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Myth: Grammar Study Makes You a Better Writer

In a recent conversation about grammar and writing, I made the following point. Hope it is helpful.

Often I hear it posed that ‘grammar study is useful’— and, the reason they say it to me is that I basically challenge this educational assumption.
I actually agree with the point if grammar is approached as a study. If I were to ‘cheer’ for a grammar segment, then I’d put it with the analysis of written work (study it with reading). Frankly, I think about every subject one can study is useful.
On the other hand, my conviction is that the study of grammar as related to developing one’s writing skills is actually harmful. Here’s an example of a summary from a 1999 book referencing a definitive summary all the way back to 1963:
Most language arts teachers do not have many opportunities to explore the fascinating intricacies of grammar in their classrooms, but nearly all of them have to teach grammar. The most pressing questions they face, therefore, are the following: What role does grammar play in writing performance? And how does one teach grammar effectively?
One might think that these questions were answered long ago. After all, grammar has been taught to students since the days of the ancient Greeks. But reliable evaluations of the connection between studying grammar and writing performance are fairly recent. One of the more important emerged in 1963, when, summarizing existing research, Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer stated:

In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms that the teaching of formal [traditional] grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing. (pp. 37-38)

From: The Teacher’s Grammar Book. Contributors: James D. Williams – author. Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Place of Publication: Mahwah, NJ. Publication Year: 1999. Page Number: 45.
We have not improved our grammar-teaching methods…and plenty of studies since then point out the same thing. People learn to write better by writing. People learn to read better by reading. People learn to analyze a sentence or paragraph by analyzing (this is where grammar is cool). If we have instructors or tutors who can show us how to write better, read better, or analyze better…well, then all the better! Of course, in our educational approach we aren’t replacing writing with grammar study (like mass education schools often do).
I know what I’m saying in whacky…but that’s what they were saying about ‘homeschooling’ a couple of decades ago! To quote the Lion from The Wizard of Oz, “Imposserous.” We all get stuck in our assumptions and drag them over from old systems. At one time people where saying you can’t teach without training…but homeschoolers do (successfully, I might add)!
I’m saying your child can learn to write better by not integrating linguistics and grammar into your writing process. I’m saying that you as an adult would write much better if you’d dump grammar and write for how it will sound. I’m saying that you will write much better if you will read better material.
All of these point are the same thing (sort of) Art Robinson was saying (especially originally) when he introduce The Robinson Curriculum. In fact, his audio makes the points pretty nicely (Robinson Syntax and Grammar Audio). The comforting thing is that humans can learn no matter what we do to them…but I would say, if you want to grow writers, they’ll have a harder time when they are bogged down in the pursuit of ‘correct grammar’.
Blessings,
Fred Lybrand
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You Can’t Test Creative Writing

Now even the UK is up-in-arms about the inadequacy of using standardized tests to access writing skills.  Here are a couple of quotes from an article:

Head teachers fear some pupils in England have been graded incorrectly in a writing test that forms part of their national curriculum tests or Sats.

It also polled members in one local authority – Lancashire – where 47 out of 48 respondents reported “serious inconsistencies” in the way different papers were marked.

In June, a review of Sats by Lord Bew recommended the creative writing test should be scrapped and children’s creative writing skills assessed by teachers.

See: Head teachers angry over Sats creative writing marks

Of course, they are running into the same issues we face with our own SAT writing section.  It is genuinely improbable that we will ever create a standard way to judge writing quality through a mechanical method.  We attempt it with the supposed ‘rules of grammar and punctuation’—but if you spend any time studying and reflecting, you will realize that such things are not standardized.  Actually, it is impossible to create a static set of rules for a fluid thing.  Language continues to adapt and adjust and grow.  Sorry, that’s just how it works.  Language may be the only truly democratic thing on the planet (Thank you Rudolf Flesch for this point!).  A writing course could be the answer, but wouldn’t it need to foster freedom instead of crush us by its rules?

