Reflections: Is Grammar Worth Teaching?

I teach English and I write professionally, but I don’t remember how I learned grammar.  I’ve always been a reader, and my father is an excellent editor who helped me with many high school and college papers.  But as far as former classroom instruction goes, I have zero recollection of effective teachers and teaching methods relating to grammar.  I’m probably not alone with this sentiment. 

Several times a year, our department bemoans the state of student grammar, but we have a hard time coming to consensus about how to teach it.  How often?  What methods, texts, or strategies should we use?  Is it possible to become grammatically proficient without having a strong foundation in reading?  Are high school students who don’t, or haven’t, widely read traditional texts–beyond Tweets and Facebook feeds–relegated to a post-secondary and professional life rife with common grammar mistakes in their memos, e-mails and reports?

Wordle fromlearningaboutmethodology.blogspot.com

Over the course of my almost nine years in the classroom, the strongest student writers in my classes have always been voracious readers.  Their parents didn’t drill them with subject-verb agreement worksheets as soon as they could talk, nor did they receive extra tutoring in complex sentence construction after completing preschool finger painting bonanzas.  They read as youngsters, and continue to read.  I’ve never met a student who has a strong writing voice, shows command of the language in various ways, and aces grammar quizzes while shunning reading for pleasure.

While these observations, and my subsequent efforts to teach non-readers grammar have been frustrating, I’m not about to jettison grammar instruction from my lesson plans–I’m still testing out various methods and resources.

Walt Gardner’s recent piece in Education Week rekindled the ongoing grammar debate, as Gardner reflects on a pedagogical shift in the 1970’s, when English teachers were influenced to deemphasize grammar:

English Department meetings stressed the importance of considering a student’s essay based overwhelmingly on its content. The not so subtle message was to get with the program. So I did. The result was that students were shortchanged. I’m not talking now about circling every grammatical error to the detriment of understanding the thesis. That’s counterproductive. Instead, I’m talking about gross errors in usage and sentence structure that detract from that goal.

This pedagogical shift is still relevant today; I just finished grading some student essays about women serving combat roles, and the required scoring rubric first places emphasis on audience and purpose, idea development, organization, and finally grammar and mechanics.  Gardner’s correct–I simply don’t come across any student writing that is able to effectively develop a thesis, back up claims with evidence, and display sound organization without command of basic and more advanced grammar rules.  Understanding grammar enables us to be creative writers and thinkers, leading to more effective communication.

Gardner’s text inspired plenty of reaction–here are some highlights from the comments section that address the following issues:

How does grammar instruction reinforce power structures?  Is grammar instruction be a friend or foe of creative expression and thinking?

We de-emphasize the importance of the grammar mistakes that the culture of power tend to make but emphasize the mistakes that are the most common in low-income, low-status cultures…But we need to be careful not to do what we did in the past, which is put all of the privileged students with educated parents into one group (called “the smart kids”) and teach them the rules for a language in which they are already very fluent, and put all of the other kids in English classes where they are taught the abstract rules of a language that nobody they know speaks and then “corrected” every time they speak in the version of English that is spoken in their community.

–One of the obstacles is that some minority students don’t hear standard English at home or in their neighborhood. As a result, their ears become accustomed to grammar that is different from what is taught in school.

–I’ve examined the research on this issue. Conclusion: FORM in writing comes largely from reading (consciously learned rules can help you a little bit in the editing stage of the composing process). Writing itself can help you solve problems and make you smarter.

–We learned that there are certain indispensable rules. I never regarded them as obstacles to creativity. On the contrary, I viewed them as allies.

–It’s interesting that learning grammar is disparaged by the same constructivists who favor critical thinking skills over content. Grammar is nothing but critical thinking — you learn what the parts of speech are, you test various ways of putting them together that are in alignment with overall principles, you aim to help the students develop the ability to communicate as powerfully as possible.

 

Lastly, it seems as if many students don’t understand the need to know grammar beyond those who care to earn a higher grade on an academic task.  After all, the texts they create and consume–mostly digital–aren’t necessarily adhering to traditional language guidelines.  Students need to be shown various models of professional and workplace writing that still demand good grammar, and they need to explore–or be shown–the consequences of poorly written inquiries, resumes, e-mails, and grant requests, among other real world forms.

Do you remember how you learned grammar?  Should schools emphasize grammar, or do our new forms of communication diminish the need to be proficient?  For teachers out there, what do you do to teach grammar–do you have any tips?  Do you have any examples to disprove my claim that you can write well without being a reader?

 

31 thoughts on “Reflections: Is Grammar Worth Teaching?

  1. Thanks for putting my thoughts into words! I’ve long felt that grammar needs to be taught, but to some degree, only to those who need to learn it. However, those who need to learn it shouldn’t be tracked into separate learning environments. This speaks to the importance of differentiated instruction inside the classroom to meet individual learning needs. I agree with your position on good writers emerging from good readers. Having said that, do we place more emphasis on helping students develop a passion for reading and assume that the writing will follow? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem right to ignore the teaching of grammar and usage, but do we need to teach it to already competent writers?

