Review of Martha Kolln’s “Closing the Books on Alchemy”

In her article, “Closing the Books on Alchemy,” Martha Kolln is determined to disprove the idea that learning grammar has a harmful effect upon writing. Kolln expresses how one bold statement, written by authors Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer in their NCTE report Research in Written Composition, has influenced a whole generation of grammar students. According to Kolln, this 1963 report negatively shapes the view of formal grammar and its presence in school by having “turned back the clock of grammar research” (139). Kolln, a former Assistant English Professor at Pennsylvania State University, set out to prove Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer’s opinion about grammar as false and poorly justified (139). Taking a critical approach to the sparking debate brought on by the NCTE report, Kolln attempts to discredit Braddock et al. by illustrating the faults within their argument and how it has effected the view of grammar and its relation to written composition. The statement within the NCTE report that caused Kolln’s blood to boil was not necessarily intentional, but it was enough to set Kolln off into a tangent revolving around the importance of grammar and the obtuse opinions of the Braddock report: In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing (139). Kolln questions this except, not fully understanding the author’s definition of “formal grammar” and exactly how it has a “harmful effect” upon writing (139). She explains in every other part of the report how the author’s opinions are portrayed as “tentative,” but for unknown reasons they seem to be quite confident in their farfetched statement regarding the harmfulness of formal grammar with little to no proper evidence (140). One of Kolln’s main concerns regarding this excerpt is the great influence it seems to have, for it has been referenced in multiple books, articles, convention papers, and even in schools. Although the view of Braddock et al. in particular shows the negative effects of learning grammar has significantly been noticed, Kolln brings to light that Henry C. Meckel also wrote about many of the same studies – but instead resulted in completely different conclusions. In contrast to Braddock et al., Kolln points out Meckel’s opinion that “research does not justify the conclusion that grammar should not be taught systematically,” and that the “improvement of usage appears to be…achieved through practice of desirable forms” (140-141). Kolln appreciated Meckel’s conclusion, which differed from the Braddock report, along with his similar desire for a definition of “formal grammar” that was never officially presented in the NCTE article to begin with. Kolln clearly points out how the list of those who see grammar as “useless” seemed to grow significantly after the Braddock report; with people such as Dean Memering, Rapeer, Asker, and Segal and Bar supporting Braddock et al.’s claim. Memering expressed the view that learning and implementing formal grammar would not make someone a better writer, resulting in Kolln’s impression that “Memering states his opinions in strong and unqualified terms” (142). On the same side as Braddock and Memering, Kolln makes note that in 1906 Hoyt previously questioned the purpose of formal grammar within the elementary school curriculum, believing “the study of formal grammar may be pursued entirely in accordance with psychological principles” (142). In an experiment to portray this, Hoyt had ninth-graders take a series of tests which concluded that there was no relationship between grammar and the results on the students’ test. But what stood out to Kolln about the experiment results was the fact that the tests were scored subjectively and possibly by untrained scorers. Kolln emphasizes how these results were gained through poorly concluded data, for both Hoyt and Rapeer (who replicated Hoyt’s study seven years later) “did not compare students who studied grammar with others who did not, nor did they compare methods of teaching grammar” (143). In every study that agreed with Braddock et al.’s report, Kolln has found a way to illustrate how all of the conclusions and experiments were based upon false principles and experimental loopholes. Similar to Meckel in ideals, Kolln talks about how in 1939 Frogner compared two different teaching methods: the “grammar” approach and the “thought” approach (145). The grammar group applied the principles they learned, and discussed and corrected their errors while the thought group began to study by discussing written examples and combining ideas. Frogner’s approach worked, and it was because they did not force the students to drill and memorize definitions, phrases, and labels much like how Braddock et al. previously claimed was the only way to enforce proper grammar. Kolln expresses sadness that Frogner’s conclusions were ignored for various petty reasons, and then reflects upon Harris’s study to understand his contrasting view that “writing can be taught without teaching grammar” (146). To Kolln’s dislike, only the negative aspects of Harris’ study had been reported making his observations only useful to one side of the argument. Kolln explains that in the end of his two year experiment, Harris concluded his study by stating: “It seems safe to infer that the study of English grammatical terminology had a negligible or even relatively harmful