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Moe, Peter Wayne. The Importance of Ordinary Sentences. Comp Studies, Fall 2018. Posted 03/21/2019.

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 79-95. Web. 14 Mar. 2019.

Peter Wayne Moe investigates the rhetorical work of “ordinary sentences” like those in his “collection” from first-year writing students (81). He shares with Jennifor Sinor a definition of “ordinary writing as a text that is not literary, is not noticed, and one that should have been discarded but that instead somehow remains” (qtd. in Moe 92n4). Student writing, Moe contends, meets this definition (92).

Moe builds his argument around the concept of writing as an act of “inhabitation.” He notes that this concept is embedded in “elocution,” the Latin roots of which mean “out of” a “place” (80). Similarly, the Latin sources of “composition” are “to place” and “together” (81). He draws on a number of writers, including both scholars and fiction writers, to demonstrate that the possibility that a writer can “inhabit” his or her prose is widely accepted (79-81). In this view, “location” moves “beyond physical places to include the rhetorical situation, the ways language locates a writer in relation to other people, other ideas, other discourses” (81).

In this sense, Moe argues, ethos becomes a function of the nature of a writer’s location. He cites Kathleen Blake Yancey’s sense that who a writer is will be enabled and constrained by the people and circumstances around her, often in ways that are hard to recognize (80). Moreover, Moe evokes the participation of the reader, who also does the work of “locat[ing] the writer” based on interrelationships between a text and larger contexts that the writer may not control (82).

Moe cautions that his project of developing “a theory of the inhabited sentence” in this larger sense of “inhabitation” is not meant to provide models for imitation because the meaning of individual sentences emerges from the circumstances surrounding them, and therefore the work of any one sentence is “not reliably repeatable or transferrable from one piece of writing to another” (82). He also distinguishes his analysis from the moves of location via metatext highlighted by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say/I Say. In Moe’s approach, writers are seen to make communicative moves without “heavy-handed metatext” that can be “overbearing” or even “violent” (82). In contrast, Moe argues, sentences in his collection allow readers to construct connections in which they, along with the writers, inhabit meaning (82).

Finally, Moe argues for the value of studying ordinary sentences like those students produce, in contrast to the practice in many textbooks of “[p]lucking ideal sentences by masters,” a practice that Moe maintains delivers the message that ordinary writing, especially that by students, is not “real” writing (83). In addition, in Moe’s view, making extraordinary sentences the basis for writing instruction neglects the need for students and writers to see how their choices in “worker sentences” serve to establish their relationships with others and with issues (91). Students who struggle to note counterarguments or cite sources, he contends, are actually grappling with the problem of locating themselves in and alongside texts (91).

Moe’s collection addresses moves that he feels are both mundane, performed by all writers at some point, and yet important. As one example among eight, he contends that the choice of whether “I” or another writer discussed in the text is chosen as the subject of sentences can map a writer’s changing location with regard to that other writer (84). In another example, he argues that a parenthetical aside “allows the student to speak back to herself, to question what she’s already said” (87). In yet another case, he shows how removing the locative adverbial components leaves a sentence “decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (88).

For Moe, acknowledging the “rhetorical density of ordinary sentences,” especially through the lens of inhabitation, underscores the degree to which any sentence occupies space, “among other sentences, other clauses, other phrases” (91). This understanding, he argues, is “more important than being able to identify President Lincoln’s use of epistrophe in ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’” (92). Helping students see how their easily overlooked choices locate them among others, in this view, should be the primary academic task (91).

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Kolln and Hancock. Histories of U. S. Grammar Instruction. English Teaching: Practice and Critique (NZ), 2005. Posted 04/22/2018.

Kolln, Martha, and Craig Hancock. “The Story of English Grammar in United States Schools.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 4.3 (2005): 11-31. Web. 4 Mar. 2018.

Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock, publishing in English Teaching: Practice and Critique in 2005, respond in parallel essays to what they consider the devaluation of grammar teaching in United States schools and universities. English Teaching: Practice and Critique is a publication of Waikato University in New Zealand. The two essays trace historical developments in attitudes toward grammar education in U. S. English language curricula.

Kolln’s essay reports on a long history of uncertainty about teaching grammar in United States classrooms. Noting that confusion about the distinction between “grammar” and “usage” pervaded discussions since the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Kolln cities studies from 1906 and 1913 to illustrate the prevalence of doubts that the time needed to teach grammar was justified in light of the many other demands upon public-school educators (13).

