typewriter with sheet reading "goals"

Helping Students Use Grammar to Support Their Writing Goals

By Sarah Felber

What do we mean when we talk about grammar? For many, grammar means the rules of language, the dos and don’ts, the rights and wrongs. In my training as a linguist, grammar meant the regularities that characterize speakers’ natural language output and knowledge. And for some of the most accomplished writers and speakers, grammar is a tool—one that allows them to achieve a variety of effects through the grammatical choices they make. It is this active engagement with grammar to which Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray refer in the subtitle of their book Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. When writers “recognize the choices available to them,” Kolln and Gray write, they “will be well-equipped for controlling the effects of their words” (xii). Such choice and control are the hallmarks of a rhetorical approach to grammar. Teachers can help their students adopt this approach by addressing grammar in the context of student writing and emphasizing the ability of writers to make grammatical choices that support their goals and purpose for writing.

Taking a rhetorical approach to grammar in the classroom has many benefits. First, it offers an alternative (or at least a complement) to acontextual direct grammar instruction, which can be frustrating for students and has shown limited, sometimes even negative, effects on learning (Graham and Perin 462, 466). Second, it provides an honest view of the grammatical variety found in the output of successful writers. Finally, the rhetorical approach is a key element of “teaching for agency” (Shapiro et al.), supporting students as communicators who control their own messages and methods of expression.

Let’s look at some examples of particular grammar topics for which a rhetorical approach can be taken in the classroom. These examples span microlevel writing concerns that are often considered to fall within the umbrella of grammar, including word choice, punctuation, and sentence structure.

Point of View

Common advice about point of view: Avoid all uses of first-person and second-person point of view in academic writing.

The reality: Norms for point of view, particularly with respect to first-person point of view, vary in academic writing (e.g., Taylor and Goodall). Students who have been taught to believe that first-person pronouns never have a place in academic writing are likely to become confused when they encounter situations that do call for first person in their academic writing.

How to take a rhetorical approach in the classroom: Guide students through considering questions about their particular writing project, such as:

  • What are the norms of the discipline (history, literature, biology, etc.) and genre (research report, essay, reflection, etc.) for this writing project?
  • What level of formality would readers expect for this piece of writing? What level of formality does the writer desire for this piece of writing?
  • How personal is this writing meant to be?
  • What might the results be (positive, negative, or otherwise) of flouting reader expectations in this writing?

Comma Splices

A common instruction about sentence boundaries: Two independent clauses joined by a comma and no conjunction constitute a comma splice. Comma splices are incorrect and must be revised.

The reality: Although comma splices are common and often accepted in social media, texting, and other informal writing, they generally are not accepted in writing for school, and students will need to master some alternatives. That said, students sometimes receive such exaggerated messages about the drawbacks of the comma splice that one would think it could not be understood by readers, when, in fact, it is usually only “a small stylistic infelicity” (Kamm).

How to take a rhetorical approach in the classroom: First, instructors should recognize that features of informal writing, such as nonstandard use of commas, are not necessarily random errors but choices that can have communicative intent and effects (McCulloch 112–13). It does little good to correct the mechanics of students’ writing without understanding the meaning and relations between ideas that they are trying to convey.

Better understanding of students’ intentions will result in improved guidance related to options for revision. Traditional instruction on revising comma splices may present various alternatives, such as coordination, subordination, or inserting a period or semicolon, without much attention given to how to choose among them. A rhetorical approach can highlight the effects that follow from selection of an alternative, helping student writers make sense of their options.

Consider the following example:

Access to health care is only one factor in the connection between health and wealth, the two are connected in several other ways.

Dialogue with the writer might uncover that a comma was used between the independent clauses to show connection, avoiding the perceived choppiness of two separate sentences. This would present an opportunity to explain that a semicolon is often used in academic writing for just this purpose.

Active and Passive Voice

Common advice for writers about voice: Use active voice. It is more concise and informative.

The reality: Active and passive voice can play different roles in different disciplines and genres, where they may come with distinct rhetorical effects. I even once heard a science teacher lament that her students did not use enough passive voice in their lab reports!

How to take a rhetorical approach in the classroom: First, help students study the effects of active and passive voice on information, focus, and tone. In a blog post, Darren Crovitz and Michelle Devereaux suggest an exercise in which students use passive voice to downplay responsibility for having damaged a relative’s vintage car.

Next, examine the roles of active and passive voice in various kinds of texts, including academic texts. Using sample texts, help students consider the ways active and passive are deployed with consideration for genre, discipline, and purpose, and guide students to apply these considerations to their own writing samples.

Grammar Belongs to All of Us

For too long, students have been allowed to believe that studying the mechanics of writing is about replacing their “bad grammar.” This outlook reflects the problematic assumption that “good grammar” is an absolute, when what works well can vary from situation to situation. It also devalues diverse writers’ successful use of a wide range of grammatical choices (Alim and Smitherman; Young 114–16), disconnecting students’ grammar study from their prior knowledge and experience. By facilitating a rhetorical approach to grammar, teachers can help students build their repertoire of language skills and take ownership and control of grammar as a tool of “infinite power” (Didion).

Works Cited

Alim, H. Samy, and Geneva Smitherman. Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. Oxford UP, 2012.

Crovitz, Darren, and Michelle Devereaux. “Grammar to Get Things Done: Language Choices in Real Situations.” Literacy and NCTE, 15 Nov. 2016, ncte.org/blog/2016/11/grammar-get-things-done-language-choices-real-situations/.

Didion, Joan. “Why I Write.” The New York Times, 5 Dec. 1976, www.nytimes.com/1976/12/05/archives/why-i-write-why-i-write.html.

Graham, Steve, and Dolores Perin. “A Meta-analysis of Writing Instruction for Adolescent Students.” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 99, no. 3, 2007, pp. 445–76.

Kamm, Oliver. “Comma Splices Are a Small Stylistic Infelicity: Not Evil.” The Times, 4 Nov. 2017, p. 85.

Kolln, Martha, and Loretta Gray. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. Pearson Education, 2010.

McCulloch, Gretchen. Because Internet. Penguin Random House, 2019.

Shapiro, Shawna, et al. “Teaching for Agency: From Appreciating Linguistic Diversity to Empowering Student Writers.” Composition Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, 2016, pp. 31–52.

Taylor, Helen, and John Goodall. “A Preliminary Investigation into the Rhetorical Function of ‘I’ in Different Genres of Successful Business Student Academic Writing.” Journal of English for Academic Purposes, vol. 38, 2019, pp. 135–45.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2010, pp. 110–18.

Published 2 July 2020

2 comments on “Helping Students Use Grammar to Support Their Writing Goals”

  1. Sarah Felber’s Rhetorical Grammar was an insightful and persuasive piece. As an English teacher with thirty-odd years of experience, I’m convinced that this approach will make a significant difference to students’ learning. Many thanks to Felber for this wonderful essay.

  2. So wonderful to see the MLA site itself promoting this equitable and inclusive approach to grammar. I am delighted to share this link with colleagues and students.

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