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
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
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.
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
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