Can Grammar Be Taught?

By Mark Nichol

The BBC recently reported that students in the final year of primary school — equivalent to the fifth grade in the United States — will be required to take a grammar and spelling test (to evaluate teaching effectiveness, not to qualify the students for matriculation). But are grammar and spelling teachable?

Year after year, from early elementary school on, students are subjected to instruction in grammar and spelling. Textbooks and handouts describe and explain the functions of parts of speech and the spelling rules, and students fill out worksheets and take spelling tests. Yet even some highly intelligent, scholastically successful students have difficulty expressing themselves in writing, are unable to identify parts of speech or verb tenses, and can’t spell very well.

I’m a good writer — good, not great — and I can spell just about any word, but I didn’t learn how to write by filling out grammar worksheets, and I didn’t study for spelling tests. I learned to write by writing — and by reading. When I was in school, we had very few extended writing assignments, but these, and my extracurricular efforts (including an abysmal short novel I wrote when I was in junior high school), helped me hone my writing skills. My enthusiasm for reading certainly had a significant impact, too.

When I briefly taught elementary school, I didn’t use an English textbook. My students wrote and read. I gave vocabulary and spelling tests, but mostly, they wrote and read.

Unfortunately, however, it was difficult to help students develop their reading and writing skills. I had about thirty students at a time, and though they read and wrote while studying subjects other than language as well, there was very little opportunity to coach them to be better readers and writers.

And that’s the key. In the learning factories we call schools, educators generally devote time and energy through drills, not development. Many teachers simply follow the playbook and direct students to identify the adverbs in a sentence rather than engage the students in an exploration of the possibilities of adverbs. Most give spelling tests but don’t encourage students to use a new word in each entry in their daily journal. (Daily journal entry? Who has time to assign a daily journal entry?)

I’m not blaming these educators, of course. Although some lazy teachers give the profession a bad name, most teachers try to incorporate creative and truly valuable educational experiences in their classrooms, but given the dispiriting conditions and depressingly misdirected priorities in public education, doing so remains a challenge.

I remember, in college and perhaps later, despite having filled out innumerable grammar worksheets during my K–12 education, not knowing the difference between an adjective and an adverb. It didn’t get in the way of my ability to write. The worksheets, however, were an obstacle; how much more writing I could have done if I hadn’t had to fill them out!

The tragedy of the factory educational system is that many of the students who are not enthusiastic writers or who have had the enthusiasm drained from them by rote, irrelevant lessons will populate remedial writing courses at junior colleges and at Ivy League schools alike. They will be the ones who, because HR managers were dismayed by grammatical errors and spelling mistakes in cover letters and on résumés, won’t get contacted for a job interview.

This argument does not mean to suggest that skill drills are useless; children and adults alike benefit from writing guides and grammar handbooks. But writing should be the foundation for developing written-language skills, not the other way around.

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40 Responses to “Can Grammar Be Taught?”

  • Sarah Perkins

    I remember thinking that our sentence analysis homework was an easy way out for the teacher. She sat there & dictated random sentences for at least a third of the lesson. Other teachers had a whole lesson planned, with homework as part of that plan. I thought the English teacher was idle, and didn’t care about interesting lessons.

    Looking back, I see it differently. Her lessons were a careful combination of directing us to decent examples of things to read and drumming the basics into our heads. Because of her, we read widely & saw how it was done. We had plenty of writing practice during other lessons.

    Yes, writing is best learned by doing it, but we need to have the background knowledge of grammar & spelling as well.

  • Warsaw Will

    These new tests (and not only for English)are very controversial, and have really pitted the modernists against the traditionalists. The main teachers’ union has threatened to boycott them, and a group of a hundred educational experts wrote a letter to the press, roundly condemning them.

    This letter has itself now made the news, as it was given the ‘Bad Grammar Award’ (set up by language conservatives) , apparently for the simple reason that it included the phrase – “too much, too soon”

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/100-academics-savage-education-secretary-michael-gove-for-conveyorbelt-curriculum-for-schools-8541262.html

  • opsimath

    I went to an English Grammar School in the late 1950s – I do not know the US equivalent – it took us from age 11 to 16 and to 18 if we were taking A-levels. Again, I am not sure of the equivalence of A-levels to US qualifications, but we were taught grammar in a formal way from the first day of entry.

