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Grammar to the Rescue

I only recently got around to reading an article by Peg Tyre in The Atlantic in October which described a very successful experiment in teaching writing at a high school on Staten Island (Lucy Ferriss discussed the controversy that followed it here on October 11). The story has an oddly conservative twist. Let me summarize a bit.

In subjects like English and history, New Dorp High School students were failing way too often on the essay parts of the Regents exams (a New York State graduation requirement). They could write a sentence or two but not a convincing and coherent paragraph.

Trying to figure out why, one teacher developed a quiz on coordinators (traditional grammar’s “coordinating conjunctions”): and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet. The surprising result was that many students seemed unable to use them effectively.

This led to a consideration of words like although, because, despite, if, since, unless, etc. These are traditionally called “subordinating conjunctions” but more accurately treated as prepositions taking clause complements (see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Chapter 7). An exercise on Of Mice and Men that involved completing a sentence that begins “Although George … ” drew some predictable sentences like Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream, but also answers like “Although George and Lenny were friends.” Many students weren’t clear on the difference between an independent clause and a phrase containing a subordinate clause. They normally never used although, and hardly knew what it was for.

The article relates the relevant background from the recent history of teacher training in America as follows:

Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Stephen Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

New Dorp decided to try going back to old ways. They brought in Judith Hochman, former head of a White Plains private school with a great record of teaching writing. Hochman’s students construct prose the old-fashioned way:

They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones … . They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.

The New Dorp teachers started revamping their whole curriculum under Hochman’s tutelage. Essay practice became a part of almost every subject. A chemistry lesson on hydrogen and oxygen would be followed up by getting the students to write sentences with subordinate clauses.

With although as the prompt, they had to construct something like “Although hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion, a compound of them puts out fires.”

With the prompt unless: “Unless hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”

Or given if: “If hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”

Comprehension of the subject matter improved dramatically under this regime. But the crucial thing is that writing in general also improved. Pass rates for the Regents tests in English and global history soared. The school’s dropout rate had been 40 percent in 2006, and it has fallen to 20 percent.

Apparently students’ ability to write prose that looks literate and serious can be decisively improved through the perhaps unlikely strategy of explicitly drilling one or two dozen common words that function as attachment points for coordinate or subordinate finite clauses.

Perhaps the list of clause-taking prepositions could be lengthened a little (with given, lest, notwithstanding, provided, since, while, etc.), and maybe it would be useful to get students to try using a third class of useful words, the adverbs that function as connective adjuncts (however, moreover, nevertheless/nonetheless, therefore, though, thus, and so on).

I read about New Dorp with a special interest, of course, having just devoted a semester of undergraduate teaching at Brown University to a course on the grammatical description of English. Naturally I’m delighted by evidence of applied payoff for a subject that I think is of intrinsic interest anyway. I love the idea that good can come of teaching high-schoolers the functions of grammatically significant linking words—or even (since surely the students were vaguely acquainted with most of them already) just encouraging students to reflect on them and use them a little more. Grammar to the rescue!

Maybe everything looks like a nail to someone with a new hammer, but it left me thinking that those of us who teach undergraduates in universities, and especially those in schools of education, would do well to reflect on New Dorp’s story.

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