kitchen table math, the sequel: Glen on grammar teaching in the schools

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Glen on grammar teaching in the schools

Responding to the suggestion that native speakers should have no trouble with the grammar section on the SAT, Glen writes:
[T]here are native speakers and there are native speakers. My second grade son lost a point on an English assignment today for writing, "Anna gave my sister and me the book." The teacher crossed out "me" and replaced it with "I," explaining that the proper expression was, "my sister and I."
My son complained to me that, in his opinion, "gave me" was correct, not "gave I," so "gave my sister and me" should have been right. I congratulated him for his correct analysis, but told him not to mention it to his teacher, because nothing good would come of it.
She's a middle class, educated, native English speaker yet she, like most of us, could have benefited from some explicit grammar training. Her students would have benefited, too.
And, later, responding to the possibility that "prescriptivist" grammar instruction is responsible for sentences like the teacher's Anna sentence above:
Explicit, prescriptive grammar training doesn't cause bad grammar. Bad grammar by overcorrection is caused by untrained attempts to sound trained. While there may, of course, be limited examples of "a little learning is a dangerous thing" in grammar, the cure is mo' learnin', not no learnin'.
I'm with Glen. I don't see how we can blame prescriptive grammar classes for constructions like "President Obama and myself are concerned..." (which I'm pretty sure I saw Arne Duncan use in reference to public education). Public schools stopped teaching grammar "in isolation" decades ago, not too long after the 1963 Braddock report:
In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing (p. 37).
Braddock, R., Lloyd-Jones, R., & Schoer, L. (1963). Research in written composition. Urbana, Il: National Council of Teachers of English.
The Braddock report was followed in 1986 by the Hillocks report:
None of the studies reviewed for the present report provides any support for teaching grammar as a means of improving composition skills. If schools insist upon teaching the identification of parts of speech, the parsing or diagraming of sentences, or other concepts of traditional grammar (as many still do), they cannot defend it as a means of improving the quality of writing" (Hillocks, 1986).
Although Hillocks and Smith claim that by as late as 1986 "many" schools were still teaching the parsing or diagraming of sentences, that is certainly not my experience, nor is it the experience of anyone else I know. Parts of speech, yes; parts of sentences, no. And as far as I'm concerned, the grammar of writing is the grammar of the sentence, full stop. If all you're teaching is noun, pronoun, adjective, and adverb, you're not teaching grammar, prescriptively or otherwise.

The Braddock and Hillocks passages are quoted liberally by education school professors and college composition instructors alike. There is a near-universal belief that teaching grammar "in isolation" is useless or bad or both, and today's K-12 teachers would have themselves been taught by teachers who held this view.

Related: The other night I asked a professor of English at one of the Ivies whether he knows grammar. I was curious.

He doesn't. He said that at some point -- the 1980s, possibly -- English departments had required graduate students to take courses in linguistics. Then that came to an end, and today English professors know literature but they don't know grammar or linguistics.


Bonnie said...

I had to diagram sentences in 8th grade, back in the mid 70's. It was completely useless, even more useless than the required unit on "recreation" where we had to learn to play bridge. I never could figure out how it connected to anything real, and I forgot it all as soon as I was out of that class.

momof4 said...

When I was in college in the late 60s, all English majors in the College of Arts & Sciences were required to take (1)Structure of the English Language and (2)Stylistics, both taught by the same, excellent professor. All the majors I knew said they were the toughest courses in the English department; no curve, either, but a great learning experience. I had the professor for another course and I believe it. English majors in the ed school were not required to take either. I don't know if the courses still exist or when/if they stopped being required.

Jean said...

I am the poster child for modern non-teaching of grammar. I read a lot, so I learned to write and communicate fairly fluently through osmosis, though I didn't know what an adverb was.

And I feel that I was cheated. I don't know grammar, and I make obvious mistakes. Now that I'm older, it's harder to learn, though I'm doing it anyway.

After reading up on the grammar question, talking with many friends who were similarly educated (and some who went to private school and learned grammar), and thinking about my own experiences, I've decided that I absolutely disagree with that whole 'grammar is bad for you' idea.

