Teaching Grammar: Why and How?
Ok. I realize many people think that grammar is a boring topic, but this is not an essay telling you the importance of the parts of speech or advocating for more grammar worksheets. This is adapted from an essay I wrote for a grammar and linguistics class talking about problems with grammar education and how to effectively teach it.
Grammar is something everyone is taught in school, but many people still struggle with. Think about your own experience in English class. Didn’t it seem like you spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about commas and trying to remember the difference between adverbs and adjectives? Maybe it just seems that way because it was so boring.
If you think about it, however, most children are fluent in the complex grammar of their native language, which demonstrates the implicit nature of grammatical structures inside the human brain. Babies learn the complex processes of language at an amazing rate. Some people can write very well, can articulate their thoughts perfectly, but still have issues identifying the different parts of a sentence. They can’t explain the choices they make, but they make them, nonetheless.
Still, according to an article in the Times, “Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.” This unequivocally demonstrates that the ways in which we teach grammar need serious reforms. Written language must have signifiers to denote pauses, emphases, the beginning and end of thoughts for it to communicate meaningfully. We must write out tenses so that others can understand when the writing takes place. We obviously must follow common standards.
Therefore, the questions that must be addressed are: for native speakers of English, should they be taught grammar, and how should it be taught to them? I think it’s obvious that we need to teach children how to write meaningfully. The methods by which we relay these ideas, however, are more complicated.
For most of history, grammar has been seen as an important and necessary part of the learning process. People have seemingly always been curious about how their language works and have been describing how their language was used. As far back as Babylon circa 2000BC, “verb tables inscribed in cuneiform tablets” have been found as well as the institution of, “grammar schools” in the 16th century England. Clearly, for thousands of years, cultures around the world have seen the importance of grammar and have seen the value in understanding their language. It’s been seen as essential, foundational even, to a well-rounded education. But, currently, that is not the attitude that many people hold. Grammar is seen as irrelevant and inconsequential, an annoyance easily brushed aside. It’s a radical turn from the views of the past, perhaps in part because education itself is undervalued and underappreciated.
Most of the time, native speakers inherently know the rules that govern English, and do not consciously apply those rules when constructing a sentence. That’s just not how the mind works. Grammar does not teach you how to speak or how to form a sentence, the brain already knows how to do that; rather, it teaches you how to perfect that process. It’s like practicing a golf swing with a pro. You think about the muscles and movements in a way that, hopefully, you can set aside when you are actually playing the game.
Grammar, then, was, “created by linguists in order to explain language phenomena that had already existed for thousands of years.” According to the Linguist Richard Larson, “The knowledge that we possess of our language is almost entirely unconscious.” Grammar is important if it explains to us what we already innately know and helps us improve it. Even though the rules that we have in place help us to articulate our mental processes, they are incomplete and not entirely understood, and thus have room for improvement. Studying grammar not only helps native speakers of English to write better, it can also help them to learn other languages. Simply put, studying grammar will, “help learners to organize words and messages and make them meaningful.”
From a linguistic standpoint, grammar helps native English speakers to understand our inherent knowledge and the “language mechanism that lies within the human mind.” Grammar is the theory of how this mechanism works. So, rather than viewing grammar as this immovable structure and set of rules that cannot be questioned, or a way to shame other people on the internet, we must recognize it for what it is: a theory. In this instance, a more scientific approach to language may be the more accurate one. Theories can be questioned, revised, changed and tested.
What’s required to restore the importance of grammar is a fundamental change in thinking about grammar. Grammar is not only important to improve writing and communication skills, it also helps us understand fundamental processes of the human brain, so it’s importance cannot be overstated. Clearly, the solution is not to tear altogether reject teaching grammar. Tear down the structure if you must but leave the foundation.
The eternal question is, of course, how to convey this to students. There are many different opinions and approaches to teaching grammar, and it can be exceedingly difficult to discern who is right and who is wrong. Since approximately the 1970’s there has been an emphasis on stand alone, isolationist grammar education. While it can be argued that this is not inherently a bad thing, many studies still find that grammar education makes little to no impact on students. One such study states that, “If the learner’s goal is rapid learning rather than the eventual attainment of high proficiency, explicit training might do the trick. But if native-like attainment is desired, explicit training might be harmful, and it might be better to stick solely or largely with more implicit training approaches.” Does this mean we should totally do away with explicit references to grammar? Not necessarily.
We must first understand that the way in which we view grammar, as a set of immutable rules that cannot be changed, is wrong. This approach not only inhibits education, it stifles the creativity of students who learn this way. Instead of being taught grammar as a means to understand the English language and to use it more effectively or creatively, they instead see the study of grammar as a wall between themselves and literacy.
To understand what’s wrong with our grammar education, it’s important to understand how it’s being taught. One essay says that, “Most textbooks and lesson plans offer what deserves to be called a teacher’s grammar.” In essence, Beauregrande suggests that grammar textbooks, syllabi and lesson plans are made for and cater to the teachers, not the learners. This is perhaps obvious, but fundamentally a problem. Textbooks ought to be tools for helping students learn effectively. But, if they are made for teachers, then their purpose is rendered useless. He elaborates by saying, “Consequently, the textbook seems obvious and easy to teachers, who can’t understand why their students are having so much trouble.” This is one of the biggest problems with grammar education: many of the textbooks are written for people who already understand it.
