Grammar, the most relevant content no one teaches

by Mr. Sheehy

I hated my English classes in seventh and eighth grade. If my memory is anywhere near accurate, I wanted to write, and Mrs. Dussault wanted us to learn to diagram sentences, and I was too short-sighted to see how the two related. In a wonderful stroke of poetic-justice, Mrs. Dussault had a baby half-way through my eighth grade year and her replacement let us write–and I hated the class even more then than I had before.

In a story too common, I have more residual, long-term benefit from the material we gained under Mrs. Dussault than almost any other class I have ever taken.  My feel for what the subject of a sentence is, for the direct and indirect object, for prepositions and linking verbs is so deep-seated now that I can work my way out of any common grammatical tangle. I may not have gotten to write during her class, but I sure learned how.

Now I see students in my classroom who have never had the privilege of tangling with Mrs. Dussault or any of her sisterhood. They can name a noun, usually; they can identify a verb, often; but they don’t have the slightest clue what you mean when you say something like “objective case,” and to ask them to use who and whom properly is past possibility.

It’s too big, I hear English teachers say. We have all this other stuff we have to teach, and if we were to teach grammar, we’d have to devote all our time to it just to remediate them to a basic level. They hate it anyway, and it’s a specialized vocabulary where students retain almost nothing of what you teach and transfer nothing that they learn into their own writing. Drilling is useless. You have to teach grammar in context.

Yet for a technical writing class I am teaching this year (it’s a semester long senior writing class), I decided to work with grammar a bit. As I printed off some grammar worksheets from a textbook I commented about it to a student. His response was enlightening:

Well, at least it’s stuff we need to know.

I teach a lot of literature in my classes, and I have mentioned how much I love to teach poetry. But what about grammar? I lament its loss as part of our culture’s standards, yet here I am in a high school with 150 students walking through my door every year, and am I correcting the problem? Have I lost sight of the people I want these students to be?

I wrote on a student’s paper recently that she had a lot of grammar mistakes that could probably be eliminated by a slow proof-reading. I had written this kind of feedback for her before, and after class she approached me and asked me for help, because she honestly had proof-read her paper and did not know what to do to fix it.  This was an A student.

Added to my other student’s comments (and he was not an A student, by the way) that grammar is the most relevant thing I could offer him, I’ve had a lot of grammar on my mind this week.

My first response has been to experiment in my technical writing class to see if I could teach grammar in a manner more adequate than daily oral language exercises (I’ve always felt DOL is fine as a review of that which one has already learned–but when students have never learned it, it strikes me as a practice in futility). To this end, I inspected our writing textbooks hoping they would be a possibility. They’re published by Pearson and their section on grammar begins with these two chapters and topics:

The parts of speech

  • Verbs
  • Adjectives and adverbs
  • Prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections
  • Words as different parts of speech

Basic sentence parts

  • subjects and predicates
  • hard to find subjects
  • complements (direct objects, indirect objects, subject complements)

Those sections cover about 60 pages of the book and then it jumps into phrases and clauses. I suppose the section is short because it is supposed to be review, but what am I to use if I am not teaching review? In fact, the entire section, when I read through it, looks incredibly effective at nothing. It looks like it’s been written by folks who know grammar but have never taught it. One of my number one claims for grammar is that we can get off track with side issues–things like specialized vocabulary and overly complicated definitions of terms. Why are we introducing students to reflexive, intensive, and demonstrative pronouns when they don’t know how to identify the subject of the sentence? Yet there are exercises in the book for relative pronouns forty pages before exercises for identifying direct objects. As a straight up curriculum, these books will not help me.

It appears I need a grammar book made to teach people grammar back when people taught grammar. If I could find a book to help me do it my way, I’d help my students to learn and be confident with these concepts:

  • nouns
  • verbs (memorizing the 20 most common linking verbs so they can tell the difference between them and action verbs)
  • subjects
  • direct and indirect objects
  • prepositions & their objects
  • adjectives vs. adverbs

And that would be it. Aside from these specialized terms, I would introduce basically no vocabulary. Perhaps it’s not possible, but it seems like it should be. Using only these terms, I can discuss subject/verb agreement, when to write me and when to write I, and a host of other common mistakes. Without my students understanding these terms, I am essentially at a loss for how to help them. It’s like teaching them how to fix a watch without opening up the watch to see the inside.

I have long felt that students should know these basic bits of grammar before they enter high school. Reviewing the concepts is important, but high school, to my mind, is a time to learn what is traditionally called rhetoric–structuring arguments, developing voice–not grammar, which sounds suspiciously like it used to be developed in the grammar school. Yet whatever my opinion is about when it should be taught, here I find myself teaching ninth through twelfth graders who cannot tell me the first thing about the structure of our language. Do I address this problem, or do I ignore it as something that is not my problem?

The trouble is that in saying it is not my problem, I am making it their problem. I am making it the problem of the young lady who wants to write correctly but sincerely does not know how. No one has ever opened up the watch for her and explained what the parts inside are, and how they work, and how she can fix that watch when it breaks.

Perhaps showing her and others how to open that watch would mean relinquishing shocking amounts of time each semester, time I currently use for things I consider legitimate curriculum and material. In fact, it’s likely that would be the result. What I now have to decide is what is most important.

We’ll see how it comes out.

Thanks for reading.

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