Thursday, February 4, 2010

Get Rid of Grammar in Elementary School!


Yes, I expect to get flamed with this post. Ten years ago I suggested to a room full of educators in my district we should stop teaching cursive writing and was almost burned at the stake for my heresy. There were over 40 teachers in this meeting and the vote was me for everyone else against.

Now it is time to discuss another subject that I think needs to be done away with (at least on the elementary school level.) Grammar should not be taught as a class in our schools! We teach the same thing in 3rd grade as we do in 8th and they still don't learn it!

If we spend 25 minutes a day on parts of speech every day for 170 days a year that equals 71 hours. If we do that for six years it equals 425 hours, but how many of your 8th graders can successfully pick a noun out of a sentence? Why do we continue to teach them something they won't or can't learn?

I am not advocating allowing students to use poor grammar or conventions while writing, after all writing as a form of communication needs to have rules or the communication suffers. Obviously we cannot let this occur.

What I do say is that there is no real need to learn about nouns, verbs, or adjectives unless (and maybe not even then) they fall into two types of jobs; teaching grammar or being in a writing profession. After all, can't we require our students to make better word choices without identifying them as a specific part of speech?

Let's throw the systematic teaching of grammar out of our grade schools, it isn't needed!

Let the flames begin!

44 comments:

TLanning said...

Alright, I'll go first. Lately I have read that we should get rid of spelling in our elementary schools because it is not really necessary anyway. (They're going to text) We should get rid of cursive handwriting because they'll never use it in adulthood. (They'll type) Now we shouldn't teach them proper rules of grammar?? What do we expect these children to write and speak like in the future? I think that the way a person communicates weighs heavily in how they are perceived intellectually. Grammar is boring, it is monotonous and it is difficult to comprehend sometimes, I know. Do I think they should know how to parse every sentence? No I don't think that is necessary anymore, but subject-verb agreement...knowing what a verb, a noun or an adjective is? Absolutely!

If you are not advocating poor grammar and conventions, then how do you propose that we avoid that without grammar?

Wm Chamberlain said...

@TLanning I do expect students to learn how to use our language correctly, through the use of the language. I argue that teaching grammar as a separate subject with no connection to being used is a waste of time.

Thanks for your comment, I appreciate the feedback.

remember to log out next time :) said...

As one of the geeky who has always enjoyed grammar as window into culture, and who has enjoyed parsing as a puzzle since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I feel sad that many teachers no longer even provide the opportunity for kids to discover their inner geek. How are we to know which kids will be the linguists of our future if we never reveal the wonders behind our language. Must every child parse? No. Should every child have the opportunity to experience it? Yes. Some will learn better analytically and some intuitively. But we do a disservice to our students when we deny them chances to explore. Grammar should never be taught as if it a separate entity; it is the very scaffold of our language, and without the ability to analyze and understand, we do not have the ability to manipulate and control it.

dmigler said...

As a teacher of the Deaf, grammar is one of the hardest things I teach. My life would be a lot easier if I didn't have to teach it!

That said, several of my students do not have auditory access to English, but they must live in an English world. They do not learn English socially in the same way their hearing peers do, and so they must learn it through print. Have you ever seen a deaf student's writing? They are trying to put their visual/spatial ASL thoughts into the linear form of English, and it shows. Teaching grammar (parts of speech, sentence conventions, subject-verb agreement) stinks, but it's the only way I know to help my students communicate with a world that generally doesn't use sign language.

I will grant that one of my students (who has had very little formal grammar instruction) has improved her English. She is a voracious reader, and she copies a lot of English sentences at home. Just using the language has helped. Her writing is still pretty garbled, but a trained eye can see the improvement.

As far as "typical" elementary kids... I have no idea. But that was my two-cents.

KTVee said...

I agree and I think we should throw out any subject that is a segregrated, stand-alone lesson. If we want to teach kids grammar, then while they are experimenting to find out why baking soda and vinegar "erupt" in a chemical reaction, why not explore grammar when they write up their data report? Teaching grammar as a "separate" subject allows kids to move from 2nd to 3rd to 8th making no connections between the words "noun" and "verb" and what they actually are. Circling answers on a worksheet is not making a connection. Underline the noun. Were we ever asked to do that in college? Grammar in 4th grade should be weaved into the day... "Give me an action word that describes the chemical reaction... "explode." Connection made. Our goal is for kids to be able to apply their knowledge. I don't think multiple choice or endless stacks of grammar pages will lead to any application...

Tim said...