This bizarre situation is comparable to being in an echo chamber. It’s a sounding board of information, one that doesn’t benefit learners as much as it should, if at all. Textbooks are meant to teach students; isn’t that obvious? What seems obvious to the teachers is, of course, not going to be for students.
The general way that lessons seem to go is heavily centered around worksheets, which don’t work well because, “kids know they just have to change the same thing in each” and “parsing sentences (identifying nouns, adjectives, etc.) and correcting errors” is just as useless. In short, students aren’t really learning much from these exercises, because they’re based on repetition, which doesn’t have a lasting impact and is, “largely a waste of time.” A good understanding of grammar should improve reading and writing skills.
The practice of teaching grammar in isolation from writing and reading should be abolished. Students must be given, “extensive opportunities for students to read and write in the classroom.” This in and of itself is a teaching method. By being exposed to grammar through literature and editing and revising their own work in the writing process, student will learn grammar almost unconsciously. This does not mean that teachers cannot explicitly discuss the minutiae of grammar when necessary.
A Master’s thesis entitled, “Teaching Grammar In Context” by Kate Pingle suggests teaching paragraphs instead and abolishing the notion that paragraphs have a specific format. Since we have established that grammar is all about conveying meaning, teaching paragraphs over individual sentences is a useful tool because it allows students to engage in, “grouping similar ideas in each paragraph.” Already, this is a vastly different approach to the normal methods of teaching grammar. Pingle also goes on to suggest teaching punctuation, sentence fragments, quotations, etc. within this context. Her lesson plans engage with the student and her overall teaching strategy is organized and well thought out. It’s somewhat individualized as well: it doesn’t just follow a textbook. By engaging with and allowing her students to learn, “in context,” she is actually teaching them, and is instilling very important changes in the ways they view grammar.
Furthermore, Pingle utilizes mini lessons in her teaching, which, through one or two class periods, focuses on a single aspect of grammar (such as paragraphs or commas) instead of one class period devoted to all three of those things. Instead of frantically trying to cover three topics at once, and at best giving the student a broad overview and a vague sense of the topic, she focuses on one topic and proves much more effective. If you were to focus on commas, for example, “A mini-lesson on how comma placement can change the meaning of a document impresses students far more than memorizing comma rules.”
Rote memorization, while effective in the short term, does not equate to actually learning something. You can memorize the parts of speech, but that doesn’t mean you know how to use them. Why not use the innate “grammar” foundations in the brain to generate meaning?
A holistic approach to teaching grammar might be far more effective than the current model. Simple things like the incorporation of mini-lessons, organized lesson plans, engaging the minds of students so that they actually learn something, writing textbooks for students not teachers, and an overall shift in focus back to the purpose of grammar is needed.
Understanding the fundamental underpinnings of language is essential not only because writing improves and students are given insight into how the brain handles language, but also because it’s how meaning is conveyed. It is essential not only for individual success but for our success as a community of thinkers.
Beaugrande, Robert De. “Yes, Teaching Grammar Does Help.” The English Journal, vol. 73, no. 2, 1984, p. 66., doi:10.2307/817527.
Cornell, Camilla. “How Is Grammar Being Taught in Schools?” Today's Parent, 4 Apr. 2017, www.todaysparent.com/family/how-is-grammar-being-taught-in-schools/.
Crovitz, Darren, and Michelle D Devereaux. “Grammar Instruction: This Time It’s Personal.” ASCD Express 12.14 - Grammar Instruction: This Time It's Personal, www.ascd.org/ascd- express/vol12/1214-crovitz.aspx.
Goldstein, Dana. “Why Kids Can't Write.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Aug. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/education/edlife/writing-education-grammar- students-children.html.
Lane, Rebecca. “Why Do We Need Grammar?” Oxford Words Blog, 3 Jan. 2017, blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/07/17/need-grammar/.
Larson, Richard K, and Kimiko Ryokai. “Grammar as Science.” MIT Press, 2010.
Mart, Çağrı Tuğrul. “Teaching Grammar in Context: Why and How?” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2013, doi:10.4304/tpls.3.1.124-129.
Morgan-Short, Kara, et al. “Second Language Processing Shows Increased Native-Like Neural Responses after Months of No Exposure.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0032974.
Pingle, Kate. “Teaching Grammar in Context" (2013). Honors Theses. Paper 235
“What Works in Teaching Grammar.” Portland, 8 Nov. 2017, education.cu- portland.edu/blog/classroom-resources/teaching-grammar-what-works-and-what-doesnt/.
Yatvin, Joanna. “Is Teaching Grammar Necessary?” NCTE, 28 Apr. 2019, www2.ncte.org/blog/2016/10/teaching-grammar-necessary/.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!
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