Do Language for Life and The Writing Revolution disagree?

Since sentence diagramming is one of the major activities in the Language for Life book and course, I thought I’d respond to a point raised in The Writing Revolution (P14-15) about the authors’ reservations on this subject. 

Firstly, I don’t think I disagree with the authors when they talk about the superiority of sentence combining over sentence diagramming as a way of enhancing writing.

Secondly, Language for Life is certainly not about ‘teaching grammar rules in isolation’, so again the authors and I are agreed. Teaching anything in isolation is folly when it comes to literacy, since every utterance, every written word exists in a network of forms that should not be disconnected from one another.

I think what leads to the perception that my work on grammar may not be aligned with TWR is the fact that Language for Life is designed to impart knowledge of words, how they are formed, how they interact with one another and how to get the most out of reference materials that comprise all the various word forms (i.e. dictionaries). 

It’s called Language for Life because it offers entry to the fascinating and highly engaging world of linguistics (the grammar and syntax part). This is a subject within itself, and in my view, should be part of a knowledge-rich curriculum.  Certainly one of the authors, the wonderful Natalie Wexler, is very keen on such ideas! The fact that it helps teachers and children establish shared metalanguage around the parts of speech helps both groups understand and discuss the nature of grammatical and ungrammatical utterances.

Though not the focus of the course, improved writing is often the outcome. This is according to the feedback that I receive from teachers worldwide. 

It also has the approval of UCL’s Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, the highly influential Richard Hudson (our beloved WVC was a big fan), who wrote the foreword to the book and is writing his own book on teaching grammar. I’m looking forward to that. Dick was a kind and wonderful mentor back in my UCL days and I’m so lucky to still be in touch. He wrote in an email recently after re-reading Language for Life:

“I admire your idea (on p.38) of combining transitivity with dependency – very original and potentially brilliant.”

But back to TWR and Language for Life: our purposes are different. TWR’s purpose is to improve the quality of students’ written responses to what they are learning. Language for Life’s purpose is to help students gain insight into the workings of the writing system at the word, phrase and sentence level. What they do with this knowledge is up to them, but I can guarantee you that it certainly doesn’t impair writing development, and if taught systematically, even students who struggle with with language can and do benefit.

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