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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Teaching grammar doesn't stifle creativity; it enhances creative writing

[Note from Laurie Rogers: Many school districts, including Spokane Public Schools, have not taught grammar in a coherent, focused, disciplined way for several years. District leadership argues that students can pick up grammar intuitively, through their own writing. Consequently, our students are graduating from high school without even basic skills in grammar. They cannot define an adverb or adjective, much less recognize a run-on sentence or sentence fragment. In 2010, a Spokane teacher described to me how her efforts to teach grammar were questioned by a central-office administrator. In this article, senior college student Katherine Brandt explains why teaching grammar is critically important.]


By Katherine Brandt
English Teaching student, Brigham Young University



Although the rules of the English language are constantly changing and transforming, teaching grammar has great value in the school system because it gives students the background that they need to understand their language and use it effectively both in and out of the academic world. By teaching grammar, educators provide students with the building blocks of language. When students understand each of the building blocks behind their language, they have a greater ability to communicate not only in their native tongue but also in other languages which employ similar building blocks, albeit in a different order.

Grammar is an important tool because people who do not understand it have difficulty communicating well, and as a result their ideas are often overlooked. Consider children who have yet to learn how to speak well or foreigners who misunderstand how to use prepositions or adjectives. For example, a Spanish-speaker learning English might say, “The sock red has a hole small.” Though people may understand sentences like this one, they might also need to make a conscious effort to achieve understanding.

Although the idea of the foreigner is an exaggerated example, students who understand the idiosyncrasies of English grammar will, in a much more subtle way, be able to control the voice, meaning, and level of formality with which they write. As a result, they will be able to write for an educated audience without the embarrassment of making obvious mistakes.

I have been able to see grammar’s importance in my own education. When I was a child, I attended a private elementary school where we were constantly drilled in grammar. We diagrammed sentences, learned parts of speech, and revised incorrect sentences time and again to master the language.

When I was twelve, my family moved, and I went to a public junior high school where the teaching of grammar was considered unimportant and indeed somewhat damaging to a child’s voice. Nevertheless, in my first month of class, my English teacher checked for students’ basic understanding of grammar. To my shock and dismay, I was the only person in the class who could recognize verbs and complete sentences. My peers consistently struggled with their essays because they had never been taught how to construct a complete idea within a sentence. They had been to school for seven years and could not write a simple sentence. I wondered what they had learned in all that time.

Imagine reading entire papers composed of fragments such as “When I went to the store.” These papers might convey meaning but certainly not in the way that the students intend – with clarity. From the time I entered the public school system, I was at the top of my class in English simply because I had been taught how to put words together correctly. As a result, my teachers could understand and respond to the ideas that I expressed in my papers. All children need to obtain at least a basic understanding of grammar in order to communicate effectively and meaningfully in the educated world.

Knowing grammar also gives students another advantage when it comes to learning foreign languages. When I first started taking Spanish, I had greater understanding simply because I knew some grammar. My teacher, in vain, explained how Spanish speakers position nouns and adjectives differently from English speakers; most of the students did not even know how to differentiate a noun from an adjective. On the other hand, I easily understood what she was explaining because I had been taught to identify parts of speech and their function within a sentence. The other students struggled and guessed their way through the course because every unit presented new parts of speech. Indefinite and definite articles, participles, and verbs were among the difficult concepts that they had not even learned in their native tongue.

I pity my peers who came from a system of those who have written off grammar as unimportant. I have heard these educators say that the study of grammar “stills the creative voice.” My personal experience has shown the contrary. Grammar has been my key to creativity because, with my basic knowledge of the language, I know how to coherently express my ideas so that others can appreciate them. I also know the building blocks to learning other languages which will only expand my creativity and not inhibit it.

It is time for educators to take a stand and teach children to use grammar well so that they may be able to participate both creatively and formally in the educated world. Even as we would not cripple architects by taking away the resources that they need to build beautiful buildings, so we should not cripple our young writers by refusing them grammatical knowledge. From a strong foundation in grammatical understanding will come better, stronger writers who will know how to use the tools educators give them to create beautiful and original writing.



Katherine Brandt is a senior at Brigham Young University, majoring in English Teaching. She will receive her degree in April of 2012 after completing her student teaching.