    We were expected to learn how to parse sentences and analyse clauses as assiduously in English as we were in Latin and other modern languages such as French and German.

    It was considered essential to understand a language from the bottom up as they would say nowadays and it saddens me to hear very poor grammar even on BBC programmes. What real chance does anyone have of learning another language with any degree of fluency if they are unaware of the grammatical structure of their own?

  • Stephen

    Look at the current condition of grammar and ask yourself about the need to teach grammar.

  • Marilyn

    I taught English and Latin for many years, and I believe the best way to learn the parts of speech is to study a foreign language. Texas requires at least two years of a foreign language prior to graduation. I also was English Department Chair at a high school and set up an essay-writing curriculum that ended with a 92% passing rate for the Texas State writing sample for the school and a 99% passing rate for my own students. I do believe that writing can be taught. The method will be included in my audiobook memoir entitled “If I Survived Thirty Years of Teaching, So Can You: Three Decades of Mishaps, Missteps, and Misadventures”. I hope it will be published this year on the five audio sites. Writing can be taught by assigning compositions and grading them meticulously.

  • Joyce Hager

    Great article. I’m one of those HR managers who cringed at the sight of a misspelling on a resume and immediately passed on the candidate.

  • Marilyn Hudson Tucker

    I should have added that the test is given in the tenth grade. On the day of the test, students are given a topic for their essay. Their essays are graded based on covering the assigned topic fully, grammar/punctuation/spelling, organization, and overall quality. If they fail the writing sample that day, they have several more chances to try again prior to graduation.

  • Carole Raschella

    This is fascinating and something that had never occurred to me. I was taught to write in England and came to the US as a teenager, knowing nothing about sentence diagrams and the like, but having writing, grammar and spelling skills far above my classmates. It wasn’t until I took a year of Latin that I learned the structure of language, followed by Spanish, French and Italian, which built on that base. Because you’re right – my English education of English, so to speak, was all about reading and writing, both of which i still love to do…even though I now speak American :-).

  • Amber Polo

    A great post. Reading, writing, and study are all necessary. But there is also speaking. Knowing what “sounds” right sometimes is the rule I fall back on. After a BS in English and a career reading and evaluating books as a librarian, when in doubt, I consider the spoken word.
    Or are there two kinds of English these days?

  • John Capetti

    Excellent column. I believe that this also applies to the field of mathematics. Longhand math knowledge is a useful tool when hand held calculators are not available. How many modern day students can do square root manually? Answer: Most likely < 10%.

    I have always been an excellent speller, but only through visual image. If asked how to spell a word…..I get a visual image of the word through my memory bank, I assume?

  • Ron

    How can students learn to write well if they haven’t developed written language skills such as the rules of grammar? Unfortunately public schools and even college English courses do not focus on teaching grammar rules, such as subject-verb agreement. They simply have students read, thinking that this is the only way to help students develop their writing skills. One cannot write well without knowing the rules of grammar and proper sentence structure. We need to go back to the basics of writing. Great resources such as Daily Writing Tips is certainly a step in the right direction. Thanks!

  • Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg)

    I hated writing until Jan 2, 2010. I was 43 when I realized it wasn’t so bad.

    In eight grade, Mrs. Johnson, here to fore referred to as Satan, was droning on about diagramming sentences and how a noun was a person, place or thing.

    I’m good with math. Analysis is my strong suit. I wasn’t being a smart-ass when I pointed out that words are things, and thus, all words are nouns.

    Satan didn’t appreciate my observation.

    I eventually learned the parts of a sentence, but it was in college when I took French. Then on that faithful Jan afternoon I started blogging. Now, I’ve written seven novels and one non-fiction book.

    I still have room for improvement when it comes to comma use, but I’m getting better every day.

    Great post!

