Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Teaching grammar has a long history.

Grammar, schrammer. hmmm. This blog post is a bit more serious than my other Wonder Why Wednesday posts. It is about grammar, an important aspect of English courses. Have a child? Grammar will influence him or her. The question is how.

Grammar, or the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence, is controversial in schools. Years ago, it was thrown out of curriculums. (This happened around the hippie era). I was not taught grammar in school, as you may not have been, and we turned out fine, right? Sure, but it wasn't without struggle. I understand grammar, but as an English major, I had plenty of catchup work at college. Students who study a foreign language need to understand grammatical terms. To use the dictionary, one must understand grammar. The ACT covers it in its English portion. (Grammar, however, cannot just be taught sophomore and junior year and shouldn't just be taught for a test).  It does show that the ACT finds it important, because it is expected that high school students know it when they enter college.

Those are several arguments about grammar, and I tried to break them down further. There are several reasons grammar is controversial:
  • Should it be taught at all? Does it discourage students from writing?
  • When should it be taught? Should it be taught at the elementary levels or should it be introduced later?
  • How should it be taught?
  • Does grammar influence writing?

Should it be taught at all? Does it discourage students from writing?

As a former high school English teacher, teachers should teach grammar. A knowledge of grammar shapes their writing ability. I'm not alone. In a book review by Phyllis Morris Lotchin of The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy, Lotchin states: 

Until 1996, when he [Mulroy] attended a hearing to set academic standards for Wisconsin public schools, he had not suspected that anyone questioned the value of knowing the rules of grammar. It was at this time that he was directed to the NCTE [National Council of Teachers of English] website, which stated that “decades of research” have shown that instruction in “formal grammar” does not accomplish any positive goals and is actually counter productive because it takes time away from more “profitable activities” (xii). Sensing a serious problem, he set about to write this book “to persuade the reader that formal instruction in grammar ought to be emphasized in K-12 education, especially in the middle grades” (xiii)

David Mulroy, a college professor since 1973, knows of the decline in college students' readiness. On the other end, as a high school teacher, I saw it as well. Students would write and they would say, "something is wrong with this paper." I would explain sentence fragments, split infinitives, and so on, but students didn't speak that language. Would you agree that students need a basic knowledge of mathematical terms for a math class? Same idea with English.

When should it be taught? Should it be taught at the elementary levels or should it be introduced later?

I really disagree with the overall concept of introducing grammar later rather than earlier. Grammar is at the knowledge/comprehension stage at Bloom's Taxonomy. It is often boring, as basic memory tasks are. For instance, I remember memorizing the times table and being incredibly bored, but I needed to know them. Grammar is the same. It might be boring, but it is needed. Additionally, children learn language best at a young age. Isn't that why preschools work with foreign languages?

Years ago, NCTE made a serious error when the organization decided to dismiss grammar. We are in the current crisis we have now: students leave high school, unable to write well, unable to read well, and pay to take classes at community colleges to catch up to college level classes. Again, my ideas echo Lotchin's thoughts:

The results have been disastrous. American students now test as “mediocre” in reading abilities in relation to other wealthy nations. Prof. Mulroy argues strongly that an understanding of how the language works is necessary to read complex texts with understanding. Verbal SAT scores began to sink in 1963 with fewer students showing outstanding verbal ability. In 1996, the College Board “recentered” the SAT scores to camouflage this trend (10).
In colleges and universities, this lack of grammar instruction has had several unfortunate results. Fewer American students now study a foreign language. Too, remedial courses in reading and writing have multiplied, with some universities placing up to a fourth of their freshmen in remedial courses (14). Students are handicapped in both writing and reading. In reading complex texts, Prof. Mulroy argues, we discover literal meanings by “applying the rules of lexicography and grammar” (16).

As someone who taught high school English for almost a decade, I saw many students who began grammar in fifth, sixth, or seventh grade. They were still confused by the time they got to me. It needs to be taught younger rather than older, as facts normally are. To understand a language, don't we need to understand the roots? Isn't that why we teach numbers and letters? Grammar is tons of knowledge and comprehension. It may not be exciting, but it is the nuts and bolts of our language, basically, of our communication.

How should it be taught? 

I agree that grammar taught in context and not with drills/worksheets/practice sentences works best. When a lesson is true to students' lives, they understand it better. Is there some point in which we (parents/teachers) must instill the "unfun" material and connect it to life? (This is assuming that grammar is not fun. Some people think it is). Can we do both?

I think the difference is how you teach grammar. Should it be taught with reading lessons? Sure! Should it be taught in one unit and then put away on a shelf? I hope not. Grammar should be discussed every day as it is such a large part of an "English curriculum." It is a part of writing and reading and should be taught as such, from a young age.

Does grammar influence writing?

This might be a bit repetitive, but parents always asked me this. Grammar is sentence structure and writing is essentially sentences. When you understand the background behind what you do, you typically do it better.

Those are my thoughts on grammar with a bit of research thrown in. This is also part of a larger debate that English teachers have and I have dealt with it for years. I've gone to a NCTE convention and listened to their beliefs. Which, Lotchin states: While the NCTE is still not promoting “hard-edged standards in grammar,” it has declared that teachers need to “know about” traditional grammar (115). The NCTE seems to be changing their ideas. Should schools and parents change as well? What do you think about grammar? Join in the conversation, please, as this will affect your child.