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.