I put my kids through the most rigorous grammar program I could find. I want them to have an easier time with writing than I did. So far it seems to be working; my 11yo is writing a story on her own right now and I am amazed at how well she writes.

Catherine Johnson said...

I had to diagram sentences in 8th grade, back in the mid 70's. It was completely useless, even more useless than the required unit on "recreation" where we had to learn to play bridge.

This is why we need school choice.

I have been teaching myself how to diagram sentences, and I find the activity useful to me as a teacher - and potentially as a writer. (More on that later.)

Tim Russert wrote that sentence diagramming made him a better writer.

There's a constituency for teaching formal grammar including diagramming in the schools, but we are ignored.

Parents have got to be able to choose schools that teach the content they value in the manner that they value. For me, that means a school that teaches disciplines, including the formal analysis and use of English grammar.

A few years ago, the PTSA here became so frustrated by the lack of formal instruction in grammar that they actually created their own proposed curriculum.

At the board meeting where the curriculum was presented, one parent stood and described the joy she had felt as a child diagramming sentences; she said that the knowledge she gained had led her to learn, understand, and appreciate Japanese as an adult.

Needless to say, the administration blew them off. This year we've got Lucy Calkins in the middle school, which requires an extra period three times a week, so we're paying extra not to teach grammar or sentence diagramming.

Catherine Johnson said...

I had to diagram sentences in 8th grade, back in the mid 70's. It was completely useless

Of course, this is exactly what many people say about the math courses they took in school.

And the science courses, and the history courses, and so on.

We are spending a fortune on our public schools; we should be able to send our kids to schools that teach grammar -- formally teach grammar -- if we value formal instruction in value.

The idea that K-12 education should be purely instrumental for all people, including people who value knowledge for the sake of knowledge, is a case of majority rule run amok.

Catherine Johnson said...

When I was in college in the late 60s, all English majors in the College of Arts & Sciences were required to take (1)Structure of the English Language and (2)Stylistics, both taught by the same, excellent professor.

Oh, interesting!

Those would be **very** tough courses. I'm finally delving into that realm.....

Catherine Johnson said...

I am the poster child for modern non-teaching of grammar. I read a lot, so I learned to write and communicate fairly fluently through osmosis, though I didn't know what an adverb was.

My school taught, I think, the parts of speech (which turn out to be more or less wrong), subject and predicate, and direct and indirect object. I emerged from school knowing what a sentence was, and I think the school must have spent a fair amount of time on punctuation because I saw an old paper I wrote when I was pretty young and the punctuation was quite good. (There were comma splices, though.)

Beyond that, nothing.

I was shocked to learn, just this year, that an adverb can modify an adjective or another adverb!

Who knew?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I had grammar and sentence diagramming back in the 60s. My son has had a tiny amount of grammar in school (much more in his Spanish class than in his English classes). He is also interested in linguistics, particularly constructed languages, so he has been teaching himself phonetics and real grammar (that is grammar as viewed by linguists, rather than as viewed by prescriptivists).

Jean said...

"I was shocked to learn, just this year, that an adverb can modify an adjective or another adverb!

Who knew?"

Me, now, because my older daughter's grammar book says so!

Jen said...

I learned parts of sentences. In 7th grade we memorized the prepositions for a contest. All that thinking about prepositions gave me at least a base of knowledge to draw on later. For instance, at a certain point of years of my mother correcting me on me v. I as in the posting, it sort of fell into place.

Learning about objects for French classes also helped my English knowledge a bit.

In general, most of what I know about grammar (especially spoken English) comes from two decades of my mother correcting my speech (and the speech of everyone on television, too).

I hated it at the time, but found myself doing it to my own children as well.

TerriW said...

It's right there in verse 2! Heh.

TerriW said...

(sorry for bad formatting, lack of block-quoting -- typing, copying&pasting on an iPad is painful.)

TerriW said...

See also:

... For the Lolly video...

Glen said...

It's not the details of any particular style of diagramming but the ability you gain to see beneath the surface of a sentence---to see its working parts and how they relate to one another---that matters.

Explicit study of grammar prepares you for explicit analysis of language variation. An explicit understanding of linguistic structure provides a foundation for explicit study of stylistic options. Whether your goal is to write an academic journal article, a business proposal, a techno thriller, or a thank you letter, an explicit understanding of the linguistic conventions will help you get it right.

