Three Things (I Used to Do) That English Teachers Should Stop Doing

gi-chalkboard-eraser-1800I’m about to outline some things that I believe English teachers should stop doing. But before I do, let me first say that I’ve done all of these things before. Every. Single. One. I thought that they were necessary to be a good English teacher. And I was wrong.

But being wrong and recognizing it is how we become better. All good teachers reflect on their practice and ask themselves how they could’ve done things more effectively. That’s why we’re constantly working to improve what we teach and how we teach it – tweaking lesson plans, consulting our PLNs, doing PD, and searching for new and better ways to facilitate learning. We deeply care about educating kids in the best way possible and work tirelessly to make that happen.

So, in the spirit of that pursuit, I present the “Three Things (I Used to Do) That English Teachers Should Stop Doing.”

1. Stop teaching old grammar rules

Many rules about grammar were created by old men based on whims, personal biases, and outsized egos. They have little to do with making language more clear, precise, or efficient. They are rules without good reason.

For instance, take the case of hanging prepositions – a rule created by “Latin-obsessed 17th-century introverts,” yet still taught in schools today. Or rules about not writing in the passive voice, not starting a sentence with a conjunction, or not starting a sentence with the word “hopefully” – all simply myths. Pick up a copy of pretty much any major publication to see evidence of these “rules” being flouted.

The world of grammar nerdery is a fervent place and this blog post could devolve into a treatise on prescriptivist vs. descriptivist interpretations of grammar, but let’s just leave it at this – we should be empowering students to write with purpose, clarity, and impact, not bogging them down with clunky, outdated rules.

And besides, there’s abundant evidence that the best way to teach grammar is to not teach grammar – at least not directly.  Studies show that students learn far more from simply reading and practicing writing than from the fear and constriction of abstract rules.

2. Stop teaching that a paragraph is a certain number of sentences

Three to five. At least five. Seven to ten.

The number of sentences required to constitute a paragraph seems to vary from teacher to teacher.  But again, look at real-world, published writing – a paragraph can be one sentence (or even a single word).

The reason why teachers require paragraph lengths is entirely understandable. By giving a minimum number of sentences, teachers are trying to push kids to write more, to challenge themselves, and to articulate their ideas fully. But in the process of providing that forced structure, they are not teaching the essence of what a paragraph really is – a collection of sentences centered around a single idea. And the result is students who can’t write in (and don’t fully understand the true concept of) paragraphs.

This isn’t to say that paragraphs can’t be too short, because they can (see this article  from the Guardian containing eleven one-sentence paragraphs for evidence of that). But writing is, at its heart, an artform, and art should not be guided by strict, arbitrary rules, but by purpose, style, and balance.

3. Stop saying “I don’t do math”

When I was in high school, I loved computer science. I excelled at calculus. My honors biology course was my favorite class I took the entire four years. It was only later in college that I truly found a home in the English department. However, in my early years of teaching, when I misnumbered a handout or added up numbers in my head incorrectly, I would just chuckle and exclaim to the class, “I’m an English teacher – I don’t do math!”

What’s implicit in this statement is that you are either good at something or you aren’t – a “fixed mindset,” in the terms of Carol Dweck. It tells kids, “Hey, if you’re good at English, it’s okay not to do as well at math – it’s natural to only be good at one or the other!” It’s a stereotype and myth that lovers of art and language cannot grasp math and science (and vice versa). While the idea of “left brain/right brain” thinking has become prominent in our culture and satisfies our human need to mentally put things into tidy categories, it has also seen research disputing its existence in recent years. It turns out that the truth is, as usual, not so clear.

For instance, look at some of the finest scientific and mathematical minds of the past few hundred years – Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking – all ardent readers and exceptional writers. Shouldn’t we, as teachers, be living examples of a lifelong love of learning –  all kinds of learning?

And if you’re reading this and thinking, “But, I’m really not good at math! I swear!” then my suggestion is…fake it. Or at least don’t advertise it. It may not be 100% authentic, but it’s necessary to cultivate open-mindedness and allow students to reach their full potential.

The Common Thread

What is similar about each of the above is that they inhibit students. They deter experimentation, create an unnecessary fear of being incorrect, and cloud student voice. They also inhibit teachers – when we instruct according to the status quo, we are not allowing ourselves to risk being wrong. But when we’re wrong, we learn, and then we get better at what we do.


4 thoughts on “Three Things (I Used to Do) That English Teachers Should Stop Doing

  1. These suggestions are utterly silly educational ideology. You are clearly clueless about the authentic nature of a true education. It seems very interesting that the vast majority of teachers and especially university education professors are so drastically disconnected from an authentic pedagogy- What teachers should really stop doing is applying this endless stream of useless strategies onto educational settings. The result has been to put most students into an educational coma, except for the smallest minority who can tolerate such nonsense and those of you who can withstand it become teachers and do it all over again to the next generation. What you have said about writing is merely utilitarian, but abstracted to the point of meaninglessness. If you would like help to unfetter yourself and leave the cave, let me know.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that teachers should not drill rules about grammar, but studies show that students do actually need grammar instruction. Some English teachers avoid it all together and believe that students will learn merely through observation of other writers or pick it up through their own writing, and this is not true. It is important to conduct mini-lessons based around areas of common weakness and —this is key—have students go back and practice in their own writing. A great book that breaks down this process is Image Grammar. You mention passive voice. Of course, we know all passive voice is not “bad.” There are times when authors use passive voice for a purpose as a craft move. Yet, there are times where active voice can suit the writer’s purpose more. I think we have all had that student that writes like Yoda talks! In order for students to recognize the difference between active and passive voice start using both most effectively as the teacher, you need to help students recognize and focus on passages that show how authors use verbs and sentence structure and in a mini-lesson and give students an opportunity to play with this skill in their own writing. In my own education, teachers had swung the other way against teaching any grammar, using more of a whole language approach. While no grammar instruction at all is better for student writing than drilling rules and out of context daily edits and endless exercises, good writing teachers need to help students hone in on how authors use sentence structure, punctuation, word choice and give them opportunities to mimic these skills in their own writing. As a good teacher of writing, you can’t just avoid teaching grammar all together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Kate. I think we agree on a lot about grammar instruction, maybe most importantly that it should not be taught out of context and not contribute to the “tyranny of precision” that turns so many writers off. Would love to see those studies you referenced!


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