Thursday, January 29, 2009

Grammar Doesn’t Have to Be Boring — Why We Think the Descriptivists Have the Right Idea

Recently our New Product Development Specialist, Douglas Grudzina, shared an article with me that seems to make a lot of sense. In this month’s English Journal (January, 2009), the article entitled “The Grammar Gallimaufry: Teaching Students to Challenge the Grammar Gods” has quite a bit to say on the way grammar is taught.

Author Jeff House begins by explaining the difference between the “prescriptive” and “descriptive” approaches to teaching grammar. Prescriptivists tend to think of grammar as a static set of rules, and are often very strict in upholding them. Descriptivists, on the other hand, believe that grammar is more a means to an end and spend time looking at the rationalizations behind the grammar rather than ignoring the changing nature of language.

“The ‘rules’ of grammar are really nothing more than a strong consensus among educated speakers and writers,” agrees Grudzina. “The descriptivist realizes that communication depends on the sender and the receiver, and the sender must be sensitive to the receiver’s frame of reference.”

Currently, the prescriptive approach tends to be the norm for most students and teachers. House agrees, saying, “…the dominance of grammar drills, rote memorization, and heavy markdowns for ‘incorrect’ grammar suggest how much prescriptive thinking dominates the classroom. This is particularly ironic in that every English teacher knows that literature abounds with comma splices, run-ons, fragments, split infinitives, dangling modifiers, and other ‘errors’ we sometimes legislate against.”

House also quotes linguist Edward Sapir, who wisely tells us that, “‘All grammars leak,’ which is why teaching grammar as a firm set of rules invites trouble.” Like House and Grudzina, Sapir believes that “The endpoint of grammar instruction is not the rules; the endpoint is using grammar to clarify expression. … [O]ne learns grammar not to test one’s memorization skills but to learn how to lay out the nuances of thought.” Thus, the descriptivist encourages his students to “acknowledge grammar’s inconsistencies,” while the prescriptivist perpetuates the student frustration of “relearning rules depending on who the teacher is this year.”

While many teachers agree that there are, in fact, flaws in the prescriptive approach, they, like Jeff House, lament the fact that it is difficult to find a book that teaches grammar any other way. We at Prestwick House wanted to fill this void with a book that understands that, “…grammar is about expression, not memorization.” And thus, Grammar for Writing was born.

“Even before I saw this article, I chose the descriptive approach for Grammar for Writing largely because it is the only approach that makes sense to me,” says Grudzina, a twenty-five-year veteran of the high school English language arts classroom. “We know that language is dynamic. Words enter and leave the language every generation. Words change in meaning. Slang words work their way into acceptable speech. New inventions and procedures require the creation of new words and expressions. Creative writes coin new phrases or use words in new ways and eventually these also become commonplace — like the current practice of verbizing a noun or adjective.”

Grammar for Writing starts from the very first lesson identifying “units of thought” and manipulating them so that the student learns how to convey something meaningful to his/her reader. The end result is that, yes, the student will capitalize the first word of every sentence and end every sentence with a period, but which do you think is easier to understand, remember, and apply: make sure you capitalize and punctuate; or make sure you signal to your reader when you are ending one thought and beginning the next?”

“This book is different because it has the kids play around with words, phrases, and clauses — arranging and rearranging them to see how different configurations mean different things. From their exercises, they then ­infer­ the convention rather than having the rule imposed on them.”

Since Grammar for Writing came out, we’ve been seeing more and more teachers stepping up as descriptivists, and it’s fantastic to see this theory confirmed in an academic publication like the English Journal. We stand behind this approach as the most effective method for getting students to really understand grammar and not just regurgitate the answers that we demand. If this is an approach that you’d like to try out, feel free to call us to request a sample of Grammar for Writing.

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