Does "Correct Grammar" Motivate Students in English Class?
Many students who come into my English 111 believe that the primary purpose of my class is for me to change them into "grammatically correct" writers and hammer into them the ability to "speak properly." In terms of motivation, an end goal of correct grammar is not enough to make students want to change their writing or speaking habits. Mustering up the energy and desire to edit what you've written must be motivated by a deeper explanation than "just because what you wrote is not right." I have found that making accuracy and exactness in speech to be the end goal of writing as being a more inspiring reason for change in language than merely grammar. Finding the most accurate and precise phrase for what I want to say has been my primary goal as an English major more than merely hitting the standard of "correct grammar." I regularly aim my students toward exactness and accuracy in their writing which ultimately will push them towards being correct in grammar and "properly" speaking.
It is good to have friends who will correct your inaccurate statements. As a sophomore and junior in college, I had two friends who regularly pointed out inaccurate generalizations I made. In the summer of 2004, I worked at Snowbird Wilderness Outfitters. Working at a summer camp allowed for very little free time, but lots of "conversation time" where we would have time to talk about whatever since we were often leading high school students on a trail or driving the students on a bus. My first summer there, James Vaught made it a habit to correct any generalization I made about society. After every "hasty generalization," James would remind me that I was speaking too broadly. The following summer, another friend Brian Turney, did the same. I might say: "Americans are all obsessed with television and are becoming brainwashed." Brian would say "Nate. That is not true. That is a generalization." James and Brian would make me qualify my statements, and we would debate about the accuracy of each of the statements. These were not grammatical corrections, but corrections of accuracy. These were errors of phrasing---that is---what I had said could be false. Brian and James felt the need to debate the truth of what I had said.
I find myself doing the same thing to my students as an English teacher in 2015. To be accurate in the way you are describing something requires you to be: (1) saying what is true (2) saying exactly what you intend to say. Sometimes it is easier to make a hasty generalization about the American public, than to make a more modest statement that is accurate I want my students to become as accurate as possible. In the same way, the more a student writes, the more he or she will be able to verbalize exactly what they mean. Giving the student the power to verbalize what exactly they want to say is a powerful tool I can give students. Who doesn't want to say in words exactly what they mean? Not what they hope people will hear, but exactly what they mean.
Grammar helps with accuracy, but it still doesn't guarantee someone will say something exactly as they mean it. An essay can be free of any grammatical errors but can still be make no sense whatsoever. One way to make writing more accurate is to eliminate clichés. William Zinsser says in his book "On Writing Well" that our language is full of clichés. Zinsser says:
If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion; it’s probably one of the countless clichés that have woven their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing that you have to make a special effort not to use them…. Strive for fresh words and images. (Zinsser, 118)
Some clichés are true, but most of them just put the brakes on the flow of your writing. They slow your writing down and take away the originality of your message. Take the time to brainstorm when writing so you can come up with something more accurate than the clichés you are using. A paper can be grammatically perfect, but if it has multiple clichés in it, it will lack the power to persuade the reader of its primary message. Take the time to identify clichés and find the right words so writing can becoming something that explains an old truth in a new way.
A second reason why accuracy matters as much as grammar is that nobody likes to be put in a box. To be exact in how you characterize another person will avoid "putting someone in a box" or stereotyping how another person is. When writing, it might be easy to simply just sum up a person by relying on a generalized version of another person's beliefs or appearance. Describing a person's beliefs, identity or appearance accurately takes more time and effort. Again, a person can be grammatically correct, but still inaccurately represent someone in an essay. Therefore being accurate in description can capture the nuance of who a person is in and their particular story. Stereotypes of other people work like clichés, they easy things to use as a writer when you do not feel like working hard. In an American culture today that is hyperaware of how we describe the beliefs and subcultures of Americans, it is key to be accurate in how you describe others for the sake of a true representation. Accuracy avoids stereotypes, and in the end will help students communicate in an age where a nuanced story that carefully handles the details is more interesting than a cliché story.
A third way to push students toward accuracy(that is unrelated to grammar)---is to ask them to qualify their statements. We are going for true statements. If we want to gain the trust of the reader, we cannot exaggerate. Qualifying statements helps us to say exactly what we mean so that we aren't attempting to impress the reader, but make a clear statement. As I mentioned earlier, this is how Brian and James corrected my generalizations. My generalizations often were a result of me feeling strongly about something so much that I was prone to make a large generalization about something that could be a little bit off. I think it is only right to get excited and passionate about coming across truth or realizations. Truth is exciting. But sometimes the excitement gets the best of you, so we qualify for accuracy. To give an example about eating healthy, we might make a connection between gardening and American health: (1) "If Americans did not abandon their gardens in the 1950's, we would not be overweight, we would still be eating vegetables instead of French fries and garden would end hunger in America today." This is an overstatement, so I would need to qualify it a bit: (2) "If Americans had not stopped keeping vegetable gardens in the 1970's and 1980's, we would probably have an easier time eating more vegetables and depending on supermarkets." As you can see, the second statement is more modest, but it is more provable, where as the first statement is an overstatement. Qualify your statements for the sake of truth.
In the end, grammar helps people to become accurate in what they say. To say "May I get a glass of water?" is better than saying "Can I get a glass of water?":
However in general I find it more effective to sell students on accuracy and exactness rather than merely telling them that they are in English class to "speak properly" as if I am giving them some kind of etiquette lesson. Instead I like to inspire them to speak accurately so we are engaging in attempts at describing the world in truth. I want my students to think of themselves as thinkers, amateur philosophers and good communicators. All of these three things require a person to be exact in their language. It gives English class meaning rather than just another lesson in being proper with little understanding of why there is a difference between "can" and "may."