If English had a static set of rules then wouldn’t we all talk like Shakespeare?  Well, methinks I doth protest too much 🙂

Language is indeed fluid, and creative writers come up with even more cool-and-unique-to-the-moment ways of communicating things.  You can rest assured that Shakespeare wouldn’t have written with the same ‘grammar’ if he were alive today.  Or, stated plainly, if he had—we wouldn’t know who he is!

Isn’t it time for all of the stuffy grammarians to recognized excellence in writing on the basis of some other set of criteria rather than their own ‘approved’ set of rules?  N.B. –  I didn’t say, “Give up on excellence in writing.”

My suggestion?  Go back to sound.  Recognize language is an instinct in the same way music is an instinct.  Pay attention.  If people like a song…maybe there is a reason.  If people like a writing style…maybe there is a reason for that too!  In fact, could the reason be that it just sounds cool, whether it is grammatically approve or not?

What if we permissioned (cool use of a verbifying a noun that I’d get a D for in school) our own children to write, at least occasionally, in a way that just struck them as sounding great?  What new writer with a new style might we gift to the world because of our kind empowerment to write in a fresh way (it will also possibly become the new ‘good writing example’).

Recently I ran a few of my sentences through a popular grammar-fixing software program…and I did poorly (a D 🙂

Next, I ran Faulkner and Hemingway through the same program…they did worse than I did!

Maybe the other experts will figure it out and we can have the creativity perfectly programmed out of us.  In the meantime, why not join my expertise and help a generation of writers by encouraging them to write with their instinctive ear for what sounds how they want it read?  Curse the rules…full Grace ahead!

Write well and write free,

Fred Lybrand

P.S.  Thoughts?  Comment away…let’s think together.

P.P.S.  If you found this helpful, you might want to know I have a whole curriculum available to teach children how to write by sound (instinct): It’s called The Writing Course

Write First, Learn Grammar Later…seriously

I picked up the following comment from a forum related to a homeschool curriculum we use.

If you skip to the bottom (my response), you see a simple reason to start writing BEFORE studying grammar.

— In [email protected], “Debbie” <[email protected]…> wrote:

My son is almost 12, and was a reluctant writer until he did Fred Lybrand’s Writing Course.

He used to do anything to avoid putting pencil on paper.

We went through the Writing Course back in August/September.

It’s November, and my son just finished writing his first novel of 28 chapters.

He’s about to start the “Make it Better” step by going back over it, and putting it into the computer.

He’s also thinking about splitting the chapters right in the middle of the action,

so that his reader won’t be able to put it down (like so many of the books he’s read).

He spends about 20-30 minutes per day writing, without any coaxing or interference from me.

I can hardly believe it. Thanks to Dr. Lybrand.

At this point, I’m not pushing him to do any more than that 20-30 minutes because he is now doing it because he wants to. As he gains confidence in his writing ability, I may push him along, but I’m hopeful that he’ll do it of his own accord. I just don’t want him to

go back to hating to write, which could happen if I push.

Along with “The Writing Course”, we also received “The Essay Course”,

which Fred recommends that we do at age 13-14 I think. Until then, I feel that we’re on a good track for now, letting him write about whatever he wants for 20-30 minutes per day.

“The Essay Course” will get him ready for college, when that time comes.

I feel like I can relax, and just let him blossom as a writer on his own terms for the time being.

Thanks Fred & Jody!

😀

Deborah,

Thanks so much for all your kinds words. Your son is not an exception with our course, but he certainly is on the path to being exceptional!

The problem most of us have with writing and helping our kids write is that we have been taught by the schools to work backwards.

Far better to write and then learn grammar (if you must ;-)…just like we do with talking.

Recently, I was speaking with a friend who is a musician. It struck me in the conversation how foolish it would be to make children learn Music Theory before they ever pick up an instrument.

This is the exact mistake we make (and a few others)— We try to teach them Language (Grammar) Theory before we really let them just learn to make a little music first!

Again, thanks for sharing how we’ve helped a little.

God bless,

Fred (and Jody) Lybrand

 

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