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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

SAT Grammar Secret

grammar

Here’s a posted conversation that may help:

Great question about the SAT.

The SAT is timed, so no one is going to operate effectively by recalling and applying a matrix of rules. The SAT prep  courses pretty much tell you to go with what sounds better anyway.

Here are some thoughts I’ll share (especially from working with my own kids on the SAT)…

*  The SAT grammar questions are about a couple of primary things—

  • Directness
  • Clarity

If one choice is more direct…that is likely the best version.  If one choice can be taken a couple of different ways…or…it isn’t clear who is doing what in the sentence–it is likely wrong.

Try a practice section and see if the most direct and the most clear aren’t basically the two things they are  after in the test.

Finally, in most of the ‘grammar choice’ questions you will be wise to cover up the answers and make a ‘guess’ before you look at choices A-E.  If you will go ahead and have a guess of what it ‘should be’ the way it sounds to you…then you will be able to quickly see what answer matches closest (and that’s the one that will usually be right).

Bless you,

Fred

P.S.  I’m often blunt because I am direct and clear 😉

www.advancedwitingresources.com –  sheri hollinger wrote

Fred, Your blunt-ness cracks me up. =)

I completely agree that grammar diffuses the ability to write, and to comprehend reading at times too.  Try to dissect scripture; many times this just baffles me, lol.

My question is….How can we get our kids to score well in state testing if we don’t plug away at grammar?

Blessings~Sheri

http://thesimplelifeof8.blogspot.com/

From: [email protected]…January 14, 2011 12:43:06 PM> Subject: [LybrandWriting] Re: A NewQuestion (Grammar – Jacee)Jacee,

I’m a rebel on this one!  We have NEVER taught our kids much formal grammar at  all…mostly because it is a stupid and foolish waste of time that takes kids away from learning how to write well (and creatively).

Now…let me reverse course…I’ve studied English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Spanish. Here’s is where grammar is useful…in the ANALYSIS of WRITTEN words. If you are analyzing a Bible verse it comes in handy (maybe).  In writing, on the SAT, and in college…using good grammar is important, but knowing grammar rules and principles is not. Mostly grammar slows the brain down.

Good use of grammar comes from good reading and good feedback (on papers and while talking).  Mostly the SAT is just concerned about clarity and directness.

Unfortunately, since we are all scared to death, we supplement our kids with grammar ‘just in case’  All I can say is, “Go for it.  More power to you!”I’m cheering for everyone and each of us must find our way.

For me and my house…we write and get feedback…and learn to make what we write sound even better.

God bless,

Fred

www.advancedwritingresources.com –  Bibliomomiac [email protected] wrote:

Topic of Grammar – I was intending on waiting til high school to begin a serious study of grammar. My thought is that lots ofgrammar will be learnt from the writing programs and read great literature. But I do catch myself wondering if I should do more.It seems most my homeschool friends have a yearly grammar curriculum.  Right? Wrong?Oh, we will be covering grammar with Latin First Form, although notenglish grammar, it should be a good if not better base then english grammar.

– Jacee

How to Teach Word Meanings

 

Here’s a post I responded to about learning word meanings:

Need a suggestion… my 9 yr old learns differently. I pulled her from PS after finding out that her work was being done for her…gotta kept the schools test scores looking good! I’m trying to pick about 4/5 words for her to learn the meaning of each week. They come from the McGuffey readers. She reads very well but just can’t understand the meaning of words. Take the word “smut”. She can spell it fine. Trying to teach her to search in the dictionary and write down a brief meaning. I choose the meaning—dirty, soiled spot– and used my finger to trace an imaginary dirty spot on my shirt. Her mind doesn’t seem to retain what I say. Next word was –bind- looked it up and read meaning, to tie up with a rope. Then I talked about actually doing it such as in a cowboy movie or playing cops/robbers. Just doesn’t click with her. Help!!

As I’ve pondered this for the past couple of days (bit of a puzzle), I now have a couple of thoughts I hope will help:

    1. The child is only 9 and has come out of a system that hasn’t been helpful to her. If you were telling us about a 13 year old, I’d immediately say you need to find someone who can help. However, 9 doesn’t seem like a big deal.
    2. Looking up word meaning and trying to remember them works against our brains (I might be controversial here!). Word meanings are ALMOST ALWAYS context dependent. In other words, how is it used in a sentence? For example:

 

*What do we have to eat tonight?

