Giving Language Back:An Argument Against Isolated Grammar Instruction
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Who knew that kids liked to read? I certainly didn’t.
Let me qualify that. I have known a few kids that liked reading. My daughter likes to read, but I assumed she would, being the daughter of an obsessive reader and all. I have known other child-readers through the years, but since they were nerds like me, I never guessed that “normal,” MTV-watching, note-writing, gum-popping, 20/20-visioned kids would like to read as well. Fortunately, during my student teaching experience, my classes of seventh-graders proved me wrong.
Before delving further into my experience at Freedom Middle School, it is important to understand the significance of my students’ reactions to good literature and to an isolated, grammar-based unit. In this paper, I will not only relate my personal experiences with the two types of curriculum, but what educators and researchers have said about them. Throughout this exploration of time-tested opinion and heavily researched facts, however, the underlying concern will always be our goal in teaching children. Should we try to force them to be who we think we should be – whether our intentions are based on an allegiance to the superiority of traditional methods or on an assumption of the inferiority of our students? Or should we try our hardest to help the students become their own individuals, only better?
The first few weeks of students teaching went very well. I had few discipline problems, and the students were very engaged during class time. In fact, they seemed eager to come to class! While I could have credited my wondrous teaching style for their interest, I knew that that was not the reason. In reality, their usual Language Arts angst disappeared because they thoroughly enjoyed the novel we were reading in class, The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963.
While I had to wake a few dozers and intercept a few notes here and there, all of the students followed along as I read aloud or we listened to a recording of Lavar Burton reading the novel. I saw at least twelve students that were actually reading ahead of their classmates. And while they probably would have preferred discussing music videos or cars, they eagerly summarized chapters when asked and often told me what they would have done if they had a brother like Byron or visited Birmingham in the 1960s.
Their excitement, discussion and written work showed me that they were learning, they were relating the literature to their own lives and they were remembering what they read and wrote. This unit showed me the effectiveness of using literature as a main focus of a Language Arts class; it truly opens up and stimulates the students’ minds.
Things didn’t go quite as beautifully when we began the next unit. After we finished reading the Watsons, my cooperating teacher told me we couldn’t read more literature, but that I had to begin “teaching grammar” to the students. The CRCT (Curriculum Reference Criterion Test – a standardized test for Georgian students), whose Language Arts section focused heavily on grammar, was scheduled for the week after my student teaching was to finish. The pressure was on my students and me to develop a deep and passionate love for grammar… quickly. Here, my teacher’s (and the state of Georgia’s) idea of grammar was something like, “a description of the syntax of a language,” or “a set of prescriptions or rules for using language,” or “the rhetorically effective use of syntactic structures” (Weaver 1). Basically, the rules.
Of the students in the classroom, I was the one most interested in the grammar lessons, and that was only because I was finally learning all the rules of language that I had ignored in my seventh grade Language Arts class. Unfortunately, there was little I could do to make the grammar lessons more engaging for the students. Even when I decided to forgo the overhead notes, grammar book and fill-in-the-blanks, I could not shake the feeling that I could have been doing something more effective. Though the students had a good understanding of what nouns, verbs and adjectives were, they were helplessly confused when it came to principle parts of verbs, pronouns, prepositions and adverbs. No matter how much they drilled and memorized, the students could not seem to make the connection between grammar and the language they used with which to speak and write. Though we used words cut out of construction paper to create sentences using transitive and intransitive verbs, many were unable to construct their own sentences using linking verbs. While students made “ransom sentences” (sentences made from magazine clippings), using predicate adjectives, I still heard them say things like, “He runs too slow.” Whether it was the old “kill and drill” or exercises that encouraged movement, discussion and laughter, the results were still the same: the students could not relate what they learned about grammar to their everyday language.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my student teaching experience was a textbook experiment of two different teaching methods. The first, based on reading and writing about great literature, was enjoyable for both teacher and students. Whether from their discussion or from their essays on the characters, it was obvious that the students were engaged and learning. However, when my method was based on the teaching of grammar as an isolated rules system, separated from the everyday and relevant use of language, the students could not connect the grammar with their language, or the lessons with their lives. From the growing discipline problems, the declining student interest and plummeting test grades, I learned that the isolated teaching of grammar does not help the students. It fails them.