  • Stephen

    A spot-on observation, Mark. Good writing comes from writing and reading. Only surgeons and aircraft technicians need to know every part they are working with, I think.

  • Nan Roberts

    I know what you mean about learning to spell by reading, but I also learned to spell in school. I remember spelling bees. And reading a book in my lap during a spelling test until the teacher pointed it out that could be cheating. It hadn’t occurred to me. I was just in a good story. Very early, I remember being taught to read in little groups at the front of the class with those great big story books the teacher held.
    And in later years, diagramming sentences. I learned a lot from doing that. I wish I could still remember how it works, I learned word order and how words in a sentence relate to each other. And all this was buttressed by my well-read, -educated and -spoken parents, as well as reading constantly. And I learned with phonics, which I know is out now, but it really did help. Especially with English which is just so weird and arbitrary. It’s a combination, I think. And those people with that bent do better. I’m dismal at arithmetic still, tho I tried very hard and had tutors.

  • Nan Roberts

    Lately I’ve been learning Latin. I wish I had learned it in school because its grammar is mostly logical. It has helped me now understand the underlying purposes of words. LIke subjects, objects and so on. and because word order in Latin isn’t so important, the cases and the words themselves stand alone, and somehow make it easier to get the whole.

  • Julie R Butler

    I’ve never been diagnosed, but I’m pretty sure I have some combination of dislexia/discalcula, so because I could never remember things like math tables, I thought I was not a smart person. However, I figured out that I could hide this perceived flaw by understanding how to manipulate numbers and words – how to do the technical stuff that other students thought was so boring and pointless. I actually enjoyed learning grammar.

    While people have been saying here that learning another language is what taught them grammar, I found college French to be a breeze because so much effort went into re-teaching the grammar concepts that I already understood. Plus, I had learned from my struggles that putting words and concepts into context was key to remembering and understanding them, so I made sure to read and write on my own in French to help me to internalize it.

    I agree 100 percent that all three aspects are needed – reading, writing and studying the technicalities. Maybe the problem with getting students to understand grammar studies is that the connection between the three is not emphasized enough.

  • Nelson Carter

    When did the term “grammar school” become obsolete, replaced by “elementary school”? I suspect it was sufficiently long ago that most elementary school teachers of today never attended grammar school and thus never learned enough grammar to teach it.

  • Curtis

    Something we don’t always keep in mind about the “rules” of language is that they really aren’t _rules_ — they’re _observations_. Spoken language came first, then writing (with spelling), and then some analytically-minded people sat down and pondered how it all worked and wrote up the “rules.” They didn’t always do such a perfect job of it, either, and some of them deliberately imposed their personal prejudices in disregard of the facts.

    Some of the most stirring and memorable writings we have have come from people who ignored the “rules” and invented beautiful and useful new terms for us. Shakespeare was one of the best at this.

    I failed seventh-grade English because the teacher wanted to spend most of the semester on sentence diagramming, and I refused to do it. To this day, I don’t miss it, and I’ve heard of it being criticized in that some perfectly good sentences can’t be “correctly” diagrammed, and some correctly diagrammed sentences are altogether absurd.

    I always loved to read, and I think that’s where the emphasis should be in teaching: to inspire a love for stories and information.

  • thebluebird11

    *sigh* This is what I’ve been moaning about in many of my comments. Sentence-diagramming, parsing or whatever you wish to call it. I know we had to do it at some point in my “elementary” school education, but I suspect it was very early on (I mean like 2nd grade), and involved very, very simple sentences. Because anything more than subject-verb-object is beyond me. However, I read voraciously all my life, and I can tell you I was the only kid in summer sleep-away camp who made a pre-camp trip to the library and borrowed the maximum number of books allowed (10), and had them finished by the time I got home 8 weeks later. While my bunkmates gossiped and had their noses in other people’s business, my nose was in a book. While they set their hair or polished their toenails during our mandatory 1-hour postprandial rest period, I read a book. No, I wasn’t a nerd or a stick-in-the-mud; I just loved to read. So I think my writing skills are not too bad (not that I’ve ever had them professionally critiqued), I know my grammar is good, and my generally excellent spelling is probably genetic LOL because I sure didn’t have to study it or learn it; I just “knew” it. There are very few words I can’t remember how to spell once I’ve seen them.
    So, bottom line: Grammar can probably be taught, one way or another (some ways probably better than others; hearing proper spoken grammar and seeing proper written grammar are much more effective than rote drills for sure). Spelling? I think the basic rules can be taught (“i before e…”) but as you said, there are people who are really smart, like some doctors I know, who can’t spell for s***.

