Grammar, and Expectations, and Writing, Oh My!

In “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” Hartwell introduces five different “grammars” and argues that the traditional formal grammar instruction, especially Grammar 4 “school grammar” (211), should be abandoned.

Traditional grammar instruction is not normally associated with joy. In fact, the word “grammar” often conjures up feelings of fear, hesitation, and a general sense of “we have to do this, so let’s get this over with.”  Not the ideal situation for encouraging students to become better writers, or even people who want to write at all.

The idea of grammar instruction in the English classroom is a deeply rooted idea. That is what students expect in English classrooms, that is what parents expect, often what administrators (depending on the level) expect, and even sometimes what other English teachers expect.

Writing teachers are faced with the difficult task of improving students as writers. The traditional thought is that having the vocabulary of language (i.e. grammar) will give students the vocabulary and awareness to discuss and improve their writing. However, many times grammar is not taught in context and the direct instruction does not help writing. If grammar (and it depends on which of the five grammars one is actually teaching) is to be taught, it must have a direct impact on the writer’s situation.

To become better writers, students need to be transparently shown the writing process from the writing expert in the room, the teacher. This could be seen as a master/apprentice relationship, a la James Paul Gee and “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.”

The “master” teaches the “apprentice” the vocabulary and tools of the trade. Sometimes this is explicit instruction including a shared vocabulary (which could include grammatical features) and often it is about observing the “master” at work. Gee acknowledges this: “Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction […], but by enculturation (“apprenticeship”) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse (Cazden, 1988; Heath, 1983)” (7). Thus, writing teachers should be willing to show their own writing process in as “real time” as possible, and giving students access to what it takes to be a successful writer.

Current trends in the secondary world involve this idea of the teacher writing with the students, making the once opaque process transparent. In conjunction with teacher-as-writer, the idea of noticing writer’s craft in “mentor” texts is prevalent as well, which also harkens to the “master/apprentice” model. (See Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher)

If writing is something that can be taught (and I believe that it is), we as teachers have an obligation to tell students the truth about writing: it is not the nice, linear process that it is sometimes sold as. It is not a simple set of worksheets to be completed. It is, to use a technical term, messy. And we have to be willing to walk with them in order to lead them through that complicated and often risky process.


1. Hartwell cites Richard H. Haswell’s “Minimal Marking” in which he “notes that his students correct 61.1% of their errors when they are identified with a simple mark in the margin rather than by error type” (Hartwell 223).  Haswell’s minimal marking still leaves 38.9% of errors uncorrected. I am not a statistically-minded person, but does this not seem like a rather large gap? What strategies are in place for those 38.9%?

2. In order for students to write, they must first have something to say. Reading extensively not only helps students internalize grammar, but it helps them have a rich background knowledge, providing them with content. What role should reading have in the composition classroom?

3. What role should Grammar 3, or “linguistic etiquette” (210), play in the writing classroom?


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