TG grammar, which combined shorter sentences into longer, more complex ones (pg. 103).

Most important to note about sentence-combining exercises is that “without any grammar instruction at all, [the exercises] could achieve important gains in syntactic maturity for students who used them”—including college students (Conners, 2000, pg. 105-6).  These findings have been reproduced.  In fact, a meta-analysis performed by G. Hillocks, Jr. (1995) undertook a large-scale research synthesis of 73 experiment treatments in order to determine what teaching methods worked best (pg. 219).  Conners’ claim is supported by Hillocks’ findings.  The method of teaching by models produced scores .22 SD above average, while sentence combining produced scores .35 SD above average (pg. 220).  However, a grammar/mechanics focus of instruction produced test scores -0.29 standard deviations below average.  Hillocks interprets the scores in this way:  “Although the [scores suggest] that students studying [traditional] grammar lost ground, they actually made no change” while the “most powerful treatments are sentence combining, scales, and inquiry” (pg. 223).

Therefore, we are left to wonder why no one seems to use these methods today.  The answer, according to Conners, is politics.  Several movements overcame the sentence-combining rage of the 1970s and early 1980s.  One movement was anti-automatism, which argued that the exercises stilted creativity (2000, pg. 114).  Another was anti-formalism, which argued that the exercise separated sentences from their natural context (pg. 110).  Tibbetts, for example, argued that Christensen’s method “is not designed to teach young people how to do the most valuable things any grammar-rhetoric should . . . how to think; how to separate and define issues; how to isolate fallacies; how to make generalizations and value judgments” (Conners, 2000, pg. 111).  One cannot help reacting to the essentialist nature of this counter-argument.  Can we not teach students both grammar and critical thinking?  It is true that we only have a semester, but can we not do combining of our own and achieve both objectives?

Both the anti-automatic and anti-formalist movements, according to Conners, were fueled by fear that the success of sentence-combining pedagogy would “slant the whole evolving discipline of composition studies away from traditional humanistic/rhetorical lines and into the camp of social sciences and psychology” (2000, pg. 118).  If Conners is correct, one is left with the ancient whine of “why can’t we all just get along?”  However, it is most interesting to note Conners’ summation of all the research:  Despite popular belief, no one proved that sentence combining does not work (pg. 119).  This is a troubling conclusion, considering how many students enter freshman composition with little grammatical training.  Even some English majors produce severe errors in their work or cannot speak grammatical jargon.

Sentence combining, however, is only one possible method of grammar instruction.  Meyer, Youga, & Flint-Ferguson (1990) ask the compelling question, “Why should it be necessary to repeat the same instruction year after year?” and answer it with “Traditional grammar instruction is bound to fail because it is given without any realistic context” (pg. 66).  It is an argument with which anti-formalists would likely agree.  Meyer, Youga, & Flint-Ferguson offer a different solution, one that is now the typical advice for composition instructors:  Keep the grammar instruction tied to a specific writing, reading, and speaking context (1990, pg. 66).  They suggest that instead of teaching a grammar unit to our students, we should cover grammatical issues only as they arise within the contexts of other reading and writing assignments.  Furthermore, we should create assignments that flow from reading to writing, then move on to grammar during the proofreading stage (pg. 67).  “Only when they are ready to proofread do we focus their attention on correct grammar,” they argue (pg. 69), and it seems commonsense.  If we focus their attention on grammar during the revision process, we risk shutting down their creativity and their attention to content.  However, if we wait until the proofreading stage, we are likely to spend too little time, too late.  In addition, many Freshmen are already hypersensitive about their grammar, often claiming they have no grammatical skills, and they routinely confuse revision with editing and proofreading.  Many of them seem convinced that their grammar is atrocious, but they have no idea what mistakes they are making.