  • Cheryl C Malandrinos

    Excellent article. There are so many issues underlying why public education is failing: Common Core Standards; more focus on social issues in the classroom than on the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic; and trying to hold teachers accountable with standardized testing when there is no accounting for what frame of mind students might be in when they arrive to learn every day.

    In our school district, there seems to be a good balance between the worksheets and the practice of reading and writing. Our children have journals as young as kindergarten. The worksheets are often assigned as homework. From first grade on, there is a minimum nightly required reading assignment. I haven’t seen required summer reading in our district during our time here, but my girls participate in the summer reading program at the local library.

    We feel lucky to live where we do, but there is still room for improvement.

  • maevemaddox

    When I graduated from high school in a small Arkansas town, I could not have taught a lesson about pronouns, but I did know better than to say “Me and my friends are going to a movie.” I couldn’t diagram, but I could write a complete sentence. I couldn’t rattle off spelling rules, but I could spell the words in my speaking vocabulary and use a dictionary to look up the unfamiliar ones.

    I agree with Mark’s assessment of the public schools as places where young people are subjected to dreadful teaching techniques guaranteed to turn them off to the joys of learning. The fault for this lies with the education theorists who control the schools and departments of education. Elementary teachers are indoctrinated in a bizarre theory of reading instruction that leaves two-thirds of the nation’s children unable to read at the end of third grade. Children who can’t read, who have learned to detest the attempt, are not going to learn to write by observation. If they watch much TV, they will receive a lot of reinforcement for nonstandard English.

    To answer your post’s question, YES, grammar CAN be taught.

    Properly and systematically taught, children can master all the basic spelling and grammar they need in elementary school.

    I write about these things at http://www.AmericanEnglishDoctor.com/ and elsewhere.

  • Rebecca Hayes

    While many educators deplored the idea of diagramming sentences as a waste of time, I feel the grammar Iearned during those exercises helped me in my writing. True it was learning the parts of speech, but in conjunction with applying them to sentence structure in writing and identifying them in reading helped make my communication stronger. I learned diagramming in elementary school. It was reinforced when I took linguistics in college. Much of the items in these daily writing tips seem to bear out the strength of this strategy. Do you disagree? Also,what do you think of the Shirley English program that seems to emphasize grammar.

  • Gordon Keller

    I never wrote very much and never read very much. In the fifth grade I had an English teacher by the name of Mrs. Hall who devoted a short segment of the year to English grammar. I admit it came naturally to me, but ever since that I have always known parts of speech and proper grammar. I could always spell correctly and was in a few spelling bees. My entire life I have been able to know if I said or wrote something correctly by examining which part of speech it was and what tense, if verb, was correct. I was taught parts of speech and verb tenses in a short time. It can be done, but the student has to care.

    Gordon Keller

  • Sunniva

    I’m not a native English speaker, but my spelling and vocabulary has always been better than my peers, both in English and my native language, and I think the reason for it is reading. I read a lot of books growing up, and from year five I read books in English as well. I did not write much, and until I was 13 I had never written any fiction, articles or essays at all. In comparison to my brother, who never reads, there is a massive difference in our writing skills. I believe that to improve one has to care and give an effort. It doesn’t matter if a teacher gives you a thousand work sheets if you don’t try to learn from it.

