I think this is wrong and Patricia Dunn is completely wrong. It is
simply NOT TRUE that students who are quite intelligent speakers cannot
learn to write. The fact is that almost no one teaches them--ever. And
when grammar is taught, it is a pointless list of errors and corrections
based on totally nonexistent understanding of what the error is. The
glitch is real, and it exists because grammar, syntax, and style are
either never taught or are taught as "how to be wrong." And that is
often worse than no teaching because it evokes anxiety and resistance.
BUT--I have never had a student--even if not highly intelligent--who
could not learn to write perfectly fine sentences. Just as one may never
play great music on a piano, anyone can learn to hit the keys in the
right order and in time--with perhaps a rare tone deaf exception, so
anyone can put a noun and verb in clear relation and place modifiers
where they are supposed to be. But no one will ever show students how;
they teach "rhetoric" as if that were somehow accessible to all despite
its far more difficult and less universal basis, but absolutely refuse
to teach syntax.
I have, in fact, taught syntax to everyone from freshmen to faculty in
several universities and over decades, and they can all learn it because
I don't teach error; I teach how to construct sentences, starting with a
basic set of Chomsky sentence patterns. It's how one learns another
language. In fact, if what is being said here were true, no one could
ever learn a second language after puberty and only then if they were
immersed in it as they are in their mother tongue. But people do learn
to write as well as speak second languages, and they learn to do both by
reading and writing as well as speaking.
So it is quite true that students who do not write can speak: language
is, as far as linguists seem to all claim, universal, untaught, and
equally complex in all humans if they just hear it within a specific
window of time. But writing is a complex skill, and like other complex
skills, it can be learned and taught.
There is no basis whatever for setting this one skill--for which
everyone has a basis in the ability to speak and needs only learn how to
translate that onto a page--apart from all other human experience and
saying it cannot be learned or taught. It can and is.
I find much of composition theory also simply refuses to see anything
about grammar except that it has not been learned; they ignore how it is
taught and conclude it cannot or should not be. But I find students
coming from private or Catholic schools, where it is still taught, in
fact have learned it.
In any case, I do it, and have done it for so long I simply find the
discussion amazing. I teach an advanced class in "Rhetoric, Syntax, and
Style," and it fills and has waiting lists all the time with students
who get thrilled to learn grammar--I am not making this up, as Dave
Barry says--and who all end up with pretty impressive skills in sentence
style. How impressive depends, of course, on where they are in the
I wish faculty would take on the responsibility for helping students
with how to do it instead of how not to do it, and would stop imagining
any student incapable. They are very capable and love to learn it.
>>> [log in to unmask] 12/21/04 12:22 AM >>>
It has never been demonstrated (as far as I know, no one has even tried)
that writing is (even potentially) a common human skill, like speech or
walking, rather than an _uncommon_ human skill, like ballet dancing or
singing Wagner. If you examine closely many really bad pieces of writing
(consisting of comma splices, sentence fragments, etc.) you will find
that "sentence fragment" is an exceedingly precise metaphor: that is,
you can see that what is on the page is the wreckage of sentences which
were perfectly formed in the brain. The student's difficulty, then,
whatever it may be, has nothing to do with his/her command of _language_
but with his/her command of the technology of transcribing from the
brain to paper or screen! This is the reason, incidentally, that
students not only can recognize their own errors if read aloud, but will
often, reading aloud their own work, read the sentence that _should_
have been there rather than the sentence which is on the page -- and not
even realize that they are changing the written text as they read.