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Why We Don’t Teach Grammar

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First of all, grammar is a lot like Kleenex®. This brand name has been associated with many other similar products. If I ask my wife to “Please pass a Kleenex®, I would probably get irritated if she responded, “Is a generic tissue okay?” After all, I just want to blow my nose.

So, let’s agree on what we mean by teaching grammar. Grammar has come to mean a catch-all term that refers to everything English teachers would prefer to avoid teaching. This includes the part of a sentence, the function of these parts (such as the parts of speech), the arrangement of words with the sentence, word choice, punctuation, and capitalization, and assorted oddities that we think students should know, but wish they learned elsewhere. But, why do most English-language arts teachers detest teaching this collection of instructional essentials that we label as grammar?

1. We fear the unknown. ELA teachers live in the day-to-day fear that one of our colleagues might ask us how we incorporate teaching past perfect participles in our persuasive essays. Teachers naturally tend to avoid teaching things that they do not understand. Most ELA teachers were trained to love literature, poetry, and writing (or at least one of the three). Few were trained in teaching grammar. Some of us have picked up a few tidbits here and there over the years or were educated in Catholic schools.

2. There is not enough time. Teachers have their comprehensive lists of standards and courses of study on their “to-do” lists. There are pressures from administrators, the omnipresent district or state testing, and our own colleagues to check off items on these lists. Of course, we have our  favorite novels and projects. Grammar instruction does not even make our Letterman’s Top Ten. “If I had unlimited time… then, maybe. But to be honest… Socratic Seminars, readers theater, and that Steinbeck novel would probably shove their way into my lesson plans first.”

3. The “research” says not to teach grammar. We trot out a “sound bites” from a study or two as convenient excuses to avoid teaching grammar (most of these research studies from 50 years ago). We gloss over the real language of the research conclusions, i.e., “teaching grammar in isolation outside of the meaningful context of writing is ineffective.” Some teachers do parrot these research conclusions accurately, but few actively address the variables of the research and actually teach grammar in the meaningful context of writing.

4. The fact that students are grammatically-challenged is someone else’s fault. “Students should know this stuff by now. The grade-level standards emphasize review of grammar, not introduction of grammar. I can only teach what I am supposed to teach. I can’t be responsible for other  teachers’ shortcomings. I have my grade-level standards to teach. If I spent all my efforts on what they already should know, students would never learn anything new. Hopefully, they’ll pick it up later, somehow.”

5. Students don’t like grammar and they don’t remember what they are taught. “Grammar is boring. I want to be a fun and interesting teacher. I’m angling for Teacher-of-the-Year and I’m not about to let grammar get in the way. Besides, the pay-offs from teaching grammar seem minimal, anyway. The students have learned the parts of speech every year and they couldn’t define or identify an adverb, if their lives depended on it. An adverbial clause? You’ve got to be kidding. I won’t drill and kill my students.”

6. We don’t know what we don’t know. Teachers teach from personal experience , as much as from professional development. Most teachers in their twenties, thirties, and forties had little grammatical instruction in their school years and few university professors have trained these teachers in grammar for the reasons already discussed. The pervasive “whole language” philosophy of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s de-emphasized grammatical instruction and relegated it to the editing step within the writing process. “I didn’t learn grammar, and I turned out alright” is an often-thought, if not spoken, rationale for ditching grammar instruction.

My response? We need to teach grammar and make time for grammatical instruction and practice. Anything students need to know has to be “taught, not caught.” Students are whom we teach, not ever-changing standards, courses of study, fads, personal preferences, or personal agendas. Therefore, if students don’t know how to define, identify, and use adverbs, we need to teach them (an intentionally ambiguous pronoun reference that indicates both subjects—students and adverbs). We don’t need any more student casualties as a result of any “Great Grammar Debate.” Our ignorance is no excuse. We need to learn how to teach grammar in a meaningful writing context.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

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  1. David A. Crist
    March 12th, 2010 at 18:37 | #1

