[Note from Laurie Rogers: Many school districts, including Spokane Public Schools, have not taught grammar in a coherent, focused, disciplined way for several years. District leadership argues that students can pick up grammar intuitively, through their own writing. Consequently, our students are graduating from high school without even basic skills in grammar. They cannot define an adverb or adjective, much less recognize a run-on sentence or sentence fragment. In 2010, a Spokane teacher described to me how her efforts to teach grammar were questioned by a central-office administrator. In this article, senior college student Katherine Brandt explains why teaching grammar is critically important.]
By Katherine Brandt
English Teaching student, Brigham Young University
Although the rules of the English language are constantly changing and transforming, teaching grammar has great value in the school system because it gives students the background that they need to understand their language and use it effectively both in and out of the academic world. By teaching grammar, educators provide students with the building blocks of language. When students understand each of the building blocks behind their language, they have a greater ability to communicate not only in their native tongue but also in other languages which employ similar building blocks, albeit in a different order.
Grammar is an important tool because people who do not understand it have difficulty communicating well, and as a result their ideas are often overlooked. Consider children who have yet to learn how to speak well or foreigners who misunderstand how to use prepositions or adjectives. For example, a Spanish-speaker learning English might say, “The sock red has a hole small.” Though people may understand sentences like this one, they might also need to make a conscious effort to achieve understanding.
Although the idea of the foreigner is an exaggerated example, students who understand the idiosyncrasies of English grammar will, in a much more subtle way, be able to control the voice, meaning, and level of formality with which they write. As a result, they will be able to write for an educated audience without the embarrassment of making obvious mistakes.
I have been able to see grammar’s importance in my own education. When I was a child, I attended a private elementary school where we were constantly drilled in grammar. We diagrammed sentences, learned parts of speech, and revised incorrect sentences time and again to master the language.
When I was twelve, my family moved, and I went to a public junior high school where the teaching of grammar was considered unimportant and indeed somewhat damaging to a child’s voice. Nevertheless, in my first month of class, my English teacher checked for students’ basic understanding of grammar. To my shock and dismay, I was the only person in the class who could recognize verbs and complete sentences. My peers consistently struggled with their essays because they had never been taught how to construct a complete idea within a sentence. They had been to school for seven years and could not write a simple sentence. I wondered what they had learned in all that time.
Imagine reading entire papers composed of fragments such as “When I went to the store.” These papers might convey meaning but certainly not in the way that the students intend – with clarity. From the time I entered the public school system, I was at the top of my class in English simply because I had been taught how to put words together correctly. As a result, my teachers could understand and respond to the ideas that I expressed in my papers. All children need to obtain at least a basic understanding of grammar in order to communicate effectively and meaningfully in the educated world.
Knowing grammar also gives students another advantage when it comes to learning foreign languages. When I first started taking Spanish, I had greater understanding simply because I knew some grammar. My teacher, in vain, explained how Spanish speakers position nouns and adjectives differently from English speakers; most of the students did not even know how to differentiate a noun from an adjective. On the other hand, I easily understood what she was explaining because I had been taught to identify parts of speech and their function within a sentence. The other students struggled and guessed their way through the course because every unit presented new parts of speech. Indefinite and definite articles, participles, and verbs were among the difficult concepts that they had not even learned in their native tongue.
I pity my peers who came from a system of those who have written off grammar as unimportant. I have heard these educators say that the study of grammar “stills the creative voice.” My personal experience has shown the contrary. Grammar has been my key to creativity because, with my basic knowledge of the language, I know how to coherently express my ideas so that others can appreciate them. I also know the building blocks to learning other languages which will only expand my creativity and not inhibit it.
It is time for educators to take a stand and teach children to use grammar well so that they may be able to participate both creatively and formally in the educated world. Even as we would not cripple architects by taking away the resources that they need to build beautiful buildings, so we should not cripple our young writers by refusing them grammatical knowledge. From a strong foundation in grammatical understanding will come better, stronger writers who will know how to use the tools educators give them to create beautiful and original writing.
Katherine Brandt is a senior at Brigham Young University, majoring in English Teaching. She will receive her degree in April of 2012 after completing her student teaching.
As part of her program, Katherine was expected to pass a basic grammar exam. The average score on the exam for her class of English Teaching majors was 13 out of 50. According to Katherine, the vast majority of grammar questions did not go beyond the most basic grammar, yet most of the students in the teaching program found it difficult.
In a discussion in one of Katherine's classes, she listened quietly as her peers, who struggle with grammar, dismissed the need for students to learn grammar. In a separate discussion, the students were decrying parental involvement in curriculum choices. Happily the teacher intervened to say, "The parents are the customers."
Katherine is contemplating going on to law school after graduation.
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