If you’re like most people, you’re probably rolling your eyes now about some pedantic grammatical rule on split infinitives. With its dangling modifiers and comma splices, grammar is one of the most universally hated subjects—but that may be because it’s being taught the wrong way, says a Longwood University student researcher.
"Attitude is everything," said Ashlyn Kemp, a rising senior from Chesapeake who is studying to become a middle-school English teacher. "For teachers to change student attitudes toward grammar, we have to change ourselves. That’s where it starts."
Kemp’s research centers on pervasive attitudes among college students about the rules of languages. She found that the dislike for studying grammar is more widespread and vehement than she thought: Even students who plan to be English teachers reported negative experiences about learning grammar.
The source of the problem? Unenthusiastic instruction, said Kemp.
The solution? Kemp is convinced that teachers need to start teaching grammar positively and in a way that encourages what she calls "active participation" among students and an understanding of grammar’s benefits.
In Kemp’s research, which evolved from a linguistics course this past spring semester, she surveyed 100 college students on their attitudes toward grammar instruction. The survey also asked three questions to gauge their ability to spot grammatical errors in a sentence. English and education majors, she thought, would be better able to catch them; she was wrong.
"People were all over the place with their level of competency, but they all had in common their attitude toward grammar, which is horrible," she said. "They said it’s confusing, it never made sense, it was brushed under the rug or put on the back burner. I knew it wasn’t everyone’s favorite subject, but I was surprised it was so massively unpopular. The only ones who reported a positive experience were those with a parent who was an English teacher."
Kemp admits she wasn’t interested in the subject until taking a grammar course this spring under Dr. Sean Ruday, assistant professor of English, who has published three books on writing instruction, two of which focus on grammar.
"Oh no, I did not like grammar before," said Kemp with a laugh. "Dr. Ruday uses active participation and has an incredibly positive attitude about teaching grammar. In active participation, all of the students work with partners, then collectively come together and share what they’ve learned. Now I’m definitely OK with grammar and feel comfortable teaching it."
"The main takeaway of her research is that it’s important to teach grammar in a way that accentuates its benefits, that conveys that it can be a useful tool for effective writing," said Ruday. "Also, teachers need to be positive, to be enthusiastic."
Kemp’s teaching experience in a program for middle-schoolers this summer has reinforced her research results. She taught in the Breakthrough at Norfolk Academy program, an academic enrichment program for underserved middle-school students from the Norfolk public schools. Grammar instruction accounted for about half her time in the four language arts classes she taught daily to rising eighth-graders.
"When I tell them, ‘We’re going over some grammatical concepts today,’ and they say, ‘Oh, are you kidding me? We did that yesterday,’ I’ll say, ‘No, but it’s fun.’ Then they’ll say, ‘Well, OK, at least I’ll listen.’ Showing them I’m excited doesn’t change their opinions, but it does change their attitudes. It helps hold their attention."
That’s not the way Kemp learned grammar. "I was always taught by worksheets. It was never fun, and it never made any sense," she said. "I stay away from worksheets in Breakthrough. After giving them a few examples, I let them construct their own sentences, then have them share with the class what works, or doesn’t, and why."
The traditional emphasis in grammar instruction on rules governing usage also hasn’t helped students’ attitudes, said Dr. Robin Smith, Longwood associate professor of English and the instructor of the course where Kemp’s research originated.
"Unfortunately, when students think of grammar, they often think of prescriptive grammar, which focuses on rules about what to do or not do—like not ending a sentence with a preposition—but doesn’t tell you anything about how language is actually used," said Smith. "Many English majors are terrified of grammar and have the same fear and loathing as everyone else. Those of us at Longwood who teach grammar are very intentional about making our classes as engaging and non-threatening as possible."
Kemp presented her research, "Altering Student Attitudes Toward Grammatical Concepts," at the 26th annual conference of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG), held July 24-25 in Largo, Md. Ruday is co-president of ATEG, which is part of the National Council of Teachers of English.