A Review of Bad Ideas About Writing, Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe

Table of Contents About Us References

Chapter 3: Bad Ideas About Style, Usage, and Grammar. Review by Brandie Bohney

"Bad Ideas About Style, Usage, and Grammar" did in many ways precisely what a scholar in writing pedagogy might expect regarding the teaching of “grammar” as well as style and usage: it reiterated that teaching grammar in isolation is not just ineffective, but harmful to student writing (Patricia A. Dunn, Hannah J. Rule, Muriel Harris); it encouraged methods like sentence combining (Dunn) or analysis of mentor texts (Rule) or use of strategy and technique rather than following rigid rules (Monique Dufour and Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Harris) as a means of familiarizing students with effective and interesting ways to put together words and strengthening their skills at doing so in their own writing. The chapter also touched on some perhaps less expected issues: it debunked commons myths like avoiding the first person (Rodrigo Jospeh Rodríguez, Kimberly N. Parker) or never using passive voice (Collin Gifford Brooke). Much of what the chapter did would be most beneficial to relative newcomers to the study of composition pedagogy and those whose backgrounds in composition theory is relatively incomplete (like preservice English teachers, graduate students teaching FYC for the first time, or inservice English teachers whose background in writing instruction is entrenched in “correctness” or rule-following as the ways to improve writing) because much of what the chapter covered is not groundbreaking news to composition scholars, especially those familiar with the work of Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer, (1963), Hartwell (1985), Hillocks (1986), and Weaver (1996), among numerous others.

That said, several of the pieces did a nice job considering the "why" behind beliefs about the teaching of style, usage, and grammar (Dufour and Ahern-Dodson, Parker, Brooke, Harris), which is sometimes missing in academic conversations about concerns of the teaching of what Patrick Hartwell calls “school grammar” (1985). That consideration is especially important in developing a connection with those outside composition research and those who believe—adamantly, even—that the only good writing is “correct” writing and the only way to learn correct writing is through isolated grammar instruction like sentence diagramming. If there is to be change in the minds of those who teach or believe in grammar in isolation, it is unlikely to happen unless they do not feel as though they are being ridiculed for teaching or believing that way.

The question, of course, is whether or not such an audience is likely to access this text and then seek additional information about implementation of more effective strategies for approaching “grammar” instruction. Given the open-access nature of the book, it seems it would be more likely to reach middle and secondary instructors grappling with issues of such instruction, but also given the dearth of time such educators have for academic pursuits (not to mention the ridiculous lack of incentive generally for them to do so), it does not necessarily seem likely that they might encounter the text on their own. That said, it seems quite likely that graduate students preparing to teach composition for the first time and preservice English teachers who take coursework in writing pedagogy would encounter the text, considering the text’s comprehensive, accessible nature and the cost-saving benefit of being open-access.

Several of the pieces do a nice job considering the why behind beliefs about the teaching of style, usage, and grammar

The chapter content was not without question marks, though. It was interesting that Patrick Thomas’s section about the nebulous nature of voice and how ineffective encouraging “strong voice” is, was then followed by Rodríguez’s section about why leaving yourself out of your own writing is a bad idea since Rodriguez discussed how doing so, among other things, prevents students from “building a publicly recognized voice with confidence and a level of expertise that builds trust with the audience” (p. 132). These ideas are not mutually exclusive, of course; it is just interesting that they are juxtaposed in such a way without additional comment or context.

Several pieces in the chapter discussed the elitist, racist, and culturally insensitive nature of a “standard” English—particularly the opening essay by Laura Lisabeth, “Strunk and White Set the Standard.” It is surprising, though, given the nature of the chapter, that more emphasis wasn’t placed on these problems: Lisabeth’s section focused on the situated, context-driven nature of language use and the deeply problematic focus on one dialect as “correct,” but aside from that, the pieces that focused squarely on issues of devalued Englishes are part of chapter 2 about who good writers are. It seemed an interesting alternative placement, given that so many people (though certainly less so in circles of composition scholars) believe that devalued Englishes are merely poor grammar rather than legitimate dialects. This is one area where a more interactive format of the text would have been better, as it would have allowed the pieces to be listed under both chapters and would have strongly encouraged their being read in conversation with one another.

Overall, though, this chapter made a strong initial case for those who may not already be eyeballs-deep in composition research and theory that proves traditional grammar instruction with worksheets and diagrams is a bad plan, and it provided a lot of excellent additional resources for those who would like to learn more. Although such a reader might find it wanting a bit in terms of practical, applicable advice (a handful of suggestions are offered but not always explained in great detail, given the brevity of each section), the "Further Reading" sections also offered suggestions for pieces that would allow readers to explore both additional discussion of theory and also descriptions of application in the classroom.