Friday, July 30, 2010

Topic: The "G-Word."

10-second review: In a letter to the editor of English Journal, Martha Kolln, a retired Assistant Professor of English at Penn State, criticizes the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) for a long history of discrediting the teaching of grammar.

Title: “It’s Time to Let Go of the ‘Grammar Bogeyman.’ ” Martha Kolln. English Journal (July 2010), 12-13.

Summary: Kolln gives a history of the NCTE’s negative stance toward teaching grammar, going all the way back to 1963’s “…harmful effects” statement in the NCTE publication, Research in Written Composition. She is referring to the pronouncement that there is no reason to teach grammar to improve writing because research study after research study (many admittedly poorly designed) showed that the teaching of grammar has no effect on the improvement of writing. She asks, “Isn’t it time to let go of this grammar bogeyman and use the word in its true meaning, grammar as the structure of language?”

Because the NCTE does not believe that the teaching of grammar improves writing, Ms. Kolln points out that the NCTE is the only professional organization that is against teaching the technical language needed to understand its subject [as in subjects like math and chemistry]. Because of the NCTEs negative attitude toward the teaching of grammar, Ms. Kolln also blames the closing off of the discipline of linguistics in which new approaches to teaching grammar were being developed.

Comments: Ms. Kolln’s letter is in response to a “Call for Manuscripts” seeking articles on the topic “Beyond Grammar: The Richness of the English Language.” Implied in that topic is the belief that teaching English grammar is a sterile exercise and not a part of the richness of the English Language.

Ms. Kolln has been a staunch advocate of maintaining the teaching of English grammar as part of a balanced curriculum for many years. She has been a person of influence in the NCTE. But even she is an example of what happens when an organization’s activists discredit an idea.

I include on the NCTE’s Verboten list phonics, writing process vs. product and the latest whipping boy, the five-paragraph essay which anyone with any sense should recognize as a model of the structure of an expository essay, not a literal limit of five paragraphs. The articles published in NCTE’s publications are all—almost every one—crafted to conform to the “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them” model, or the five-paragraph-essay model, for organizing expository prose.

Oh, and as a model for how to write, don’t tell the NCTE that their “Standards” drafted a few years ago are poorly expressed. Even the New York Times ridiculed the expression of those standards, saying something to the effect that if that’s the best English teachers can do, no wonder our children cannot write.

Someone once asked me, “What does a knowledge of grammar do in writing?” My answer: understanding sentence structure, punctuation and usage enables me to polish my writing—and that, in my opinion, is a big part of the writing process. Polishing prose enables me to entice the reader into beginning to read and to continue reading, uninterrupted, to the end.

At 76 years old, I have been reading NCTE publications, elementary through college, since my first year of high school teaching in 1956. Through the years, the NCTE has done much good in its articles and recommendations. The existence of this blog is an example of how many of the NCTE’s articles are significant. Unfortunately, the NCTE’s insensitivity to ideas with which it disagrees is regrettable. I remember fondly the statement that used to appear in the early publications of the NCTE: all points of view will be welcome.

And then came the activists. RayS.

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