    I don’t know how I learned grammar, but it most certainly followed many years of independent reading. I do remember the orange covered Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition text we used in my middle school years, but to this day I can’t tell you what an intransitive verb is, or whether I’m writing in the present perfect tense. I still confuse dangling participles with misplaced modifiers, but I know how to avoid both in my writing. Is it because I did learn them at one time, or that I instinctively know the structure of the language from reading it? I suspect it’s a little of both. Having said that, I must admit that 30+ years later, I can still remember my 10th grade English teacher walking around flapping his arms in the air saying, “Flying around the room, I saw two birds!”

    • Sheila,
      Every effort should be made to develop reading passion in young students. I don’t know if it’s too late when sophomores enter my class with no interest in reading and weak writing skills–I hope not.
      Maybe I need more theatrics when teaching grammar–it obviously stuck with you:)

  2. Yes, I remember how I learned grammar. Two ways: First, I was drilled in grammar rules throughout school (high school graduate 1976). Sentence diagramming played a major role in understanding what goes where. The second way was writing a lot in my profession, and working for a good editor or two. My daughter, a graduate of JCPS in 2012, did not get the drilling I did (my perception), but she was a much more prolific reader of complex materials and, I believe, is better at grammar than I was at that age. So, my conclusion is good basic grammar rules (not overbearing, but learning rules is not a bad thing), reading well-written pieces (Harry Potter helped this generation) and practicing by writing. My daughter’s high school teachers at Atherton, Mr. Prince (3 years) and Mr. Tucker (1 year) had high expectations for their students, too. LOTS of reading, and then writing about it. Much more reading and writing than I ever was expected to do in school (incomplete sentence). Poor communication skills really limit the possibilities of individuals. Furthermore, it is OK to have high expectations for language use in our society. We don’t have to let the 140-character communiques dominate our conversations.

    • Debbie, I missed out on the sentence diagramming as a student…never learned about the method during teacher prep courses at U of L, and have never seen diagrams at work in middle or high school classes in Kentucky during my nine years here. When I encounter high school students who still can’t underline verbs in a sentence, the breakdown in deliberate grammar instruction–whatever the method–is evident.
      I think high expectations for communication has to include code-switching and the ability to use different forms in different ways. Unfortunately, teen digital communication isn’t necessitating any traditional language use. But I have read some studies suggesting that texting doesn’t necessarily hurt student grammar, which is surprising. Thanks for leaving your thoughts!

      • My wife and I both learned grammar by studying Latin and other foreign languages and also by diagramming. It was invaluable. Now if I had only learned to spell….

  3. Again, the diagramming comes up! Also, Latin instruction is rare these days–I’m not sure it’s offered in any of the public high schools in Louisville, but I might be wrong. How will our current students explain how they learned grammar when they become adults? I already have plenty of high school students tell me they were never taught basic rules, but they want to learn.

    • My granddaughters are in a Charter school in the Twin Cities where they are studying Latin and Spanish. They will also study Greek in eighth grade. There are still a few schools around that believe in teaching the basics!

  4. I learned grammar by means of an actual grammar class which was expounded upon by diagramming sentences in high school. Grammar is not like the vast majority of Language Arts that can be taught “by feeling.” It must be approached in a concrete, analytical, mathematical way because grammar _is_ the mathematics of Language Arts. There is rote memorization to be done, and I know that in this day and age rote memorization has been pushed into the corner with Hitler and Manson. They must learn _what_ a noun, verb, or preposition is; they must learn _why_ each is important and _when_ to use them in order to communicate their wonderfully “feely” ideas in a manner that others can have a chance of understanding. They learn the Order of Operations in mathematics so that there is a standard for which all expressions to be performed; the same should hold true of grammar, though today a lost comma here or there is considered par for the course.

    • Steve, good to hear from you! How are things going?
      It does bother me that because information can be looked up on our pocket computers, this has seemed to diminish the idea that we need to memorize anything. Your analogy to math is sound–there are formulas to know and use when writing. The creativity in writing comes when one is able to string together different patterns using those formulas.
      I’ve had some current students tell me the following: Mr. Barnwell, I like to express myself in a unique way. This is my writing voice, breaking grammar rules…
      Baloney! I tell students that if they deliberately break grammar rules, they better tell me what and why they are doing so.

  5. I think is a great conversation to have and something I think about when teaching elementary school. I think that good grammar and conventional spelling are signs of politeness. You are making it easier for the other person to read your work and understand what you are trying to say. I know I really learned the specifics of grammar when I taught English as a second language. Up until that point, I knew what looked right and what looked wrong but I couldn’t tell you why.

  6. I never learned how to do grammar. I vaguely remember underlining things in a sentence and writing notations above words, but I don’t remember formal instruction. I had to take a grammar course to be endorsed to teach English. It was one of the most difficult classes I ever took. It would make me cry. And the future PE teacher sitting behind me would whisper into my ear..”Kathleen don’t worry, The C gets the Degree.” I guess what was so frustrating was that I didn’t get all these terms used to label words. Adjectival verbal paraphrase blah blah blah. I couldn’t diagram anything correctly and I would analyze a sentence to death and get it wrong. Somehow I am able to write a correct sentence.

