How to teach writing: ignore grammar


How to teach writing: ignore grammar

I rarely tout my teaching abilities as a reason that I am homeschooling, which is probably why I have a homeschool blog full of beach resort photos instead of teaching tips.

However I do think I’m qualified to teach writing. I’ve taught writing at Brown, Boston University, and the University of Paris. And having been a teacher of college students I feel qualified to tell you that being a writing teacher is the process of giving constant feedback about what is interesting and what is not interesting.

Of course, people do not need good grammar or good sentence structure. But that’s not what you teach when you teach writing. You teach people how to know when they are in the box and when they are thinking out of the box. Out of the box is interesting. Following all the rules is boring.

Because look at this.

The paragraph break is so interesting when done incorrectly that it almost encourages more rule breaking.

My best writing teachers focused on cutting out what was not interesting, and so I learned that only about half of write I write is publishable. Even now. I write this post but surely my blog editor will cut half of it. I don’t even know if this sentence will make it to your desktop.

So you should teach how you need to have an editor. If you can’t listen to someone telling you when you’re boring, you will never get more interesting. This is no small feat. A well thought out argument is interesting. A stupid argument is stupid. So if you tell a kid to aim for intersting, it will force smarter writing, but only by accident.

A study from Stanford shows that GenY are the best writers in history because they are used to writing for an audience—not in class, but online—so they try a lot harder since they know hundreds of people will be reading. Gen Y knows not to be boring. (And if the assignment is intrinsically boring, there’s always EssayForSale.)

So it’s no surprise that Gen Y doesn’t really like Twitter. Gen X and Baby boomers like Twitter. And they are boring. A study from Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech and MIT shows that people think two-thirds of the tweets they read are boring. What’s notable about the study is the widely acknowledged need to be interesting. We did not have that when I was in high school. Instead, accuracy, following rules, reading the right books—this was the point of writing class when I was in high school. Today, the point is to be interesting.

That’s a great goal. And aiming for interesting on Twitter, in just 140 characters, is no small feat. (I spent about 30 minutes on each of my tweets, but the payoff is that I have 128,000 followers.)

So as the person in your life who probably has the most experience teaching writing at the college level, here’s my advice: Get your kid on Twitter, tell your kid when their writing is boring, force your kid to write for an audience of more than you. The number of followers a kid has is a more accurate reflection of their writing than the grade they earn from a teacher.


28 replies
  1. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    You write “…which is probably why I have a homeschool blog full of beach resort photos instead of teaching tips.”

    You had said in a previous post that you have trouble knowing when you’ve written something funny. That was pretty funny :)

    And vulnerable. And endearing too.

    The only thing I have to add is that it’s very easy to drum all the fun out of writing by getting too hung up on teaching kids that they must edit harshly every time they write. To do anything creative, you need to put inhibitions in the background.

    Skill in editing comes later when you have read enough to know better writing on sight.

  2. Shawn J
    Shawn J says:

    Having read through some of the articles on your site I have come to the realization that while it contains some really interesting and thought provoking titles, it offers nothing of real substance to those looking for real information on these topics.

    Is this by design? Are you intentionally duping us lazy Google searchers into visiting your site just to drive up web traffic for advertising revenue?

    I find myself wishing that I could get back the 45 minutes I spent reading through your drivel.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Shawn, it took you 45 minutes to figure out you hate my blog? I can read a blog in a minute and know it sucks. I can’t imagine needing 45 minutes of reading to come to that conclusion.


      • Jani
        Jani says:

        This comment shows what is probably the most amazing thing about your writing – your ability to cut straight to the thing that needs to be said.

  3. Julia A
    Julia A says:

    Ugh, Shawn. I read thru half this site last night before I realized it was all nuts.

    “I let my kids play video games for as long as they want and you should too bcs blah blah blah”

    Interesting. How long have you been doing this?

    “Started today!”


    It’s all like this.

    How long has she been homeschooling anyway?

