March 4, 2010

Don't Get Me Started On Grammar...

Too late. The Booking Through Thursday question this week is on that very topic.

I think grammar is important but I think we teach it in exactly the wrong way. I agree with Dr. Stephen Krashen that we shouldn't directly teach grammar at all until high school and then only in an open-book manner.

Right now we're in crunch time at our district, prepping for the infernal high-stakes test next month. The children were just given a benchmark test and our job is to focus on their lowest performing items and focus on those skills for the next month to try to help them do better on the big test.

Many of those items in elementary school are grammar-related. I'm sorry, but I don't think it's developmentally appropriate. Unless a child is walking around speaking in gibberish because they're switching nouns and verbs or something, then there is no point. So what if they can name an adjective or an adverb? Most people don't know or care what torque in their car engine is, but they can still drive. Certainly the students should be learning to express themselves in writing and some basic rules of grammar and punctuation are necessary, but testing them on names of things like adverbs, adjectives, homophones, etc. is just silly.

I won't even go into the dreadful practice of diagramming sentences they get into in middle school, except to say this: the only thing you learn from diagramming sentences is how to diagram sentences.

If you want to learn better grammar and writing style? Read as much well-written writing as you can and endeavor to write as clearly as possible.


Jenny said...

Amen! As an elementary school teacher I fully believe that the best thing I do for students is expose them to solid writing and oral language.

If we study any punctuation or grammar it comes through their own exploration of the literature we have read. It's so much more powerful.

(I do have to admit that your first sentence with 'to' rather than 'too' made me laugh given the topic.)

Jim said...


Thanks for the edit! I type too fast in the morning and spell check only goes so far.

Jennifer said...

Thank you for this wonderfully written answer! Oh how I wish the schools would focus more on literature. Maybe it is my advancing years after all. My answer:

nashvillebookworm said...

If only we could find a way to allow teachers to not just have to cover what's on the exams for federal funding and get back to teaching things that really matter.

We're losing a lot...not just grammar.

Carina said...

I agree about not directly teaching grammar in younger grades, but am also struggling with some of the backlashes of that. Lots of my students don't know how to put proper sentences together in formal language (or even just language that isn't spoken slang) and I teach mostly 16-21 year olds at my high school. I couldn't care less if they know what an adverb is, but I'm struggling with teaching them proper language skills since they've spent so long without them.

My response is here.

Lori said...

I feel like I was just given a stern lesson.I haven't felt like that in a very long time. You don't slap hands with a ruler do you? LOL. Much respect to those who teach, especially when you have student such as I. Here's mine.

Bibliobabe said...

Bravo! I wish you had been my teacher! I think I lost a year of my life to diagramming sentences.

Here's my answer:

Jim said...

I'm right there with you, thanks.

I hear you. Cut the standards by two thirds and delve deeper into things.

I agree proper speaking and writing is important and can't be skimped on. Some of the emails I get from administrators even make me wince.

Sorry for the rant! As an ESOL teacher, some of the things they expect language learners to pick up right away are just absurd. Obviously I need to get the bee out of my bonnet.

Oh, those were the worst.

Thanks all!

Michael Taylor said...

Allow me to give a small defense of diagramming sentences.
It was very helpful when I learned Japanese. In Japanese you actually say the part of speech. So if you wanted to say "I read the book" you actually say the Japanese words for "I subject book direct object read past tense". Once you got used to it it was pretty cool. But my friends who did not understand how to diagram sentences had a hard time.

Paul C said...

In Canada, there was a very moving rendition of 'I Believe,' a song composed especially for the Olympics.

'...I believe in the power that comes from a world brought together
as one I believe together we'll fly;
I believe in the power of you and I.'

This song was a teachable moment for the beauty and power of grammar.

Ms. Yingling said...

*Sigh* I loved grammar, which is probably why I became a Latin teacher. If it makes you feel better, I don't think many middle school teachers diagram. The thing that I liked teaching 7th graders adverbs, prepositions, etc. was that it made them stop and think. Really, 12 year olds are not going to remember any content we teach them; we just have to keep their brains from freezing up. I get your point, but it's sad that soon no one will really understand how English works.

Jim said...


Your defense is noted. I actually saw a funny bit on TV back when Sarah Palin was making her first babbling interviews. They brought in a grammar expert to try to diagram one of her sentences and they couldn't do it.

Paul C.,

Nice one.

Ms. Yingling,

I'm not saying don't teach it at all or that we should toss it out. I'm saying wait until HS and for those of you that want to study Japanese and Latin, go for it!

Thanks all,

shannon said...

I love grammar and I completely agree with what you wrote.

I think the way we teach it prevents too many children from falling in love with language.

I'll have to check out Dr. Krashen.

Jim said...


Yes! That's what I was trying to say. Teach them to fall in love with it first (or at least appreciate it), before dissecting it to show them how it works.


Michael Taylor said...

for the record: your point was not lost on me. I too agree that something is wrong if you can get a PhD in grammar. It just shouldn't be that hard in the first place.