Citing Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer’s 1963 Research in Written Composition to note that “early research in composition and grammar was not highly developed” (13), Kolln argues that the early studies were flawed (14). A later effort to address grammar teaching, An Experience Curriculum in English, was advanced by a 1936 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) committee; this program, Kolln writes, “recommended that grammar be taught in connection with writing, rather than as an isolated unit of study” (14). She contends that the effort ultimately failed because teachers did not accept its focus on “functional grammar” in place of “the formal method [they] were used to” (14).

In Kolln’s history, the hiatus following this abortive project ended with the advent of structural linguistics in the 1950s. This new understanding of the workings of English grammar was originally received enthusiastically; Harold B. Allen’s 1958 Readings in Applied English Linguistics drew on nearly 100 articles, including many from NCTE (12). This movement also embraced Noam Chomsky’s 1957 Syntactic Structures; the NCTE convention in 1963 featured “twenty different sessions on language, . . . with 50 individual papers” under categories like “Semantics,” “Structural Linguistics for the Junior High School,” and “the Relationship of Grammar to Composition” (14-15).

Excitement over such “new grammar” (15), however, was soon “swept aside” (12). Kolln posits that Chomsky’s complex generative grammar, which was not meant as a teaching tool, did not adapt easily to the classroom (15). She traces several other influences supporting the continued rejection of grammar instruction. Braddock et al. in 1963 cited a study by Roland Harris containing “serious flaws,” according to two critics who subsequently reviewed it (16). This study led Braddock et al. to state that grammar instruction not only did not improve student writing, it led to “a harmful effect” (Braddock et al., qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 15). Kolln reports that this phrase is still referenced to argue against teaching grammar (15).

Other influences on attitudes toward grammar, for Kolln, include the advent of “student-centered” teaching after the Dartmouth seminar in 1966 , the ascendancy of the process movement, and a rejection of “elitist” judgments that denigrated students’ home languages (16-17). As a result of such influences and others, Kolln writes, “By 1980, the respected position that grammar had once occupied was no longer recognized by NCTE” (17).

Addressing other publications and position statements that echo this rejection of grammar instruction, Kolln writes that teacher education, in particular, has been impoverished by the loss of attention to the structure of language (19). She contends that “[t]he cost to English education of the NCTE anti-grammar policy is impossible to calculate” (19).

She sees shifts toward an understanding of grammar that distinguishes it from rote drill on correctness in the creation of an NCTE official assembly, The Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG). Several NCTE publications have forwarded the views of this group, including the book Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers, and articles in English Journal and Language Arts (20). Kolln urges that grammar, properly understood, be “seen as a legitimate part of the Language Arts curriculum that goes beyond an aid to writing” (20).

Hancock frames his discussion with a contemporaneous article by R. Hudson and J. Walmsley about trends in grammar instruction in the U.K. He sees a consensus among educators in England that “an informed understanding of language and an appropriate metalanguage with which to discuss it” are important elements of language education (qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 21). Further, this consensus endorses a rejection of “the older, dysfunctional, error-focused, Latin-based school grammar” (21-22).

In his view, the grounds for such widespread agreement in the United States, rather than encouraging an appreciation of well-designed grammar instruction, in fact lead away from the possibility of such an appreciation (22-23). He sees a U. S. consensus through the 1960s that literature, especially as seen through New Criticism, should be the principle business of English instruction. The emphasis on form, he writes, did not embrace linguistic theory; in general, grammar was “traditional” if addressed at all, and was seen as the responsibility of elementary schools (22). Literature was displaced by Critical Theory, which challenged the claim that “there is or should be a monolithic, central culture or a received wisdom” in the valuation of texts (22).

Similarly, he maintains that the advent of composition as a distinct field with its focus on “what writers actually do when they write” led to studies suggesting that experienced writers saw writing as meaning-making while inexperienced writers were found to, in Nancy Sommers’s words, “subordinate the demands of the specific problems of the text to the demands of the rules” (qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 23). Downplaying the rules, in this view, allowed students to engage more fully with the purposes of their writing.

