Thursday, January 27, 2005

Grammar? Political? Come On!

Philp Pullman has a response in The Guardian to a report from the University of York stating that the teaching of grammar doesn't have a beneficial effect on the quality of student writing.

Pullman's reaction is, essentially, that the study just goes to prove what he believes, that kids should learn writing by writing.

Okay. He's not the only person who feels that way. His is a legitimate stand that he could legitimately argue. Unfortunately, he chooses to use his essay as an opportunity to take potshots at "the political right." Who knew there was a right and left to grammar?

In his second paragraph, Pullman says, "Needless to say, this (the results of the study) goes against common sense. That particular quality of mind, the exclusive property of those on the political right, enables its possessors to know without the trouble of thinking that of course teaching children about syntax and the parts of speech will result in better writing, as well as making them politer, more patriotic and less likely to become pregnant."

Where the heck does that come from? Well, Pullman is British and The Guardian is British and the University of York is in Britain and maybe British political parties actually have a grammar plank in their platforms.

Pullman is right. A lot of writing instruction is mindnumbing. It's mindnumbing whether or not it involves grammar. Does that mean that grammar should be replaced by the "play" approach that Pullman advocates?

Why does it have to be one or the other?

I don't see how anyone who has ever seen student writing from, say, 4th, 5th, or 6th graders that was gibberish because they hadn't learned how to choose a verb tense and stick with it, didn't recognize an incomplete sentence when they'd written one, and didn't understand that modifiers needed to be somewhere in the vicinity of the words they modify can say that all children will learn to write by writing. There are just too many kids out there for whom that doesn't happen.

Writing isn't just an art. It's not just some kind of creative act. It's a way of communicating. Over the centuries all cultures have come to agree that there are certain rules/guidelines/whatever you want to call them that make for meaningful communication. That's all grammar is.

I am a product of schooling that didn't provide much instruction in grammar--or writing, either, for that matter. We definitely were expected to learn it on our own. I did--in my twenties.

If I had to be in school for sixteen years, anyway, I really would just as soon have learned about parallel construction, dangling modifiers, introductory clauses, etc., there instead of having to work the whole mess out on my own time.

Oh, cricky. Pullman would think I'm a grammatical rightwing nut.

Thanks to ACHOCKABLOG for the link.

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