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Saturday, 5 March 2016

Does it matter if kids can't identify a verb?

So here's an interesting article from Ed Week about grammar making a (sort-of) comeback in American classrooms because of the increased complexity of Common Core texts.

I've thought about grammar instruction a lot for a number of reasons:

1. I'm a full-fledged grammar geek.  I love thinking about language at the level of the sentence.
Additionally, my own knowledge of grammar has helped me write, edit, and teach better. Therefore, it's important to me that my own kids and my students have a solid understanding of basic grammar and punctuation rules/concepts.

but more importantly,

2. These days, my high school students often arrive in grade 9 not knowing ANYTHING about grammar and punctuation.
(And these kids come in not just from the school where I teach but from schools around the world, mostly American/International schools. They are privileged kids who've attended good schools.)

Many kids have no idea what a verb is. 

One bright and earnest student asked me, "Ms.T, what's that 'sky comma' that people often use at the end of a word before an s?" 
She was talking about an apostrophe -- she had never been taught how to use an apostrophe. And this kid had attended very elite, expensive American schools before arriving in my classroom.

So what's going on? Does basic grammar and punctuation just not matter anymore? Should it be taught? And if so, how and when?

Here are my thoughts on the matter:

1. Explicit grammar instruction has value only IF it is taught systematically with the goal of mastery.

If kids just get a bit of grammar instruction here and there with the goal of mere exposure to concepts, then it's a total waste of time. It won't stick, and it won't have any value at all. Grammar, in this case, is a bit like math. If you're going to teach it, the goal has to be mastery.

2. Teaching grammar in isolation doesn't automatically mean that kids will use these grammar rules in their writing, so teachers have to carefully think about how to encourage that transfer of skills.

Even if a school has a strong, explicit, systematic grammar curriculum, as a few fantastic prep schools do (like The Winsor School in Boston, where I taught for three years early in my career), teachers still have to strategically help kids see the connections between grammar lessons and actual authentic writing.

3. If you're a parent and you care about grammar instruction, your best bet is to teach it yourself because most schools either don't teach grammar at all, or they teach it in such a haphazard way that it's a waste of time.

(Full disclosure: I teach my own kids grammar - we do half an hour lessons every weekend. I'm hoping they learn to love the mechanics of language the way I do.)

4. And of course, grammar instruction ONLY works alongside a reading-rich curriculum/environment, where kids are seeing grammar at work in context.

When kids read a book, they can see what writers are doing with language, and they are exposed to a wide range of different sentence structures and grammatical patterns. Wide and repeated exposure will hone their intuition for language, and they'll absorb an intuitive understanding of grammar and punctuation, even if they can't accurately identify parts of speech or diagram a sentence.
So if you don't feel comfortable teaching your kids grammar, don't worry -- just get them to read extensively, and they'll probably pick up many grammatical concepts just through reading.

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