Grammar. Can we all teach it?

Grammar matters and should be taught – differently

By Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

We need to bring back teaching grammar, but not how it used to be

I’m going to put it out there – most teachers don’t know enough about how the English language works [aka grammar], and this inevitably impacts upon student literacy outcomes.

There are grammar pundits who love their knowledge about the language for the haughty power it affords them: the ability to write corrective letters to the editor and the certain belief there is one right way to write and speak – their way.

This group gives grammar a bad name.

Grammar isn’t about linguistic straight jackets and rules; it is how creativity manifests itself in language. Grammar is how we organise our words and sentences to communicate with others and to express ourselves.

With grammar knowledge you know what is possible in English; you know how you need to speak and write to get the job done in different situations. You know when you can push the envelope with language, and how to do that.

Speaking and writing are not the same

What we can do with written language is very different from what we can do with spoken language. When we write, we have time to hone and craft our language, and so the grammar of our writing is very different from the grammar of our speaking.

When we don’t teach grammar we stifle creativity and limit possibilities for many children. We leave them to fall back on what they intuitively know about language, and as a consequence they simply write like they speak.

Subsequent teacher comments on their writing are vague and unhelpful – ‘too informal, too colloquial, too chatty, rambling, repetitive’. Kids need more direction than this; they need someone who can show them what is possible in written language and how to achieve it.

All children deserve to be able to use language with intention and effect, for any purpose and in all circumstances. Indeed their capacity to do so is what they are assessed on everyday at school, so if teachers don’t teach what school is assessing we are being negligent.

If the only language resource kids have is what they hear in their everyday lives, then we leave behind the children who need us most.

So – why don’t teachers teach grammar?

If you went to school any time from the 70s onwards, you probably didn’t get much grammar instruction at school. Some large scale research studies in the 60s, replicated over the decades, concluded that grammar instruction didn’t have much impact upon reading and writing, so why bother with it.

But the problem wasn’t grammar, it was the way it was being taught. Grammar was a standalone subject where random sentences were divided into their constituent parts (parsing or diagramming) – grammar teaching was not a means to an end (improved literacy), it was just the end.

The disappearance of grammar from schools – and most teacher education faculties – for decades means many of today’s teachers have no subject knowledge of grammar, nor any idea of how to teach it effectively. And publishers have stepped in to fill the gap.

Teaching grammar

Publishers also have no idea how to teach grammar, but are happy to sell hundreds of thousands grammar workbooks to insecure teachers and parents – tedious, out-of-context grammar exercises that urge children to underline the adjective and circle the noun on page after page of pointless, time-wasting work.

This work doesn’t uncover the beauty of the English language, nor does it it unleash creativity in our children. It does the opposite. These workbooks are the epitome of bad writing; writing that serves no expressive or communicative purpose.

The best way to teach grammar is through exemplary literature. This is where grammar is real. This is where we understand the ways in which we can play with language to achieve our intentions.

In great writing we can notice how the author uses their language knowledge and how they organise their words and sentences to make us notice, feel, see or imagine something.

But for that kind of teaching to happen, teachers need grammar knowledge.

Building teachers’ knowledge about language

Many great writers probably have little explicit knowledge of how the language works, but intuitively they play with grammar all the time. They can dip into a broad repertoire of implicit language knowledge, and make deliberate choices in their writing.

For example, they know when they start their sentence with words about where (adverbial phrases) rather than who, that their reader will be pulled into the setting rather than focused immediately on the character. They know that describing a character through their actions (adverbials) can sometimes be more evocative than describing their appearance (adjectivals).

Most of our kids neither know these things, nor how to organise their writing to achieve them.

So whilst great writers can get by with an intuitive understanding of English grammar, teachers need an explicit knowledge. They need to able to understand how effective writing works, so they can notice language and teach it to their students.

Testing teachers won’t build this language knowledge. What is required is carefully considered pre-service and in-service professional learning for teachers where language knowledge is built inside great teaching – rather than some disconnected sideshow.

Reading is a good way for kids to learn grammar

Time for a grammar revolution

If we are happy with the status quo – where the power of writing is enjoyed by the intuitive few, or those from very specific home backgrounds, then we could do what we’ve been doing since the 70s.

If we want to return to the ‘good old days’ of the 50s and 60s where grammar instruction thrilled a few, bored most and made no difference to reading and writing outcomes then we could continue down the current track of meaningless grammar teaching from workbooks.

Or if we’d like to do something powerful for our children – and close the achievement gap whilst we’re at it – we’ll ensure all teachers have grammar knowledge and fill our classrooms with great literature where the power of sophisticated language knowledge is both evident and inspiring.

The Conversation

Misty Adoniou does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Move Your Story Right Along: The Elements of Style Rap

See on Scoop.itEnglish Classes

“Here to teach you how to put the pen down right.”

In 1918, William Strunk penned The Elements of Style, which his former student E.B. Wh

Louise Robinson-Lay‘s insight:

Too good! Fodder for word nerds here In this video about Strunk and White. And the write up for this postmjust disobeyed many of their recommendations.

See on

i-pod touch – new toy or great educational resource?

GradePad App
GradePad App

Well, the answer is really both. I have spent a lot of time lately playing games on this fantastic device (purely in the interests of education you understand!) but it is also a brilliant tool for teachers, especially if your school is kind enough to let you use the wifi (please guys).

I am using the QuickOffice app to create, edit and download documents in Word, Excel and PDF format, there is GradePad software which allows me to assess students on the go – I will be trialling this for real tomorrow as my students do their oral presentations, and you can obviously get emails and search the web. There is even a WordPress app to allow you to update your blog on the go if you have  a WordPress blog.

As you can see there is enough there to justify buying one for any teacher interested in technology, but wait, there’s more. I also have a good dictionary on mine and if you were a language teacher the resources are amazing. I have study guides from Schmoop, Cliff notes and LitCharts for texts that I teach. They have great features such as character and theme profiles, summaries of chapters/scenes as well as the ability within the i-pod to copy and paste text into another document so that I can create worksheets etc. They all have author background study and some have the ability to zoom into character maps as well.

I also have mad libs, which every English teacher knows are a great way to cover the basics of parts of speech in a hilarious way. As well as a great grammar quiz and many, many others.

Of course, as the ipod also connects to YouTube, you can view short films on the go too. My next purchase needs to be a small data projector for the ipod!

I am really interested in hearing more about this from other people, so if others have great apps that they have discovered I’d love to hear about them.

Is this the most fun way of teaching parts of speech??

Mad Libs have now got widgets. These are fantastic ways of teaching grammar and parts of speech to students (and adults) of any age. Check out the widget on the right hand side under my Library Thing widget. You get the chance to create one and then email it to someone (or yourself). They’re really hilarious and you tend to get more creative as you go. Check out the madlibs site for more of their great products.