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Grammar lessons not the solution to undergrad writing woes

University students across the nation will be handing in their first assignments of the academic year over the next few weeks. Academic staff will sigh, as they do every semester: “my students can’t write…

There are other ways to improve undergraduate writing that don’t involve teaching grammar explicitly. Writing image from www.shutterstock.com

University students across the nation will be handing in their first assignments of the academic year over the next few weeks.

Academic staff will sigh, as they do every semester: “my students can’t write,” “high school graduates are not ready for university,” “if you can’t write an essay, how will you get a job?”

It was refreshing to hear ANU’s Erica Bexley break free from the frustrated chorus and recommend a solution in The Conversation recently. But her suggestion of grammar lessons taught within the context of individual disciplines may not necessarily help students.

Letter-perfect

Bexley rightly identifies grammar as fundamental to effective communication, particularly written communication. Taking her cue from the new Australian English Curriculum for primary and secondary schooling, which includes grammar instruction, Bexley urges universities to continue this learning stream at a tertiary level.

Bexley observes that when transitioning students encounter “discipline-specific content and new forms of analysis, their writing often takes a step backwards.” Here Bexley correctly implies that even capable writers regress under the pressure of multiple tasks in different subject areas.

Bexley’s solution is for universities to provide academic literacy instruction within the context of specific disciplines, presumably with a focus on grammar. For example, a one-semester course might focus on writing in psychology, another might concentrate on writing for engineering, and another might prioritise writing for literary studies.

This model is likely suitable for postgraduate students enrolled in degrees that focus on one subject area with few electives. But the solution may not be appropriate for undergraduate students who experience many different disciplinary environments during their degree.

Disciplined thinking

To borrow an image from US scholar Jacqueline Jones Royster, the best way to think of academic disciplines is as “small boats on a big sea”. We need to understand that disciplines are distinct communities with unique ways of communicating.

And yet, first-year university students must sink or swim as they move between various subject areas. In a typical degree program it is rare that a first-year undergraduate enrols in courses from less than four different disciplines.

The crossdisciplinary experience of students must lead to questions about the feasibility of discipline-based writing support. Would, for instance, a first-year student enrolled in English, History, Psychology, and Sociology take a writing course in each of these areas?

There are also questions about whether grammar instruction can prepare students for crossdisciplinary experiences.

Grammar instruction is useful for general communication, but it cannot teach students how to communicate in the specific communities of scholarship.

Knowledge of grammar, of course, does not necessarily mean a student has the ability to formulate an idea. Nor does it mean they can test that idea, or convincingly deliver it to various audiences.

Rhetorical questions

Many leading US universities have taken a different approach to writing instruction. There, large first-year writing classes are often taught using the theory and pedagogy of rhetoric and composition.

In such classes, rhetoric does not refer to the manipulative or meaningless language that politicians often accuse each other of using. What we’re talking about here is the study of the 2,300 year-old tradition of Aristotelian rhetoric where students learn to reason through possible opposing points of view and then select sound, ethical, and convincing ways to make an argument.

Grammar instruction is often experienced as an accuracy test of written products. Students are assessed on their final essay or exam. But rhetoric-based instruction focuses on the effectiveness of a student’s writing process.

Students practising academic rhetoric learn to prepare communicative strategies for various audiences. They ask “what is the most appropriate way to communicate with a specific audience?”

By changing and adapting their message for different audiences, students learn not only how to sail the boat they’re in, but how to sail any boat.

After all, the leaders of tomorrow must be successful rhetoricians, communicating across various specialisations in their workplace.

The best of both worlds

It is important to recognise though that the creation of first-year courses on rhetoric and writing would not make grammar courses redundant. They would complement each other.

Were universities to take up Bexley’s suggestion and assess all students’ writing needs on entry to university, it is likely that students would fall into two categories. There would be those who benefit from practising both grammar and rhetoric. And there would be those who do not require additional instruction in grammar but who would benefit from practising rhetoric.

Allowing for further training in rhetoric and the option of explicit grammar instruction, students would have the best of both worlds, improving their academic writing and the skills needed for success in the workplace.

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34 Comments sorted by

  1. Pasquale Lazzaro

    Commentator

    Why not recommend they sign up for existing philosophy courses?

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Pasquale Lazzaro

      Why not only recruit adults who are actually literate, as an normal 14 year old is?