Well, I'm not quite ready to burn the grammar books yet, but I do agree that we should change our focus from teaching grammar to explaining grammar. If we look at kids learning proper use of the English language by "using" it, then we can take time to explain to them why a particular sentence sounds so good or rings so true. We can explain that they really need a brief pause here or there, and that pause is indicated by a comma; or they need some other words to describe this person, and those words are adjectives. Show them the good stuff and they will learn to use it. But there is an underlying reason as to why we do certain things in the language, and those reasons (rules) are grammar. Let's face it, kids learn how to write best by reading and by speaking; not necessarily by studying grammar. Thanks for the idea!

Wm Chamberlain said...

@remember You bring up a great point about individualized learning. Do you think every student needs to sit through a (usually) boring grammar class for one to have a serendipitous moment? I would love for students that are interested in grammar to have the opportunity to geek out. We should allow all of our students to have time to pursue their interests.

Wm Chamberlain said...

@dmigler Honestly it never occurred to me that deaf students have trouble with writing. Most of my argument is based upon students learning by doing which in most cases means speaking, hearing and writing. You bring up a great point and I can see how in your situation it is an important tool.

Wm Chamberlain said...

@ktvee Maybe you should have written the post ;>

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Tim Thanks for the great input to the conversation. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Darcie said...

It doesn't matter if the kids don't want to learn grammar, I believe in the basics and you get the basics in elementary school. I highly believe that the reason I am a good writer and lover of literature is from having grammar, spelling, and phonics (yes, the dreaded phonics) taught to me in elementary school. My skills only grew stronger every year I was taught it after that.

Scott Snyder said...

Some form of teaching grammar needs to hang around. Students need to learn patterns of language in order to communicate full and complete messages as well as punctuate those correctly for ease of reading. If the students don't learn to communicate their ideas effectively as students, it will be even harder for them as adults

I guess I'm saying to put it in a context: that of writing effectively.

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Darcie It doesn't matter what you want either, most people won't/don't learn what they don't want to. I am not sure you have to have a sound grammar base to be a lover of good literature, but I do think a good knowledge of grammar can help become an accomplished writer. My problem is most of us don't become writers.

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Scott I agree with you completely. My argument is it shouldn't be taught as a class, but it should be taught in conjunction with writing. The communication skills are important to hone, if for no other reason than to make sure we understand each other.

reportertanya said...

Students need to learn grammar, but not the way that we're currently teaching it to them. We need to help them discover why grammar is relevant to them, allow them to apply it in real-life situations and connect it with other subject areas.

Wm Chamberlain said...

@reporternaya You are absolutely right! Thanks for the contribution.

Scott Cochran said...

As a Latin teacher, I wish grammar was taught better. I can say with certainty that, although they have been learning grammar since third grade, most of my first year Latin students can not recall the basics.

I love grammar. I think that if students were to learn grammar well, it could be taught for fewer years. A good stepping stone would be to insure that every teacher of grammar has a solid understanding of the concepts and reasons for the rules. Grammar is often taught as a series of seemingly random rules with many exceptions. In actuality, there are reasons for the rules, and the exceptions are actually other rules and variants.

Those are my thoughts, grounded on the fact that I have to take so much time out of teaching Latin just to teach English.

gman said...

As a former 5th grade language teacher, I agree with the sentiment. Grammar in elementary grades should be taught in the context of writing, not as a subject. The kids who did well in my grammar lessons already new it, the kids who didn't, still didn't get it. I do think grammar needs to be formaly addressed somehow before the end of 8th grade, and maybe again before high school graduation. Basic grammar and College prep grammar?

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Scott You obviously have a dog in the hunt. I am really interested in your Latin class. Is it a required subject? Do you think that students could take a specific class on grammar for a semester before they take a foreign language and learn what they need to learn?

Wm Chamberlain said...

@gman I agree that students that are college prep should take a grammar class in high school because of the amount of writing they have to do (and because most colleges require a grammar class as well.)

luvnteachin said...

When I read this post I was reminded of a very vivid memory of eight grade- Miss Cowan running out of the room in tears while she was doing notebook checks. Turns out on the cover Mike Boykin's notebook he wrote "The Devil Must Have Invented Grammar". This obviously deeply offended Miss. Cowan, who, like @remember, truly enjoyed diagramming and identifying.

There is no doubt in mind that there are a few out there who enjoy the complexities and puzzles that are in our syntax, but does that mean that it should remain a subject that is taught in isolation. In my experimentation with this concept, doing away with teaching grammar in isolation, my fifth graders writings have improved. I attribute this to the fact that I now have more time to hold writing conferences with them, during which I think i am teaching grammar to them kinda sorta. That is the point of grammar right to help us with our writing?
The downfall to this, I'm envisioning, is that my state testing scores are going to suffer because we haven't identified parts of speech in a sentence, well maybe not because they have had 284 hours of it previous ...right

Wm Chamberlain said...

