Educational Crisis, Grammar, and How to Fight Back

Education has always been in crisis.

Far too often the invocation of a crisis precedes a wave of conservatism. We see this throughout American history. The widespread immigration and social unrest of the Progressive Era helped usher in a vision of schooling rooted in efficiency and social control. During the 1950s, hallmark publications like Educational Wastelands and Why Johnny Can’t Read promoted the notion that progressivism had turned U.S. education soft. Capped off by the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1958, the education crisis of the fifties heralded a redoubled focus on math, science, and curricular efficiency.

The next two decades witnessed the explosion of the Civil Rights movement. Frustrated by the slow pace of federal integration after Brown vs. Board of Education, the community control movement argued that communities of color should be in charge of the schools in their neighborhood. Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, cementing the federal government’s role in funding public education. Against the backdrop of the global economic slowdown of the 1970s, our country grew dissatisfied with public institutions and what many perceived as excessive government spending.


In 1975 Newsweek published Why Johnny Can’t Write, a highly charged cover story decrying the state of writing in schools. Why Johnny Can’t Write argued that American students couldn’t write. The article painted a bleak vision of an education system unraveling at the hands of 1960s progressivism. According to the article, teachers were too caught up in linguistic relativism to instruct children on ‘proper, standard English.’ Students spent too much time on creative projects, ignoring basic literacy in order to pursue alternative forms of learning, the author theorized.

And then came A Nation at Risk. The 1983 document is considered by many to be the most important piece of public policy concerning education published in U.S. history. ANaR solidified many of the tenets of modern education reform¹. American schools are failing. Kids are falling behind their international competitors. Our country is doomed unless teachers and students buckle down, work harder, and focus on the core curricula. Recent reform legislation such as Race to the Top and the Every Student Succeeds Act are essentially iterations of the high-stakes paradigm of education established by A Nation at Risk.

I offer this truncated version of modern education history to demonstrate the near constant hysteria surrounding our schools in this country. Our ability to stand as gatekeepers of our profession requires us to know this history. Our classrooms can be a primary site of resistance against the near-hegemonic forces of curricular conservatism, but only if we consciously educate ourselves and have the strength of conviction to push back.

The high-stakes testing paradigm has had drastic consequences for writing pedagogy. In De-Testing and De-Grading Schools, Paul Thomas notes that test-based writing instruction often relies on generic prompts, standards-based modes of writing, rubric-driven assessment, and mechanistic patterns of essay development. The combination of high-stakes accountability, deficit thinking, and crisis baiting has created an instructional climate focused on basic forms, traditional modes, and prescriptivism. As a result, much of our school-level discourse around writing stresses grammatical perfection and low-level genres. Students complete isolated grammar worksheets. Teachers assign formulaic five-paragraph essays. We get together to read student writing, complain how bad it is, and develop technocratic action plans to “raise the bar.”

All of this noise obfuscates what we should be doing in the English classroom. If we step outside the accountability politics and Chicken Little pronouncements, what do we know about student writing, grammar, and classroom instruction? Before ending this post with what we know, I want to provide a cursory history of grammar instruction. To speak with authority on the history and development of our profession is a prerequisite to gaining the professional autonomy we deserve.


A Concise Primer on the History of Grammar

Grammar has played a central role in education since the Middle Ages when grammar was a central component of the trivium. In The Evolution of Nineteenth Century Grammar, William Woods tells us that knowledge of grammar was thought to discipline the mind and provide students with access to scripture. The mental training aspect of grammar study remained strong during 18th and 19th century American schools. Students memorized and recited rules from textbooks in order to learn the ‘correct’ use of language. Prescriptivism to the core.

According to William Reese, as the 19th century progressed grammar textbooks began to contain more involved exercises for students to complete. The growing influence of progressive and Romantic thought changed how teachers approached the young brain. No longer a blank slate to be impressed upon, educators during the mid to late 1800s viewed the brain as an active engine requiring priming. Students began to write original compositions on familiar topics. Teachers expected students to apply their learning to their individual writing.

Many staples of today’s English Language Arts classrooms, such as correcting faulty sentences and applying grammatical structures to original writing, came to instructional fruition in the late 19th century classroom. I bring this up not to add another voice to the common lamentation of ‘today’s schools haven’t evolved’ (many aspects of schools have undergone drastic changes since the common schools movement of the 1840s), but to illustrate how the instructional methods coveted by conservative voices and knee-jerk reactionaries have been around since the 1800s. One of the most common academic refrains, that student writing is riddled with mistakes and lacking in quality, comes from a misguided perspective on how to handle errors in student compositions.


The Error Hunt

My students love to point out mistakes. I’d wager that yours do, as well. And who can blame them? Many of them have come to understand writing, feedback, and editing as a giant exercise in hunting down and correcting surface level errors. Some students wear their error hunting skills as badges of honor. The ability to call out (quite literally) mistakes in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation becomes a signal to the rest of the class that he or she knows what’s up. To me, a student’s eagerness to chastise others can be evidence of the social and intellectual hierarchy of the typical classroom. A way of saying “See? I can do what the teacher does.”

This is emblematic of a culture of education rooted in deficit thinking. When defining a deficit mindset, Paul Thomas writes

Deficit thinking…is imposing onto groups or individuals deficits as the primary characteristics of their humanity. In education, deficit thinking is pervasive and the foundational mechanism for formal schooling as an institution that reflects and perpetuates bigotry, inequity, and marginalization of people based on status instead of merit.

