In his article, “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” Hartwell (1985) introduces an idea that, for me, was revolutionary. Grammar, as we refer to it in the classroom, is not the grammar that we use in our speech, but a collection of imperfect rules that attempt to explain it. As such, “grammar” is not a law. It’s a theory. A partial approximation of something we know exists but haven’t yet captured how it works. We’re guessing.
I really wish someone had told me that earlier.
Not to say that I don’t like grammar. Heck, I actually, of my own free will, signed up to take a whole class on it next year. I’m about as willing of a student as a grammar teacher can hope to get. And I still describe myself as someone who doesn’t understand a lick of it. Or, as Hartwell would say, I don’t understand the convoluted rules we’ve developed to try and explain it.
Grammar is, in my opinion, an important part of education. But I think it should be be taught honestly – as something that we don’t entirely understand, as an imperfect way to explain something whose secrets we’re still unraveling. These rules are still helpful to learn but they should be approached as a kind of conquest, a journey onto a field still developing, something that students can interact with, maybe even improve.
Doesn’t that sound so much more interesting?
Hartwell, P. (1985). Grammar, grammars, and the teaching of grammar. National Council of Teachers of English, 47(2), 105-127. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/376562