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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

How Do I Grade My Child’s Writing?

Weekly I get a note or a question that sounds like one I received today, “Biggest challenge—being able to correct my student’s writing myself. I know what sounds good, but I am not a writer.”  What great honesty, and how common it feels to all who don’t see themselves as writers.  If you know what sounds good you are about 80% there already.

Of course, my conviction is that most of the punctuation and grammar training is killer our joy and effectiveness in writing.  I feel, sometimes, I’m on a one-man-mission to help people return to the love of writing [you can see my rant against grammar in the article called Why Studying Grammar Hurts Writing].

As a parent you have great motives and surprisingly wonderful insight on your child and his or her writing.  Frankly, you taught them to speak…not too shabby for just hanging around and discussing what’s for supper and why the neighbors don’t like you!

Here’s what you can do about correcting a child’s writing:

The Best Way to Give Writing Feedback

Well, that’s the idea.  You have so much to offer…but really, it is when your child starts correcting him or herself that everything jumps to a new level.  In the meantime, you are far more helpful than you think.  We even have our own children grade each other from time to time (it’s that helpful)!

 

Hope this helps,

 

Fred Lybrand

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