I think the number one thing I get asked about in regard to literacy instruction is (cue suspenseful music)…. grammar, mechanics, and usage instruction. Whether it’s a math facilitator wondering if she or he really has to check students’ semi-colon usage or an English teacher wondering how to fit mechanics instruction into PBL, grammar seems to be a concern for lots of teachers.
I think what happens is that we sometimes divorce grammar, mechanics, and usage instruction from meaning. Then it gets really hard to fit into any kind of authentic instruction. It’s easy to do- the sea of grammar standards can make any English teacher begin to hyperventilate, and they may pass that anxiety on to other staff members. Students might even get in on it- partially because learning grammar is, at least on the surface, a concrete and discrete activity, which makes it feel like “real” learning. And other adults, faced with academic writing written in “txt”, wonder when kids will actually learn to write. That can lead to lots of worksheets and lots of grammar vocabulary.
But, as Wilhem and Smith argue so concisely in Getting it Right, traditional grammar instruction DOESN’T WORK. In order to work, usage, mechanics, and grammar instruction needs to be taught in a “why, how, apply” context. Why use this particular term or grammatical construct? Why did this expert writer use it? How do you use it yourself? Now apply- use a compound complex sentence in your own writing and explain why you used it.
I think this approach makes grammar instruction more meaningful- and easier to include in an authentic project. I think it would be great if math teachers didn’t worry about semi-colons but talked about which precise math term to use in a particular context and why. English teachers could discuss appositives with actual examples (the word appositive doesn’t matter so much) and then have students practice using them- for a purpose. Science teachers can talk about the kind of concise, precise, unbiased language that’s appropriate for, say, communicating research findings, and why scientists write in that way.
In a humanities class, I’d love to see a project in which students argue for or against Grammar A (Standard Written English) or Grammar B (an attempt to represent actual spoken language in writing), or perhaps a new Grammar C (aligned with the conventions of texting?). See the “Diacritics” posting on Grammar B in the land of “txt” for more on Grammar A and Grammar B. Maybe students could weigh in on some of the “language wars” Andrea Lunsford describes in her book Writing Matters: stigmas associated with dialects, for example, or English instruction in schools for speakers of other languages, or the rise of English as the new lingua franca.
No matter what topics students explore, I’d like to see them thinking about the ways in which grammatical choices convey all kinds of meaning, and exploring that meaning making in their own writing. You might need to be prepared to explain what you’re doing and why to your students, other staff members, and parents, however.