A middle road may exist, however.  S. A. Myers (2003) suggests a combination of the techniques revisited by Conners with real-life context.  Myers argues that students suffer from “restricted vocabulary in general, unfamiliarity with the vocabulary most specific to writing in particular, and a lack of ‘feel’ or ‘sense’ for how written sentences should ‘sound’” (pg. 611).  Imitation exercises work, then, because “language is stored redundantly” as single words, phrases, and “pre-assembled chunks” (pg. 613).  Students can learn grammar, syntax, and vocabulary by imitating stock academic phrases and collocation, which is described as “words that co-occur” (pg. 614).  Learning these standard phrases is important because “a great deal of grammar at the sentence level is determined by the idiosyncrasies of words” (pg. 615).

Imitation and other older pedagogies like sentence-combining, however, are not the only option for teaching grammar and syntax in this fashion.  Myers also suggests the use of templates.  In this scenario, the teacher models the grammar/syntax example on the board and then has students imitate it by adding ideas from their majors.  For example, Myers provides a conditional:  “‘If students read for pleasure, they learn grammar as well as vocabulary.’”  Students then imitate the sentence.  “A physics student might write, ‘If an object is in motion, it tends to stay in motion’” (2003, pg. 621).  Sentences can also be borrowed from class readings, so students have an even greater context for the example sentence (pg. 622).  The question is how much time is needed to teach through imitation?  How many exercises do we have to assign during the course of the semester in order to make a difference?

The questions are worth exploring.  Earlier research proved the methods work, and yet they were shelved.  Only recently has grammar become a topic of interest again.   The reason for the interest is evident to most instructors:  Many incoming Freshmen have poor grammatical skills, and they admit freely that they did not learn grammar in high school.  They often commit glaring mistakes such as making a word plural by adding an apostrophe-s (e.g. grape’s) or muddle sentences so badly that meaning is impeded.  If college is supposed to prepare students for the work force, one skill students will need is good grammar.  Therefore, we should rethink our teaching of grammar.

Because of past research, we have evidence that methods like imitation and sentence combining work.  Perhaps we should consciously work to find a method to improve our students’ writing—both in content and grammar.  The questions become, then, which method should we choose and how much time will it take out of our current teaching schedules?  After all, many professors feel they cannot cover everything we want to teach in the time given.  We need a concise form of teaching grammar that will not consume all of our class time.  In order to begin answering these questions, I decided to use imitation and sentence combining exercises to teach my students about subordination and parallelism, and I chose to devote two half-periods of class time (75 minutes total) to teaching them.

 

Methods

             First, I administered a pretest to students to determine the students’ prior knowledge concerning subordination and parallelism.  Test questions included samples of sentence fragments, overly subordinated sentences, unparallel sentences, and correct sentences. Students were asked to respond to each sample sentence with correct, incorrect, and I don’t know responses. Test A was used as the pretest and Test B as the posttest (see Appendix A).  Second, I reviewed the answers to the quiz with them and gave them a twenty-minute lesson on subordination and parallelism in which I explained the concepts and discussed examples.  This lesson, which I wanted them to imitate in their homework, included examples such as the following:

 

  • The Morte D’Arthur includes stories about the knights of the Round Table. It was the work of Sir Thomas Malory.
  • The Morte D’Arthur, which was the work of Sir Thomas Malory, includes stories about the knights of the Round Table.  [Uses subordination to explain who or what.]

 

  • While the Supreme Court usually declares efforts to limit the First Amendment unconstitutional, Congress regularly acts to ban forms of speech most citizens find offensive.
  • The Supreme Court usually declares efforts to limit the First Amendment unconstitutional, even though Congress regularly acts to ban forms of speech most people find offensive. [Uses subordination to shift emphasis.]

 

  • The city council is as likely to adopt the measure as vetoing [Wrong.]
  • The city council is as likely to adopt the measure as to veto it.  [Parallel.]

