Why We Don’t Teach Grammar

So, let’s agree on what we mean by teaching grammar. Grammar has come to mean a catch-all term that refers to everything English teachers would prefer to avoid teaching. This includes the part of a sentence, the function of these parts (such as the parts of speech), the arrangement of words with the sentence, word mystical teachings of jesus, and capitalization, and assorted oddities that we think students should know, but wish they learned elsewhere. But, why do most English-language arts teachers detest teaching this collection of instructional essentials that we label as grammar?

1. We fear the unknown. ELA teachers live in the day-to-day fear that one of our colleagues might ask us how we incorporate teaching past perfect participles in our persuasive essays. Teachers naturally tend to avoid teaching things that they do not understand. Most ELA teachers were trained to love literature, poetry, and writing (or at least one of the three). Few were trained in teaching grammar. Some of us have picked up a few tidbits here and there over the years or were educated in Catholic schools.

2. There is not enough time. Teachers have their comprehensive lists of standards and courses of study on their “to-do” lists. There are pressures from administrators, the omnipresent district or state testing, and our own colleagues to check off items on these lists. Of course, we have our favorite novels and projects. Grammar instruction does not even make our Letterman’s Top Ten. “If I had unlimited time… then, maybe. But to be honest… Socratic Seminars, readers theater, and that Steinbeck novel would probably shove their way into my lesson plans first.”

3. The “research” says not to teach grammar. We trot out a “sound bites” from a study or two as convenient excuses to avoid teaching grammar. We gloss over the real language of the research conclusions, i.e., “teaching grammar in isolation outside of the meaningful context of writing is ineffective.” Some teachers do parrot these research conclusions accurately, but few actively address the variables of the research and actually teach grammar in the meaningful context of writing.

4. The fact that students are grammatically-challenged is someone else’s fault. “Students should know this stuff by now. The grade-level standards emphasize review of grammar, not introduction of grammar. I can only teach what I am supposed to teach. I can’t be responsible for other teachers’ shortcomings. I have my grade-level standards to teach. If I spent all my efforts on what they already should know, students would never learn anything new. Hopefully, they’ll pick it up later, somehow.”

5. Students don’t like grammar and they don’t remember what they are taught. “Grammar is boring. I want to be a fun and interesting teacher. I’m angling for Teacher-of-the-Year and I’m not about to let grammar get in the way. Besides, the pay-offs from teaching grammar seem minimal, anyway. The students have learned the parts of speech every year and they couldn’t define or identify an adverb, if their lives depended on it. An adverbial clause? You’ve got to be kidding. I won’t drill and kill my students.”

6. We don’t know what we don’t know. Teachers teach from personal experience, as much as from professional development. Most teachers in their twenties, thirties, and forties had little grammatical instruction in their school years and few university professors have trained these teachers in grammar for the reasons already discussed. The pervasive “whole language” philosophy of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s de-emphasized grammatical instruction and relegated it to the editing step within the writing process. “I didn’t learn grammar, and I turned out alright” is an often-thought, if not spoken, rationale for ditching grammar instruction.

My response? We need to teach grammar and make time for grammatical instruction and practice. Anything students need to know has to be “taught, not caught.” Students are whom we teach, not ever-changing standards, courses of study, fads, personal preferences, or personal agendas. Therefore, if students don’t know how to define, identify, and use adverbs, we need to teach them (an intentionally ambiguous pronoun reference that indicates both subjects-students and adverbs). We don’t need any more student casualties as a result of any ” Great Grammar Debate.” Our ignorance is no excuse. We need to learn how to teach grammar in a meaningful writing context.

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