Bonnie said...

gasstationwithoutpumps - how old is your kid? He sounds a lot like my oldest...

I took Japanese in college just because I wanted to see a language with a completely different grammar from my own. I had already learned German as a kid, and French in school. Learning Japanese was very interesting because it IS really different from English. Now my kids are learning Chinese, which has an extremely simple grammar. Because it is so simple, the class spends almost no time on it, which is very different from the way that I learned French. It is giving me a lot of insight into the difficulties that Chinese speakers have when learning English.

I think that learning other languages can be a useful way to learn grammar.

Allison said...

They don't know rhetoric either.

Crimson Wife said...

I was in 6th grade in '89-'90 and we spent an entire term on sentence diagramming. I don't believe that we covered all of the more advanced aspects but I definitely remember doing direct & indirect objects, prepositional phrases, participles, appositives, and dependent & independent clauses.

Linda Seebach said...

As to Glen's comment, "I congratulated him for his correct analysis, but told him not to mention it to his teacher, because nothing good would come of it."

True, likely nothing good would. But you have to mention it just the same, for all the larger lessons you teach by remaining silent in the face of authority abused; by siding with the teacher at your son's expense; oh, you can think of more.

Learning how to stand up for yourself in ways that don't get authority riled is also a valuable life skill.

Linda Seebach said...

Chinese grammar is no more "simple" than that of any other natural language; it's merely that the way complexity shows up is in sentence structure rather than inflectional morphology like noun declensions and verb conjugations. Since English is more like Chinese in that regard than many other languages are, and people mostly haven't been taught anything about English grammar, it's natural for English speakers to think that "grammar" means all those tables of endings they encounter for the first time in French or German class.
(I taught English in Shanghai for a year.)

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"gasstationwithoutpumps - how old is your kid? He sounds a lot like my oldest..."

15 now. I agree with Linda that English speakers often mistake complexity of conjugation and declension for complexity of grammar—they are only a small part of grammar, and other rules can be just as complex.

Few native English speakers can describe the rules for use "a", "the", or no article, though few get them wrong—teaching the rules to a non-native speaker is tough.

Glen said...

@Linda, my son's teacher wasn't abusing her authority; she was just factually incorrect. I've been teaching my boys a lot of things at home and have warned them that the more they learned, the more they would notice mistakes made by "their teachers and I."

Coming up with a policy for dealing with apparent teacher errors is not easy. I try to teach them ways to ask about a point rather than just saying, "You're wrong!", and about making note of a point to check out later at home (maybe the teacher is right, after all), but even with that, there will be a lot of times when they'll need to just let things pass and save their ammunition for cases that matter.

Anonymous said...

I kinda' agree with Linda, Glen.

Maybe there is some way to gently do it, like making a statement into more of a question, if that makes sense. Sort of a "Maybe I'm missing something, but I thought.....blah blah..."

I might use some story about how a teacher had told me to drop the name and just use the pronoun to see how the sentence sounded.--Anna gave I the book, or Anna gave me the book. If she still didn't immediately see her mistake, you can just say that you could have sworn that the me in "Mary and me" were indirect objects and therefore the pronoun would be objective--me.

After that, I don't know what you could do other than speak in tongues or use sign language or something. At least you might spare future kids the confusion that she is going to inflict on them.

But I understand the reluctance to confront a teacher. It just seems like maybe a quiet moment with her where you aren't being accusing in any way might make her realize her mistake. Or not.


Catherine Johnson said...

gasstation - if you're around - I came across your post on sentence diagramming last week, I think - !

It was fantastically helpful.

I'm going to get a link up ----- (it's on the to-do list).

Anonymous said...

....*was an indirect object*... Now I'm hyper aware of my bad grammar.


Catherine Johnson said...

Few native English speakers can describe the rules for use "a", "the", or no article, though few get them wrong—teaching the rules to a non-native speaker is tough.

I have to give a shout-out to Christopher Columbus High School (in the Bronx, I think.)

I have a non-native speaker in my comp class who has a FANTASTIC grasp of English grammar, which he learned entirely at school.