    Thank you for writing this. I am not an educator, but a parent who has run head long into exactly this attitude from public school teachers. My two older children went to Catholic school and are able to spell and fully understand grammar. They also learned the discipline and sense of achievement that comes from mastering spelling, grammar, knowing the definitions, synonyms, and antonyms, for these words. Both are excellent at “language arts” and have great creativity and imagination. Apparently, learning proper grammar and spelling didn’t hamper their imagination at all. For various reasons our youngest is going to public school and we have been amazed at the absolute lack of attention to spelling or grammar. We correct her papers when she brings them home, most often with an “A”, yet riddled with mistakes. I am told it spelling and grammer are just “rote memorization” and not of much benefit to the broader development of the child. Imagination and creativity are valued above all else with the implicit implication that also requiring spelling and grammar will somehow stifle this creativity. This is a travesty for the children and a failure on the part of the educators. I cannot fathom how or where this educational philosophy came from, but it is a sad, sad indictment of our education system. Please continue to state these issues forcefully and often to all who will listen. I know many parents who are looking for just someone like you to rally around. The education establishment is very convicted in the superiority of their position and is doing an injustice to all our children.

  2. Angela
    March 21st, 2011 at 06:37 | #2

    Thank you for writing this! I’m an amateur writer. I do it for fun, and I publish at times on fanfiction. I’ve also read some fanfiction, and it’s TERRIBLE! Why? Because nobody knows how to use proper grammar, especially the teens. Their punctuation is non-existent and their spelling nearly as bad. Why can’t they use grammar check and spelling check on their computers? Why aren’t they being taught basic grammar and spelling in school? If this keeps up, the written language will die on the vine! I went back and read some of my stuff from when I was in junior high and guess what? I used proper punctuation. If I was taught it in the 70s-80s, why isn’t it being taught now? There’s no excuse to graduate children that don’t know how to write.

  3. March 21st, 2011 at 18:07 | #3

    Things go in cycles. Grammar was definitely “out” for a bit.

  4. Flora Hill
    October 8th, 2011 at 17:41 | #4

    Thank you for your article. I have recently started teaching in an ESL/EFL environment in a high school in an Asian country. Most of the specially hired native English speaking teachers come directly from high and primary schools in their home countries and have a one month CELTA type of certificate in addition to their basic teaching qualifications. In the staffroom they discuss the problems the students have with grammar – with one teacher with further ESL credentials identifying the problem with diffrentiating the usage of the verb “be”. However I was told, “We don’t teach grammar here” “Students only need to be taught the past and the rest they pick up from their reading”. My short interaction with the students shows they are very interested in learning grammar – they crowd around the white board when we play grammar auctions and other language games, and I elicit information about their writing and what word forms might be most appropriate to convey the message. Thank you for your article – I don’t feel so alone and as if I am a grammar pariah.

  5. C Koeffler
    January 28th, 2012 at 10:23 | #5

    Thank you for this. Three more quick ideas about which I’d love to hear agreement or disagreement from others to whom proper English and grammar are sacred.
    1) English grammar has declined because students no longer have to study a second language. There’s no substitute for getting the point that all pronouns are not created equally and that plural nouns really deserve plural verbs.
    2) It’s considered elitist or rude to correct someone’s langauge. I don’t know why it isn’t rude if someone is told that 2+2 does not =5, but it is rude to point out that “lay” is transitive and “lie” is not.
    3) Many (maybe most) people don’t really care if English is correct, so long as the point is communicated. “Good enough” has set the bar very low.

    In any case, glad to see others share my concerns and consternation.

  6. January 29th, 2012 at 20:02 | #6

    I would definitely agree with your first reason.

  7. Patrice
    April 5th, 2012 at 13:49 | #7

    I very much appreciate your thoughts on teaching grammar. I am an eighth grade English teacher, but I currently teach mostly ninth grade Honors classes. I agree that over time, grammar instruction has been quietly “phased out” of classrooms. Please know that not every teacher avoids it purposely but rather because standards do not emphasize it as a core component (although it is our native language) and also because there are no supplementary materials/books provided to us for teaching grammar.
    I must say, however, that I teach grammar every single day for only a few minutes, and it has proven to be extremely effective! It is imperative that students know the pieces of our language in order to be effect writers and communicators. How can I ask them to improve their writing by incorporating more adverbs and complex sentences if they do not know what those things are? Please don’t count us all out. I am spreading the word of its importance one student at a time!
    Good enough doesn’t cut it in my mind, and I correct grammar regularly (not only that of my students)-thank you very much.
    Our students are required to study foreign languages to graduate from high school especially if they plan to attend college. They should know English FIRST!
    I left education briefly to work in corporate America, and I must say that there were many, many people in that Fortune 500 company, who could not write/speak proper English. I found it very difficult to respect/follow a manager who sounded so utterly uneducated. Needless to say, I am back in the classroom trying, single handedly (much to my chagrin) to teach GRAMMAR.