effect upon the correctness of children’s writing in the early part of the five Secondary schools” (147). Kolln disagrees with Harris’ statement, portraying it as “misleading and simplistic” and would rather it be more positive; rewriting his conclusion as: “The student who spends an extra period ever week for two years on actual composition will show more improvement in certain aspects of writing than the student who does not” in order to swing his view her way (147). The power that Research in Written Composition unleashed upon the grammatical world continues to play a large part of why Kolln disagrees so passionately about the conclusions drawn by Braddock et al. She portrays how “that famous statement has probably had a more harmful effect on our students these past seventeen years than all the time spent memorizing rules and diagramming sentences ever had” (147). Towards the end of her article, Kolln pushes a final supporting thought regarding the relationship between grammar and writing. She illustrates that grammar should not be viewed in direct correlation with diagramming, drillwork, or memorizing rules and phrases, but that we need to see the importance of grammar itself by having a conscious understanding of it and to “use [it] as a sprightly instrument in composition” (149). Kolln does a good job of providing a lot of textual evidence along with multiple sources to back up her claim that teaching grammar is of great importance. It is clear that she believes grammar as helpful rather than harmful, but it is not always clear what her main point is. She never explains why she thinks grammar is so important to learn and what effect learning proper grammar has upon writing and composition. It was not fully clear whether she was supporting or denying the claims of Braddock et al. until the second page. However, did do her research and illustrates many of the different people who attempted experiments in order to gain a reasonable answer as to the effect grammar has. She used the majority of evidence as negative feedback without much positive concrete detail or experiments representing her side. The references to Alchemy were not very clear and to someone who does not have a very broad sense of what alchemy is and the purpose of it, it can come off as confusing. The reference to alchemy did not bring a positive element to the introduction, but instead lead the reader away from the main point. Throughout the article Kolln was extremely biased and, partly to her advantage, found small things wrong with every single study to back up her point. Although a few of her examples were slightly farfetched and not very detailed, while others went on for several pages, she did always find her way back to how it related to the thesis. Throughout the article her tone was not consistent, but instead jumped around to different levels. The majority of the time it would give off the impression of a very formal and straightforward analysis, while at other moments there would be a burst of emotion that seemed uncontrolled and out of place. She would go strait from explaining the experimental teaching methods in a very professional tone to throwing in a sassy comment such as: “we’re not surprised that Memering states his opinions in such strong and unqualified terms” and “what does surprise us is that Memering and others can seriously considerer such research as proof that grammar study has no positive effect on composition” (145). The instant change in tone threw me off slightly and seemed odd due to its lack of consistency. Kolln did try to see the other side of the argument a few times throughout her article, an example of which would be when she states: “In all fairness I must add that Braddock et al. conclude their summary of the Harris study with a parenthetical disclaimer: ‘Based as it was on the use of traditional grammar, the Harris study does not necessarily prove, of course, the ineffectiveness of instruction based on structural or generative grammar’” (147). Although this excerpt did not necessarily work to her immediate advantage, it shows that she is able to look at both of sides and is not unwilling to try to understand the counter-claim. The article became easier to relate to once Kolln began discussing the effects that the statement in Research in Written Composition has in the present day. The part that some readers may be able to connect to is when she comments that current college students’ curriculum most likely has “only one required course in grammar or linguistics to prepare them as teachers” which is in some cases an exact reality (148). Although Kolln could improve on a few aspects of her article, she portrayed the failed attempts at accurately portraying grammar as “harmful” very effectively and gets across her viewpoint that grammar is of great importance and should be implemented. She effectively gives cohesive reasons to discredit the many previous studies and experiments relating to the ineffectiveness of learning proper grammar. Kolln goes against the initial statement by Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer that began it all, and, whether to her advantage or disadvantage, it will live on forevermore through her words and others. Works Cited Kolln, Martha. “Closing the Books on Alchemy .” National Counsel of Teachers of English. College Composition and Communication, Language Studies and Composing. 32.2 (1981): 139-151. Web. 9 Sep. 2012. .