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Grammar to come back to Australian schools
Posted: 08 June 2012 11:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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What I don’t understand is why no one is questioning the study of “grammar” as a cure for poor writing skills. If people can’t write, then teach composition. If you want to teach something other than writing, my vote is for critical thinking skills. I see of lot of poorly written stuff that seems to be based in severly muddled thinking.

In point of fact, I often “write it out” when I’m trying to crystalize my thoughts on a particular subject. It isn’t grammar at work; the desire to express myself clearly forces me to think clearly.

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Posted: 08 June 2012 12:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I agree that composition is what should be taught. The trouble with that is composition classes must be small. It requires lots of practice writing and lots of grading/review by the instructor. You can’t do that in a large class. Therefore, properly taught composition classes are expensive due to the low student-to-teacher ratio.

From my own experience with first and second year university students, they generally don’t have problems with grammar or syntax or writing good sentences. Their problems in writing are 1) in structuring a paragraph and logical arguments; and 2) understanding the existence of and requirements for different registers of writing, notably in our case what’s required for a “good” academic style.

(Actually, I think this last may be where the prescriptivists do the most damage. By insisting on a single “proper” way to write and speak, they run roughshod over the notion that different registers and styles are required in different contexts. Most of my students aren’t cognizant that different registers even exist, only “good” and “bad.")

But I don’t think there is a strong correlation between quality writing and good critical thinking skills. I’ve read a lot of superbly written stuff that is a mess logically. (I read a lot of medieval theology, and while it may be artistically wonderful, it’s filled with absurdities and awash in muddled thinking. Similarly, I’ve seen a lot of good arguments made incoherent by bad writing.

If you’ve got both good writing and critical thinking skills, then writing can help crystallize your thoughts and work out the logical kinks, but only if you’ve already got both.

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Posted: 08 June 2012 05:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Talking about good “grammar” is perfectly fine in general contexts, but when you get down to the specifics of education, one should be precise in one’s usage.

Well it’s not really about “good” grammar, just grammar. As you note, any four year old already knows enough grammar to make complete sentences: what instruction in grammar gives you is the ability to articulate what each part of the sentence is doing, and to describe what is awry with a sentence when it doesn’t suit a certain register, and to understand such a description when given by others. Everyone knows how to catch a ball from a very young age and yet professional teams hire people whose specific job is to help other people catch better.

I agree that teaching composition is more important.

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Posted: 09 June 2012 12:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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I see of lot of poorly written stuff that seems to be based in severly muddled thinking.

From my own experience with first and second year university students, they generally don’t have problems with grammar or syntax or writing good sentences.

With due respect to both your experiences, you’re talking about adults, not children, and you’re probably also talking about the more articulate/assertive/educated.  I see a sizeable proportion of children who can’t write a properly constructed and spelled sentence, don’t know the difference between eg where/we’re/were*, can’t understand properly how sentences should be structured.  This stays with them.  They will probably not ever get to the level of achievement you’re both talking about.

We were all taught basic grammar in primary school.  Every child in my class could write reasonably coherently at age 11, albeit with spelling mistakes (we’re all guilty of those).  I’m not advocating that there should be soul-searching, hand-wringing debates about teaching university-level linguistics to children.  That would be idiotic and pointless.  I am saying that knowing the basic structure of language does help children to understand how to write properly and therefore teaching basic grammar to children is an important educational tool.

*Knowing what part of a sentence each word is would help here.

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Posted: 09 June 2012 03:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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But controlled studies have again and again shown otherwise. Instruction in basic grammar *does not* improve native-language students’ ability to write and speak well. That’s the point.

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Posted: 09 June 2012 05:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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As has been said, spelling errors, proper use of words, and style are not grammar. Having said that, I have always loved grammar; my favorite school memories were diagramming sentences in Mrs. Donahue’s 7th grade class. Math(s) I never mastered, but the calculus of the sentence always intrigued me.

When Johnny Carson’s sixties TV quiz show came on, I delighted in pointing out to friends that it should be “Whom do you trust?” I also confess to correcting folks for not using the predicate nominative. “Just complete the sentence” I would say. “‘It was me who took the garbage’ out sounds wrong.” To which the obvious response is, “I didn’t complete the sentence.” I’ve long ago given up. I just heard a elementary school principal friend of mine say, “Me and Keeley went to a baby shower yesterday.”

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Posted: 09 June 2012 06:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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You can get away with a lot in informal speech and writing but being able to switch between registers will be useful to anyone, and having a basic understanding of grammar will make it easier to learn these differences. It is not easy to explain things such as number agreement to someone who doesn’t know what a verb is.

OPTipping, you and me is in the minority. But when I were a lass, we was learnt grammar and composition, but not together.

As regard to experts and consultants, well…

1. Some theorist (probably someone in government who doesn’t teach and has never taught) wants to make a name for themselves by changing A (a good system) to B.
2. He/she gets a sidekick to put together a committee to examine B.
3. The committee meets several times then writes a lengthy report that recommends that the theorist should hire a consultant.
4. The theorist instructs aforesaid sidekick to find an “ordinary guy more than fifty miles from home” (Eric Sevareid), (a consultant).
5. The sidekick finds a consultant to consider B.
6. The consultant uses statistics ("lies, damn lies and statistics” - possibly Sir Charles Dilke) - and many expensive hours of research before he/she recommends to the theorist that B is the best way forward.
7. The theorist gets his/her sidekick to form a new committee to rubber-stamp the consultant’s recommendations.
8. The new committee meet as often as they can (they’re paid for being on these committees, after all), before reporting back that B is an excellent solution to a non-existent problem.
9. Bingo! New educational policy! Win-win situation!  The theorist gets kudos and probably promotion, taking with him his sidekick. Since the theorist has now created more work, the committees are recognized and paid for their excellent contribution to education and their sound conclusion, and the consultant gets paid, knowing that his services will be in demand for the next change of policy, in a couple of years’ time.  This ensures that all of them keep their jobs for a bit longer and ...

everyone’s a winner!!!

