The Student Voice
The following is an essay written by an undergraduate at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Brandie Reed's essay was selected as the first of many student essays to be published in AEQ. These essays will reflect students' concerns about their education, and those of us who teach can indeed learn from those concerns.

Brandie, for example, points out that she has not been taught the "rules" of grammar until quite late in her undergraduate education. Since she will be a teacher of language arts herself, she is alarmed by her lack of knowledge. How will she teach her own students the fundamentals of English if she has not been taught them in the first place?

Composition teachers have been divided over this issue since the early 1960s when several influential studies concluded that teaching grammar does not in itself improve student writing. In fact, the clearest and most forceful statement regarding grammar and writing came from an NCTE study in 1963: "The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing" (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer).

One unintended consequence of this statement has been that many writing instructors have either minimized grammar study or largely ignored it while teaching composition. Perhaps, as Brandie Reed so earnestly says, those of us who teach writing should reconsider our position on this matter.

Dr. Ben Varner, University of Northern Colorado

Dripping Red Ink: An Argument for Teaching Traditional Grammar
by Brandie Reed, senior at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO
The techniques used in teaching composition have changed dramatically 
over the years. English was once taught through practice, imitation, 
and close attention to the rules of grammar. Horror stories abound 
about the nun who would slap small, innocent hands for the slightest 
grammatical infraction. The reality is that these stories have become 
a memory, and now it is rare to find a teacher who focuses on grammar 
when grading student writing. In the classroom, students are not 
drilled on traditional grammar, and the future teacher is told that 
it is better to mark only a few mistakes than to mark every mistake 
in a student's paper. My experience is that most teachers look at 
emotive and creative writing instead of casting a critical eye on 
grammar. As a member of the generation of students falling in the 
middle of the paradigm shift, I am now a student who lacks the 
traditional grammar that I need to write a competent essay at the 
college level, a factor that bolsters my belief that the focus in 
writing should shift back to a focus on traditional grammar.

The traditional method of teaching composition often focused on the 
quality of the final product. This type of focus required teachers to 
place more emphasis on the rules governing traditional grammar and 
grammar usage. Students were encouraged to write a perfect final draft 
by writing with care and a complete awareness of grammar rules. 
Students were drilled on their grammar and memorized the rules until 
they became second nature. My great aunt, who is a retired English 
teacher, once told me that it was understood that students would be 
taught how to use the English language properly. English teachers 
marched like drill sergeants at the front of the classroom barking out 
questions and expecting correct answers. I realize that this may be 
exaggerated, but I do know that my parents and grandparents talk about 
the way their English teachers demanded grammatical excellence. The 
result was that students learned grammar even if they did not plan to 
make a career out of writing.

Times changed, and the recommended methods for teaching composition 
changed. Researchers began to look at the process of writing and the 
various methods that would generate ideas in that process. Researchers 
and educators wanted to know what steps were needed to produce a 
well-organized, logical essay. The new method of teaching students to 
write does not mean simple imitation and a command of grammar rules; 
instead, teaching students to write means teaching process and 
encouraging creative thinking. Word maps are then organized into a 
train of thought that is to be splattered onto the page with all the 
creativity of a Jackson Pollock painting. Words are now dripped, 
splashed, and globbed onto the page with the hope that they will be 
praised for the creative forces behind them. The essay is now in a state 
of constant revision, and it is rare to see a teacher mark all 
grammatical errors in a student's paper.

Unfortunately, I was in the middle of the great shift. Grammar was not 
drilled into my head until I could spout the rules of English on a whim. 
Rather than filling in worksheets or pages from a small red grammar book, 
I was left with sheets of paper where I created a spider web of ideas so 
that I could write an essay. My high school teachers praised the ideas 
and spared the red ink. I was passed easily from grade to grade with 
little comment on my writing. Every now and then a teacher would circle 
a comma or ask me to tell the class what a preposition did in a sentence, 
but that was all of the formal grammar training I received. I suppose 
that I was perfectly happy not to be restricted to worksheets and rules, 
but as my college career unfolds, I curse the loss of traditional grammar.

As a future teacher, I find that the paradigm is still centered around 
process rather than product. Methods courses talk about balancing grammar 
and creative process in the classroom, yet I have seen only process taught 
there. I have seen teachers and students sing songs about the eight parts 
of speech, but I have not seen any lessons on the actual use of grammar. 
Students whom I have spoken with are rarely exposed to strict grammar 
rules. The result is that there is an enormous difference in the knowledge 
of a student today as opposed to the knowledge of a student as little as 
eight years ago. Many students today have only a fragment of knowledge 
about grammar, which is a fact that I feel leaves them ill-prepared to 
compete at the college level or to communicate effectively in any written 
form.

Teaching composition cannot focus on only product or process. Instead, 
there should be a combination of teaching both product and process with 
an emphasis on grammar throughout. I have read articles and participated 
in discussions where future teachers are told that it is best to mark a 
paper sparingly, always make at least one positive comment in the margin, 
and never use red ink. There are no classes that show future teachers how 
to teach grammar, and instead they are told not to mark every error in a 
student's paper. I think that strict focus on rules and perfect grammar 
can sometimes discourage and bore a student, yet I wish that one of my 
teachers would have taken the time to fill my head with the rules of 
grammar. Changing the focus on composition is like pulling a tablecloth 
out from under a setting of dishes. Although a student may be able to 
write well enough to pass a few courses, eventually he or she will not be 
able to cover up a lack of knowledge in grammar, and everything will come 
crashing down.

I as well as many other students my age have fallen victim to the loss of 
traditional grammar in the classroom. There may be teachers in the 
classroom who are still focusing on grammar, but my experience is that 
there are few teachers who focus on grammar as much as they should. 
Students may find English easier than they once did, yet they will suffer 
for the convenience in the end. I do not see lessons being taught on 
grammar in the classroom, and in the teaching program, I have not been 
taught to focus on grammar in the classroom. To create a society who can 
communicate effectively, it is important that methods for teaching 
composition move towards teaching the grammar that was once standard in 
the English classroom.
Dear Educator:
The Student Voice welcomes students' essays. The essays should deal with educational issues and be well written, discussing teaching, studying, homework, or any school-related topic of concern to students.
These essays will be an opportunity to encourage students to write and be published, and they will give us, their teachers, a way of learning from them as well. The essays will not be edited.

If you are interested in seeing one of your students' essays published either in hard copy or online, please send me one or two essays that you would consider well done. The essays can be sent either in e-mail or as a Word attachment. Thank you.

Dr. Ben Varner, Associate Professor of English
English Department, University of Northern Colorado
Greeley, CO 80631   USA