His spoken English is great, I think. (I say "I think" because I haven't spent a lot of time listening to him directly ... )

His writing is more grammatically troubled than the writing of the native speakers. Learning to write a foreign language is a massive undertaking. Ed, who is fluent in French, says that after all these years he is still pretty uncertain about his writing in French.

Catherine Johnson said...

Learning how to stand up for yourself in ways that don't get authority riled is also a valuable life skill.

I'm still working on that one!

Seriously, though, Linda is right: learning to stand up for yourself in ways that don't get authority riled is a major, major, major skill.

Sometimes I think it's "the" skill where professionals are concerned (but that may be far too limited ----)

Catherine Johnson said...

Beyond that, I think it's a good idea just to let the teacher know that there is a simple test for "I" versus "me," and it's the test your son apparently came up with on his own. (Good for him!)

In my experience, native speakers 'get' the "for Anna and me" construction instantly when they're told to make the object or direct object singular.

I don't think your son needs to do it; I'd just mention it to the teacher. Yes, she's going to be embarrassed; a lot of us feel bad about grammatical errors. But she's going to be happy to have this knowledge.

Catherine Johnson said...

Glen - just to belabor the point - you have a warm, friendly tone 'in pixels'; you should just let the teacher know yourself.

I don't see any reason why a 2nd grade child should deal with this.

That said, I haven't taught kids that I don't know how all-knowing a teacher should appear to be inside the classroom.

With my college freshmen, I've developed a mode of congratulating them if they catch an error in something I say or do -- **or** if they find an error in my logic or an exception to something I've said.

This approach turns out to work extremely well (it seems).

First of all, my students are proofreading my handouts - yay!

But second, they have come up with objections and/or exceptions to things I've said that were smart, on point, and terrifically helpful.

Last year, for instance, I was trying to teach "cohesion," a concept I'm still grappling mightily with.

I said, in practically the same breath, that writing should "stick" AND that writing should "flow."

One of my students said, "How can something stick and flow?"

He was a vet - around 26 years old, I think - and he immediately apologized for being a wise***.

**But** he was exactly right, and I could use his observation to explain what a mixed metaphor was.

I also used that moment as an example of what analytical thought is LIKE. I'm still using it this year; I point out to my students that people say cohesive writing "sticks" and they also say that it "flows."

Another great moment: I opened this fall's class with Martha Kolln's 10 sentences. According to Kolln, the 10 sentences include at least 95% of all English sentences.

All 10 sentences have 3 slots: subject, verb, and object or complement. ("The students read books" or "The students are intelligent.")

One day one of my students said, "Is 'She is' a complete sentence?"


He honed right in one of the exceptions, which I confirmed by going back to Kolln to look.

Which meant I could say to the class: JL's question is an example of analytical thought. Do what JL just did! Do it all the time!

Anyway....I have no idea whether a 2nd grade teacher can profitably make use of her mistakes, and can profitably praise kids who spotted her mistakes.

Catherine Johnson said...

Crimson Wife - interesting!

Where did you go to school? (I can't remember if you've told us before...)

Catherine Johnson said...

Allison wrote: "They don't know rhetoric either."

Oh, man

ditto that

I know NOTHING about rhetoric.

I am a writer by trade, and I know practically nothing about how I do what I do or about the tools I use.

Crimson Wife said...

Just the public middle school in a small town about an hour west of Boston. I had a series of "old-school" English teachers who did things like dictation, sentence diagramming, and the like.

Unfortunately, they had all retired by the time my youngest brother went through and he had to suffer through the "whole language" fad. My brother was a bright kid and a voracious reader, but he did not magically pick up the rules of proper English grammar simply through reading quality literature. When he was writing his honors thesis at a top 30 university, I had to spend the better part of an afternoon giving him a crash course in diagramming. After I had finished, he thanked me profusely and said that he wished he had learned it in 6th grade as I had.

Bonnie said...

