Wednesday, March 22, 2006


While attending a district meeting intended to map out our curriculum, I expressed my concern over how few of my 9th grade English students understood simple grammar--the eight parts of speech, basic comma awareness, periods, and the rest of those boring to teach and boring to learn rules. I felt that with the increased focus on standardized tests, the WASL in our state, students should come into 9th grade having learned these skills. I believe an understanding of how to construct a sentence is necessary for correct writing. I am old school in my beliefs.

A colleague believed that the students were taught this material, but if they arrive in my class without the skill, I should teach them--as if I wasn't going to. She also questioned why students need to know what a noun is. That won't make them a better writer. I think we are going to simply disagree on this.

I don't advocate the rote memorization of grammar rules. Grammar, in my opinion, is a living being. Understanding grammar means understanding the relationship of the words we choose and the thoughts we want to express. This can be done without drilling students for weeks on end with circle the noun assignments.

But consider this, later in the day, as my colleague showed a wonderful powerpoint on improving the revision process in writing, she expressed that students should add apositives to their sentences. This struck me. In order for a student to add an apositive, they must know what a noun is. An apositive, a noun or noun phrase, explains another noun in a sentence. So yes, students must know what a noun is.

They also need to know how to use a comma and a period at the appropriate time. When writing a good sentence. (did you catch that?) But let's say they are simply writing a list. I believe that a comma should follow the first word or phrase, the second word or phrase, and before the word and. If they fail to do this, the meaning of the sentence changes.

Understanding grammar, basic sentence structure, creates better style. Knowing that the subject of a sentence, in this case Knowing that the subject of a sentence, does not have to be a one word noun, or even a word that looks like a noun, creates sentences that better express what the writer means.

Again, I don't advocate rote recitation. I advocate teaching the purpose of proper grammar--communication. Writing is communication. When we speak, people understand us based on our ability to properly pause at the right moment, to put together phrases, to create clauses. When we write, grammar allows us to accomplish those things.


At 4:35 AM , Blogger Keith said...

Dude. I, am so; with you on: that.

At 6:47 AM , Blogger Amerloc said...

I remember struggling in sixth grade over the difference between adjectives and adverbs. I eventually got it.

So now I can use gerunds as direct objects, and prepositional phrases as adverbs OR as adjectives, and actually know that I did (if I stop to think about it).

You're right: understanding how the parts function and how flexible they can be creates opportunity for more fluent expression. Boy. That sounds stuffy.

At 6:52 AM , Blogger graycie said...


Grammar is what lets us talk about writing. It is the understanding of the ways that the words, phrases, and clauses interact that makes for powerful writing.

You are right. Your colleague, even with a wonderful lesson about appositives, hasn't thought it through.

(I'm teaching grammar right now, even though our curriculum doesn't expressly dictate that I do so. Hooray for Five Different Jobs of a Noun Phrase!)

At 3:57 PM , Blogger Cassie said...

Oh I love it!!

I've always thought that grammer should be taught more in high school, and thats why I've metnioned it to YOU a few times too.

I dont love grammar, I find it a little difficult, but I love my writing so much more when I do it properly.

In my fall quarter English class that's all we focused on, and I'd love to see you do a similar lesson with your nineth graders. (And it wasnt a bunch of worksheet stuff either!)

I think it may help students enjoy writing more because they'll see a change in their papers, and writing style and realize there are so many more verbs out there to use in a paper!!!! Ok. I'm getting all excited over grammar! Thats weird. :D Great blog though. Have a great Thursday!!

At 6:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear you! Our ninth grade curriculum is called Grammar, Composition, and Literature. Material is emphasized in that order. No, I don't like teaching grammar, but you're right. For instance, today, I taught hyphens. I asked students when they use hyphens. They mostly knew. I asked them if they had ever thought about where to put a hyphen at the end of a line, for example. Strange looks. I said, "Well, you can't just put it anywhere -- where does it go?" One student timidly offered that she thought it should go between syllable breaks. Yes! I said. The class was gaping! One student said, "I never knew that before!" Yet they've been randoming tossing in hyphens at the ends of lines, I'll bet. I have lots of moments like those teaching 9th graders.

I've heard that old line about students not having to know parts of speech to write well. Bull. For the reasons you stated.

At 7:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>When we speak, people understand us based on our ability to properly pause at the right moment, to put together phrases, to create clauses. When we write, grammar allows us to accomplish those things.<<

All well and good. But why bother in our state? Just "Say WA." I suppose we could get expressive with it. Say WA! Say WA? Say WA...

At 1:39 AM , Blogger SoCalOilMan said...

What I have most interesting about reading blogs, is that you can almost always tell what generation the writer belongs to just by their writing.

The older ones write in paragraphs and use capitalization. the younger ones can't find the shift key and write on in a stream of thought sentence that goes on forver with no puntuation and gives me an incredible headache trying to decipher what i just read.

At 9:33 AM , Blogger Ms Otto said...

Funny... my colleagues and I just had a two-hour-long conversation about grammar on a train ride back from a conference. We have a similar problem at my school... most (but not all) of the teachers in our Communication Arts department agree that grammar is crucial, but even among those who agree, the stance on strategy is mixed. Some believe (or, at least their actions imply) that isolated worksheets are sufficient; others hold to the integration of grammar work into the writing process... but, of course, such an organic approach is vastly more difficult. If anyone finds a perfect answer, please share (and make zillions of dollars)!

At 4:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This debate over the "teaching" of grammatical awareness and skills drives me insane. I am so sick and tired of English teachers who profess that "teaching" grammar is useless ("the kids just don't get it anyway!"). Students are expected (REQUIRED, actually) to learn Algebra before graduation, and yet they do not need to master the eight BASIC parts of speech?? It unnerves me! As you so aptly pointed out, that consultant giving the lesson on appositives didn't mention the fact that in order to USE appositives correctly, a student must know what a noun is in the first place. There are so many of these teachers/consultants out there making a MINT of money publishing books about the teaching of grammar (or rather, the lack of necessity to do so)....and yet, how are they able to write these tomes without a basic grasp of grammatical awareness? This debate looks like it will endure for quite some time....I've been teaching English for 15 years and it's been the subject of debate my entire teaching career.

At 6:23 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a college English teacher where students still arrive at this level believing that writing is just about the process of expressing themselves with little regard for standard communication. I often ask students to name the eight parts of speech used to construct these expressive thoughts. The majority have no idea what I am even asking.

As an Appalachian student in the 1960s, I am rather thrilled today as the Dean of the College of Humanities that someone back then insisted that I learn the terms and rules of the grammar that we use every day. That knowledge has served me well. Unfortunately, those who began to suggest in the 1970s and 80s that this knowledge was useless perhaps were very wrong.


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