Constructing a grammar course for journalism undergraduates

Commenters on my previous post discussed the fear that contemplating grammar induces in adults who never learned it in grammar school.  Those of us stuck with the results of K-12’s failure to teach grammar face these questions: What are the most effective ways to teach grammar to college students? What can we hope for?

The first principle to establish with our students is the value of learning grammar. Some of us — those who teach in journalism schools, at least — have the advantage of teaching students who already see themselves as writers, or at least as people to whom writing is important. When I say that on the first day of grammar class, it’s as though the students suddenly sit up straighter. They like that idea and embrace it eagerly.

Taking on that label–“writer”– enables them to move to the next step: identifying what writers need to do to improve. We are writers; words are our tools. We use them to construct sentences, and we use our sentences to build longer pieces of writing. We want our writing to be sturdy. Knowing the names of our tools and what each is used for — the right tool for the job! — helps us write clearly and with control.

University of Missouri J-School Professor Emeritus Don Ranly makes a compelling argument along these lines in his limited-edition set of videotapes called “Ranly on Grammar,” of which I have a treasured copy. He says — and I’m paraphrasing — Why shouldn’t we get grammar and syntax and punctuation right? And why shouldn’t we call parts of speech by their right names? Would you trust a surgeon who asked an assistant in the operating room: “Hand me that sharp, pointy thing that I use for cutting, would you? I used to know what it was called, but I’ve forgotten.”

As dismaying as it may seem, a college grammar class should start with nouns and verbs and then move to phrases and clauses and subjects and predicates, which all have to come at once. It is dangerous to assume that students know what any of these terms mean. Everything must be explained and illustrated. Clauses, in particular, are difficult for students to grasp and retain, so the explanations and illustrations must continue throughout the course. After independent clauses come the dependent clauses, both subordinate and relative. Such terms are “grammar-y,” I tell my students, but we have to call things by their right names. And then restrictive and nonrestrictive elements, with some punctuation thrown in by necessity, and then pronouns, and then verbs, and so on.

It’s not a linear path. It’s more of a spiral. Verbals, for example — gerunds and participles and infinitives, words that are derived from verbs but function as another part of speech –need some exposure very early in the course. They are so commonplace in our speech and writing (“writing” is a gerund, and watch out — here come two infinitives) that to leave them too long without explanation is to court confusion. Like clauses, verbals need to be explained and illustrated again and again. Prepositions, too, cause problems. Often, I find I must digress to explain a grammatical concept that is weeks away on the syllabus but that the students need to know immediately to understand the sentence we’re examining. When we circle back to that concept later, it’s at least vaguely familiar to them.

Because our grammar lab is linked in our curriculum with our entry-level reporting class, my colleague Ann Horbey and I use journalistic examples to illustrate grammar points, and we derive my exercises from news stories. When I put examples on the board, I use sentences that could appear in the kinds of news stories the students discuss in their reporting sections: The mayors or the governor (is/are) to travel to Washington to protest cuts in federal highway spending –that sort of thing. Using sentences from a single news story to compose an exercise sheet is a subtle but effective way to link the classroom with what students read and write elsewhere. The continuity and relevance of this approach create more meaning than the isolated, unrelated sentences of much grammar instruction. When we practice copy editing, we use news stories that we’ve doctored by inserting errors that the students have to find.

This approach, incidentally — using news stories as the basis of instruction — is one recommended by both David Mulroy, the classics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “The War Against Grammar,” and Bernard L. Madison, a math professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who created a terrific quantitative literacy course at his institution; more on that another time.

But beyond the mechanics of the course, four elements are crucial to inspiring students to take their grammar studies seriously. First, the grammar instructor must love words and — here’s where I get really nerdy, but too bad — must be as passionate about proper sentence structure as she is about anything else that she teaches. “Passionate about proper sentence structure.” Yes, really.

Grammar instructors have to be people whose inner copy editors speak with a loud voice. The right instructors are those who mutter about misplaced modifiers or pronouns that disagree, about “thats” that mean “which” or “who,” about missing or too-plentiful commas. But they can’t be pedants. The second crucial element for teachers a sense of humor about their passion. They encourage students to laugh at the surface manifestations of grammar nerdiness while recognizing that underneath burns the cleansing fire of clarity and conciseness.

Third, knowledge. I put this after passion and humor because of my own experience as a grammar teacher. Thanks to my mother, Rhoda Selvin, whose inner copy editor nurtured my own, and to my sixth-grade teacher at North Country Elementary School, Dorothy Strong, who taught us sentence diagramming, and to my lifelong love of literature, I came to teaching in 1999 with a good ear for sentence flow. I figured I wouldn’t need to teach grammar because college students would already know it. How wrong I was. After two semesters, I decided I couldn’t grade harshly for grammar mistakes when the students had never learned proper grammar, and I began to incorporate weekly grammar instruction into my reporting and writing courses. Here’s a confession: I didn’t really know what a clause was, or a participle, or a gerund. I had to teach myself. It took several semesters before I felt I’d begun to master the material. So knowledge can be earned if the passion is present.

Finally, patience.  College students have been speaking, reading and writing with reasonable success for years. Their bad grammar habits are deeply ingrained and just as difficult to quit as any vice. Patience, repetition and sympathy are crucial. What one can hope for in an introductory college grammar class is that students awaken to the rules of grammar and increase their awareness as they read and write. One course won’t magically transform them into E.B. White, but the good writers, the ones who really care, will continue to think about and study the rules of clear writing long after the course concludes.

    • Ellen Whitford
    • July 16th, 2010

    Marvelous post, Barbara.

  1. Wonderful post. I used to be a skillful writer and editor who thought I knew all the rules of grammar and punctuation even though I lacked some of the terminology, and guess what? I was wrong! Teaching a grammar course helped me remedy my own lapses in knowledge–lapses caused by my education in the early 70s when grammar was not taught in Illinois elementary and middle schools.
    I tell my students that grammar is the HTML of the English language. We code and decode together. Some of the students love the class, as I do, because it reveals the machinery behind proper writing. Some are frustrated by what appear to them to be arbitrary rules. All of them need reinforcement over time if the learning is to stick.
    Thanks for a great post and for beating the drum for grammar instruction for journalism students!

    • “The HTML of the English language” — I love it! Feed the dog the way it wants to be fed.

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