@Linda - you are probably right that Chinese grammar gets complicated at some stage. So far, I haven't seen that with my kids classes. My oldest is in his 4th year of Chinese, at a Saturday Chinese school mainly for Chinese American families. It seems really different from learning French - they spend almost no time on grammar rules, and instead focus on vocabulary, proper pronunciation and tones (not easy!!), and writing characters. About half of the families at the school do not speak Chinese at home, so they have a track for those kids; obviously, my kids are in that track. The school is run by Taiwanese, so they do traditional characters and zhuyin instead of pinyin. In any case, it just strikes me how little time they spend on learning grammar compared to the way I learned French and Japanese.

Linda Seebach said...

I guarantee you they are spending a great deal of time on Chinese syntax (that is, grammar); but not on conjugations and declensions, since Chinese does not have those in the way French does (I don't know about Japanese). Why, in English, do we not say
"Gave Anna I book"
"Book, Anna give-past and (sister-I, I)"
or any of the other ways those elements could be combined?
That's because those sentences are not grammatical in English; and your children are likewise learning what is and is not grammatical in Chinese. Grammar is just not accomplished with word-endings, because you can't put word-endings in or on a character. (Below it, yeah, sometimes.)

Glen said...

Linda, SusanS, and Catherine, I appreciate your gracious tone in suggesting that we correct the teacher.

My advice to not mention it to his teacher referred to his returning to school after confirming his position with Daddy and bringing it up again to argue his case.

Not a good idea. If someone is going to march in and learn her some 'splicit grammar, that would be my job, not his.

So, do I want the job? No. I would be in the school every week with one thing or another. I have higher priorities, and I can't afford to waste goodwill.

I negotiated a deal with my 5th grader's teacher that lets him study my Art of Problem Solving algebra material in class while his classmates do their 5th grade Everyday Math. (I could only save my son, not his classmates.) I want to work out the same deal with my 2nd grader's teacher, where she lets him do his Singapore 3rd grader work instead of 2nd grade EM. She won't budge. She insists that he be taught properly and help teach his classmates.

He's bored to death in math class, but the teacher seldom calls on him, because she has to "give the other kids a chance." So his mind wanders off and she scolds him for not paying attention. So I volunteer to provide him with Singapore word problems that will hold his attention, and she rejects it, saying that it would be more beneficial to him to have him "help teach the others."

THIS is where I need to stand up to authority, and I don't plan to waste any ammunition offering her unsolicited grammar remediation.

Catherine, my second grader didn't independently invent his analysis technique; he learned it from me as part of his explicit grammar training. The fact that he was right and *knew why* he was right, while an educated native speaker with decades more implicit English grammar training got it wrong, is evidence that explicit grammar training works for native speakers.

Bonnie said...

@Linda - I think we are talking about different things. I am not saying that learning Chinese is easy - far from it!. But, at least at the primary stages, kids don't have to focus as much on grammar as they do when learning other languages. Here is an interview with Deborah Fallow, who wrote the fascinating book Dreaming in Chinese, where she says pretty much the same thing. She notes that there is "little grammar" and then goes on to discuss the very things my kids focus on - sounds, sounds, sounds, and those infernal homonyms

The reason I find this interesting is that we are discussing explicit teaching of grammar. My main exposure to lots of grammar rules was while learning French and to some extent Japanese. My kids don't get that while learning Chinese. Maybe they will when they get to the higher levels.

I am also curious to know how Chinese kids learn to read, given that it is not a phonetic system. Even Japanese is largely phonetic.

SteveH said...

I agree with Glen.

"...and I can't afford to waste goodwill."

This is huge. This has stopped me so many times. There is also the problem (not necessarily in this case) of not knowing the context or complete story. Many times my son would tell me what went on at school and I would say "What!?!" Even after grilling him for details, there was always a bit of doubt. So many times I heard from him that the teachers would give them the Everyday Math assignment and then sit at their desks and do their own work. "That's what teachers do."

In K-8, I felt like I was in survival mode. High school is better, but there are still some BIG teacher issues. My wife and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how and when to raise questions or complain.

SteveH said...

Oh yes. There were also the preemptive teacher strikes. Those are the ones where teachers talk (in your presence) about what some parents do. The message is clear. You don't want to be one of those parents.

And I still remember the open house lecture we got (when my son was in 1st grade) about the wonders of MathLand and why writing about 2+2=4 was so good. Parents, including doctors, lawyers, and engineers, sat in little kids chairs as she spoke to us with her best 1st grade teacher voice. The message was clear. They are the experts.

