Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Grammar Issue

I hate teaching grammar. I am not good at it. 

There, I said it.  And I feel better. 

My college has a sort of formula they follow for the freshman composition curriculum.  They have a unified curriculum wherein everyone learns basically the same thing: how to write an academic summary, how to respond to an academic article, a description essay and a synthesis or research paper.  There also has to be two editing or grammar tests.  The editing/grammar tests are worth a good chunk of the grade, which tells me that I need to hit it kind of hard.

The English department here thinks that teaching students to write well using proper grammar is important.  I am not certain why this is, but I have my suspicions.  The reference guide is co-written by two faculty members and while not overly fantastic, it is useful.  The department also gets a lot of heat from the rest of the university, as students come to classes unprepared for academic writing.  Many of those professors forget what their own English 101 papers looked like when they were handed back.  If their memory serves, they had excellent critical thinking skills, perfect grammar and good breath when they woke up in the mornings.  Ah, the good old days. 

Whatever the reason, book sales, university expectations or general lack of curriculum creation creativity, I have to teach editing and grammar skills. 

I am used to teaching grammar in context.  In many ways, I follow the philosophy that if someone knows how to drive a car, they don't need to know how the drive shaft, clutch or spark plugs work in order to drive.  Likewise, if someone's grammar ain't broke, I don't fix it.  If I notice that people in a class are globally having a hard time with commas, I teach comma use.  If they do not seem to understand subject-verb agreement, I teach a mini-grammar lesson on that using student examples.  Oftentimes, I write things on their essays, complimenting (and identifying) compound and complex sentences and structures, turns of phrase and interesting bits of writing.  I also make suggestions and diagnose individual problems with grammar and punctuation. 

"Hey buddy, you have a real comma addiction. Have that looked at. Here are some ideas... "
"You do a great job of description, but let's address that run-on sentence structure.  It's an easy fix..."

And so on.  In other words, I don't waste class time, metaphorically, on pointing out the pieces of the engine so much as I focus on how to keep the damn car on the road and get from point A to B. 

Even when I taught junior high last year, my grammar lessons were taught in context and in a timely manner. 

But now? Now I have to explicitly test for editing skills, which means that I am testing for grammar skills. 


I began with asking students to correct a small paragraph and to discuss their answers first in small, then in larger groups.  Then I taught the first grammar mini-lesson over the topic of sentence fragments.  They occur naturally in our speech but should be eliminated from formal essays.  I scaffolded with nouns and verbs and built to the lesson, giving examples and asking students to write and fix sentences on their own.  Then I wrote down the pattern for the lesson and broke students into groups to create their own grammar mini-lessons.  I directed them to specific parts of the reference book so they could find rules and examples.  I pulled examples from the lessons my student gave and made a small study guide.  I even broke the test down to four parts- circle the right answer, multiple choice, short answer and sentence punctuation correction (with multiple answers for that part).

Nobody got an "A".  A few people got a "B".  Mostly though, it was "C" and "D" material. I am going to have to give eah student a blank copy and ask them to do it as a take-home test.

I am going to paste the quiz below.  Feel free to comment, give ideas and/or discuss how you have approached this subject.  I feel ambivalent.  We are not doing a great job of teaching formal writing in school.  Somehow, I am supposed to be able to teach explicit grammar in one quarter, around all of the other stuff I do.  I am frustrated, and I have to do one more test at the end of the quarter, for even higher stakes. I just don't think explicit grammar instruction goes with my teaching style.   

What are your thoughts? Respond in the comments...

English 101 Editing Quiz                                                                                Name______________

Dr. Dieu

Part 1 Instructions: Mark the appropriate response or word.

1.       Meatballs and spaghetti (is/are) my favorite meal.

2.       Subjects joined by or, either, neither or nor are singular (true/false).

3.       Her salary, together with her tips, (is/are) just enough to live on.

4.       Ten million gallons of oil (was/ were) spilled.

5.       If she (was /had been) awarded the scholarship, she would have quit her job.

6.       Neither the basket nor the apples (was/were) expensive.

7.       More than half of the population in West Texas (is/are) Hispanic.

8.       The cities in the (Northeast/northeast) were the hardest hit by the winter storms.

9.       Each of the students (is/are) willing to lead the discussion.

10.   None of the food (is/are) spoiled.

Part 2

Instructions: Select the most correct answer.

1.        You should always use this point of view in a formal essay:

a.       First person

b.      Second person

c.       Third person

d.      Depends on the type of essay


2.       In the following sentence: “The recruits were called to duty”

a.       This is written in simple present tense

b.      This is written in simple past tense

c.       This is written in present progressive tense

d.      This is written in past perfect tense


3.       In the following sentence, “Ms. Jones had been called for jury duty twice last year, but she was glad to serve again.

a.       This is written in simple present tense

b.      This is written in simple past tense

c.       This is written in present progressive tense

d.      This is written in past perfect tense


4.       Is the following sentence correct? “Nothing effects my job performance more than getting positive feedback from my boss.”

a.       Yes, this sentence is correct.

b.      No, this sentence is not correct; Use the word “then” instead of “than”.

c.       No, this sentence is not correct; use “affect” instead of “effect”. 

d.      No, this sentence is not correct; Use the word “then” instead of “than” and “affect” instead of “effect”. 



5.       Which of the following sentences is correct?

a.       To find the thesaurus, press Shift and the function key F7.

b.      To find the Thesaurus, press Shift and the Function Key F7.

c.       To find the thesaurus, press shift and the function key F7.

d.      None of these is correct.


Part 3

Instructions: Answer the questions with less than a paragraph. Please use whole sentences.

1.       What is the difference between “affect” and “effect”?


2.       Describe a sentence fragment and how it is different from a whole sentence.



3.       What is at least one way to fix a comma splice?


4.        When can you use a semicolon?


Part 4

Instructions: Please correctly punctuate the following sentences.

1.       The director is unable to meet with you this week however next week she will have time on Tuesday.

2.       The cultural center has a new collection of speak points many of them were donated by a retired anthropologist.

3.       Our division’s reports are posted on our web page hard copies are available by request.

4.       Bonnie a gal who works in the office and who often brings donuts was abducted by aliens last night. 

5.       Wynonna Ryder lives at 101 Baker Street Wonkaville California 70863.

6.       During his stay in Djakarta Craig visited a souk and purchased a cartouche for his mother.



  1. To clarify, your analogy making grammar the engine of the car isn't really sound. Grammar would be the motions we go through: starting, shifting turning, signaling, etc. All of those can be done without actually thinking about them for the experienced driver, thereby making those motions the grammar. Just as I don't think subject, predicate, direct object, modifier, etc., when I speak, I don't think turn, signal, brake, etc., when I drive. Sorry, just being a linguistics nerd, and I will side with a school that insists on grammar refreshers for incoming freshmen. I remember my Comp I and Comp II papers. Wait. No, I don't. I clepped.

    1. Thank you for the comment! Where do you stand on teaching grammar- explicit or in context?

  2. I strongly disagree. You should never be behind the wheel of a car without thinking about what you are doing. Distracted, inattentive driving is what causes accidents, so yes... Think through the steps of something you do every day and focus.
    As for grammar instruction, while an editing test might prove helpful, there is little to no evidence to suggest that students will transfer the knowledge they gain from the test to their actual writing. My preferred method is in-context mini-lessons where each student returns to his/her own paper and then checks for and corrects all the errors of that kind. For example, after a lesson on commas, we all go back and look for comma errors. In pairs and as individuals and with me as a coach if necessary. It's slow. It's tedious. It's effective (in my opinion).