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      you and shawn must be incredibly smart people … to the point i’m surprise you are not leading edge cutting information blogs or something. i am not very educated other than the sense i went through a lot of school. which i’ve come to realize is not real education for the most part. not the kind i want to have.

      all the drivel has been incredibly enlightening for me.

      not the “here’s tons of info” but more the type that sends me on a wild search to teach myself.

  4. LJM
    LJM says:

    So what if a kid is writing something that the adult/instructor doesn’t find “interesting,” but that the kid finds very “interesting.”

    It seems the word “interesting” is so subjective as to be confusing. Is “interesting” another word for “relevant?” “Relevant” at least can apply to the subject being written about.

    Regarding grammar, if the kid writes, “I helped my dad jack off the horse,” are you suggesting that we shouldn’t point out that, “I helped my dad, Jack, off the horse,” is a better way of writing that sentence?

    I mean, certainly, the first way is more “interesting” in a “variety of felonies” kind of way, but there must be some situations when we shouldn’t “ignore grammar.”

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      i don’t think you need to ignore grammar entirely. if you see her writings you see that she does good (or the editor) with grammar.

      but i think that focusing on grammar rather than just writing is a way to kill the passion.

      i mean, if the kid writes your sentences and then finishes the story he/she can take it to “the editor.” then the editor can help out with commas and such. that way the kid focuses on writing what is interesting (to their story) and then develop from there.

      i remember the teachers killing my essays because they were grammar zealots. then they’d say “it’s boring. you gotta make it interesting!”

      then i’d think “you erase 30% of the sentences that gave details about my story. now the story is vague.”

      they didn’t think it was important because they didn’t look at the whole picture because a run on sentence bugged them too much.

      just little things like that.

      maybe this grammar thing is when kids are at beginning stages and is not saying to ignore grammar altogether forever. that’d be nuts and would not allow communication properly. i think it’s about helping your kids when they are learning. don’t focus so much on grammar as focusing on finishing a story. then edit with the help of an adult/someone who knows grammar.

    • monalisa
      monalisa says:

      AMEN! One sentence to prove how grammar, correct context, and two little commas make a shocking difference. Reading and trying to comprehend what is being written on the intranet,is becoming extremely difficult at an alarming rate. I was an ER nurse for 17 years. There was NO margin for error, verbal or written. You can imagine how eventually, this could cause detrimental consequences for the Y generation if they became unable to communicate clearly. Being clear and concise, should not make or break how interesting a writers work can be, but, misuse of a word or a comma, could cost a life.

  5. redrock
    redrock says:

    Grammar is the structure of language. It does not mean that writing has to happen in the form of a sonnet, but it is still the backbone of the spoken and written word. I assume that most of the teaching mentioned in the blog was with college level students, who already have a good grasp of grammar and could therefore dispense the active application of grammar rule because they were already part of their writing. Isn’t it more like learning to play an instrument: at some point you will learn where your notes are “located” so you can play them (independent on how you learn it). In the same way you learn grammar and vocabulary: they are the notes which make the music of writing ring and sound the way you want to.

    • Al
      Al says:

      All the studies on grammar pedagogy in first-year composition show that students write worse with grammar instruction–it’s not even neutral, because they’re focusing on style instead of the meaning-making.

      The only way that you can improve someone’s grammar is by making them read more. It simply cannot be taught.

      Uninformed people argue this all the time because it’s so counter-intuitive, but so is the Kitty Genovese Bystander Effect (where 100 NYC apartment-dwellers watched her agonizing murder and not one of them called 911 because the more bystanders there are the less likely it is that someone will help).

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I don’t think that is a contradiction: at first I doubt grammar and how to use to get the most effect out of your writing is intuitive. It has to be learned to some extent, or if you are a first language speaker, it has to become visible to the writer. So children will have writing which is grammar focused and free writing where they just write. At some point the two tasks fuse and the kid will be able to use his/her knowledge and practice to the best advantage for creative writing. Don’t forget that writing itself is also a skill which is learned! So, if you take it to the extreme you could also say the skill of writing gets into the way of creative story telling. However, while it does in the beginning (cannot write fast enough to get thoughts on paper) it stops being an impediment after a few months.