If I had done research on grammar instruction before my student teaching experience, I would have learned that the instruction of grammar as a self-contained entity, taught separately from classroom literature and extended, meaningful writing, is pointless. In short, studying grammar itself helps no one; grammar instruction is only truly effective when embedded in a student’s experience with literature and various forms of writing. For over forty years, researchers have attested to the uselessness of isolated grammar instruction. A 1963 NCTE report by Braddock, Shoer and Lloyd-Jones goes further, indicating that this type of instruction is potentially detrimental to student writing:
In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing. (Weaver 10)
While there are researchers that do not wholeheartedly oppose traditional grammar instruction. For example, Meckel (1963) maintains that while formal grammar study is not necessarily the most effective way to improve writing, it may have some value in student writing (Weaver 15). However, the opponents of isolated grammar instruction abound. Like Meckel, I too can see the merit of formal, though non-isolated, grammar study; after all, students have to learn some basic rules of language sometime. Still, I disagree with the idea of teaching grammar as a system separate from, or even above, the language that encompasses it.
Before reading Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context, I would have defined “teaching grammar” as “just teaching the boring part of English.” Millions of students (and many teachers) would probably agree. However, a more intellectual explanation would be the teaching of grammar as a “system, and teaching it directly and systematically, usually in isolation from writing or the study or literature” (Weaver 7).
Though a myriad of studies argue against “teaching grammar”, many teachers still staunchly believe in its efficacy. And while some don’t think formal grammar instruction is effective, they still feel obliged to teach it. The reasons for their obligations or convictions are as varied as the number of teachers that still insist on teaching grammar. Some may think that just because their students do their grammar exercises well, they have understood and internalized the rules. Others may think that the students (and their laziness, unintelligence or lack of interest) are at fault when they fail their grammar exercises. Some may have read the studies, but are confident in their teaching abilities, believing that they can make their students learn grammar in isolation, though other teachers cannot (Weaver 24). Still others feel pressured into teaching grammar by tradition, school administrators, parents or standardized testing.
As we discussed the importance of grammar, my cooperating teacher not only stressed the importance of the upcoming standardized test, but told me that she, too, had to learn many grammatical conventions through memorization. Like the times tables, she believed that some language concepts can only be learned by rote. And while she conceded to my point that much of the confusion that students experience when encountering grammar can be undone by continuous exposure to good literature and continuous writing and conversation in Standard English, she lamented the children’s lack of exposure to Standard English. Outside of school, she insisted, the children refuse to read. Their parents don’t encourage them to read anything, besides, perhaps, their homework assignments. As far as my cooperating teacher was concerned, formal grammar instruction was the only way that student would ever be exposed to Standard English grammar. We could not, after all, reasonably combat the countless hours of television, hip-hop, and notes full of words like “n-e-wayz”, “cuz”, and “lil”; we only had an hour with them each day. While I understood her frustration, I was still drowning in a sea of the student grammar tests, most of which didn’t even earn a passing grade. Why couldn’t my students get it?
Though grammar instruction may just bore some students into inattention, there are other reasons why students just don’t “get” grammar as it is traditionally taught. First, if teachers hold to the conventional assumption that grammar is, essentially, the “rules” of language, then insist of teaching these rules, we are doing a disservice to students. Unfortunately, teaching the rules of something does not automatically teach someone how to use that thing. Teaching someone the rules of chess will not cause them to automatically master the game, just as telling a child the physics laws of balance and motion will not help him understand how he could possible ride without falling down. When teachers insist on teaching grammar as a set of isolated rules with a few practice exercises, they should not assume that students will automatically learn how to relate those rules to their own language use.
Second, the study of grammar itself demands a level of abstract thinking that seventh graders may or may not have reached. But the time a child is in seventh grade, she is supposed to have reached Piaget’s formal operations stage of cognitive development. In this stage, a child should be able to solve abstract problems. She should be able to reason hypothetically, deductively and analogically (Parsons 49-51). Because of this, many teachers assume that students should be able to learn the rules of grammar with little difficulty. When they are being “taught” grammar, students must stop thinking about language as an extension of themselves, or something that just is, and thinking of it as a tool with rules and conventions. They must think of language and grammar as abstract things, though they may not have ever considered language to be a thing, an entity, at all.
