Oh Yeah. Grammar. Sigh. (Hartwell)

I’m so exhausted by grammar research that I didn’t really even want to reread this–as does Hartwell (he claims), I find it fundamentally uninteresting. Yet the article remains relevant as ever: it’s sadly apparent that our theory of language (as Hartwell describes) is still failing to speak to our theory of teaching.

Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 563-585. Print.

Hartwell’s meta-analysis describes the limitations of empirical research in grammar pedagogy from empirical and theoretical angles, citing the still-active debate over the grammar-teaching issue as central in his interpretation: “Seventy-five years of experimental research has for all practical purposes told us nothing” (564). Our interest in the grammar question is “embedded in larger models of the transmission of literacy, part of quite different assumptions about the teaching of composition” (565). His conclusions have less to do with grammar than with Kitzhaber’s and Fulkerson’s critiques of theorylessness or mindlessness in pedagogical choice. That is, behind his shot fired in the argument over the relationship between explicit knowledge of grammar rules and writing ability is an assessment of the whole issue of grammar research itself.

After describing five meanings of “grammar” (G1, the grammar in our heads; G2, applied linguistics rules; G3, usage; G4, school grammar; G5,stylistic grammar), focusing especially on the relationship between G1-G2 and G2-G4, Hartwell turns his attention to the inadequacy of rules-based grammar instruction in language learning. (Related to this is our understanding of error; Hartwell draws on Shaughnessy, among others.) Hartwell closes by charging that “it is time that we, as teachers, formulate theories of language and literacy and let those theories guide our teaching, and it is time that we, as researchers, move on to more interesting areas of inquiry” (581).

“Those of us who dismiss the teaching of formal grammar have a model of composition instruction that makes the grammar issue “uninteresting” in a scientific sense. Our model predicts a rich and complex interaction of learner and environment in mastering literacy, an interaction that has little to do with sequences of skills instruction as such. Those who defend the teaching of grammar tend to have a model of composition that is rigidly skills-centered and rigidly sequential: the formal teaching of grammar, as the first step in that sequence, is the cornerstone or lynchmin. Grammar teaching is thus supremely interesting, naturally a dominant focus for educational research.” (565-566)

“those of us who question the value of teaching grammar are in fact shaking the whole elaborate edifice of traditional composition instruction” (566)

writing tech, or “techne” concieved of as “skills instruction” butts up against our theoretical/ideological commitment to (er, or against) grammar instruction. (See Miller 2008 (?), techne, plato). Skills.


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