        • Al
          Al says:

          I agree that it absolutely has to be learned. But it doesn’t need to be taught.

          Teaching grammar is like using flashcards to improve vocabulary–it’s just a bad, ineffective strategy. Unless you’re shooting for short-term, hoop-jumping success (like writing a standardized test), you’re not going to gain from it.

          Both of these things are mastered through reading and group workshopping. Chomsky’s shown us that grammar is biologically innate, so there’s no need to have the conscious language for things that can be intuited unless one wishes to be a linguist.

          For a second-language learner, I’d still advise reading over conscious grammar instruction.

          • B
            B says:

            The grammar of a Language that Chomsky refers to is not the same thing as prescriptive grammar taught by composition teachers at university. As English speakers our innate grammar tells us that the sentence “Colorless ideas sleep furiously” is indeed a grammatical sentence in English. Does it make sense? Probably not unless you’re in the midst of an acid trip. For Chomsky, grammar is synonymous with syntax.

            The idea of not splitting an infinitive “to go boldly” rather than “to boldly go” is a rule that is prescribed by the academic gatekeepers and champions of standard English composition. The act of imparting ideas through written language, expressing content in a logical, clear manner is indeed a very different process than adhering to a set of rules that privilege some specific “form” of writing over others. Linguists aren’t grammar mavens. On the contrary, actually.

            Now if you want to maneuver within the academic community, you’ll probably have to learn how to co-op the grammatical style favored by them. If you want to entertain the masses via writing, you probably just need a good editor to disambiguate where needed and wrangle your punctuation. Honestly, I’ll take a clear presentation of information over perfectly rendered grammatical writing any day. And if the two come together? That’s cool too.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            There are many opinions about learning a second language, just by immersion (this one only works assuming you start from nothing if you want to get stuck on being able to do basic things, but fails for newspaper reading), listening to tapes, reading a lot, but it is a lot easier to build a good and comprehensive knowledge of a new language if you have a basic understanding of the grammar. Unless you read slow and analyze each sentence, it is tricky to unravel for example the rule for tenses in an “if” sentence. And after all if you want to use editors to correct your mistakes, then someone has to train the editors. I rather be self-sufficient in getting a reasonably straightforward sentence to paper.

          • B
            B says:

            “But it is a lot easier to build a good and comprehensive knowledge of a new language if you have a basic understanding of the grammar.”

            This is mainly true for adult language learners. Children who acquire a second or third language before the age of say, 12 or so, do not do so by concentrating on grammar. In fact, there’s a difference between “acquiring language” and “learning language.” Kids brains acquire language. If my 7 year old moved to France tomorrow, by the end of 2012 she would have more native-like fluency of the language than I would have despite a degree in French, exceptional reading knowledge of the language, and a general fascination with the language and culture. At this point, I could never achieve native-like fluency. Adult brains that are learning a second language crave mapping grammatical categories (as in syntax) of the second language to grammatical categories of their native language. When I was learning Czech, the loose sentence structure nearly killed me. I stuck to my English Subject-Verb-Object syntax out of sheer desperation. Kids simply would not have this hang up. When acquiring another language, kids brains don’t get hung up on these sorts of grammar issues. Their young brains have an innate aptitude for language acquisition. Our adult brains lose this after puberty. Again, this sort of “grammar” (i.e. syntax) isn’t the same thing as prescriptive grammar rules that frame standard written English (or any language).

            With respect to writing: For some, the combination of form versus content isn’t a big issue. Save a few punctuation mistakes and misspellings, the grammatical rules of standard English are implicit in their writing. For others, concentrating on form is an impediment to actually conveying information in a clear and compelling way. I’ve read perfectly grammatical pieces that suck at conveying information in a practical or interesting manner. And I’ve read pieces that are full of typos and generally flout standard grammar rules and conventions but are compelling narratives that introduce provocative ideas. Of course the 2 don’t have to be mutually exclusive and the best writing is a marriage of good content and reasonable form.