  • Jackie Bussert

    My most memorable experience in high school English class (required every year for all college-bound students in addition to literature classes) was with a student teacher. He noted that vocab-spelling tests were of little challenge to me. Instead, he assigned me to come up with an essay or other written piece each week incorporating that week’s assigned 20 words. It was exciting and challenging — and fueled my love for writing.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I am quite surprised that nobody has commented on a quite false sentence in the original article:
    “But writing should be the foundation for developing written-language skills, not the other way around.”
    The FOUNDATION of the skills in written language is in READING good writing, and not in writing. I also believe that many people misuse the word “foundation”. They use the word “foundation” for ideas that are not “at the bottom of things at all”.

    When I was a student in elementary school, and extending into junior high school, I read omniverously, especially in nonfiction, but to some degree in fiction, too.

    Then, when I got some semesters into junior high school, I became more focused on the great writers, and especially those who wrote both fiction and nonfiction. You will see some of those writers mentioned in my list of favorites, if you recognize whom I mean now. I will just make a list in alphabetical order. You will just have to know yourself who did what:
    Asimov, Francis Bacon, Clarke, Descartes, Franklin, Goethe, Heinlein, Homer, Hume, Jefferson, Kant, Kipling, Locke, Longfellow, Madison, Napier, Newton, Paine, Pascal, Schiller, Verne, Welles, etc.

    I came to understand much later that a lot of what I read in nonfiction came from the Age of Enlightenment in Scotland, England, France, Germany, and especially the American colonies and the early years of the United States e.g. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine (especially in his work with the simple title of COMMON SENSE), and in the Federalist Papers, which were written in many separate chapters by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
    Well, I read about a lot of the products of the Age of Englightenment a long time before I had even heard of that Age.

    I have understood for a long time that I read a lot of material that was not directly by (some) of the above, especially when it wasn’t written in English to begin with, but rather it had been worked on by skilled translators from the original languages, such as French, German, Latin, Greek, Dutch, Spanish, and antique versions of English. Many of the European scholars, including the Englishman Newton, wrote many of their orignal versions in Latin. Of course, Jules Verne was French all the way. Also, much of what I read had been simplified somewhat for readers who were teenagers like me.
    ———————————————————————

    There are also some people who have made comments that imply that they think that the classification of verbs in categories is something new and arbitrary. Here, we mean the sorting of words into nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, articles, pronouns, conjunctions, etc. That was actually done by certain scholars in Ancient Greece, so all of these concepts are quite old. Personally, I am baffled by people who cannot tell the difference between an adjective and an adverb, for example.

    Also, when it comes to diagramming sentence, I am a hugely visual thinker in all of these: language, mathematics, science, history, etc.
    I just carry around a “piece of blackboard” and some “chalk” in my mind at all times, and I diagram sentences there w/o even writing anything down with my hands.
    The same goes for geometry problems, equations, etc. After having gone though the schooling that I have, doing these things “in my head” comes on automatic pilot to me and people like me.

    I can see how people who don’t have this ability for visual thinking would have a hard time with diagramming sentences and understanding the results. However, if you are like that, do not blame everything on the process of diagramming sentences. You need to blame it on your own lack of ability in visual thinking. Take some responsibility.

    There are some things that I don’t do well because I cannot create useful visual pictures of them. Well, I don’t blame the subject, but rather I understand my lack of ability in the area, and I blame that.

    D.A.W.

  • m. silvia riccio

    I think you need a lot of grammar, a lot of reading and a lot of writing, combined. The more you read and write, the more you recognize how language works, and develop communication strategies. In elementary school I had to work on grammar extensively, practice regular verb tenses and memorize irregular verb tenses (I’m Italian, we’re cursed with a different conjugation ending for each subject pronoun multiplied by 8+4+2 verb tenses and by three verb types), but at the same time our teacher encouraged production and suggested reading. I became a bookworm, but I wasn’t intererested in writing spontaneously, I did it only when requested. In high school I started taking English, French and German and that’s when all the grammar we had worked on really helped. At the same time, maybe because adolescence leads some to introspection, I started keeping a journal. Now, when I go back and read what I wrote when I was still a student, I get rather puzzled: I can see myself both in the things I chose to write about and in the way I used to do it, but I have to fight against the urge to cross it all out and write it over. And that’s because, back then, I paid no attention to where what should go to enhance the concepts I was trying to analyze. I kept studying languages and literatures, and the knowledge I have developed about how people speak and write has changed the way I write. I’m a translator (ENG to IT), therefore knowing how to diagram a sentence is essential to what I do, but I have to admit that there are times when I wish some of the people whose works I translated had had more exposure to parsing.