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    2. Cat Mack

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Pasquale Lazzaro

      I have always thought that philosophy departments should receive extra funding for the service they provide to other disciplines. For a 1000 years I taught first year students the fundamentals of reasoning, argument construction and yes,,, academic essay writing. And all via the first year philosophy program. It seemed to be just taken for granted by (many - most?) other disciplines that this was the function of philosophy. Having looked at the marking of essays coming from other disciplines I could see students often get no help there. So here is the question, since philosophy provides this service to other disciplines - and actually we do have more interesting things to do - why should other disciplines not pay for the service? Thoughts?

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    3. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Cat Mack

      Cat, isn't a large part of a university department's undergraduate teaching budget allocated on a per-student basis? Philosophy departments do not provide any "service" to "other disciplines." Philosophy departments teach whoever enrols in Philosophy 101. In that sense, ALL undergrad Philosophy students will be from other disciplines. Does the Philosophy department pay the History, Spanish, or Biology department for the Philosophy undergrads they teach?

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    4. Cat Mack

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      I think maybe the point has been missed. The 'service' the philosophy provides other departments is not teaching philosophy to History, Spanish, Biology students etc. The 'service' is teaching these students how to write an academic essay. This is above and beyond teaching any student philosophy.

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    5. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Cat Mack

      I'm not sure that's completely true Cat, in that I don't think philosophy has got exclusive rights to the disciplines required.

      I'd suggest that there's really only one way to learn to write and express ideas well ... that is by immersing oneself in it - lots of reading and lots of writing.

      One of the expendable aspects of teaching that has been jettisoned in response to reduced resources has seen essays reduced to a hurdle - two or three a year, quickly marked and diminished to a form of…

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    6. Cat Mack

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Ok.. just one more before I really must get to work. Peter of course it isn't 'completely' true that I taught undergraduate philosophy for 1000 years nor that other disciplines never taught (teach) writing skills.

      My first post was just a tad tongue in cheek. ... Although my long experience teaching undergrad philosophy did seem to confirm a general trend, i.e., it was being left to philosophy to really teach the basics of essay writing and reasoning. (But I wouldn't swear that this continues…

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    7. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Cat Mack

      I did have a hunch (technical term) that the 1,000 years of hard philosophising labour was a bit too greek myth to be totally true... not sure what sort of sin one would need to commit to have incurred such a penance - but there are deeper truer truths than mere facts aren't there and I'd suspect that'd be one of them - even if muffled by the tongue planted on the cheek.

      Logic is handy true, but it does not ensure good communication. I have a lot of trouble wading through the most logical of…

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  2. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    I remember returning to Melbourne University in the early 80's, studying part-time while working full-time to complete a degree I never got around to finishing in the 70s (that was the 70s, after all!) and I enrolled in a first year subject they called 'Literary Studies' (it had just been renamed and had been running in roughly the same format for years under the name 'Rhetoric'). While it had some more purely 'literary' elements (we all did damage to the noble art of the sonnet in iambic pentameter…

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      What you describe was the first part of the European liberal arts education, for nearly 2,000 years. Part 1 - "Trivium" - consisted of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. You cannot compose great rhetoric, unless you have already mastered logic and grammar. And anybody who has ever taken a Logic course in the Philosophy department learns pretty quickly just how sharp their command of grammar is; to both compose logical thoughts and critique the logic of others. Much of the reason for the spectacular collapse in undergraduate writing ability was learning no grammar in school, and no Logic at university.

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  3. Kate Rowan-Robinson

    Registered Nurse/Sexology Student

    As part of my Undergraduate degree, attending a private university, we had to undertake core units as part of the programme. While at the time I was certain they were just looking for ways to take more money from students, I can now see the value in (some) of the units. Communications was mandatory for all first year/first semester students and philosophy had to be undertaken at some point. I enjoyed philosophy, though many didn't, and found it extremely useful for constructing arguments in future essays.

    I didn't get much value from other core units, but I see how these 2 units can hold a lot of value for new undergraduate students. Not just for students straight out of high school either; beginning university is just as intimidating for mature aged students, who would likely be grateful for the pointers.

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  4. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    "transitioning"!!!!!????? &%##!

    Ah yes those abstract verbs are the elephant in the room going forward innit?

    Easy cure for this grunting tweeter cohort of students .... lots of reading, lots of writing - short pieces every week... used to be called teaching.

    That'd be "educationing" nowdays I guess.

