“Why do we have to learn this? When am I ever going to need this in life? This is so B-O-R-I-N-G!”
If you’ve ever taught grammar through direct instruction, you may be familiar with complaints like these. It’s not only students who complain about grammar lessons, though. Many teachers hate it, and some parents and administrators think it’s an outdated practice. If you’ve run into any resistance in your English teaching experience, you may feel like teaching grammar is fighting an uphill battle. So, why bother?
I have an answer for that. It matters.
I really believe English Language Arts teachers need to have a firm understanding of why they are teaching grammar because – let’s face it – opposition will come. It’s natural for skeptics to question why we are teaching certain concepts, but when we don’t have an answer, things get, well….a little awkward.
In this post, the Language Arts Classroom and I put our heads together in defense of direct grammar instruction after considering the biggest complaints people have against it.
So what are some of the primary reasons grammar is not taught?
- It’s boring.
- Students don’t like it.
- Kids don’t remember it.
- The skills don’t transfer to real life.
- Teachers don’t understand it.
- It’s an outdated practice.
- There’s not enough time.
In light of all of these viewpoints, what follows is an explanation of why we are encouraging all ELA professionals to teach grammar anyway. Ready? Let’s get our nerd on.
Grammar doesn’t have to be boring.
Resources abound to make grammar fun. Teachers can play games, incorporate funny sentences or engaging content, and bring in real-life application exercises. Many pictures, memes, and social media examples exist to help demonstrate the need for a solid understanding of grammar in our society. We need to be careful what message we send students about grammar because if students can sense we don’t like it, they are more likely to echo that same sentiment. When all else fails, fake it ’til you make it.
Some students do enjoy grammar.
You might be surprised, but when students are taught grammar on a regular basis in a clear, logical sequence, many of them grow to enjoy it. We’ve had numerous students thank us for teaching them grammar. They’ve told us they are more confident writers because of it. And we all know how few and far between “thank yous” are in the teaching profession.
Grammar is similar to math in that kids will remember it if they practice regularly.
No one ever mastered the concept of solving for X by studying it one day and then never talking about it again. Grammar is a concept that needs to be taught day after day, year after year, with scaffolding and differentiation to ensure success. Many adults who had a strong grammar background when they were in school but who have not been in a classroom for over a decade can still identify grammar rules and can explain why a comma follows a dependent clause. For the majority of students, the instructional approach determines whether or not kids remember what we teach them.
The skills do transfer to real life (college, the workplace, and beyond).
Again, this applicability complaint is common with math. Just the other day, I was making a cup of coffee. In order to figure out how many grams of coffee I needed per ounce of water, I had to cross multiply using fractions. Grammar is a life skill, just as math is. Students need grammar to apply for college (it looks pretty bad to have fragments on an admission application), to succeed in college (by writing essays and giving speeches that are not wrought with grammatical mistakes), to apply for a job (cover letters and resumes need to be polished and professional), to write e-mails, memos, and business letters in the real world…the list goes on. No, students may not have to diagram every sentence of an e-mail, and they may never have to call a gerund by name after college, but by being able to do so, they will know how to write and punctuate in a clear, correct, and formal manner.
Because so many people take issue with grammar’s application to post-secondary education, I asked Dr. Wendy Troxel, the Director of the Center for Research at Kansas State University and an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education, Counseling, and Student Affairs to share her thoughts about the importance of teaching grammar. Here are her eloquently worded thoughts on the matter:
I guarantee that faculty at all levels (undergraduate through a doctoral program) notice poorly written work by students. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the reader tends to take the author less seriously, especially in some academic disciplines. Some blame society and social media and social class, but as the sociologist Harry Edwards once said, ‘Minimum expectations become maximum goals.’ Right or wrong, most of the humans who live in higher education still expect a very traditional and conventional scholarly approach to writing. At its core, good writing is a reflection of good thinking. Even if the content is strong, the impact of the work is diluted by lack of attention to formal speech (proper grammar) in most disciplines.
Teachers don’t understand it.
It’s not anything to be ashamed of. How are we supposed to understand something we were never taught? Most teachers who are entering the profession throughout the last decade weren’t taught grammar in high school and most likely didn’t have any college courses on it, either. Still, that shouldn’t stop us from preparing students for their futures.
So what can we do? Join groups, like the Grammar Gurus, practice with worksheets and answer keys, collaborate with other ELA teachers, take a college class, watch some tutorials, get on No Red Ink or the Kahn Academy websites, read blogs by English teachers who relish in sharing their love of grammar instruction…there are so many options. And honestly, you might just find out that with a little bit of practice, you can actually like grammar.
It’s an outdated practice.
If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. It’s not fair to students to get rid of grammar instruction simply because we’ve been doing it a long time and students are tired of it. The grammatical skills we are teaching students today can be incorporated in a fun, engaging, student-centered curriculum with a little bit of collaboration and creativity. Teachers can use comics, task cards, infographics, mind maps, flip books, interactive notebooks and more to enrich and liven up their instruction. As a result, students will be stronger writers, more confident in their understanding of the English language, and more prepared for life after high school.
It can be embedded within other ELA concepts.
Grammar works really fluidly with writing, reading, and vocabulary content. It doesn’t have to be an island of its own. Many teachers use mentor sentences to help students understand how to use grammar to be better writers, and we love that! As long as we are teaching students the terms so they can talk about grammar intelligently, marrying it with other concepts is an ideal approach in our modern educational world. Teachers can show students how to analyze the way an author uses dependent clauses, phrases, and crots/blips for effect. Students can choose a favorite passage from their independent novels, pick it apart to figure out what makes the language work, and imitate the author’s style. The list of possibilities is endless.
It’s in the standards.
Many schools are operating under the Common Core standards. Grammar is a huge part of the English Language Arts branch…just look at the Language and Writing categories. Even before Illinois, for example, moved to Common Core, we had the Illinois State Standards. Every set of standards includes grammar. Why? It’s necessary!
We can make time.
Of all the arguments against grammar, we can identify with time constraints the most. Of course, as classroom ELA teachers, we understand the pressures of teaching vocabulary, grammar, writing, reading, speaking, and listening all in forty-five minutes a day! It’s quite a feat for anyone to accomplish that gargantuan task. Still, we can make time for grammar. Perhaps it’s one day a week. Maybe it goes in waves…we have time for a few weeks, and then we step away for a couple weeks and come back to it. Sometimes it can be incorporated with bell ringers and homework assignments if there’s not much room in a day’s lesson plan. Ideally, grammar should be taught on a regular and frequent basis, but doing what we can when we can is a far better option than completely throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
To us, there is no debate. Just like math, history, and science, grammar matters. If English Language Arts professionals aren’t teaching it, who is equipping today’s students with the knowledge they will need tomorrow? Let’s all jump in this ship together, understanding that we are learning as we go. Please leave us your thoughts in the comments…why do you teach grammar?