As part of her program, Katherine was expected to pass a basic grammar exam. The average score on the exam for her class of English Teaching majors was 13 out of 50. According to Katherine, the vast majority of grammar questions did not go beyond the most basic grammar, yet most of the students in the teaching program found it difficult.

In a discussion in one of Katherine's classes, she listened quietly as her peers, who struggle with grammar, dismissed the need for students to learn grammar. In a separate discussion, the students were decrying parental involvement in curriculum choices. Happily the teacher intervened to say, "The parents are the customers."

Katherine is contemplating going on to law school after graduation.


Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at wlroge@comcast.net. 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.

8 comments:

Anthony said...

Unfortunately, the writer will have to deal with this again if she pursues law school. When I was a law student, the first courses was practically English 101 with a strong focus on grammar and proofreading abilities. It was mostly middle school work really with a little higher level content. However, it was required due to the lack of understanding previous classes had of the subject.

Richard Reuther said...

Back in the dark ages of the '60's we were taught grammar. I would not say that I took well to it. I knew what adjectives, adverbs, gerunds, etc. were but I had no sense of verb tense beyond working to make it agree in time with the rest of the writing. However, when I started taking French, English grammar suddenly made more sense. Past perfect conditional tense? No problem. I became a better writer once I understood grammar better. Rather than think "what is it" I began to think "what does it do in/for the sentence."

On a related matter, the Richland school board voted last week to ban one of Sherman Alexie's books WITHOUT READING IT. The failure to read it before passing judgement is a lapse of reasoning and intellect. The act of banning the book is a failure of responsible educational philosophy which can relate to students' creative writing as well as how they view the world. Students need to hear/read different voices. They need to see something of themselves to find out how they should or should not behave. They need to see how different words are cobbled together to convey meaning, order and thought. If that means they may encounter situations in their reading that are unlike their home situation, we should not "shield" them from it just because it makes us as adults uncomfortable. Yes, there is a line beyond which we should not allow them to go, but Alexie's book is well this side of that line. As is Huck Finn.

Anonymous said...

As school board member I have taked to many students I was surprised how many said PARENTS are the weak link in education [from students
1- not seeing home work is done
2- keep the school phone# by your phone and use it.
3- some students never talk to there parents all week long
parents need expectation from students
4- parents need to set goals and see progress of those goals.
5- parents need to be involved at school
6- teachers can't force a student to learn that is the parents job

I WAS SURPRISED AT THE COMMENTS FROM THESE STUDENTS ,BUT THEY ARE RIGHT.

Bruce Price said...

A great article. (Constructivism--aka the Discovery method--is the main weapon used in the schools against knowledge. Stop all manifestations of Constructivism and we go a long way toward saving the public schools.)

My only quibble concerns the first thought: "Although the rules of the English language are constantly changing and transforming..." Not really. Not that much. Not during the typical lifetime.

This thought is part of the anti-grammar propaganda. Let's not concede the point. Let's emphasize instead the remarkable stability over the last few centuries of the English language.

Bruce Deitrick Price
Improve-Education.org

Anonymous said...

Bruce - I'm an executive assistant and use the Gregg Manual on the job. Yes, grammar rules do change. I'm 44 and the grammar rules I learned in school have been adjusted over the years. They aren't huge changes but there are changes and that is okay. It is NOT a reason to deny kids a good education in grammar though.

Regarding the article, I'm actually shocked that the professor stated that parents are the customers of the schools. That is something I've been trying to get our district superintendent and board members to realize. If you see that professor again, please give the professor a huge thank you from me (a very frustrated parent) :).

Carole Bossarte said...

"Although the rules of the English language are constantly changing and transforming..." I disagree with that statement. The logical basis of how and why is still there. Diagramming sentences was dropped from the educational system in the 60's. I believe that was a major force in students loosing the command of the language. You KNOW what each word means and does to the sentence in order to diagram the structure of the sentence. It gives visual logic to the language and builds the brain's logical sequencing. It gives you the same similar command of understanding as learning mathematical theorums. You have a deep understanding of sequence and structure that can take you to multiple levels of understanding why it is, direction to go, and abstract thought.

James Stripes said...

I have graded many thousands of college essays. I have seen many thousands of sentence fragments, errors in subject-verb agreement, confusion of plurals and possessives, and pronoun faults (usually disagreement in number). I have seen perhaps two dozen run-on sentences.

Nikki said...

Can anyone provide the downfalls of "Reader's and Writers" workshop?