@luvnteachin Well said!

dmigler said...

This has been a marvelous discussion to follow. It has caused me to rethink how I "do" grammar with my students. I'm thinking that my Deaf students do need some direct, explicit instruction in English conventions, but I think it is more meaningful if it is embedded into their writing projects and springs from their own grammar struggles.

Personally, I loved learning grammar. But I may have been the only one in my class that enjoyed learning how to use semicolons and dashes. I geek out over well-constructed paragraphs.

Mark Pennington said...

Would you rather learn be taught how to cross a busy street or left on your own to learn how by trial and error?

I've just completed an article citing 21 assumptions that most of us make with respect to teaching grammar and then I follow with 4 simple steps that ensure you are teaching a balanced and effective grammar program. I would love to read your readers' reactions. Find the article at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-to-teach-grammar/.

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Mark Don't think I have to worry about getting squashed by an unseen syntax error...

4/5 J said...

It's all about context. Taught in isolation it means nothing. Today I worked with teachers wanting to teach their students about advertising. If you examine the language features and generic structure of advertising you see how you can be manipulated by it. So you need know the techniques and learn about superlatives, tense, exclamation marks and alternative spelling. You need to be able to interpret layout and images. My 2 cents worth for the importance of grammar and its importance in interpreting text.

Mark Pennington said...

Perhaps a useful starting point re: grammar instruction would be to come to consensus about what we expect students to know about grammar and when. Establishing a common ground on this issue can help us determine what to diagnostically assess in order to determine our students’ relative strengths and weaknesses. Only at this point does it make sense to discuss the instructional strategies that will address the needs of our students. For more about how to establish this consensus, read this article at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/grammar-instruction-establishing-common-ground/

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Mark Thanks for your contribution.

Michael/@teachernz said...

As usual, I'm late to the party ;-) I didn't know that grammar was still taught discretely like this. It was when I was at school, but by the time my own children picked up a pencil grammar was integrated in to reading, writing, speaking and listening.

I came to teaching late, I was forty, and in 10 years I have never taught a grammar lesson. I've taught grammar, but never outside the context of student reading, writing or oral language. We don't test for grammar. I think this is how it should remain or, in many cases, how it should change to be.

Julie Niles Petersen said...

Let me preface my comment with this truth: I have horrible grammar, but most of my family's grammar is worse than mine is. This weakness often gives me an inferiority complex when speaking with highly educated people. I wish I were told repeatedly throughout school how people judge your intelligence by your grammar. Perhaps that would have made me pay more attention. Students with poor grammar likely come from homes filled with poor grammar users making the cycle more difficult to break because what they hear is what they think is correct. At least it was for me.

My grammar greatly improved once I began my master's program because I had some fabulous teachers who gave me great feedback on my writing. Grammar check in MS Word also helped me tremendously. The funny thing with grammar and my insecurities... it bothers me, yet I feel I have so many other important things to learn in life that I have not made improving my grammar top priority.

My suggestions for teachers: 1. Remind students on a regular basis that their intelligence will be judged by their grammar, 2. Give great feedback on rough drafts about improper grammar, 3. Encourage the use of grammar check, 4. Point out improper grammatical usage that really stands out (ex. a/an, seen/saw, been/gone, your/you're) and encourage students to find these errors when listening to others and reading their writing, and 5. Teach them how to correct each other in a gentle way--kind of like telling someone they have something stuck in their teeth (people usually appreciate it when done with good intentions and tone). To this day, I am so thankful to my brother-in-law for helping me with "saw/have seen."

ReadingCountess said...

My district language arts coordinator just went to a Krashen conference. His latest thoughts are that grammar should not be taught until high school. Until then, children should be immersed in literature. A lot of literature, it seems to him, allows children to see grammar in context. This is what Nancie Atwell has been saying for over thirty years. Although there is nothing new, suddenly people are sitting up and taking notice. I, for one, find myself smiling. It's about time!

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Julie, living in the midwest I grew up with many that spoke with poor grammar and I do agree that they were judged because of it. The strange thing is, with media being much more widespread I think we will see (hear) a change. We will all start to sound very similar.

@ReadingCountess, you mean my idea wasn't original? ;)

John Hadley Strange said...