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Yes, there's quite a bit of 'transitioning' going on over the summer hols nowadays; what with compulsory "sexual and gender identity diversity", a lot of the 'mirls', 'goys', and 'transcurious' will be tucking into their hormone patches, injections, getting boob jobs, and 'the chop' over the Summer, before making their debut as 'Bree', 'Honor Back', 'Butch', and 'Dolly' in the first class of "Destabilising Transphobic Australian Tourism Marketing".

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    2. Mitch Dillon

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Pretty happy with 'transitioning', actually. The meaning is immediately apparent. It probably breaks a few rules, but I'll leave that to the grammar nazis.
      Yep, reading a wide range of things worked for me, not excrutiatingly boring analyses of passages highlighting adjectival clauses and the like. I never mastered them in the 60's, and I've never needed to since.
      Grammar is important, especially in the world of university academia- a temporary contrivance for most, where many well-constructed essays and reports are faulted on a misplaced comma in bibliographies.
      However, having something to say is important also. The author states "Knowledge of grammar, of course, does not necessarily mean a student has the ability to formulate an idea. Nor does it mean they can test that idea, or convincingly deliver it to various audiences." Clearly, encouraging ideas, and critiquing other ideas in an environment that encourages such interaction is a prerequisite to expressing those ideas.

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    3. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      How about "educationing", Mitch... dictioning... it's a symptom of a limited vocabulary It's a curiously American notion this "ing-ing" a perfectly flaccid abstract noun and transformationing it into a doing word. Verbs without action.

      There was a bit of a chat on TC a month ago where I went off on an adventure trying to work out where "grammar" actually came from, when and why. Deeply political and immensely powerful the whole business - constructing a uniform language - like building a railway…

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    4. Mitch Dillon

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Sulphur or Sulfur? Both are used and tolerated.
      Yes language is cultural. Spelling also.
      Conversional English is affirmative, economic and attractive, hence 'down for' rather than 'my priorities are.'
      There will always be a better way of describing something - if one cares to pursue it, and the 'ings' are merely a way of extending the language quickly and reasonably accurately, in most cases, in order to get a message across.

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    5. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      I am a big fan of the vernacular Mitch ... in particular the Australian use of words is often poetic and deeply subversive.

      I am even a fan of some American spellings given their Olde Time roots rather than the fiendish Francified fancies of English English.

      But that is not to say one can invent one's own spellings and expect to be taken seareeously... like some fella wringing his hands obsessively about the "ammount" of debt we have taken on. That just indicates he hasn't actually read much…

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    6. Mitch Dillon

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I enjoy to varying degrees, language-play in all its forms.
      Putting double-em in amount might indeed be indicative of subversion, but it also won't stop said writer from seeing through the rhetoric in commentary about debt that is regularly purveyed by some of those who use the conventional spelling of the language in order to obfuscate and delude.

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    7. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      Knot subversioning nuffink Mitch - ignerrunce innit?

      Maiks won wunder wye ennyone studdies Ekonomix atall rilly when its awl jest commen cents and dussnt kneed know fency booklernin to unnerstan itawl ennyhow.

      Airfreewon noe's thet sirplusses iz awlwaize rilly topz n thet deffycits n debt iz alwaize badd ... simpal rilly. Dunno wye thees guvvermints carnty jess getton wiff itt n runn the plaice loik a cawna shopp aw a baykers.

      Loik unnerstanning thet the Reeserf Benk is rilly oned buy guvvermint and setts innerest raites baised onn ow whell the guvvermints gowin gettin uss beck inner sirpluss, knott spendin nuffink n pain orf det an awl. Sew simpull evern a kidd ken unnerstan itt!

      Airfreewon noes thet ... jus obveouse innit ... jess commen cents loik spellin.

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    8. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "There was a bit of a chat on TC a month ago where I went off on an adventure trying to work out where "grammar" actually came from, when and why"
      Peter, I bowed out of that discussion before it finished, but now I get where you were coming from in raising Chomsky. I was talking about my experience reading his political rhetoric. You were talking about what made him famous - his ideas about grammar being more 'hard-wired' into the human brain than had been thought. I have never studied Chomsky's…

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  5. Geoff Taylor

    Consultant

    Well, for those students coming from Australian schools, what needs to be done there in relation to correct use of language and ability to present a case?
    As to continuing language and rhetoric learning as part of most university courses, it should be a given, but does it really need to be discipline-specific, except perhaps for vocabulary?

