Grammar Instruction in Bcomm: Is There a Better Way?

My method of teaching grammar in bcomm isn’t working. That’s a fact I finally faced last semester when, at the end of the term, most of my students still couldn’t spot faulty parallelism on a PowerPoint slide.

The method of grammar instruction I’ve been using consists of

1)      handing out a table of common errors, with illustrations of the errors and how to correct them,

2)      marking those errors on student papers, and

3)      collecting problem sentences from student papers and correcting them together in class.

I figured that if I kept the focus on a limited number of common mistakes and hit those hard, the mistakes would go away. The incidence of these problems does go down a little, but not nearly as much as it should given how much time we spend discussing them. (Plus, I suspect that some students just decide to write less complex sentences to try to avoid such mistakes as comma splices and dangling modifiers.)

Some of you, I know, use a much more extensive approach, starting with parts of speech, moving to types of sentences, and then discussing different types of modifying phrases. But I’m resisting this approach because I don’t want to devote so much class time to grammar instruction, and I’m not sure that having students do grammar tutorials on their own does much good (maybe I’m wrong). I’m also not sure that this form of instruction is the best way to give students power over their sentences.

An idea of a better way came to me recently, in the form of an article from The Atlantic that a friend shared with me. The article tells the story of the “Writing Revolution” at New Dorp, a high school on Staten Island that had been one of the lowest-performing schools in the country. The principal and her faculty extensively explored why students were failing, and the answer, they found, was “bad writing.” The students couldn’t “translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays,” and this lack of skill was “severely impeding [their] intellectual growth.”

Their solution was to incorporate analytical writing into every subject, from English to history to chemistry. But that’s not all; they also explained explicitly to the students how to combine information in sentences to express logical relationships and complex ideas. They had students practice writing sentences including the words “and” and “but,” “if,” “although,” and “unless,” and to complete sentences starting with such words as “I disagree with ___ because . . . .”

I began to consider what such an approach might look like in a bcomm course, and I recalled the form of grammar instruction I was encouraged to use when I first came the University of Cincinnati, in the early ‘80s. It was a method developed by the then director of composition, Jim Berlin, and his composition colleague Glenn Broadhead, and it was based on an approach called generative grammar (also known as the sentence-combining approach).

Berlin and Broadhead’s method basically consists of these steps:

  • Teach students to understand what nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs do.
  • Introduce students to four basic sentence patterns (noun + verb, noun + verb + noun, noun +linking verb + noun, noun + linking verb + adjective) and the ways they can be inverted and combined.
  • Have students practice adding “bound modifiers” to these sentences (these are modifiers that aren’t set off by pauses in speech or by punctuation).
  • Teach students about the different kinds of “free modifiers” (constructions that can be moved around, such as subordinate clauses and –ing phrases) at their disposal.

I haven’t worked out an actual lesson plan based on this approach, but I plan to. I like its less atomistic approach; that is, students don’t have to learn all the parts of speech and types of clauses/phrases up front without understanding how they’re related to thought and meaning.  I also like the positive focus on what can be said using the sentence elements and patterns that are available rather than focusing on errors, as I’ve been doing. (But I do think Berlin and Broadhead’s approach gets unnecessarily complicated once the basics are covered, so I don’t plan to adopt the whole approach.)

I’ll be presenting a paper on this topic in a few weeks at the Association for Business Communication’s combined Midwest-Southeast regional meeting. I’m eager to hear what my audience thinks of this approach—and I hope you will respond to this post with your reactions as well.

As we bcomm teachers know, the sad reality is that our students largely missed out on grammar instruction when they were coming up through the public school system, and our college-level composition courses teach almost anything but grammar. If we want our students to write correctly and well, it’ll be up to us. Please share what works—or doesn’t—for you.

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