Wow! The most comments, and some of the strongest reactions I have seen yet while reading At The Teachers' Desk. Just a few comments:
1. My mother's favorite teacher at William Jewell College was P. Casper Harvey. He taught grammar and elocution. My mother treasured his book on elocution and grammar. So maybe I need to take back the Ruth HArt Jessee Strange Award.
2. I learned grammar by diagramming sentences, in Latin class, through writing and rewriting my dissertation (my prof was determined to make me a great writer), and with a copy of Strunk and White Elements of Style embedded in my brain by my mother. But that was centuries ago.
3. I have argued for some time that we are now in a listening/watching culture rather than a reading/writing culture. We still need grammar in the listening/watching culture I suppose. That is if we can get the listener/watchers to contribute rather than just consume. But it must now be taught in another context. So I am with you there.
4. This is the first time I think we may partially disagree, but then I'm not so sure. I am convinced that everything must be learned by doing it. So teaching grammar to teach grammar does appear to be nonsensical. Now I am back in your camp.
5. How exciting to see the flames erupt. But you were not consumed. I haven't seen a reaction like this since I proposed in 1972 that colleges and universities be banned from awarding degrees so that we could concentrate on learning. I escaped alive from an audience of educators who had just been awarded their master's degree. But barely!

Wm Chamberlain said...

@John When the way we teach grammar does not reflect how we use grammar, there is a real problem. I have no problem with traditional grammar as an intellectual pursuit, but I think it should be reserved for students that are interested. Does anyone really know how to name a part of speech to make coherent sentences?

There must be something about educators that are willing to not only challenge the status quo, but are also willing to take a few lumps for it. I'm not sure what that reveals about our intelligence or sense of self-preservation ;)

Tabitha Greenlee EDM310 said...

I am a parent and a student. Although I will one day be a teacher, you most likely will find errors in this post. Grammar is not my strong point. I think the most important thing to remember is things are changing and technology is taking the place of paper and pencils. My children have learning disabilities, dyslexia and dysgraphia. The school systems do not easily recognize these and I am sure there are many children with these same difficulties, but do not have parents that are persistent. If grammar was taken out of required learning, this kind of child may enjoy school. Just because one knows what a noun or a verb is does not mean they will speak or write correctly. Some high school math classes are optional now, why not grammar?

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Tabith Thank you for the honesty of your post. There is a major problem when teachers embrace curriculum at the expense of students. I respect your insistence in making the school do right by your children.

Heather Mason said...

Most people have said my sentiment, but what I can add. In our district, 6th grade is part of elementary. As a teacher at an middle school, the writing scores count against us, and some teachers in 5th and 6th choose not to teach grammar. It shows up in student writing and without the vocabulary to discuss writing on a sentence level, it makes it very hard to help students become better writers.

I don't agree with a separate grammar class or to the level that some grammar is taught, but it is important to learning to learn the vocabulary. How can I help students improve their sentences if the don't know what a sentence is? How can I encourage students to improve their verb choices if the don't know what a verb is?

Our world is a becoming more and more a written world (blogging, email, wikis). Grammar is a way to separate the educated from the uneducated; the intellegent from the average. Students need to be taught to be good writers and grammar is a part of that.

Revamp the curriculum; don't abandon it.

Luke said...

I often have the same issues with teaching grammar that I've had with how people approach dictionaries. They fail to realize that a dictionary is descriptive rather than proscriptive. Grammar ought to be approached the same way. It should be describing the norms used in speaking and writing and provide the vocabulary to do that. Languages are a living process, grammar changes and our approach needs to evolve as the language does. I, for one, never hesitate to blatantly split an infinitive, or use a proposition to end a sentence with!

Anonymous said...

English grammar might not be that important in daily communication; however, when it comes to a very formal situation where you have to give a speech, I don't think one can simply say "it's okay" as long as it can be understood by everyone; what if the audience don't really understand? I think grammar should be taught explicitly in the classroom because it shows the students (especially non-native speakers) how, what, when...

Jake

Anonymous said...

When one is learning a foreign language, it is imperative that they know the structure of the language. So grammar is always taught in that context. Why would grammar be done away with in English. I feel that the result is the 'dumbing' down of our culture. So often when I read articles on the internet, misspellings, typos, and other such errors are evident. Additionally, to use the argument that grammar is boring, and thus shouldn't be taught is preposterous. There are many things that are a challenge, but that does not mean we do away with them. I hope that we as educators and simply responsible citizens will not rob our kids of the education they need by eliminating concepts that may be deemed "boring" or "too hard." And those are my two cents.

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Anonymous I don't advocate not teaching grammar, I advocate teaching it in a different way. I also never said anything about it being boring or too hard. Perhaps you are simply projecting your feelings into your post? :)

Catherine Bolton said...

You may not want to teach grammar, but the fundamentals of punctuation wouldn't be a bad idea. Perhaps you could take a course.

Anonymous said...

The dumbing down continues.

Anonymous said...

your right grammar class are not Needed its a waste of time