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  6. Kim Darcy

    Analyst

    A lot of this problem is already fixing itself. NAPLAN tests sat in Years 3,5,7 & 9 include a separate test on "Language Conventions", which covers spelling, punctuation, and grammar. By the time they finish Year 12, they will have a much stronger and more confident command of English, than the last generation had. These kids will be the first Australian public school students in nearly 40 years to receive a thorough education in the English language.

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  7. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Somehow I think our basic education standards are about as good as what Labor unity is right now and maybe it's all about too much use of computers and the onset of texting etc.
    Like, even Julia's computers in schools program has been squashed a bit and Simon perhaps did not read his text message from Kevin going something like " Where do I get some of what you've been smoking all week "
    And yep, all those Uni students and joints for smoking, boozing and practising yoga positions, all that diversity and none applied to language as it should be it seems.

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  8. Kim Darcy

    Analyst

    "the best way to think of academic disciplines is as “small boats on a big sea. We need to understand that disciplines are distinct communities with unique ways of communicating."
    Benjamin, if you truly believe the attitude of that American lady you just quoted with such approval, then we are having a whole different conversation. That is not the attitude of a scholar, an academic, or an intellectual, and I would hate for our universities to be taken over by the nauseating narcissism that I saw…

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    1. Ian Jessup

      Retrenched Journalist

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      No doubt part of this problem is that increasing numbers of full-fee paying students are from overseas countries where English is not their first language. And they often complain when they get bad marks... as if their 'wealthy status' entitles them to an automatic pass. Unis don't want to kick up a fuss or lose that revenue so they just pass them. Having said that, I have read on occasion some uni essays from Australian students and they can barely construct an argument. Intellectual rigour in much of public life seems to be absent.

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  9. Citizen SG

    Citizen

    The worst thing that a lecturer can do is be a grammar nazi and penalise a student for every breach of grammatical rules that may not actually exist.
    Essays are about communication and if a student can express an idea, including the constructiojn of logical argumentation, than it really doesn't matter if they split some infinitives (which is a preposterous rule anyway).
    I have students from european backgrounds who express arguments beautifully but occasionally will transpose sentences. Who cares.
    I have students with perfect grammar who couldn't create an original thought if they had a gun to their heads. I care about that.
    To me the solution is, as the author suggests: liberal arts should be injected into our undergraduate curriculums - because it is ideas and their construction and communication that is important.
    those that would deny that English is an ever-evolving communicative medium should be made to eat their grammar texts.

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Seamus, grammar is THE foundation of a liberal arts education.

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    2. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Hi Kim,
      Interesting, I wasn't aware of that but still I don't know if it's necessary to teach it at the university level as it is hardwired into us. Mind you what I mean by grammar (logical sentence construction, tense agreements etc) might be different to what another means by grammar (rules of writing).

      We could, of course, teach english grammar in undergrad studies but i wonder what the point is. All the students that I teach seem to be able to speak grammatically and recognise ungrammatical speech, but some cannot write grammatically.

      i wonder if we need to teach writing (not the physical performance but the cognitive process)... now this makes sense from a neurostructural and neurolinguistic perspective as the motor speech and motor digital areas are two different neuro-modules.

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  10. Michael Carey

    Lecturer in Education at University of the Sunshine Coast

    Why do we always have to hear that teaching and learning about one aspect of language should dominate over others? Rhetoric has become such a pejorative term associated with "hidden persuaders", and I'd hate to see us move to a focus on "logical argument" to prepare students when explicit grammar knowledge (integrated traditional and functional grammar) is still overwhelmingly what students lack and logical argument isn't the only type of evidence, nor is it essential within some academic discourses…

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Michael Carey

      Michael, that is a very point about the malaise in Australian undergraduate education. Most of our universities lack not only philosophy and linguistics departments, but even history!

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  11. Roger Carter

    logged in via Facebook

    It's nice to see philosophy getting some ticks in the other comments. It is a pity all students do not have to do a foundational philosophy course where they can learn the rudiments of logic, clear argument (rhetoric), epistemology etc. These things are basic for clear thinking and communication in all disciplines.

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  12. George Michaelson

    Person

    I think there is a real dichotomy between people who cannot stand having to intuit the meaning of somebody's writing, and people who don't care much about how you say it, and will go an extra mile to try and understand what you said.

    I think some F-MRI is called for. put these poor buggers into the box and force 'em to look at badly written ideas which are deep, and well written ideas which are shallow, and see which bits light up..

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  13. steven larsen

    logged in via email @gmail.com

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