  • Ric Veness

    The foregoing comments amuse me. Have none of you read James Joyce? An acclaimed writer yet one who barely followed the conventions of or grammar or spelling. Spelling; is the english ‘traveller’ correct or should the american ‘traveler’ take precedence? Probably if a written piece sounds ‘right’ when read aloud then that is what was to be achieved. Rules-is-rules but that don’t mean they can’t be broken. Perhaps not in business letters — I kept, in a perverse sense of superiority, a letter from a Canadian branch manager that contains that lovely word IRREGARDLESS!

  • Robert Zogby

    While I agree, that identifying parts of speech and noun functions is futile, I believe that diagramming a sentence does actually help students understand things like misplaced prepositional phrases or dangling participles by simply having them know where these phrases go in a sentence so that the sentence makes sense. Groucho Marx said it best: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

  • Phyllis Dubrow

    Miles Myers taught me about commas, and grammar, in 12th grade, in Oakland, California. Somehow, he made it simple for me — and logical, something no other English teacher had done for me in prior grades.

    I therefore assert that grammar can be taught — and that not all purported grammar teachers can teach grammar.

    Meantime, I attribute any success I’ve had in school and subsequent careers to my knowing where the commas go. It does make a difference. And I was fortunate.

    Thanks, Mr. Myers.

  • Margaret Annen

    This article is very interesting. At our school this year a movement was put into practice to learn a new word a day. It was given over the announcements during which they gave the definition, offered syn. and ant. plus used it in a sentence. Every day I wrote the word on the board, and began asking my students, ESL populations, to define it and use it in a sentence; a task which they could not perform. I then would go over the definition, introduce syn. and ant., then proceeding to put it into a sentence. Then, I asked them to do so and they tried, battled, and eventually did it. Students should not only hear the word, its’ definition, and used in a sentence, they should have to use it that day in their classroom, hear it from the teacher, and prove they have learned it through using it in a sentence they create. In this way, they internalize the spelling, definition, and grow their confidence in learning a new word a day.

  • Bea

    We did sentence diagramming up through 5th grade. People dismiss it, but it’s really quite helpful–I frequently find myself using to explain *why* the choice they’ve made is, in fact, incorrect usage.

    Such as “I should of” instead of “I should have.”

    Such phraseology passes the “it sounds right” test…but is certainly not correct because it uses the wrong type of word.

  • Sheila Allee

    A few years ago, I taught a college undergraduate course in copy editing. To my surprise (and horror), I learned that most of the students had never been taught any grammar. One student event admitted it to me. I didn’t see how I could teach students to edit content if they didn’t know the basics of the language. So I set about trying to teach them a few rudimentary principles. It was a hopeless endeavor. I wish I had been able to come up with a better way to handle the course. I think Mark Nichol is right. The best way to learn grammar is by doing a lot of reading and a lot of writing (with an editor to go over your work.

  • Nancy

    This article presents an interesting perspective that should be considered in school teaching. The bottom line truly is how the knowledge taught will play out in a real-world experience as writers craft stories for their professions and in other areas of daily life.

    I also agree that drills are not useless. I am both a writer and an editor/proofreader at my workplace. I learned more about grammar and editing in my elementary and junior-high years (1970s) than I did in high school or college. My guess is that what is taught today is minimal. To be able to do the job I do today, I had to study grammar on my own, which included a lot of information that would be considered rote by many, but I don’t know if there’s any other way around it for learning the details of editing.

    Sadly, when I edit material from people in their 20s, their grammar is often embarrassingly bad and is getting worse every year. Somehow schools still need to find a balance in teaching grammar or to begin teaching it again so we’ll be able to keep producing good writers and editors.