FedUpMom said...

@Bonnie -- strangely enough, the Chinese learn to read using something like our "whole-language" approach, although they could use something more like our phonics approach. I discuss it here:

Learning to Read Chinese

SteveH said...

OK. While I'm at it, my wife and I have always seen an expectations (including content and skills) gap between us and the schools. It started in Kindergarten with journal writing when many kids didn't even know how to hold a pencil correctly, let alone form the letters. They are supposed to draw a picture story. Next comes invented spelling or some such thing. Then, they pushed onset and rime instead of real phonics. In third grade they were still trying to get kids to learn their adds and subtracts to 20. They considered this to be within normal limits. "Kids will learn when they are ready." "Most kids even out when they get to 4th grade." My wife and I used to say that that was because the more able kids were not allowed to get ahead.

That was not a gap my wife and I could fix. By maintaining good will, we had at least a tiny bit of leverage for more important things.

FedUpMom said...

@Glen and SteveH, wasting goodwill is a serious issue. Wasting time and energy is also a serious issue.

For instance, for me to respond to every grammatical or spelling error in text issued by the school would be a full-time job. I don't bother.

I don't bother getting into the homework debate either, unless I have to. For our second-grade daughter, we're just ignoring the tedious and pointless spelling homework. It's not worth doing and it's not worth debating with the teacher either.

Bonnie said...

Oh, our kids are learning to read characters using the radicals. It is a very systematic approach. I find the whole system fascinating, though I am not convinced it is really a phonics system in the way we understand.

The Taiwanese use zhuyin when kids are young. This is a syllable system, very similar to the Japanese writing system. My kids all had to learn zhuyin first. I don't really see the advantage except that the strokes are the same strokes as used in the characters.

For the record, brute force memorization of characters is NOT whole language - it is almost the antithesis. I think it is closer to the old look-say method, which is actually how I learned to read.

FedUpMom said...

Learning characters by radicals is not a phonetic system, it's just analogous to phonics because it's part-to-whole.

I thought "whole language" and "look-say" were pretty much the same. They're both about memorizing the words as whole pieces, right? And for the record, I also learned to read by "look-say". I have dim memories of "Dick and Jane".

Glen said...

In China, kids and their teachers DO talk about the parts of characters (some of which are "radicals", while some aren't), but it's mostly for informal mnemonics to help jog their memories when they try to write. Characters are not presented as formal composites but as wholes with features that you should try to remember.

In older grades, they used to learn the official radical/stroke count decomposition, but that was just to enable them to use traditional paper dictionaries to look up unknown characters. These days, kids (in Shanghai, at least) all use electronic dictionaries with handwriting recognition (often as smart phone apps), so the old radical stuff seems to be going out the door with the old Mao portraits (an old radical himself) that no longer hang in Chinese classrooms.

Bonnie said...

That is interesting. Maybe because my kids are going to a Taiwanese run school, they are getting more discussion of the radicals? It is definitely presented as a way to help learn to read the characters. My husband is also learning Chinese, and that is how he is learning too.

One of our interesting experiences when in China - our Chinese-born daughter has a very unusual character in her name. So unusual that no one knew what it meant - but they all knew how to pronounce it! At the time we couldn't figure out how - but my husband says he now totally understands - the radical in her character combined with something else told people what the pronunciation should be.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

One of the best sources I've seen for teaching a non-native speaker of English the fine points of written English grammar is Huckin and Olsen's Technical Writing and Professional Communication for Non-Native Speakers.

The sentence diagramming blog post of mine was either


GoogleMaster said...

Time to put in another plug for Warriner's grammar books, plus Latin instruction.

References on KTM2

References on KTM1

My data point:
- Public school 1976-1978 (7th-8th grades), explicit English grammar instruction using Warriner.
- Private school 1978-1980 (9th-10th grades), explicit English grammar instruction using Warriner, plus explicit Latin grammar instruction using Scott/Foresman. We diagrammed sentences in 9th grade.
- Private school 1980-1982 (11th-12th), English and Latin literature using Norton Anthology of American Lit and Norton Anth of English Lit.