Doesn’t matter if you replace a good system with a worse one.  What matters is that you’ve changed it. After all, you won’t be around when it all goes to pot.

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Posted: 09 June 2012 08:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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While that cynically described situation is often the case, it’s not in the case of the studies that tested grammar instruction.

Students at various primary grade levels were divided into two groups and tested for writing ability. Then they were taught identical curricula for a year with the exception that one group received instruction in grammar and the other spent that time in instruction in subjects not directly related to writing skill (e.g., science, math). At the end of the year the students were retested, and the two groups showed no difference in writing ability. (Actually, those that receive grammar instruction tend to show slightly lower performance, perhaps because grammar instruction confuses them.) The studies have been replicated numerous times in various English-speaking countries with slight permutations, and the results have been consistent—native language grammar instruction in primary school does not contribute to increased ability to write and speak well.

Cognizance of grammar is not a prerequisite to good writing. Orwell condemned the passive voice, never realizing that he used it about twice as often as other writers of his era. E. B. White also condemned the passive in his Elements of Style, yet three out of four examples of what he calls the passive are actually the active. (To be fair, the error was originally Strunk’s, but White didn’t know enough to correct it in his revision.) Yet, I don’t think anyone would say that Orwell and White were not great writers.

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Posted: 09 June 2012 11:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Well, our Education Secretary at least agrees with me.

An overhaul of the national curriculum in primary schools in England will put a new focus on spelling and grammar, the education secretary is to announce.

Michael Gove is also due to propose making it compulsory to learn a foreign language from the age of seven, under plans to be unveiled later this week.

It would be the first time languages have been mandatory at primary level.

The plans will be put out to public consultation later in the year, ahead of a planned introduction in 2014.

The proposals come amid a decline in pupils taking foreign languages at GCSE.

In 2010, 43% of GCSE pupils were entered for a language, down from a peak of 75% in 2002.

Under Mr Gove’s plans, primary schools could offer lessons in Mandarin, Latin and Greek, as well as French, German and Spanish from September 2014.

The Department for Education said that where English teaching was concerned, the aim was to ensure that pupils leave primary school with high standards of literacy.

In my declining years, I’m lucky to have a very fulfilling job teaching English one-to-one to pupils who for one reason or another, have not achieved their potential in English.  You can show me all the reports and experts you like, but what I see is that my pupils’ standards of English improve greatly (ie jumping from grade E to a C, A being the highest, in a matter of weeks) once they understand the basic structure of the language.  No report will make one iota of difference to conclusions drawn from my own experience.

Good on yer, Mick!

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Posted: 10 June 2012 03:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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Personal experience is a very poor guide to just about any quantifiable experience. There could be any number of explanations for why those students’ scores improve, and you haven’t properly controlled your observations to ensure that something else isn’t affecting the results.

The first caution is the old post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Just because you see students’ scores improving after you have given them grammar instruction doesn’t mean that it was the grammar instruction that was the reason for the improvement. It could simply be that you’re a good, inspiring teacher. Or perhaps it’s simply the one-on-one attention that is the reason, the luxury of time you have as an individual tutor to craft a student-specific response to the problems they are having. Pretty much any student who receives one-on-one instruction from a good teacher will see a bump in scores. It’s a very different environment than the ordinary classroom.

There could be some bias in the students that are selected for your instruction that makes them particularly amenable to improvement at this particular stage in their education. Perhaps there is a subset of students who actually do benefit from grammar instruction and you’ve stumbled across them. Or perhaps because their parents have gone to trouble to hire a tutor, they are motivated to learn.  This isn’t a random selection of typical students, and there are any number of reasons why this particular group might be ready to see a jump in scores.

And there can be confirmation bias going on. You’re remembering the successes that fit your hypothesis that grammar instruction helps, and forgetting or discounting the cases that didn’t succeed, chalking them up to different reasons.

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Posted: 10 June 2012 04:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Not to mention that having one’s standards of English improve and being an effective writer are two different things.  You can craft your sentences with perfect grammar and style and still not be able to put together a coherent paragraph.

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Posted: 10 June 2012 05:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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My two cents: Eliza’s students are lucky to have her.

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Posted: 10 June 2012 06:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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I concur.

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Posted: 10 June 2012 07:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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Thank you both and on that I leave the discussion.  I am not in the least convinced of any argument/statistics in favour of keeping grammar an elitist study, ie for older students, nor, by the looks of it, are the UK and Australian governments who must also surely have seen these reports?  I’m pretty sure that there are other contributors here who agree with me, but who feel intimidated into a non-reply. We shall never know.

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Posted: 10 June 2012 09:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Yeah, because governments always do what has been proven to work. That’s why the US is on the metric system and is leading the world in reducing carbon emissions.

Seriously, on hot-button issues (i.e., those that arouse public sentiment) democratic governments do what is popular, not what the experts tell them is correct.

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