Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Classroom grammar instruction, fallacy I: either parts of speech drills or child-directed writing

Today’s classrooms tend to assume that grammar amounts to parts of speech: nouns, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and so on. Enthusiasts of such "grammar" treat memorizing these labels as an end in and of itself; detractors, rejecting this, reject grammar instruction in general.

Memorizing parts of speech and stopping there is, indeed, a waste of time. But, taught sensibly, the basic labels give students the vocabulary they need to proceed on to the meanings of more useful grammatical terms like “sentence,” “clause,” “subject,” “predicate,” “subordinate conjunction,” and “coordinate conjunction.” It’s hard to explain what these terms mean without using the more primitive terms “noun,” “article,” “main verb,” “auxiliary verb” and “conjunction.” The reason for learning the meanings of “sentence,” “clause,” “subject,” “predicate,” “subordinate conjunction,” and “coordinate conjunction,” in turn, is to learn the conventions specific to written language that most students don’t pick up on their own: particularly punctuation and style rules. It’s hard to explain when to use (or not use) a period, comma, semi-colon; or which modifiers are dangling; or which structures are or aren’t parallel, without reference to “sentence,” “clause,” “subject,” etc.

Those who reject part of speech instruction as pointless seem to assume that proper punctuation and style will emerge organically, through text-rich environments and frequent writing assignments.

In principle, frequent writing assignments could improve punctuation and style, but only if students get frequent expert feedback. Through regular feedback from discerning teachers--circles around misplaced punctuation marks and dangling modifiers, etc.-- students might learn implicitly, without reference to entities like clauses and subjects, the various rules of style and punctuation. But this requires teachers to spend time thoroughly marking up written work, and to assign multiple follow-up drafts in which students fine-tune their corrections.

Unfortunately, schools have moved quite far from this once commonplace practice. Instead of expert feedback, students now mostly get feedback from fellow novices—in a trendy practice known as “peer editing.” Its appeal is obvious: not only is it a lot less work for teachers (marking up a stack of student papers is one of the most tedious teaching tasks out there); it’s also pretty to think that, true to the Constructivism dreamworld, students learn best not through explicit teaching from sages on stages, but implicitly, organically, on their own and from one another.

So, while today’s students may get a smattering of speech labels some time in elementary school because some authority somewhere said something about grammar being important, what they learn next is anyone’s guess.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with David Mulroy's "The Way Against Grammar"?

Mulroy is a now-retired professor of Classics who found the biggest obstacle to teaching undergrads Latin or Greek was that they knew nothing of English grammar.

He's certainly big on knowing parts of speech. He also strongly recommends good old-fashioned sentence diagramming to learn how languages work.

Auntie Ann said...

Foreign language class is where a lot of English grammar ends up being taught. You can't figure out the grammar of another language until you figure out your own.

treehousekeeper said...

The people who minimize the importance of grammar are the ones who have no clue about grammar themselves. These are the same people who think that we can teach children to be "little scientists" and "little historians" simply by having them do things that, on the surface, look like the things scientists and historians do. It seems to me that most of the high level education folk are experts at being education folk, which means that they have no expertise in grammar, science, history, or anything else that is actually being taught in schools.

Anonymous said...

In first grade (no k),in the 50s, we were explicitly taught capitalization, punctuation,nouns/pronouns and verbs (action/state-of-being) and components of a sentence before we composed a sentence independently. We were started with copywork from the board, then teacher dictation, before that happened. And, all work was corrected for grammar, as well as content (through HS). We had grammar every year, through HS, with sentence diagramming starting in 7th, and spelling/vocab every week. By the end of 8th grade, almost all kids were able to write correct English - reports,notices, personal and business letters etc. i never remember seeing misspelled or grammatically incorrect notices or signs, as I do today. (Celebrate and festive with us - on a church, signup for spring now - on a CC etc)

Maya Thiagarajan said...

As an English teacher myself, I've thought a lot about grammar instruction. With a few exceptions, most progressive American/International schools don't teach grammar anymore, and if they do, it's taught in such a haphazard way that it's mostly a waste of time. Grammar, I think, is a bit like math. It only works if schools have a systematic and rigorous grammar/writing program with the goal of mastery. Teaching in a haphazard way with the goal of mere exposure is totally futile.
I recently wrote a blog post about this -- Does It Matter if Students Can't Identify a Verb? http://mayathiagarajan.blogspot.sg/2016/03/does-it-matter-if-kids-cant-identify.html

Anonymous said...

Yes! That's what we - anonymous above - had. I don't remember the book/books we used 1-6, but assume we had something by 3rd grade or so. For 7-12, we had the same hardback series; one for each year. Despite my 1-4 teachers not having college degrees (3 Normal School, 1 with 1-2 years of college), they put together a solid curriculum; phonics, grammar, spelling,composition, geography, literature (including classics and good poetry - some as read-alouds- government,history, science and art/music history/appreciation.

Barry Garelick said...

I think the series for 7-12 was Warriner's English Grammar. We had those in high school.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right. I just looked online and the 1958 cover looks familiar.

Anonymous said...

In grade school, in the '50's, we did not have a separate grammar text. Instead, our basal readers (can't remember the publisher) included grammar lessons along with the stories and comprehension exercizes. Spelling was separate for the first few years.

Jeff Boulier said...

My cousin had a (near as I could tell from cursory perusal) grammarless first year Latin textbook. O tempora o mores!