    Teaching international students can make grammar instruction difficult. Kids who read a lot in English do well. My German students struggle to get the capitals correct. Every noun is capitalized in German, so when they write in English things are capitalized in random order.

    Stephen Krashen came to our school a few years back to talk to us about language acquisition. He is a big believer that direct grammar instruction does not really improve a students grammar. He also stated that there is a direct link between reading scores and the amount of books in a school’s library. The more we read and the more our schools value reading, the better our students will do in all areas.

    • That course sounds really tough, especially without a background in your own schooling! There are so many technical grammar terms I don’t know, so I focus on teaching what I know pretty well. It seems like English teachers don’t have a common language or experience to teach grammar, which fuels the grammar curriculum debate due to varying comfort levels and expertise.

  7. Hi there!

    So glad to read your post and all of the thoughtful comments on grammar. It’s an unexpectedly complicated issue, isn’t it?

    Lots of us probably had some sort of traditional grammar education in elementary/middle school, but I’m uncertain how effective or long lasting such formal measures are. Such ineffectiveness is probably a good explanation for the “plenty of high school students [who] were never taught basic rules” for grammar – it’s unlikely these students never learned formal grammar rules, but rather they simply lost that knowledge. So the question is less one of teaching, and more one of retention.

    Reading and writing are powerful grammar retention tools, but they shouldn’t be the only ones. At the company I work for, we’re developing a targeted language learning tool that finds students’ learning gaps and assigns lessons based on a student’s individual needs. We’ve seen a lot of success with this strategy in our math program, and we can’t wait to extend it to ELA/literacy.

    Thanks again for all the great ideas. I sent this post to our curriculum director – I’m sure he’ll be excited to read it.

    • Katie,
      I’m not convinced that “kill and drill” leads to much retention, but there have to be ways so that students retain the basics, and some level of terminology at a young age! Good luck with your product development, and thanks for sharing the post.

  8. I’m just setting myself up as a business writing coach and have been pondering grammar in this guise. I learned sentence structuring in school, though I still get lost beyond the basics. I have always told people that my grammar understanding is innate – because I read a great deal as you point out.
    Thanks for giving me more to think about.

    • Beth Anne,
      Innate grammar understanding leads to a tricky teaching situation because even though we can show others, we can’t necessarily verbalize it. I find myself doing this with students, but most of my students are struggling writers, so I’m not getting much past basics. I’d be completely lost teaching advanced writing when it comes to explaining grammar!

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  12. I strongly believe that learning structure and grammar are essential to creative writing. I struggle daily with both. A few of my current university English professors balk at the structure of my essays, but fail to tell me what to do right. They love my ideas, but say my problems are in construction. I am considering enrolling in a remedial English class geared for second language speakers, just to have the opportunity to learn the basics of grammar all over again–if I had ever formally learned them correctly in the first place. Yes, errors in grammar need to be circled on the student’s paper, and then, if possible, the rules taught too.

    • Folio and Ink,
      I agree with you, regarding creative writing.
      So it’s not just K-12 teachers who have difficulty teaching and explaining grammar!
      Fascinating idea regarding the remedial English class–I’m sure there are some decent online resources for sharpening up formal language use. Have you searched?

  13. I always tell myself that I often have a lover’s quarrel with grammar. Sometimes I miss to place an ‘s’ where it should be or fail to use a better word in a certain context. But all in all, when I get it right, grammar makes me comprehensible. I agree however that those who read more find it easier to articulate their thoughts and express themselves. But most students are not readers though we want them to be, but we ‘teach’ them grammar anyway. I think the most important thing would be, especially for these learners, is to situate grammar first (for example in a certain context, language function, etc.) especially with the use of real-world materials. Then we can begin to draw the students’ attention to that certain grammatical structure. I admit that it is not as easy as it sounds, but grammar is necessary so that our thesis and supporting evidence get through. 🙂

  14. Wonderful piece! 🙂 I’m fervent about grammar myself; I’ve always been fascinated by how words work and what constitutes as “acceptable”. That led to loving linguistics, especially syntax and semantics.

    I believe that grammar should be taught, but it would be best taught in the “This is what grammar doesn’t look like”: with bad examples and how hilarious muckups can be. A famous example would be “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin” (JFK and Stalin are the strippers) versus “We invited the strippers, JFk, and Stalin”.

    Of course, some students would benefit from the hard and fast rules and memorization of parts of speech.

    I absolutely hate it when some students in my class would say “But I’m writing creatively” to attempt to do away with grammar. The thing is, they don’t understand that you can’t just throw in a non-grammar trope; you need to work it into your entire piece. These students have obviously not done that. I follow Nietzsche’s principles: master the rules before you break them.

  15. My first actual memory of learning grammar was my prep classes for WASSCE. It was mostly basics. Singular verbs and nouns versus plural verbs and noun. Of course, there was parts of speech and Concord.
    But the complex ones I’m sure I learnt by myself. By reading voraciously. It’s really appalling hearing people butcher the English language and feel it’s Ok if you understand what they mean.
    I do believe reading and writing well are mutually linked. But you need grammar basics to understand why.

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