In Hancock’s view, language educators in the U.S. distanced themselves from grammar instruction in their focus on “‘empowerment’ in writing” in order to address the needs of more diverse students (24). This need required a new acknowledgment of the varying contexts in which language occurred and an effort to value the many different forms language might take. Recognition of the damage done by reductive testing models also drove a retreat from a grammar defined as “policing people’s mistakes” (24-25).

Hancock argues that the public arena in which students tend to be judged does not allow either correctness or grammar to “simply be wished away” (25). He suggests that the “minimalist” theories of Constance Weaver in the 1990s and linguists like Steven Pinker are attempts to address the need for students to meet some kinds of standards, even though those standards are often poorly defined. These writers, in Hancock’s reading, contend that people learn their native grammars naturally and need little intervention to achieve their communicative goals (25, 27).

Hancock responds that a problem with this approach is that students who do not rise to the expected standard are blamed for their “failure to somehow soak it up from exposure or from the teacher’s non-technical remarks” (25). Hancock laments the “progressive diminution of knowledge” that results when so many teachers themselves are taught little about grammar (25): the lack of a “deep grounding in knowledge of the language” means that “[e]diting student writing becomes more a matter of what ‘feels right’” (26).

As a result of this history, he contends, “language-users” remain “largely unconscious of their own syntactic repertoire” (26), while teachers struggle with contradictory demands with so little background that, in Hancock’s view, “they are not even well-equipped to understand the nature of the problem” (29). He faults linguists as well for debunking prescriptive models while failing to provide “a practical alternative” (26).

Hancock presents a 2004 piece by Laura Micciche as a “counter-argument to minimalist approaches” (28). Hancock reads Micciche to say that there are more alternatives to the problems posed by grammatical instruction than outright rejection. He interprets her as arguing that a knowledge of language is “essential to formation of meaning” (28):

We need a discourse about grammar that does not retreat from the realities we face in the classroom—a discourse that takes seriously the connection between writing and thinking, the interwoven relationship between what we say and how we say it. (Micciche, qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 28)

Hancock deplores the “vacuum” created by the rejection of grammar instruction, a undefended space into which he feels prescriptive edicts are able to insert themselves (28, 29). Like Kolln, he points to ATEG, which in 2005-2006 was working to shift NCTE’s “official position against the teaching of formal grammar” (28). Hancock envisions grammar education that incorporates “all relevant linguistic grammars” and a “thoughtfully selected technical terminology” (28), as well as an understanding of the value of home languages as “the foundation for the evolution of a highly effective writing voice” (29). Such a grammar, he maintains, would be truly empowering, promoting an understanding of the “connection between formal choices and rhetorical effect” (26).


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Horarik et al. Teachers’ Subject Knowledge about Grammar. RTE, Feb. 2018. Posted 03/11/2018.

Macken-Horarik, Mary, Kristina Love, and Stefan Horarik. “Rethinking Grammar in Language Arts: Insights from an Australian Survey of Teachers’ Subject Knowledge.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.3 (2018): 288-316. Print.

Mary Macken-Horarik, Kristina Love, and Stefan Horarik report a study of Australian English teachers’ attitudes toward teaching grammar in elementary and secondary schools. The study addresses the effects on writing instruction of a recent national program, Australian Curriculum: English (290). This “ambitious program” (291) asks teachers to implement a many-faceted “relational approach to grammar” (291). Macken-Horarik et al. draw data from a 2014 survey of 373 Australian English teachers to assess their support for the incorporation of this approach into writing instruction and to measure their confidence in their ability to effect this incorporation (291).

The authors cite research from the U.K., including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and from the United States to note increasing calls for grammar instruction that moves beyond workbook exercises to help students understand grammar as a rhetorical element in which choices affect meaning (289, 312). This international research also calls into question whether teachers are prepared to follow through on such a curriculum (289-90).

A “relational approach” as described by the Australian curriculum breaks down amorphous “knowledge about language” into “grammatical subject knowledge” (GSK), which involves “structural resources of lexico-grammar (sentence level and below)” and “linguistic subject knowledge,” which “includes understanding of nonstructural resources such as cohesion (text level and beyond)” as well as “constructs such as genre, register, and discourse semantics” (293-94). GSK includes the ability to recognize and define grammatical elements, while LSK addresses how such elements function in use. In addition to these levels of knowledge, teachers implementing this approach are expected to possess “semiotic subject knowledge” (SSK) that will allow them to extend grammatical instruction to images, performances, etc. (292).

