My last post, about grading strategies, included some comments on the time I spend helping students to get their heads around grammar errors they likely do not know they have made. When I flag a grammar problem in an essay, I typically do so because the larger problem, of which the grammar error forms a part, is that a sentence or paragraph just does not make sense.
I’m a language geek, so grammar stuff is interesting to me just because, but as a teacher I know that grammar can be scary and confusing for a lot of students who did not learn it in primary school and then were just expected to “know” it once they got to high school. (I learned this the hard way in my office one day when a young woman who had come to see me about problems in her paper asked me sheepishly: what’s a verb?)
For me, teaching grammar needs to be framed by common sense and by the goal of achieving clarity on the page, not by harping on rules. I also consider teaching good communication skills (including, importantly, proper grammar use) to students to be part of my pedagogical activism. Only once your point is clear can I understand it, and follow you toward your next insight; only if I can understand what you are saying or writing can we work together to get over the next logical hurdle, or past the next communication barrier. Clarity is about recognizing each other’s insights across the obstacles that human differences create; thus, clear and comprehensible speaking and writing (in whatever your language of shared communication happens to be) is a big part of making social and cultural change for the better in a multicultural, multi-social world.
Gleefully, then, did I read this superb article by Thomas Jones this past weekend in The Guardian (11 May 2013); he writes with common sense in mind about which grammar rules are useful (death to the dangling modifier!), and which can easily be chucked (split infinitives? Who cares?). Pass it on to your students; I plan to attach it to all feedback on first essays I hand back in the new semester.