  • venqax

    Interesting question and one I’ve asked myself. I always questioned the purpose or value of the sentence diagrams etc. and never was very adept at them. I can remember eventually getting them “right” and really having no idea why, or what was wrong the first time around. I guess that means, by defenition, you haven’t “learned” anything. Still today spell 99% of the time because it “looks right”, and write what “sounds right”. Bad grammar in most cases is gut-level obvious. But why is that? I think it is just a product of reading and writing, not of anything that was “taught” in school. Do you really have to be taught that a sentence requires a subject and a verb? Or that all the tenses you are using in a single sentence or a paragraph should agree or be consistent? Those are the very basics and those seem to come naturally to people who simply read with any frequency. Certainly there are rules and guidelines which can be taught, even by wrote, and help with “higher order” issues, for lack of a better term. Like most of those dealt with on this site. But those fundamentals seem almost ingrained or gained through osmosis, as opposed to being taught. I don’t know anyone who writes decently that does not read a LOT.
    As for all the typos I’m sure are in the above, proofreading is another skill I never learned.

  • Tony Moore

    The answer is yes, grammar can be taught. You are not born with a grammar. You learn it. You learn it through modeling provided by your family. You learn it by experiencing the consequences of your attempts to communicate as a small child–repeated trial and error until you get what you want.

    By the time you enter formal education, you’ve learned a great deal of grammar–and you’ve learned most of it to the point of habitual responding. How “correct” your grammar is depends a lot on the “quality” of the language that was modeled at home and on the effectiveness of your family’s coaching.

    And, to some degree, your learning is constrained or enhanced by your mental ability.

    A large part of the problem is that it is very difficult to break or change habits. It takes an extended period of time and involves closely coordinated action by all teachers to have any hope of breaking old habits and replacing them with new, more acceptable habits.

    Every teacher must prevent or immediately correct each instance of old habit. Every teacher must positively reinforce each initial attempt at applying the new habit and positively reinforce each incremental improvement in the application of the desired habit. The goal is to make the student fluent in the new habit.

    Another big problem is that many schools of education have failed to adequately prepare their students to be exemplary teachers. HOW to teach is known. There are a handful of schools in the USA that have, for three decades, consistently outperformed all the other schools in the country by a factor of two to seven times (as measured on standardized tests like the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and The California Basic Educational Skills Tests).

    In spite of over 30 years of data, schools of education, teachers, textbook publishers, and school administrators continue to treat education as an art rather than as a science (more accurately, as a technology–the application of science to education). Sadly, educators think of audio-visual devices and computers when they hear the word educational technology.

    Teachers are swept up in every new fad, and believe firmly in myths, that have plagued our schools for decades–all without the slightest inclination to challenge the pseudo-science being fed to them by vendors of textbooks, programs, and “technology.”

    Yes, grammar can be taught, and taught well. But, first, we have to quit reinventing the wheel, we have to give up theoretical approaches that do not work, we have to stop looking for silver bullets, we have to stop equating “popular” with “good,” in short, we have to quit our magical thinking.

    We have to quit blaming:
    * The kids (“they aren’t motivated, they lack maturity, they aren’t trying hard enough, they don’t pay attention, they… they… they…)
    * The class size (you’d be surprised at how much large groups of kids can learn when the lessons are well designed)
    * Teacher pay (it has little to do with pay, unless they are deliberately diminishing the quality of their teaching to force more pay–remember, most teachers WANT to do a good job–it has more to do with the abysmal quality of their teacher preparation courses, and with the broken school system within which they are forced to work)
    * Parents (they are doing the best they can–they are NOT the ones with the degree in education)

    HOW to teach is known–just not by most teachers. What to teach is open to question. Even our basic assumptions about the purpose of school is open to question.

    But, given a capable teacher who is equipped with well designed and properly sequenced lessons/materials, grammar is a teachable skill.

