Mechanical Difficulties

Student researcher reveals how to overcome ‘fear and loathing’ of grammar

Students everywhere seem to really hate grammar. Catch the mistake?

If you’re like most people, you’re probably rolling your eyes now about some pedantic grammatical rule on split infinitives. With its dangling modifiers and comma splices, grammar is one of the most universally hated subjects— but that may be because it’s being taught the wrong way, says a Longwood student researcher.

“Attitude is everything,” said Ashlyn Kemp 16, of Chesapeake, who is studying to become a middle-school English teacher. For teachers to change student attitudes toward grammar, we have to change ourselves.”

Kemp’s research centers on pervasive attitudes among college students about the rules of language. She found that the dislike for studying grammar is more widespread and vehement than she thought: Even students who plan to be English teachers reported negative experiences about learning grammar.

The source of the problem? Unenthusiastic instruction, said Kemp.

The solution? Kemp is convinced that teachers need to start teaching grammar positively and in a way that encourages what she calls “active participation” among students and an understanding of grammar’s benefits.

In Kemp’s research, which evolved from a linguistics course this past spring semester, she surveyed 100 college students on their attitudes toward grammar instruction. The survey also asked three questions to gauge their ability to spot grammatical errors in a sentence. English and education majors, she thought, would be better able to catch them; she was wrong.

“People were all over the place with their level of competency, but they all had in common their attitude toward grammar, which is horrible,” she said.

Kemp admits she wasn’t interested in the subject until taking a grammar course this spring under Dr. Sean Ruday, assistant professor of English, who has published three books on writing instruction, two of which focus on grammar.

“Oh no, I did not like grammar before,” said Kemp with a laugh. “Dr. Ruday uses active participation and has an incredibly positive attitude about teaching grammar. In active participation, all of the students work with partners, then collectively come together and share what they’ve learned. Now I’m definitely OK with grammar and feel comfortable teaching it.”

Ruday said the “main takeaway” of Kemp’s research is that it’s important to teach grammar in a way that accentuates its benefits and that conveys it can be a useful tool for effective writing. “Also, teachers need to be positive, to be enthusiastic,” he said.

Kemp presented her research, “Altering Student Attitudes Toward Grammatical Concepts,” at the 26th annual conference of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, held in July 2015 in Largo, Md.