*What do we have to eat tonight?

 

What is the meaning of ‘have’ here? If it means ‘available’ then the sentence goes one way…if ‘have to’ means ‘obligation’ then the sentence goes another way.

My thought is to spend more time having her read aloud and work on word meanings in context. Build on successes and easier words so her confidence grows. A word like ‘smut’ is pretty abstract (not really a common 9 year old word). If she can make sense of, “The goat jumped over the fence and ate the daisies,” — I think she’ll be on course! If she can’t tell you what a goat is…what jumping is…and that a daisy is a flow– then go get help. If she can do these, just keep adding from where she is currently.

My guess is she needs to grow her confidence based on little successes. Once she ‘knows’ she can do it, then the sky’s the limit.

God bless,

Fred Lybrand

www.homeandschoolsuccess.com

Do You Know the Shortcut to Good Grammar?

I started out thinking I might want to explain why all the folks griping about grammar (and punctuation and spelling) on the internet need to relax.  Look, I love grammar too (it is so cool to get at meaning / change meaning by looking at how words fit together)…but if your goal is for people to use good grammar, why not use the greatest shortcut available?

The greatest shortcut is our own instinct for language.  Here is an example of an article that explain the innate and consistent ‘basics’ of grammar hard-wired into all of us.

Article: Good Grammar in All of Us (ABC News)

It is innate and instinctive…in fact, evolution has a really hard time explaining how a language instinct would ever develop.  Pinker even admits that if evolution (gradualism in his view) isn’t true, then there MUST be a GOD!  Ockham’s Razor (in my view) also suggests to me that GOD is the answer to this one.  He is the simplest explanation.  He clearly designed us for communication….which includes grammar, of course.

When students start to discover that they can figure out what is ‘right’ (which means it works / makes sense) with their own internal sense of language–apart from knowing the rules consciously— or they grow a kind of confidence that invites them to see what else can be done with words.  Often this same experience blossoms into asking, “I wonder why it works that way?”  Getting curious about something one innately knows becomes real motivation that can last a lifetime.

Why not first show a student that he already knows a lot about language…then show him how folks have recorded the rules he already uses?

Of course, reading good material helps us learn in the same way splashing in the water leads to better swimming skills.

Hope this helps,

 

Dr. Fred Lybrand

P.S.  If this was useful, won’t you please share at facebook and twitter to let others know? Thank you!

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How Could Going to College Ruin Your Writing?

I have a terrible habit of not agreeing with folks very often.  It isn’t that I disagree, but it is that I don’t agree completely.  On the other hand, I occasionally find someone who says something I want to give everyone I see a hug about!

Michael Ellsberg wrote an article recently that clearly explains the problem with college writing (and frankly, the high schools can’t be left out because the teachers learned to write in college 🙂  Here are a couple of his points:

Knowing how to write compelling and persuasive emails, letters, memos, pitches and proposals sets you apart from the masses, who are mediocre communicators. It is one of the most effective skills you could develop for expanding your leadership and impact on the world—and for fattening your wallet.

Anyone hoping to learn writing should stay a thousand miles away from people who write in such a manner. That is, they should stay a thousand miles away from most university professors.  Click Here for the Article

It doesn’t get much more exact and on target.  His point is that the bureaucratic nature of education gives itself to a conformity in writing so that voice (my way of saying it) is lost.  Whenever you are busy copying you are never original.

That really is all there is to it.  Some silly notions about the ‘correctness’ of grammar and punctuation and style simply destroy both confidence and uniqueness in writing. Honestly, this is exactly why The Writing Course is so effective for those who dare to follow our wild ideas.

But do you need a writing course at all?  Heavens no…you actually just need to write, especially if you are reading some well-written literature!  Of course, if good minds give you helpful feedback, then you can learn at the speed of light.

Don’t avoid college, but do recognize it is a GAME that your child (or you) will just have to play.  It is best to write like they want (the game) and secretly despise the lessons (despise in a proper and friendly way 🙂 they try to teach you.

Impactful writers are simply going to be rebels of a sort…but Oh how we will need you!

Cheers,

Fred Lybrand

P.S.  For a free video on how to give feedback to writers, click here: How to Give Feedback to Writers.

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