Grammar lessons not the solution to undergrad writing woes

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

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.


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.