What Do We Value in Grammar?

After reading Hartwell’s article “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” as well as the other blog entries

on the topic, I found that before I can even take a stance on

“the grammar issue,” it essential to address the following question:

what is the purpose of teaching grammar? Neelam introduces the idea that

one function of formal grammar instruction is to fuel the internalization of grammar.

I found it interesting that she compares herself with other students who had the

same instruction but were not able to internalize the rules. This makes me wonder:

is formal grammar instruction is the primary factor that influences effective 

internalization of the rules, or perhaps is it more effective to practice in engaging in conversation and reading, internalizing 

the patterns through seeing and hearing them modeled? 

I suppose there is research on this topic. Hartwell introduces several studies that

suggest that formal grammar instruction does not correlate with effective applic

ation (205 and 220). Of course, I am not denying Neelam’s experience with internalization but questioning whether or

not the reason that Neelam’s classmates did not

internalize the language as successfully is that not all students learn effectively from

formal instruction.

Bringing this back to my original question: is the purpose of grammar instruction to aid

internalization? Massimo made an insightful comment when he pointed out that his

“sophisticated knowledge of grammar and spelling did not help [him] at all to

communicate effectively with [his] new American friends.” From this statement,

Massimo associates grammar more with ease of communication than with writing.

I am sure that his papers in school were written nearly flawlessly, but what he valued

more was the ability to communicate effectively with peers. Perhaps having perfect

grammar in colloquial conversations is, in fact, socially debilitating in certain contexts

(particularly for younger people), because a speaker can be speaking too formal.

Therefore, even though Massimo undoubtedly internalized the formal rules of grammar,

this is not what he valued from his formal grammar instruction. So, basically,

I am inquiring: What do we value in grammar? Correctness or basic communication? Internalization? Something else?


2 thoughts on “What Do We Value in Grammar?

  1. One thing that I have noticed is that learning a language seems to be extremely grammar intensive. I know that when I take foreign language classes, I learn all sorts of fancy grammar terms. I am not sure what to do with them in English besides jumping out from behind the podium and yelling “USE THE PASSIVE PERIPHRASTIC” at innocent students who ought to know it. However, when I worked as a writing tutor, I ended up having to help ELL students understand grammar constructions that, as a native English speaker, I didn’t know that they existed—specifically how modal verbs change when they are used in direct/quoted or indirect/reported speech: http://www.learnenglish.de/grammar/reportedspeech.html

    The students did seem to prefer learning the grammar rules. I know I do with learning a foreign language because I can measure what I have learned. My students would also practice their American accents also so that it would be easier for them to get better paying jobs.


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