“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, you may be familiar with complaints like these. It’s not only students who often dislike grammar lessons, though. Some teachers question it, and some parents and administrators think it’s an outdated practice. If you’ve encountered resistance in your English teaching experience, you may feel like teaching grammar is fighting an uphill battle.
So, why bother? Because it matters.
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.
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- It’s an outdated practice.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.
It’s not that these arguments are always wrong. Sometimes, grammar instruction really is ineffective. ELA professionals need to help students understand grammar, but in order to do so, we need to understand:
- Grammar lessons and units need to be structured effectively.
- The overall grammar sequence impacts students’ understanding.
- Grammar needs to be taught both directly and in context.
- Teachers have to take time to study grammar and understand how language works.
Grammar instruction can be meaningful, and it can lead to deep understanding and transfer. Consider…
1. Grammar doesn’t have to be boring.
Resources abound to make grammar interactive and student-centered. I do believe direct instruction is effective, but it can’t stop there. Students need to be exposed to inductive learning and critical thinking as they relate to grammar. Plus, they need to be able to transfer their understanding of grammar concepts to reading, writing, and real life.
Teachers can use comics, task cards, infographics, mind maps, flip books, interactive notebooks, mazes, games, and more to enrich 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.
We need to be careful what message we send students about grammar. If students can sense we don’t like it, they are more likely to echo that same sentiment. Find ways to appreciate grammar and powerful avenues to teach it that communicate a contagious passion. Let students “catch” your enthusiasm for using grammar to manipulate language.
2. Students appreciate intentional grammar instruction.
When students explore grammar on a regular basis in a clear, approachable context, many of them grow to enjoy it. I’ve had numerous students thank me for teaching them grammar. They’ve told me they are more confident writers because of it.
I’ve also experienced the opposite. After reflecting on a grammar lesson that hasn’t gone smoothly, it’s easy to see why students would say they don’t enjoy it. It’s not that they hate grammar…they just don’t see the relevance or are frustrated by the murkiness. Scaffolding is essential. Anticipate areas where students will be confused, and fill in the gaps.
3. Students need regular practice.
Grammar is like math. 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 explored 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.
4. The skills do transfer.
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 as well. Students need grammar to:
- apply for college (it looks pretty bad to have fragments on an admission application)
- succeed in college (by writing essays and giving speeches that are not wrought with grammatical mistakes)
- apply for a job (cover letters and resumes need to be polished and professional)
- write e-mails, memos, and business letters in the real world
…the list goes on. It’s true: 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.
5. Teachers need to understand grammar.
It’s okay to admit it if you’re an ELA teacher who doesn’t fully understand grammar. I’d argue there are few who actually do. We are all learning together. Some teachers who are entering the profession weren’t taught grammar in high school and most likely didn’t have any college courses on it, either.
So what can we do? Join professional groups, 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 you trust. Grammarly and Grammar Girl are two of my favorites.
With a little bit of practice, you might discover you actually like – and understand – grammar.
6. Grammar is not outdated.
How can grammar be outdated? People still write and communicate professionally. Students still write research papers, emails, and other formal communications. If the vehicles with which language is used still exist, then so does the need for an understanding of grammar.
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, nor is it fair to stop teaching it because we don’t like it or don’t understand 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.
If grammar feels outdated, then the way we are teaching it needs to be updated. Use modern young adult literature. Apply the rules to the type of writing your students will be doing. Analyze emails to determine how grammatical structure impacts tone. Study how suspense is impacted in students’ favorite stories through different grammatical choices. Talk about when it’s okay to break rules and when they need to be followed.
7. It can be embedded within other ELA concepts.
Grammar instruction is fluid 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.
Teachers can show students how to analyze the way an author uses dependent clauses, phrases, and crots or 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.
8. 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 many states moved to Common Core, we had state standards. Every set of standards includes grammar. Why? It’s necessary!
Every student deserves to be taught to use language skillfully. They need to know how powerful language can be and how to alter it for purpose and circumstance. Ultimately, this is what we want students to be able to do. Often teachers choose not to teach grammar because it’s “not effective,” but if we make this decision, how will students ever have knowledge they need?
9. We can make time.
Of all the arguments against grammar, I can identify with time constraints the most. The pressure to address the plethora of standards in ELA is real.
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.
Teaching grammar in context helps us in this regard. Sure, you may spend a class period introducing a concept, but from there, be creative.
If students are reading a story, analyze the grammar concepts you are currently teaching. If students are writing an essay or creative piece, have them play with the rules. Vocabulary? Examine how grammatical structures of the sentences shape the part of speech and meaning of the word.
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 choosing not to teach it at all.
To me, 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?
Grammar isn’t about tight buns and red pens. It’s about teaching students to think from creative angles. It’s about having the ability to organize words, phrases, and sentences for maximum communication power.
If students don’t know grammar, they don’t know what’s possible with the English language. When is it okay to be playful? When should we be formal? How do we navigate the waters between the two? Grammar is a valuable learning experience for everyone.
So, why do you teach grammar?