 

After the lesson, I sent them home with sentence combining exercises in which they had to combine two sentences using subordination, simplify sentences that were overly subordinated, and create parallel sentences (see Appendix B).  In the next class, I gathered their homework and gave them a posttest.  Finally, I went over both the answers to the posttest and the homework in class.  I had students write one of their homework sentences on the board, and then I asked them if the sentence was correct or not.  If the sentence was correct, I explained why.  If the sentence was incorrect, I explained why and then corrected it.  [Please note that the pretest, posttest, lesson examples, and grammar exercises came from The Scott Foresman Handbook for Writers, which is edited by M. Hairston, J. Ruszkiewicz, & C. Friend (2004).]

As I read the third drafts of their papers in the following weeks, I took note of whether students seemed to be applying what they’d learned.  I also administered a general class survey that had two questions meant to determine students’ attitudes about grammar.  The questions were as follows:

  1. How much grammar do you think should be taught in Freshman Composition I?

____ none

____ a little (approximately 1 class period and/or 1 assignment)

____ some (appr. 2-3 class periods and/or 2-3 assignments)

____ a lot (4 or more class periods/assignments)

2. How do you think you would learn grammar best?

____Several grammar book exercises read and done on your own

____Imitation of examples provided and explained by the instructor

____Lecture with accompanying book exercises

____Correction of all mistakes on every paper

____Correction of only the worst mistakes on each paper

 

Results

The mean number of correct answers was 5.96 (s.d. = 1.22) for the pretest  and 6.04 (s.d. = 1.07) for the posttest.  Twenty-three students took both the pretest and posttest.  I performed a paired t-test, which revealed a two-tailed P value of 0.7298 and a t value of 0.3363, which is not statistically significant.

In the conferences for their final drafts, I found some students were attempting to use more complex sentences, but I also found that many students still had parallelism mistakes.  When I pointed out the mistake and corrected it, I could see the light bulb go off above their heads:  “Oh, yeah!  So that’s what it means.”

The survey on the last day of class revealed that most students wanted “some” (2-3 class periods) grammar taught in college (M=3.0; n=33), and no one responded that they wished for none.  As for the method preferred, most students indicated they wanted imitation of examples provided and explained by the instructor (M=2.53; n=32).  The least popular method was correction of only the worst mistakes (see figure 1).

Figure 1

The Grammar Headache

n=32

Discussion

The posttest scores showed little improvement in students’ skills of subordination and parallelism; however, the structure of the tests may have complicated my findings.  For example, several students marked correct sentences wrong because of what they perceived as a punctuation error (e.g. number seven on test B reads “Keep quiet.”  Students said it was wrong because it needed an exclamation mark).  In the future, the directions for the quizzes or the examples on the quizzes will be adjusted.

The other major factor in the failure of the experiment was undoubtedly time.  Granted, I was testing for the minimal time needed to teach grammar, but I quite simply found that more time is needed.  In the future, I will try four to five partial class periods spent on grammar, imitation, and in-class sentence combining mixed with two or three take-home sentence combining exercises.  I also suggest writing the homework on the board and going over the sentences in class; my students seemed most helped by this instructional strategy.  However, my method did have one good outcome:  When I found parallelism errors in their third drafts, my students and I now shared the language and background knowledge to discuss the error.

My survey results revealed that students preferred imitation of examples, but it is unknown whether they really understood what that means.  One student who answered imitation wrote beside the question, “Like we did in class today.”  The results also indicated that all 23 students thought grammar should be taught, and most thought 2-3 classes spent on grammar would be best.  I found this surprising, considering how students complain grammar is boring.  Apparently, they want to know grammar even if they do not like it.  Finally, the major lesson learned from the survey was to be explicit in my directions.  For both of my grammar questions, I should have specified to “pick one.”

In the future, I plan to take my own advice:  teach subordination and parallelism over the course of four-five partial classes using more examples, imitation, in-class exercises, and homework.  Likewise, it might be helpful to have students choose sentences from their own papers and practice subordination on them.  Finally, I will attempt to correct the surveys for better clarity and multiple interpretations so I may better measure the students’ improvement.

References

Conners, R.  J.  (2000).  The erasure of the sentence.  CCC,  52 (2), 96-128.