Macken-Horarik et al. identify three features of a relational approach. The first is a “broad scope” that covers multiple genres and forms of communication. The second is a “multilevel” approach, in which “a labeling of grammatical structures is important but insufficient,” with emphasis on how grammatical elements work to enable “higher levels of meaning in language.” Third is a “contextual orientation to grammar,” which allows for analysis of the function of language in diverse communicative and social environments (294).

Australia’s program requires students to study language through this relational lens beginning in kindergarten and throughout their school careers (291-92). The authors point to increasing burdens on teachers not only to convey the higher-level concepts inherent in the relational approach but also to incorporate ever-changing processes important in multimodal genres. They argue that the Australian program has not supplied adequate support to help teachers implement the curriculum (292-93, 313).

The 2014 survey to measure teachers’ appreciation of and ability to teach the curriculum included both quantitative and open-ended measures. Macken-Horarik et al. write that an initial paper drawn from the quantitative questions reported that teachers believed strongly in the value of a contextualized, relational grammar curriculum and generally responded that they were confident in their ability to teach it (296). However, analysis of the discursive, qualitative data “revealed anomalous patterns” (298).

Teachers surveyed overwhelmingly agreed that they valued all aspects of a relational approach, including SSK (the knowledge necessary to engage in multimodal composition) (298). However, questions focusing on specifics received lower positive response rates, and examination of the responses to open-ended questions found that comparatively few employed “a technical metalanguage” (298) that allowed them to discuss how form related to function (300). Despite endorsing the importance of SSK, when asked what kinds of knowledge were important, only 3 of 227 teachers who answered the open-ended version of the question mentioned multimodality (300).

Analysis of demographic data indicated that among the variables studied, including type of school and geographical location, only the teachers’ level of experience and the level at which they taught influenced the importance they attached to teaching grammatical knowledge. Less experienced teachers and primary-school teachers valued this knowledge more than more experienced counterparts teaching higher grades. The authors posit that teachers at higher levels may have assumed that by the time students reached them, the “core business” of grammar was “already ‘in place’” (301). In alignment with research in other cultures, teachers working with students from lower economic strata placed more importance on grammar than did their counterparts (301-02).

When asked in the quantitative sections of the survey about their confidence in their ability to teach the Australian curriculum, teachers again responded overwhelmingly that they felt prepared to do so. New teachers were more likely to express some doubt about their competence (303). Noting prior research that suggests that confidence levels do not necessarily indicate competence (303), Macken-Horarik et al. found that in the discursive answers to a question about the challenges the teachers faced, of 104 respondents, 69 found aspects of grammatical subject knowledge challenging (304). A number of these teachers stated that they had not been taught this knowledge in their own educations; others found “mapping functional grammar terminology onto traditional grammar terminology” difficult, while a third group noted that teaching a relational approach required them to work with more complex and difficult components and texts than they felt prepared to teach (305).

Further coding suggested that 63.5% of teachers responding to the issue of challenges “had already developed [knowledge about language] but needed to add ‘nuance’ to this in one or more areas of knowledge,” while 31.7% struggled with “basic knowledge of language” (305). These same teachers expressed “easy confidence with subject knowledge” in the quantitative measures (306-07). The authors find that this mismatch increases as teachers are asked to articulate specifics, particularly involving the role of lower-level components of language in developing higher levels of meaning (307).

Asked what professional development they needed, teachers identified published resources appropriate to the new curriculum, “infrastructure support,” and collaboration within and across schools (307). Again, roughly 30% of those who answered requested “a comprehensive introduction to subject knowledge” (308), and again, large majorities of those indicating such needs expressed high levels of confidence in their ability to teach the material (309). Discursive responses again revealed “an eerie silence” about the tools needed to teach in multimodal contexts (309).

The authors write that their study of “perceptions” did not allow them to judge whether teachers were actually capable of implementing contextual, nuanced instruction (310). Although more than 60% of the teachers surveyed rejected “decontextualized grammar exercises” (311), the authors call for further research including interviews. focus groups, and possibly text-based testing to illuminate teachers’ actual performance (311). In the authors’ view, Australian literacy education must do more to help teachers understand “how” to achieve the mandated goal of “[c]learly relating grammatical choices to meanings in texts and to contexts in which texts are produced” (312).