Mere Rhetoric

It was 1985. As Bowling for Soup would later describe the year, “there was U2 and Blondie, and Music still on MTV” And in the pages of College English a debate was raging. Two scholars, careful and smart, battling over a question that still haunts beginning composition instructors: should we teach punctuation to first year writing students? The debate between Martha Kolln and Patrick Hartwell describes some of the difficulties in navigating the question of teaching grammar and punctuation, but it doesn’t begin with the Hartwell-Kolln debate of the 80s: it begins with the Braddock Report of 1963.


            The Braddock report, or, more properly, “Research in Written Composition" by Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer was commissed by the National Council of Teachers of English to answer the question of whether grammar instruction had any impact on improving student writing. And what they found was that, using one- and three-year studies, instructing in grammar  was “useless if not harmful” to the teaching of writing. And for many instructors, that sealed the deal. Grammar fell deeply out of favor. But the Braddock report wasn’t carefully applied: its full argument was that: "The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing" (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer, 1963). The way grammar was being taught could be faulty without the practice of teaching grammar being problematic. In other words, to cite the 1960 Encyclopedia of Education Research “Diagramming sentences …teaching nothing beyond the ability to diagram.” Still, grammar was out.


            For Patrick Hartwell, that sealed the deal. In “Grammar, Grammars and the Teaching of Grammars,” he makes some strong claims against the teaching of grammar in composition. For one thing, he says that most errors don’t matter and those errors that do matter can usually be “caught” without knowing if they’re a predicate or a verbal adverb or whatever. Some of these errors will be caught ‘naturally,” Hartwell says, without anyone teaching explicitly. As he says, “If we think seriously about error and its relationship to the worship of forma l grammar study, we need to attempt some massive dislocation of our traditional thinking ,to shuck off our hyperliterate perception of the value of formal rules, and to regain the confidence in the tacit power of unconscious knowledge that our theory of language gives us. Most students, reading their writing aloud, will correct in essence all errors of spelling, grammar, and, by intonation, punctuation, but usually without noticing that what they read departs from what they wrote.” If you can speak it, you can get it. Hartwell does admit that people who are coming at English from another language tradition may need more explicit help, but grammar can be cut from most classes without much harm being done. Hartwell cites research that spending time on grammar is useless and claims 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.”  




Martha Kolln was not ready to move on. Kolln read Hartwell’s argument and gave it a big ol’ nu-uh. Students don’t just have an inborn sense of grammar because they don’t have an inborn sense of rhetoric.  She doesn’t think composition should be exclusively a grammar class, but she does believe in what she calls “rhetorical grammar.” In her book of the same name, Martha Kolln tells us that punctuation is part of our voice, not just a “final, added-on step” (279). Some of these consequences are more delicate (“will that semi-colon create a more formal air than that dash?”), while others are more blunt (“if you use all caps here, your academic paper will look like an eight-grader’s text-message”). Kolln does a good job of not saying that certain things are off-limits—sentence fragments, passive voice, ellipsis.  Overall, these are choices, just like any rhetorical choice. So when Hartwell says that grammar shouldn’t be researched or taught in composition, she read his argument as saying “a subset of rhetorical choices shouldn’t be taught in composition.” And So she wrote a comment in to College English.




In this comment she agrees that composition shouldn’t be just about grammar and she’sshe agrees with the Braddock report that “formal grammar is not the best way to teach grammar” but “rhetorical grammar has a place in our composition class, because of course grammar is there” (877). And if the grammar is there, then it ought to be talked about intelligently. Kolln sees a lot of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater in getting rid of all grammar instruction. When people claim “ Our students should learn to write by writing-only by writing, by letting it all hang out. Let's not in-hibit their creativity by calling unnecessary attention to the structures they use; and we're certainly to have no "lessons" on sentence structure or parts of speech, on "formal gram-mar."


How foolish. How harmful. The result is a generation (or more) of students who have no language for discussing their language. We teach them terminology in every other field-in science and math and history and geography and computer science and physical education, in literature, and in French. But not in their own language.”




Well, Hartwell read Kolln’s argument and made the snappy reply “ther’s little to be caccomplished by talking about paradigms” Zing! I mean, is it okay if I take a sidebar and say that passions here are remarkably high? Both Kolln and Hartwell have deep-rooted passions about the teaching and study of grammar, calling each other’s perspectives “foolish”  and sniping at each other. It’s rare to find such academic vitriol, so when ever it comes up, you know there’s some intense feelings going on.




Anyway, Hartwell says that not teaching grammar doesn’t keep student from talking about grammar because, of course, they will do so naturally, because “every culure develops a remarkable rich metalinguistics vocabulary for discussion language” and current students are no exception. He also says that it’s better to err on his side of thigns because if, hypothetically, he and Kolln were to take a tour of writing instruction among practioners, “ we’d find it dripping with a kind of grammar instruction we both deplore.”






Okay, so after the furver of these grammar debates, where does that leave us? Strangely, the answer to that question depends on which generation “us” is. The Braddock reports did eventually filter down into the classrooms and for a while it looked that Hartwell won this one. During that while was when I went through high school, actually. I had a totally of 3 days of grammar instruction in high school, which came in a creative writing class, of all things. But I was never expected to know any grammar vocabulary beyond what it takes to fillout a MadLibs. But that’s changed. Yesterday my mom—also a writing teacher—texted me to say that she had been helping her 12-year-old grandson diagram sentences. Diagram sentences! I didn’t know that had been happening since the fifties: bowling leagues, Tupperware parties and diagramming sentences and here’s my nephew, in a generally progressive school, diagramming sentences! I shouldn’t be too surprised, though—I’ve noticed that each year my freshmen student enter with more and more background in grammar. This has led to the odd situation where sometimes my students know more about formal grammar than I do. So to talk about their use of grammar in the classroom, Jeremy and Eric are going to present their own perspectives on the matter.






Direct download: Kolln_Hartwell_and_grammar.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 3:16pm CDT