  8. April 7th, 2012 at 06:10 | #8

    Patrice,

    Yes grammatical instruction has been pushed to the side; however, the new Common Core State Standards restore grammar to its proper position in the language arts pantheon in the Language Strand. Check it out, as well as my numerous articles.

    Mark

  9. Laura
    April 25th, 2012 at 03:15 | #9

    I spent over 10 years going to school in the United States. They barely mentioned a thing about grammar! For the past two years I have been studying abroad (in Spain). Everybody is obligated to take English (as a foreign language). That includes me. At first I thought it would be easy, but then I found myself questioning myself about even the most basic grammar exercises. I had never heard of anything grammar related. My classmates would ask me “Why do you have to write/say it like this?”. Sadly, I could only say “I don’t know why, I just know that it’s correct.” Thanks to studying abroad, I now have a better understanding of my mother tongue. I just can’t believe I had to move to Spain to find that out. Knowing English grammar has also helped me learn three other languages. I think that grammar is very useful. I don’t understand why they don’t teach it!

  10. Rey Hudson
    August 6th, 2017 at 03:12 | #10

    Thanks!

    Agree!

    I never spent a MINUTE in anybody’s College or (holy-holy) University. But my grandfather (who sold brooms in the depression) had (count-’em) SIX YEARS of Latin in high school! So I guess it’s not so hard to figure that my mother, who made it through two years of community college, before going to Texas to learn how to be a war-time domestic pilot, taught me some kind of proper English speech. (If I said, “…ain’t got no…” I was sure to hear about it. (But my university-educated dad didn’t care!) I remember (I was about 10 or 11) her looking down her nose and finger at me and saying, “If — I — WERE!” OMG! I didn’t LIKE to see her make that sort of face, so after the second, or tops, third time, I –as per computer lingo– “GOT it!”

    We had “diagraming”! Other kids HATED it, but I thought it was kind of “nifty”: “A place for everything, and everything in its place!” (And –ouch– nothing left over.)

    Mrs. Johnson (in the third grade) was tough, but she was also kind, and a mother of three. She taught us what nouns and verbs were.

    If I didn’t spell “interrogative” and Mediterranean” right, Miss Parker (in the 4th) wouldn’t let me go out for recess. Got it again! QUICK(ly!)

    So what the &%ß??’s wrong with “learning by “rote”. (I believe it’s referred to as “audio-lingual”.) How did you learn the “Pledge-to-the-flag”? How did you learn to say “Mama”? How did you learn to chew your potatoes? How did you learn to get to the 12th level on “Phantom Quest”… or whatever it’s called: by trying and then trying again, and again, and again until you “learned to remember”!

    Oh, yes, and I read a few books, too! But that’s not where I learned grammar. If I hadn’t had some kind of handle on grammar, how would I have been able to understand the books I read? Dr. Suess, or Catcher in the Rye, or Moby Dick or ANY of it?

    Some time in there, during my 20’s I spent some time reading the King James Bible. While this didn’t “teach me grammar” it certainly helped and widened my understanding of richness, in the use of the English language, and (if I may bring it up) ability to hang onto, and not let go of, long, multi-phrased, conceptual sentences a la Apostle Paul, some of which lasted many lines but which were, in no way lacking in their intent, style, “voice” or ability to be understood by the reader. (Gee-yit muh dree-yuft?)

    Sure, it’s easier for some folks than others, but you LEARN grammar because you’re TAUGHT it… somewhere, sometime… like anything else.

    Recently I read “The Wind in the Willows” (I never had.) and I just simply “Ooh’ed and AH’ed”. It was just SO wonderful, like a healing balm of some kind to experience a use of the English language in fullness and such richness! But somebody had taught the writer HOW! God BLESS them!

  11. August 6th, 2017 at 05:57 | #11

    Certainly learning grammar comes from oral acquisition (listening and speaking), reading, but also as you mention… Somebody taught it.

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