The problem with the assumption that all seventh graders should be able to think abstractly, however, is that some of them cannot. Students actually reach the level of formal operations at different times in adolescence, so while one student may be able to think abstractly, another may not (Parsons 51). Also, some students can use formal operations in some areas, but cannot use them in others. So while a student contemplates the last number of pi in his Math class, he may only be able to use concrete reasoning in his Language Arts class.
After actually experiencing the torture of trying to teach grammar to 95 seventh-graders who, at best, understood just enough to pass, I wholeheartedly side with the opponents of formal grammar instruction. If, as my cooperating teacher said, we only have an hour to spend with these students, only an hour to expose them to language that they may not hear or read when they get home, shouldn’t we take full advantage of that hour? Shouldn’t we do what they enjoy (within reason), then use it to show them the things they must know to read, write and speak in ways that are accepted by both their communities and other, larger ones? If we have found that there are better ways to improve student writing and speaking than through isolated grammar instruction, then shouldn’t we use those methods?
It was this sort of logic (or lack of it, from a traditionalist’s point of view) that led me wanting a literature-based classroom when I become a teacher. It only makes sense to use a tool that kids already, albeit surprisingly, seem to enjoy, literature, and use it as a door to the various other facets of English, including speaking and writing grammatically. We teachers already understand that good speakers and writers have one thing in common: they read. It should follow that we instinctively push literature as a means for the students to become adept in each segment of language arts, speaking, listening, reading and writing (Hennings 10).
Some may call this method of instruction whole language or literature based. The name of the method is not very important to me. What is important is that I acknowledge that “children become more effective language users by listening to, reading and responding to literature” (Hennings 13). When students are given the chance to read novels, poems short stories and articles, they are able to immerse themselves in language, chew on it, taste it. Once they become accustomed to doing this, they feel confident enough to analyze it, discover new things in it, reject it, love it, want more. As reading becomes second nature to them (if it isn’t already), students then feel comfortable enough in the skin of their language to move around in it, and to take their own risks in writing.
It is at that point – when students are not intimidated by language, but are enjoying it and becoming more skilled in its use – that teachers should approach students with grammatical conventions as needed. When teachers expose students to grammar in the context of students writing or other literature, grammar becomes a part of language, not some separate thing that has to be memorized but never applied. When grammar is taught in the context of the students’ usual use of language, whether through mini-lessons, individual conferences or editing (Hennings 368), it is transformed from something confusing and intimidating to something helps explain our language, not complicate it. As students are concentrating on how they and others can use and manipulate language, they see grammar, rather than being a set of rules, as something that “account[s] for native speakers’ intuitive understanding of language structure” (Weaver 30).
Even if we have students whose home language is a different dialect or language, we must still acknowledge that no one, at any age, effectively learns a language by systematically studying its grammar, but by being exposed to its print and speech every day. Language Arts teachers must teach, not with the assumption that we are introducing things that are radical and new, but with the conviction that we are expanding on what they already know, or what they, innately, have the ability to learn. As we do these things, we give language back to the students and make it accessible. Giving language back to students requires an evaluation of our motives for teaching children in Language Arts classes. What are we trying to accomplish? If we are interested in upholding tradition, making Language Arts more of a rite of passage than a place to help students improve themselves, then how and what we teach students will never really matter. However, if we want to open their eyes to all that they have and will accomplish in language learning, then we must choose the most effective methods to teach them. Whether the learner is a toddler, a middle-schooler or an adult, the way that they learn language does not change: they must constantly be exposed to language, they must use it, they must make mistakes and experiment with it. It should be no different in our classrooms.
Hennings, Dorothy Grant. Communication in Action: Teaching Literature-Based Language Arts. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Finlay McQuade. “Examining a Grammar Course: The Rationale and the Result.” English Journal 69.7 (1980): 26-30.
Parsons, Richard, Stephanie Lewis Hinson, and Deborah Sardo-Brown. Educational Psychology: A Practitioner-Researcher Model of Teaching. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001.
Sanborn, Jean. “Grammar: Good Wine Before Its Time.” English Journal 75.3 (1986): 72-80.
Weaver, Constance. Teaching Grammar in Context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.