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A Developmental Perspective on the Relationship between Grammar and Text

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1Submitted to the Journal of Basic WritingA Developmental Perspective on the Relationship between Grammar and TextJames M. KenkelDepartment of English Eastern Kentucky University 521 Lancaster Ave.Richmond, KY 40475Tel. 859-622-3177e-mail: [email protected] YatesDepartment of EnglishCentral Missouri State UniversityWarrensburg, Missouri 64093tel: [email protected] Developmental Perspective on the Relationship between Grammar andTextAs university professors who teach writing and the required grammar course to pre-service English teachers, we have had an ongoing concern about the kind of knowledge teachers need to have about grammar and about how that knowledge should inform classroom teaching. As linguists, we have long recognized the shortcomings of traditional grammar (TG). Of course, we know that this concern is not new. From the 1920s through the early 1960s there were repeated calls by linguists to abandon TG descriptions in favor of more linguistic ones. The linguistic critique emphasized that descriptions of English offered by TG have significant shortcomings: TG’s terminology is confusing, and more importantly, TG’s definitions do not reflect what native speakers of the language actually know.In the last twenty years, there have been renewed attempts to reform English grammar teaching using insights from linguistics. Robert DeBeaugrande and Rei Noguchi have offered new insights into the relation between the tacit grammatical knowledge possessed by all native speakers and the use of standard English. This work definitely represents a step forward in the teaching of grammar. However, we need to do more than show students that they possess a complex knowledge of grammar that they can apply to common sentence-level issues.3We need a developmental perspective on why students write the non-standard forms that they do. A developmental perspective is important because the best teaching practices begin with what students know and proceed to what they need to know. For such a pedagogy, the perspective ofTG is insufficient. Although sentence-level descriptions are very important, teachers need a perspective on grammar which extends beyond the sentence. In this paper we propose such a perspective for understanding some of the most complex non-standard sentences students write.Shortcomings of Traditional GrammarMany of the rules and descriptions of TG fail to describe adequately the facts of written English, even at the most general level. For example, Christine Hult and Thomas Huckin in The New Century Handbook describe the subject of the sentence as. . . a noun, a pronoun, or a noun phrase ( a noun plus its modifiers) that identifies what the sentence is about. Usually it precedes the main verb. (510)Although this definition would allow the identification of many grammatical subjects, it would fail in ordinary cases such as these below.1. It is raining.2. It is true that many people lost money in the stock market.3. There are many people in the park today.4. To eat a high fat diet is foolish.4Not only does this definition fail to identify many ordinary cases of sentence subjects, it is also impenetrable to students unschooled in TG. This problem is made clear by Patrick Hartwell who describes many of the definitions and descriptions of TG as COIK, “clear only if known”(119). For instance, to even begin making use of this inadequate definition, a student would have to be able to identify nouns, pronouns, noun phrases, modifiers, verbs, and main verbs. Unfortunately for the student, traditional definitions of each of these categories fail as well to capture many ordinary cases. Thus, as Hartwell makes clear, TG definitions are useful only to those who have already overcome its vague formulations. It is no wonder that TG frustrates many students.Reform efforts in the teaching of grammarAs early as 1927, American structuralist linguist, Charles C. Fries, in anattempt to reform English language teaching in the schools, critiqued traditional grammar teaching, observing that such pedagogy ignored advances in linguistics that had occurred during the preceding 140 years. His critique recognized the inadequacy of many TG descriptions. With his influential 1952 book, The Structure of English, Fries again called for reform in the schools. Throughout the 1950s, a number of structuralist linguists answered Fries’ call, but their efforts were ultimately rejected by English teachers because linguists were not able to demonstrate that student awareness of more accurate sentence-level descriptions would lead to improved writing skills. Robert Connors and Geneva Smitherman provide reviews of this debate as it occurred in the pages of College English and College Communication and Composition during the 1950s and 1960s.In the last twenty years, reform efforts have been taken up again, most notably by Robert DeBeaugrande and Rei Noguchi. These linguists suggest means for overcoming the opaque or COIK nature of many TG definitions for sentence-level grammar. Instead of criterial definitions for such concepts as “sentence” and “main verb,” they propose operational ones. For example, typical TG definitions define “sentence” as a group of words containing a subject and a predicate and expressing a complete thought. All of these criteria are problematic for naive native speakers of English seeking to identify sentences, which is a necessary step as students try to edit their texts for fragments and run-ons. DeBeaugrande and Noguchiresolve this problem by defining a sentence as any string of words that can be changed into a yes-no or a tag question. Such operations avoid the vague criteria of TG by asking students to manipulate sentences in ordinary ways. For sentences containing a dependent clause, the same strategy can be used to distinguish the verb in the dependent clause from the main verb. In other words, the operations proposed by DeBeaugrande and Noguchi allow students to use their tacit knowledge of sentence grammar to identify sentence-level categories instead of trying to apply traditional definitions.The approach taken by DeBeaugrande and Noguchi is important because it shows students how to use their own language knowledge to address sentence-level issues such as agreement or fragments. In addition, it offers a more student-centered approach to teaching grammar. In spite of these strengths, this work has not addressed the real problem which


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