There is a long tradition of university and college instructors lamenting the state of grammar in their students’ writing. Students’ syntax and spelling are perceived to not meet the language standard instructors expect, so goes the complaint. Sometimes instructors send students resources to test their grammar or complete grammar tutorials. Sometimes instructors play with the idea of designing lessons that address particular problems with grammar, issues they see occur with some frequency in students’ assignments. Instructors might gather exercises so students learn to ensure subject-verb agreement, distinction between adjectives and adverbs, or appropriate verb tense. Most often, perhaps, instructors think or say that students must learn how to master these grammatical issues, but not in their course. Their course isn’t a course on grammar, after all. Very few courses are. Their course doesn’t afford time to talk about language mechanics in this way. And in almost all cases they are right. It doesn’t.
The practice of taking note of students’ imperfect command of standardized grammar rules is rooted in correctness. A language ideology that values correctness foregrounds that there are correct and incorrect ways of using syntax and spelling. Correctness says there are mistakes and they need to be fixed for the writing to be good. Correctness says errors must always be identified and the appropriate response to them are grammar practice and correction.
When thinking about the grammar of student assignments in terms of correctness, the idea of good grammar becomes a threshold. And that threshold is usually placed outside the course or program in question. Students with correct or correct-enough grammar are ready for university writing; others are not. Students with correct grammar deserve to be in this course; others will not find here the help they need. If those others want to do well in university, they should look for a way to fix their grammar on their own time.
Whether or not you as instructor hold this particular view about correctness, we can all recognize that it does not aid our teaching. Something that we can not or will not include in our course does not further our pedagogy. Complaints about students’ incorrect grammar that do not actually lead to good instruction about writing are like complaints about the clouds passing our office window. With the difference that the clouds do not have feelings and are not placed into our intellectual care.
There is another way to think about grammar in your course. To recognize grammar as functional opens up new ways of perceiving, analyzing, and teaching it. Choices of words, phrases, sentence structure are part of how we get things done with language. Thinking of the functional nature of grammatical choices illuminates how language helps us perform in different situations. Attending to the functions of language choices moves our interest in students’ use of grammar towards what we want them to be able to do with their writing as well as what agency they want to assert in the process. Varying the structures of language in our speech and writing is a way to communicate. Attention to grammar in its functions thus becomes part of the interface with which we apprehend students’ thoughts, with which we get to know our students and allow them to feel seen as thinkers. The question of better teaching around grammar becomes, in what way can we encourage students to use grammar to communicate more elegantly, be more in tune with the disciplinary discourse, and understand the genres in which they are writing?
Where correctness focuses on mistakes, it fosters a corrective attitude. Hunt for the errors. Kill them. Or, feel ashamed and embarrassed about them. Functional grammar takes a more constructive approach: grammar is a resource with which we create expression, with which we mold our words for readers and situations, with which we enact our stylistic ambitions. While some grammar teaching spends a lot of time on identification, description, and definition of linguistic components, a functional approach is more attentive to what words do in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Some linguistic terminology — or metalanguage — will need to be involved, but the choice is flexible and can be limited to particular aspects that instructors wish to foreground. The aim is to support student writers’ metalinguistic thinking and decision-making, not to place technical language in their way as one would with thresholds and obstacles. Metalinguistic thinking means developing knowledge about language, noticing how grammar mediates and conveys meaning, and being able to extend that awareness to future activities.
It takes some effort for instructors to make themselves familiar with functional ways of analyzing the writing they want students to produce. Depending on the genre that students are asked to write, that can involve becoming familiar with the roles of noun phrases, definitions and appositives, modal expressions, reporting verbs, pronouns, or boosters and hedges. Or any other aspect that’s above the level of words and phrases. I recommend taking a sample piece of writing — perhaps the professional version of what students are asked to produce (like I did in the above slide) — and focusing on one or two language elements that seem central and typical in this type of writing. Perhaps it is forms of citation that bring concepts from different sources together. Perhaps it is the adverbs that are used to pivot an argument, to place emphasis, or to express evaluation. Perhaps it is verb forms, passive and active constructions, that relate concepts to each other. Perhaps one semester it is one element, and the next semester another that receives this kind of attention. A lesson can only teach so much; a course can only delve into so few aspects of writing. The important part is to integrate what we say about grammar into the purposes for which students write. In this way, attention to functional grammar enables students to conceive of their writing in more creative and playful ways. They learn to think of grammar as a repertoire of possibilities with which they can structure and experiment — in this one course and beyond it.
Thinking of the functional nature of the grammatical features that instructors like to see and reward in students’ writing can benefit instruction for written assignments in all fields. Yes, even in fields like physics or mathematics that, traditionally, do not think of themselves as also teaching language when instructing students in how to produce their assignments. It takes time, however. It asks for novel preparation. It requires adaptation to fit it to assignments and courses in different fields of study. In other words, thinking of grammar in functional ways demands that we instructors attend to language in a similarly dedicated, intensive, and creative way as we often expect of students in the written assignments we ask them to produce.
* “Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?” is an awesome song about grammar from Schoolhouse Rock. I was introduced to it in high school not long after the Wall came down. Naomi, an undergraduate student from Portland, Oregon, came for one year to live in the East German town where I went to high school and taught us conversational English.