Reading & Literacy

The Hardest Part of Teaching Proper Grammar Might Be Unteaching It

By Ross Brenneman — September 30, 2015 1 min read
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Raise your hand if you liked sentence diagramming in school. Is your hand raised? If so: Really? Ew.

For normal-ish people, diagramming, if not always a fun exercise, is one of many tools to help illustrate the grammatical foundations of English. Yet even as educators ground these rules into students, grammar can be and has been subverted for creative gain. How, then, do you teach students about breaking such rules?

Roxanna Elden, author of the new book See Me After Class, discusses that notion in a recent blog post:

In the pre-class questionnaires, I asked which writing "rules" people wanted to discuss. Several students mentioned grammar and punctuation. Can you break the rules that your English teachers have spent years of sweat and tears reinforcing and still be a good writer? As an English teacher myself, I hate to say yes, but ... yes. It's possible. And when it works, it works very, very well.

Elden brings up examples of well-regarded books that break grammatical rules: Angela’s Ashes, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Happy Are the Happy. Celebrated works. Elden offers some practices for helping students navigate this subversion of grammar, which English teachers might find interesting.

There are, of course, regional and cultural reasons that someone might deviate from “proper” English already. And you probably have to know the rules of grammar in order to break them. But it is interesting whether and how teachers might incorporate the sort of “unlearning” Elden describes into their instruction.

Image: At least sometimes, perhaps.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.