Grammar: The Rules of Engagement in the Imagined Communities of Literacy and Instruction

June 17, 2012

Philip K. Price

Grammar is understood to refer to languages and how words and their component parts combine to form sentences. Definitions also refer to grammar as a normative or prescriptive set of rules setting forth the current standard of usage for pedagogical or reference purposes.  Grammar is important to communication as it forms the backbone of an agreed upon system for relating and understanding information. Online searching and distance education have grammars of their own including terms and descriptors, operators and logic, and methods for gathering, evaluating and disseminating information. We teach grammar and vocabulary in our language classes, to facilitate listening, speaking, reading and writing but are we doing the same in our courses dedicated to information literacy?  Are we meeting the evolving (and revolving) needs of a new generation of information users that are savvy, demanding and impatient? We may be teaching the vocabulary but are we addressing the grammar?

Roger Strouse (2004), in The Changing Face of Content Users and the Impact on Information Providers, clearly describes the changing behaviors of online searchers and points to adjustments that information providers are making to help “empower users.” He identifies searching habits and how users choose to search, how they are becoming more independent, and what skills they are using to facilitate their information tasks. This is an opportunity to influence the new rules for current standards of usage.  Strouse states, “More than ever, it’s information consumers who are driving advancement in the technologies and processes used to deploy content. A new generation of users who were raised with information technology all around them have grown up to become the young knowledge workers we serve today. Content end users are experiencing myriad changes in their information and technology environments, which are affecting how they seek content” (Strouse 2004). He hints at how information providers can be part of this evolution. Rather than riding the waves of change we need to guide them.

Estimates are that a high percentage of searchers turn first to the web for their information needs. Even businesses are relying more on stripped down versions of what was once available only at the library or through the fee-based aggregators. As the demand for, and competition with, more intelligent search engines increases, information aggregators are moving toward web-based systems, making use of the familiarity and functionality of web browsers and keyword searches, decreasing dependence on coded languages to find what customers are looking for. As these databases provide access to their source material via the web open-text or free-text searching we need to seize the opportunity to refocus information literacy to include the searching tasks and strategies used by the experts that lie beneath the surface of input boxes and help buttons. There will always be a need to teach thinking.

Techniques to address the resistance to formalized and structured search strategies need to be planned and incorporated into situational exercises and collaborative work.

Techniques to address the resistance to formalized and structured search strategies need to be planned and incorporated into situational exercises and collaborative work. Brown and Duguid (2003) describe the social life of documents and information and cite Anderson’s “imagined communities” (1991) that form based on a mutual agreement of a strategy for interpreting a set of data, information, and documents without the constraints of agreeing to an exact, single meaning of a set of data. Communities are formed based on their need to find meaning and expression to information and knowledge they have collected and synthesized. This collection and synthesis of information is where librarians, information professionals and professors can have the greatest impact. We need to increase the depth and breadth of our information literacy courses and become welcome participants in these imagined communities.

Drabenstott (2004) looks at the rising demands from a systems standpoint and describes how our information retrieval (IR) systems are trending toward providing web-familiar interactivity and capabilities and suggests we ramp up our efforts to “arrive at creative solutions to the problem of educating users”.  She supports a changing role for information intermediaries, moving from finding relevant documents to teaching the search tasks the experts use, or incorporating these searching behaviors into the systems themselves.  Echoes of “show your work” from early school days reverberate in the null spaces.

Walker and Janes (1999) talk about how “[e]ffective database searching consists of two very different skills – the conceptual skills in search strategy development and the technical details particular to a single search system. Most vendors now appear to believe that their biggest growth will come from web versions of their systems.” Quint (2004) says “when it comes to delivering answers whether using solid reliable–dare I say library-quality–material from the invisible Web or decision-quality information from the open Web, the end user must be offered guides to the best material.” Libraries, in particular, that use systems such as EbscoHost and the Gale Group line of products uncover a trend towards simplifying products for end users with Dialog, LexisNexis, and Factiva, known as the Big Three within the information industry, available for industrial-strength searching in corporate settings and other entities that can afford fee-based services. Search engines on the web have changed the expectations of most users. Our users are demanding more sophisticated means for getting what they want. We have the choice of either providing it to them or teaching them how to get it for themselves. Rather than a Pandora’s box we have a Cornucopia of Plenty.

