A radical rethinking of the teaching of writing

Grammar basics in Writing 101, but indirectly


When you discover that half the students in your Writing 1-101 class are truly devoid of grammar and don’t understand even the noun+verb basics of a sentence, what then?

Some teachers stop and give grammar lessons for a while, trying to catch the bottom half of the class up. Others ignore the problem, and teach  to the top half.

I tried both tacks, long ago, and then stopped. The interruption-for-grammar strategy doesn’t work well because the really deficient just won’t learn the material solidly in a few classes. Plus, it bores the hell out of well-prepared students. The teach-over-the-heads-of-the-dummies approach is just plain unfair.

My solution is to reorganize the course into a series of writing challenges that really require students think about the noun+verb basics and use them for a period of 8-9 weeks. We return to the issue of the noun and the verb again and again, under different headings and from different angles. Early in the course, the main focus is the noun, and whether it’s abstract or concrete or a person. Later the verb becomes the focus, for four weeks, and all kinds of assignments force students to produce sentences and evaluate how the noun and verb are working together.

In this way I induce students to pay close attention to the words in a sentence and to absorb sentence grammar indirectly. Because they are trying to become vivid and interesting writers, they absorb, use and practice the basic noun+verb grammar without resistance.

Grammar tells us that the sentence results from the meeting of the noun and the verb; by the end of my course, my students all really understand that, both consciously and operationally, which I count as the big win.

John G. Maguire
Chelmsford MA