In the writing classroom, a deficit stance means approaching every piece of student writing as an assemblage of mistakes waiting to be corrected. We willingly tamp down our natural response to a piece in favor of highlighting everything that’s wrong with the writing. Higher order mechanisms of response, attending to issues of purpose, audience, and genre, rarely get a chance to shine. I’ve taken part in writing groups with teachers who are more interested in pointing out what I did wrong than in actually responding to my piece. Knowing that my writing was about to be torn apart, I began to dread sharing my work. It’s not that errors don’t matter; we know that our students will be judged on their use of language. It’s that a relentless and singular focus on mistakes undermines the rhetorical purpose of writing. Developing a new perspective on error is fundamental to improving writing instruction.

In The Phenomenology of Error, Joseph Williams analyzes canonical style guides for errors. He finds that nearly guide to usage contains numerous grammatical errors. For instance E.B. White (Elements of Style) uses faulty parallelisms, H. W. Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage) incorrectly writes was instead of were, and Jacques Barzun (Simple and Direct) mistakes which for that. He does this not to nitpick, but to point out that some errors can go unnoticed. Each of the texts he critiques progressed through multiple editors, proofreaders, and readers before reaching the marketplace. We shouldn’t approach every error and enforce every grammatical rule with equal vigor, he concludes. My primary takeaway from Williams’ essay is to be selective about the errors I attend to. To understand every component of a piece of student writing in the context of the whole.

Constance Weaver urges us to see errors as a necessary component of growth. This simple idea has drastic consequences for how many of us choose to conduct our classes. Student’s typically don’t completely master something all at once. We should approach errors in student writing as evidence of young writers pushing themselves beyond their understanding and stepping out onto new terrain. The following chart, taken from Teaching Grammar in Context, sums up what a more compassionate and purposeful approach towards errors might look like:


Improving Student Writing – What We Know

The following section provides a summary of recommended practices for integrating grammar into your writing curriculum. I’ve condensed most of these suggestions from the amazing book Grammar to Enrich & Enhance Writing by Constance Weaver (check out a sample here) and then added a few suggestions of my own.

  1. Teaching grammar removed from the writing process is a waste of time. Instead, weave authentic (coming from and relating to real literature and student writing) grammar instruction into every phase of the process.
  2. Students do not need to know many grammatical terms to improve as writers. Instead of wasting time forcing children to memorize and identify parts of speech, focus on a few high-impact concepts. In Image Grammar, for instance, Harry Noden recommends sticking to participles, absolutes, appositives, adjectives shifted out of order, and action verbs. We can do so much with just these five techniques. Jeff Anderson does an amazing job using sentence mimicry to guide students through the creation of increasingly sophisticated sentences.
  3. Sophisticated grammar is fostered in literacy-rich environments. Students always need to be reading, writing, and speaking.
  4. Grammar conventions taught in isolation do not transfer to writing. This is repeated because it’s important. Teaching these skills in isolation does not work. In fact, Constance Weaver provides compelling evidence that it actually makes writing worse.
  5. Marking corrections on student papers does little. This can be a tough one to give up for teachers. But for the most part students don’t read them. Your (and their) time is better served conferring with each student about his/her/their writing.
  6. Grammar conventions are best applied when taught in conjunction with editing. Echoing back to the #1, grammar instruction fits into every aspect of the writing process. The editing stage, however, is perhaps the easiest place to insert
  7. Instruction in conventional editing skills is important, but we also must honor home language and dialect.  Don’t denigrate a student’s home language. Teach code switching. This is a great place to weave in some critical pedagogy.
  8. Progress involves new types of errors as students stretch their academic muscles. Stop focusing on errors. Welcome them as a concomitant to growth.
  9. Reading and writing need to occur in every single class. I added this one for reasons the final paragraph should make clear. Whether you prefer a Writing Across the Curriculum approach or a Writing in the Disciplines approach, help your fellow teachers implement reading and writing into their content area.

This post was born of my own personal frustrations. I can only hear “These kids can’t write. They don’t even know basic grammar. What is the English department doing?” so many times. I included historical detail because it’s essential to understand the rich history of grammar instruction. Take strength from your knowledge. Use it to improve your practice and create bonds of understanding with your colleagues.

So the next time you hear someone castigate the state of student writing, please recall this post. Or, better yet, think about the scholarly resources I’ve drawn upon. Then gently discuss with them about what we know about writing and grammar instruction. It is my hope that this post will help inform teachers about some of the directions we can take to move our grammar instruction forward.

In writing this post I pulled from and mulched through the following resources
-Grammar to Enrich & Enhance Writing: Constance Weaver
-Teaching Grammar in Context: Constance Weaver
-Image Grammar: Harry Noden
-De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Paul Thomas & Jow Bower, eds
-Testing Wars in the Public Schools: William Reese
-Mechanically Inclined: Jeff Anderson
-The Allure of Order: Jal Mehta
-The Teacher Wars: Diane Goldstein
-The Manufactured Crisis: Bruce Biddle and David Berliner
-The Evolution of Nineteenth Century Grammar: William Woods
-The Phenomenology of Error: Joseph M. Williams


¹In her excellent podcast on education reform, Jennifer Binis makes the excellent point that there is no one definition of education reform. Liberals, conservatives, and radicals have co-opted the designation to fit whatever message they’re trying to convey. For this essay I define modern education reform as the wave of policies associated with the post-A Nation at Risk landscape. More specifically: the ascendancy of an economic/managerial conception of education’s function, an appeal to privatization and market logic, and racist and classist accountability politics.




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