What will information literacy and instruction of the future look like? All of these authors seem to point towards increased focus on the grammar of online searching to enhance skills and ability. Not only the terms used for online searching but also the means to use those terms effectively. We need to encourage use of increasingly complex search systems that are available to an unforgiving, demanding, and increasingly aware/unaware public.  We need to influence the continuing development of online searching services and educate creators and users on techniques for planning search strategies, developing concepts, and using the logic implied or available in the systems. We need to determine whether we will improve open-text, free-text searching of electronic media by teaching command language behaviors to casual searchers or encourage search engines make searching more sophisticated (with underlying command language) to encourage users to search intelligently with a plan rather than through trial and error.

Senge (1990) mentions that, “our organizations work they way they work ultimately because of how we think and how we interact.” While redesigning the manifest structures of our organizations and our search services, we must also redesign the internal structures of our “mental models.” He observes that our leadership as librarians or information professionals includes an “internal” motivation that must be communicated to other participants affected by the change. Our enthusiasm and skills affect others profoundly.  This predisposition to pragmatic, idealist change and development, knowing when something “makes sense”, and a constant desire to examine and re-evaluate current realities, meets the expectant criteria of persons born into the Information Age (Senge, 1990). Developing and practicing potential scenarios sensitizes us to alternatives for current realities, and provides us with the tools for creating paths of inquiry, and grammars with which to perform our tasks. We learn and our customers benefit. All action begins with the individual and is then expanded to include like-minded people who can take it to additional levels of implementation and incorporation.

Literacy has many dimensions and levels. Most definitions agree that literacy has components of communication and understanding and requires specific skills for functioning in a universe. Vocabulary plays a big role in facilitating the agreed upon means of communication and defining the skills that represent success. Grammar provides the mechanics that make it all work. Information literacy and distance education have robust vocabularies to describe not only information in its many forms but also to clarify the skills that are perceived to identify a competent user of such. A definition from the National Forum on Information Literacy (2005) states, “Information Literacy is defined as the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand.” What are we teaching?  Many seekers and literacy courses are comfortable with the vocabulary of online research. We must continue to teach and expand the process behind the search, the grammar of strategy, concept analysis, source selection, application of logic, and evaluating results.



Anderson, B. R. O. G. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London

Auchard, Eric (2005). Search concepts, not keywords, IBM tells business. Reuters.

Brown, John Seely and Duguid, Paul (1996, May 6). The social life of documents. First Monday, Vol.1 No.1.

Drabenstott, K. M. (2004). Why I still teach online searching. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 45, 1 (Winter): 75-80.

National Forum on Information Literacy (2005).

Quint, Barara (2004). Rules of Ruling the Road. Information Today 21 no6 7 June 2004

Senge, Peter (1990). The Fifth Discipline; The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

Strouse, Roger (2004). The changing face of content users and the impact on information providers. Online (Weston, Conn.) v 28, no 5.

Walker, Geraldene & Joseph Janes (1999) Online Retrieval: A Dialogue of Theory and Practice, 2nd Ed., Libraries Unlimited

Philip K. Price has been involved with information design and dissemination of some kind for over 30 years – ESL teacher, language liaison, curriculum developer, workshop facilitator, media specialist, methodologist, school administrator, university faculty advisor, information systems developer and coordinator, web specialist – titles are so inexact. He has identified, molded and moved information for the business sector, as well as within military and educational environments.

His training and education programs have ranged from language and technical disciplines, to project innovation and management, budget and community relations, to basic teacher training.  He has worked in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Oman and San Diego.

As Senior Instructional Designer and Developer at Sultan Qaboos University in the Sultanate of Oman, he assisted in the organizational development of the Centre for Educational Technology, advised faculty on performance and technology issues, oversaw media production, designed/implemented seminars and workshops for the university, and counseled students interested in instructional design and educational technology.

While working for Goodrich Aerospace in San Diego he led the development of manufacturing information systems for the corporate intranet, was certified as a developer and auditor for a company-wide ISO 14001 EHS Management Systems implementation and education, demonstrated the application of Lean Manufacturing Principles in non-manufacturing areas, and coordinated and evaluated technical training while looking for a place to retire.

On the way to retirement he decided to get a degree in Information and Library Science to become a librarian, which seemed to combine all prior experience and practice. Three years at a public library taught him the value of listening, clear directions and follow-through. It also exposed the multi-dimensional need for building and supporting the structures, organizations and management that will ensure that we assert our roles as advocates of knowledge growth and sharing. That job will never finish.

Science fiction, travel, the mountains and gardening while learning about languages, culture and people will forever fascinate. Working towards a systematic universal flow of information is a goal that humbles and satisfies his needs and keeps him involved and participating. He earned his B.A. in Spanish and Comparative Linguistics from the University of Michigan, 1975;  his M.A. in Education, Instructional Design from San Diego State University, 1985; and his M.L.I.S. Academic, Special Libraries from San Jose State University, 2008.