Grammar vs. Meaning; The Chicken and The Egg

Patrick Hartwell’s, Grammar, Grammar’s and the Teaching of Grammar, and James Berlin’s, Contemporary Composition arguments captured my engagement and left me curious. I was left wondering with an overall question pertaining to the readings: which is more important, grammar as Hartwell stresses or the meaning of relationships as Berlin claims in contribution with his four dominate groups of pedagogical theory?

To began, Hartwell stresses the importance of grammar and its fundamental need in “mastering literacy” (208). By doing so, Hartwell composes the five meanings of grammar and he demonstrates each “grammar rule”  individually by breaking down the concepts and understandings throughout the chapter.

Berlin believes in four elements of distinct pedagogical approaches are the best way in which instructors teach students. In doing so, he concludes, “learning to write is not a matter of learning the rules that govern the use of the semicolon or the names of the sentence structures, nor is it a matter of manipulating words; it is a matter of making meanings, and that is the work of the active mind” (247).

That being said, Berlin is implying that grammar is not as important as Hartwell demonstrates, and overall how the mind comprehends and learns overrides grammatical structures.

The more I ponder both issues of grammar and the approaches of making meaning, the more it reminds me of the saying, ”which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In this sense, the chicken and the egg are continuously recursive just as the function of grammar and meaning of the active mind coincide with one another.

To shift gears back to grammar and its importance according to Hartwell, why don’t we stress this more in our classrooms?

Should we incorporate more grammar structure within our classrooms or focus more on meaning and reality as Berlin suggests?

To elaborate on the structure of grammar in the classroom, I try to incorporate a “crash course” of grammar if I notice it is needed. In the first few days of class I ask students to address areas where they think improvement is needed within their writing. Many times, I read the word “grammar” as in improvement.

If students are asking for help, as teachers, instructors, professors, are we not obligated as coaches, mentors, and human beings to offer our help when asked?

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About hflute

Heather is currently teaching two sections of English 120 at NDSU while on a journey through academic enlightenment through the path of English Composition. She is passionate about reading a variety of books and is always excited to become encapsulated in an engaging research project. She also loves coffee and puns.

2 thoughts on “Grammar vs. Meaning; The Chicken and The Egg

  1. Heather,
    It’s important to recognize that Hartwell’s intent is to deemphasize the teaching of grammar and his listing of the five versions of “grammar” that seem to be floating about in our scholarship is to indicate that we don’t just mean one thing when we talk about grammar. He suggests pretty strongly that there is deep evidence in decades of research that teaching grammar doesn’t lead to better writing. He acknowledges, however, that it is important to have a field like linguistics for the scientific study of language but that naming the typical structures of language doesn’t make linguists better writers, either. He’s not dismissing grammar outright as without any use but he’s trying to help us recognize that sometimes we’re talking about teaching etiquette, sometimes we’re teaching style, and always there are other things to teach besides grammar.

    Pay attention, too, to Berlin’s heavy emphasis that the social epistemic or new rhetorical approaches to teaching are, to his mind, better than the other approaches he lays out in his article.

    Hartwell and Berlin both come from a relatively social position for teaching writing, not from a grammar as stable area for instruction position. I hope that helps!


  2. Heather wonders, “If students are asking for help, as teachers, instructors, professors, are we not obligated as coaches, mentors, and human beings to offer our help when asked?”

    Great question which I think sort of drives the point of the approach. Grammar should be taught when it supports student learning, not just because we can. In the case that students are asking for it, go for it. It’ll likely support learning (and engage students) in such a case. This would approach grammar as a process constructing knowledge to be immediately applied, and in response to students’ inquiry, not just teaching it for the sake of diagraming sentences.


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