English Classes…

by Richard Riehle

beowulfAs a social studies teacher, I have always been interested in English classes. Having some basic mastery of your native language (i.e. to effectively read, speak, and write) is pretty important when teaching in my area. With this in mind, I came across a couple interesting articles which address some modern problems with this subject area…

First off, I have a NYT opinion piece, where a college instructor is describing how and why integrating micro-blogging (including Twitter and IM’ing) into a freshman writing curriculum has value: Teaching to the Text Message

I’ve been teaching college freshmen to write the five-paragraph essay and its bully of a cousin, the research paper, for years. But these forms invite font-size manipulation, plagiarism and clichés. We need to set our sights not lower, but shorter.

I don’t expect all my graduates to go on to Twitter-based careers, but learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently, is an incredibly useful skill, and more in tune with most students’ daily chatter, as well as the world’s conversation. The photo caption has never been more vital.

Another reason why this may have value (when presented in appropriate measure in a class curriculum) is that these are areas where most students have some familiarity with the forms…the fact is that many students use these types of written communications already… It doesn’t take much to see that this might be a valid subtopic to cover, in that the students are (by their use of these tools) already interested in them.

This next article is one which I disagreed with …at least until I finished reading it… the author present a cogent argument why teaching , and having student worry about such tropes as split infinitives, and dangling participles may be pretty worthless for everyone…and that there are far more valuable things to inculcate into students than late 19th century perspectives about how the language is ‘supposed’ to be used.

It’s time for English teachers to stop teaching that the earth is flat

Perhaps the most important grammar lesson to learn, then, is to trust our language instincts instead of mimicking some ideal which turns out to be a moving target. We need to finally leave the eighteenth-century prescriptions behind and aim for language that is simply good enough to do the job of expressing whatever it is we need to say. And when we study language, we should study what it is, not what someone thinks it should be.

From a comment to this article:

It was Orwell who said that sometimes our instincts fail in which case it is necessary to have recourse to sensible and not overly subjective rules of style, which can indeed be broken. Orwell was a master of plain speech and an adherent of cutting out unnecessary words. I think this is the real key. As Pinker says in ‘The Language Instinct’, it is the lack of editing and drafting which is really the sign of bad English and grammatical prescriptions are mostly Early Modern add-ons stemming from a desire to emulate Latin.