            I’m pretty much in agreement with Penelope on this one: Encourage your kids to focus on content. The form part can be fluid depending on your audience, the intention of your communication, etc. Grammar rules are easy enough to teach and correct. Even the best writers need a fresh pair of eyes to read through their stuff. Creating a cohesive narrative, presenting ideas in a clear and compelling manner are much more difficult to master. I say concentrate on the latter and not get hung up on the grammar rules.

  6. Shawn J
    Shawn J says:

    This may sound crass, but your writing does not create or share knowledge. It just spreads drivel.

    You are correct. It took me 45 minutes to determine this. I’m not a blog aficionado. I’m just a guy looking for some content to support the titles that my Google search returned. I guess Google isn’t perfect.

    Have a good day.

  7. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    I have an idea that what Shawn wants is to open his (her?) head and have someone pour information in for him – a very traditional education.

    We have always homeschooled our kids despite both of us doing fantastically well in traditional school. We tend toward the unschooling/eclectic schooling end of the home schooling continuum. I attend eight home schooling conferences in three states every year for my business and family life. What Penelope does is fascinating. It may not always be relevant but it is fascinating. She is starting out on her homeschooling journey. She is sharing and being vulnerable and powerful. She thinks outside of the box. She sees things from an often different perspective than I do. It is an awesome resource for anyone who is contemplating homeschooling or starting out or questioning their mode/method of homeschooling or looking for a different perspective or wants to get outside of the box (even if they can’t get their on their own).

    I am sorry for you that you don’t see the value here. There is a whole other world out there to explore and discover and it doesn’t happen because someone pours it into your head nor through a Google search (much as I LOVE Google).

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I might be a little dense here: but why is asking and searching for information akin to traditional education? And why has traditional education evolved here into something quite horrible and to be avoided by all means? Traditional education does not mean that all independent thought is squashed – although it leaves certainly less room for individual development than is desirable. But I think there is something to be said for developing a solid knowledge base and skill set. Please note that I am not advocating a rigid classroom setting here, which is certainly not a good path to a balanced education.

      • MoniqueWS
        MoniqueWS says:

        You wrote: I might be a little dense here: but why is asking and searching for information akin to traditional education?

        I never said any such thing. You read this into my comments.

        This is a homeschooling blog so by definition not a traditional education even if you are re-creating school at home.

        Work your Google-fu on this: Paulo Friere or Banking concept of education or Pedagogy of the oppressed

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          in your first sentence you wrote:
          “I have an idea that what Shawn wants is to open his (her?) head and have someone pour information in for him – a very traditional education.” which creates the impression that you link the simple gathering of information to a traditional education. It is part of any education so equating it with traditional education does not seem correct to me. Shawn was looking for information to get started, and he did not find it on this blog which is much more interpretative in nature.
          And Freire represents a narrow slice of homeschooling and schooling philosophy; I disagree with some aspects, but he also represents a rather extreme left position which many do not share – not in the homeschooling and not in the school environment. So I am not sure why you think he is relevant in this part of the discussion.

  8. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I notice typos and poor grammar (even in my own writing) and I think it is to writing as your appearance is to getting ahead in your career. There are people who are distracted by typos and poor grammar just like there are interviewers who will be distracted by someone with B.O and spinach in their teeth, even if the person would be otherwise interesting.

  9. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    That said, Penelope’s typos aren’t a big deal to me. There are minor spelling mistakes and then there are people who type like they’re wearing mittens and have never glanced at a dictionary. The former is human. The latter is sloppy and stupid.

  10. Christina @Interest-Led Learning
    Christina @Interest-Led Learning says:

    “The number of followers a kid has is a more accurate reflection of their writing than the grade they earn from a teacher.”

    I’ve never thought about it this way, but you are so right. A teacher is paid to read what you have to say. The thousands of people who follow you can leave any time.

  11. says:

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