Hairston, M., Ruszkiewicz, J., & Friend, C. (Eds.).  (2004).  The Scott Foresman handbook for writers  (7th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall.

Hillocks, G., Jr.  (1995).  Teaching writing as reflective practice.  New York:  Teachers College Press.

Meyer, J., Youga, J., & Flint-Ferguson, J.  (1990).  Grammar in context:  Why and how.  English Journal  79 (1), 66-70.

Myers, S. A.  (2003).  ReMembering the sentence.  CCC  54 (4), 610-628.

 

 Appendix A:  Pretest & Posttest

Pretest (Test A)

For the eight examples below, identify whether the sentence [or bolded sentence if there is a pair of sentences] is grammatically correct.  Check the line by your answer.

1. The bill died.  Because the President vetoed it.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

2. If credit is easy to get, many people get into debt.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

3. Rainbows can be observed only in the morning or late afternoon.  When the sun is less than forty degrees above the horizon.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

4. Although their book Chicken Soup for the Soul, which spawned a hugely successful series, which has sold millions of copies, was turned down 33 times while they tried to find a publisher, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen did not quit, which suggests the importance of persistence.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

5. It will be a miracle.  If the mail comes on time.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

6. The venerable principal spoke clearly, eloquently, and invariably.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

7. As Franklin once remarked, either we hang together or we hang separately.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

8. Fits perfectly!

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

Posttest (Test B)

For the eight examples below, identify whether the sentence [or bolded sentence if there is a pair of sentences] is grammatically correct.  Check the line by your answer.

1. That I found on the subway.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

2. When we arrived at the canyon, the sun, hidden beneath a thick blanket of clouds, had already risen.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

3. The town decided to ration water.  Since there had been no rain for months.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

4. The film enjoyed a brisk summer box office because it won an Academy Award last March.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

5. An assumption that is held by many people in certain cultures, that people who have college degrees should never have to work with their hands, is often a deterrent to capable young people in those cultures who seek nontraditional careers.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

6. Praised by critics, embraced by common readers, the novel became a best-seller.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

7. Keep quiet.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

8. Smiling takes fewer muscles than to frown.

_____Correct

_____Incorrect

_____I don’t know

Appendix B: Learning to Write Complex Sentences

Exercise 1:

Join the following pairs of sentences by making one of the independent clauses subordinate.

  1. Japan was a powerful and thriving nation early in the seventeenth century.  Its leaders pursued a policy of isolation from the rest of the world.
  2. This policy lasted for more than two centuries.  Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States forced Japan to open itself to trade in 1854.
  3. Many Japanese resented the presence of Europeans and Americans.  They attacked both the foreigners and the rulers called shoguns who had yielded to foreign military pressure.
  4. A rebellion in 1867 deposed the shogun.  The Japanese emperor was restored to power.
  5. The emperor wanted his nation to stand on an equal footing technologically and militarily with the West.  He supported major reforms in government, trade, and education.

Exercise 2:

Rewrite the following sentences to reduce any undue complexity in subordination and in other modification.  If necessary, break longer sentences into shorter ones.

  1. Although for many years scientists believed that there might be another planet on the fringes of the solar system whose gravitational pull influenced the orbit of Uranus, there was no concrete evidence that this additional planet existed, even though astronomers spent decades speculating about its mass, distance form the Earth, and orbital mechanics.
  2. If a mysterious Planet X at the fringes of the solar system is an appealing notion, few scientists take the idea seriously because Voyager 2 provided data that suggested that the mass of Uranus is exactly what it should be if we calculate its orbit accurately.

Exercise 3:

Write a sentence with good parallel structure that incorporates the elements given below.  Here is how one example might work.

Subject:  A football coach:  three actions during a game

Sample Sentence:  Keeping his temper as best he could, the coach paced the sidelines, gnashed his teeth, and tried not to cry during the 66-to-3 drubbing.

  1. A shy guy:  three actions before asking for a date
  2. A senator:  two actions in delivering a speech
  3. A schnauzer:  three actions to get a cookie