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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Grammar problems caused by "hyper-constructivism"

Guest column by Robert Archer, teacher
Shadle Park High School, Spokane, WA

What is a dangling participle? How about a future perfect progressive verb? What’s the difference between intensive pronouns and reflexive pronouns? How do you parse a sentence?

OK. So maybe those were a little too complex for anyone other than English-major uber-nerds. I get that. In fact, anyone who can answer those previous questions simply wants to show off his/her outstanding grammatical knowledge for all the world to witness and, consequently, to have that world bask in his/her pedantic glory. Let’s go a little easier. How about these?

What’s a noun? How about a verb? Can you tell the difference between a complete sentence, a fragment, and a run-on? Can you make sure your subject and verb agree?

Were those better? Was the latter set of questions more apropos for anyone with a high-school education to have as s/he enters the “real world” of being both a productive and an intelligible member of our modern society? Actually, more specifically, isn’t the latter set of questions completely suitable for any American middle schooler to answer correctly before even taking a step into the halls of the modern high school? To answer: Yes. Yes! And just for emphasis, YES!!!

However, in my 14 years of experience as a high school English teacher, such is absolutely not the case. In fact, I would argue that fewer than 10% of my 10th graders could answer each one of those latter questions correctly (and I believe I’m being generous). Simply put, students these days do not know basic grammatical skills and concepts.

Honestly, it’s gotten to the point that trying to make my way through the grammatical land mines that await me anytime I assign a writing assessment becomes so painstakingly tedious that even the solid content of any given essay becomes lost in the ghastly-writing-skills shrapnel. (And don’t even get me started on the spelling skills of this generation of non-phonics-learning texters! OMG!)

Let’s face it—when high school students cannot use their own language correctly, their overall communication skills—both in written and oral form—suffer tremendously. And if their communication skills are sub-par (and, again, I believe I’m being generous), then they are simply not ready to move on to the next level, whether that level is continuing in post-secondary education or becoming a part of our educated work force. Yet, we in education continue to do just that—pass them on to the next level, washing our hands of their complete language inadequacy.

So, where exactly may I point my flaming finger of blame when 15- and 16-year-olds do not know extremely rudimentary grammar skills as they enter my high school classroom? At first glance, it would seem both easy and logical to blame my middle-school peers (since they didn’t force the knowledge into the students’ brains) or even society at large (since we have allowed written communication to be reduced to little more than texting and emailing). However, the first victim of my intended scorn is unfair, and the second is too broad.

Rather, I tend to blame those involved in curriculum development because somewhere along the line, teaching grammar has become something that we teachers can simply “imbed” into the reading and writing curriculum. I guess grammar is just too “boring” and, therefore, will not “engage” our “modern-day students” into true learning.

I'm sorry, but in my experience, the term "imbedded" is nothing more than educationalese for "not ever specifically taught." Somehow, this grammar-is-imbedded movement is supposed to help students naturally take in what proper grammar is (i.e., grammar by osmosis). It's very much a hyper-constructivist approach to education; the students are supposed to "discover" proper grammar on their own as they read good pieces. Then, somehow and some way, they are to emulate these proper mechanical structures in their own writing. And if the students don't quite "take it all in," the teacher may take 2.5 minutes here and there to show them what a damn verb is.

Allow me a moment to let curriculum developers in on an English-teacher trade secret: It ain’t working! When I’m hoping for nothing more than 3-4 grammatically correct sentences being strung together at a time as the sign of a “good” paper, then my expectations have dropped far, far too low. Yet, sadly, this is exactly to what I’ve resigned myself.

I honestly believe that the English curriculum needs to return to its roots—teaching and drilling proper grammar at younger ages—for the sake of helping our students be better communicators. I don’t believe there could be any other answer.

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.