Thursday, April 29, 2010

How to Teach Students to Write

Today I asked some of my English composition students when was the last time they were taught grammar in school. The answer was that, other than spending a week to refresh, the last time they had grammar had been 6th grade.

6th grade.

I asked them, "What if the last time you learned anything about science had been in 6th grade?" Or math? Or, one could add, history, social studies, etc.? COuld you imagine? Based on what logic do we stop teaching grammar to students in 6th grade when we have enough sense not to stop teaching them science in 6th grade?

Grammar is no longer taught in high school, it seems. More, I know for a fact that colleges no longer require it. Somehow we are supposed to teach students how to write without teaching them any of the actual rules of sentence construction. And it shows.

There is little doubt that this state of affairs has come about because of the absurdly ridiculous notion that imposing rules somehow stifles creativity. What utter nonsense. I am so sick and tired of that lie. And yes, it's a lie. I'm also sick and tired of giving people the benefit of the doubt when they support policies that don't work and have been proven over and over not to work. But that's another issue for another time.

Here is what we need if we want to teach students how to write and think clearly.

First, students need to be taught grammar all the way through high school, and they need at least one semster of college grammar. Not a week of it every year, but the rules taught throughout the year. They should be able to construct any kind of sentence you can name to them on the spot by the end of high school. That's the level of mastery they should have of grammar.

Second, students need to be taught formal logic all the way through high school, and they need at least one semester of logic in college. This is not required at all now. Not surprisingly, most students cannot think. My experience is that most are overwhelmed by even the lightest hint of a logical argument -- and they don't know how to deal with illogical ones. This is an incredibly dangerous situation -- such a population is ripe for a cult of personality dictatorship.

Third, students need to be taught formal poetics/rhetoric throughout high school, and they need at least one semester of poetics in college. Every students should be able to write an iambic pentameter line, to understand metaphor, symbolism, imagery, the use of pathos and ethos (meaning, to have the last one, they also need ethics), syntax, style, etc.

For college students, once they have their semester of grammar, logic, and poetics, THEN they should be required to take a writing class where they are required to write a research paper. Only then will they actually be able to write a successful research paper. Teachers might even have time to actually teach students how to actually do research. (Along with this, how about we get rid of the collections of "topical" essays that in fact bore students out of their minds? -- I have far more engagement from the students on the readings in my literature-based composition class than I do in my composition classes that use the essays popular in most composition textbooks nowadays.)
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