  • Stan

    I’m about to be a teacher to teach English as second language in my country, however from the experiences I’ve had all my life, people really want to learn English yet they find all the English lessons and courses boring here. I guess it was the thing that made them -as well as me when I was a student- bored to death during English lessons. Our native language is not any near English, no one can associate a thing from ours to English grammar and syntax. Even so, they keep teaching students English grammar through worksheets and such. I think I should try this way to teach. Of course, when they don’t know a word they can’t read or write a thing, however it can be done after some basic grammar and structure teaching. Only thing concerns me, I don’t know the most useful and not-so-boring way to teach new words. Writing them in English and their meaning in our language a few times does not seem interesting, like many do. Any suggestion on this is appreciated!

  • Sheila Skillingstead

    I gave a writing assignment to my fourth grade students and they put dialogue in their pieces and didn’t know the rules. I hadn’t expected them to try and write dialogue.

    During a break I photocopied a piece of a novel with a variety of dialogue examples. I gave them to my students and had them match what they were writing with the novel. By looking at the piece they could figure out the patterns (call them rules) and use those patterns to finish their stories.

    I believe there needs to be a combination of rules and experience. In today schools are more restrictive, more curriculum driven, most test oriented.

    Thanks for the post.

  • John O’Shaughnessy

    A great article and discussion here!
    Grammar: yes, it does help, it can be taught and it really contributes to a clear understanding of the structure of any language. I speak several European languages and teach English.

  • James T.

    That was a wonderful article. If my understanding of it is correct, the writer feels teaching grammar in any form other than through reading and writing is a waste of time. Then I completely disagree.

    I think many posts here describing their experiences in learning grammar exemplifies my disagreement. I also found that many of the posts reveal the writer’s lack of knowledge of grammar to make their intended meaning to be accurately perceived by the writer. Which is the reason for grammar in the first place.

    I don’t think anyone would argue that ‘learning’ and or modestly understanding grammar is necessary. It seems that the only issue is how best to teach it. There was a pretty wide opinion voiced here of what worked best for that individual through their experience. What worked for one student is boring to the next.

    In my opinion what all of these excellent posts reveal is the need for English teachers to recognize their classroom as a group of “individuals” each with different learning styles, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. Quite obviously it is impossible to match every single student’s learning ability, style, etc., However it is possible to match the majority. How? Through multiple and variable methodology. To me it seems quite obvious that any one pedagogy used solely in the classroom just isn’t effective.
    Teachers need to stop doing the same thing for hour upon hour with these students. Even the student who is very receptive and enjoys something such as sentence diagramming will become quite bored with it in time.
    It has been my experience in the classroom that when I employ any type of exercise for a short period of time such as 15 to 20 minutes before moving on to another type of exercise my students’ engagement in the lesson as a whole is greatly enhanced. However the teacher needs to be extremely observant of the students’. If your lesson plan as an example is to have them diagram for 20 minutes followed by 15 minutes of gap fill exercises, but at the time notice the students attention/interest level starts waning after the first ten minutes…. STOP !!! Move on!!! You must keep your students engaged or even the very best methodology just won’t be effective. A good teacher will come to a one hour class armed with 2 hours worth of lesson plan. If possible be sure throughout the entire lesson you are at least aware of different learning styles and use a component of each throughout. It’s actually a very easy thing to do but requires a bit of forethought to provide. (And sometimes some equipment not available sadly).

    As Tony Moore said above what to teach is often the question heavily debated and seems to be ever changing. “Oh my! You mean educators are still learning and have yet more to learn!!!???”
    As educators we are often constrained and restricted with what we must teach and with no recourse to change it other than much in-house griping. But I have found that we have a reasonable amount of flexibility in how we teach what we are ordered to teach. USE IT! Be flexible as a teacher. Grammar can be taught without it being boring as hell, which by the very nature of the beast, it IS to most. Infants and toddlers learning curve is amazing compared to the older student and how did they learn? By playing. Make your class fun even if it is a subject that is boring. If your students are bored it is because YOU are boring not necessarily the subject.

    Thanks for hearing me out 😛

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