Salvaging Grammar Instruction
By Kyle Cupp
I begin with a confession: reading Freddie deBoer’s post on the poor outcomes of teaching grammar initially left me feeling despondent and ready to join the narrator of Melville’s Moby-Dick in deliberately stepping into the streets and methodically knocking people’s hats off. I’d long heard rumors of the failure of grammar instruction, but like an isolated and perfectly comfortable hobbit of the Shire, I little heeded these whispers of far away troubles. That the forthright Freddie was sounding the arm bells drew my attention. I might as well as seen a Nazgûl on the road to Bag End. My fearful thoughts echoed the old Gaffer: “Shit. Maybe there’s something to this.”
Freddie begins with a warning that his post will probably be boring to many. Not to me. I pored over it with an excitement equal to what I’d feel hearing news that Joss Whedon was creating a new television show. How big of a language arts nerd am I? If I ever come across the words “Eliza Dushku” and “dangling participle” in the same sentence, I’ll be able to die happy.
A little personal history: I was once an evil English teacher. After grad school I got a job at a private college preparatory school teaching grammar, literature, and composition to middle school and high school students. Good times. Despite having studied English as an undergraduate, I had at that time not yet diagrammed a sentence. So when I cracked open the Warriner’s textbook to prepare my year’s lesson plans, I was introduced to the art of diagramming and had to teach myself this obscure technique of mapping the structure of a sentence. And what fun it was! The idea of diagramming made perfect sense to me, and by the start of school my sappy infatuation with the practice had blossomed into true love.
You will not be surprised to hear that I required my students to diagram a lot of sentences. I liked to throw in subtly difficult ones such as “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” I wanted my students to understand the concepts of grammar and to appreciate that grammar is the structure by which we understand reality. We covered definitions, of course, but I really stressed identification and application. My students needed to do more than repeat definitions. I expected them to identify the parts of speech in a sentence and to compose sentences that included particular grammatical parts and structures. When one day, to my surprise and with no prompting, my eighth grade class rose from their desks, stood at attention, saluted me and said, “All hail Darth Linguist,” I knew I’d done good.
Freddie tells of studies apparently showing that my dearly beloved grammar instruction doesn’t achieve the outcomes it’s supposed to achieve; it doesn’t result in better reading and writing habits or even a better grasp of grammar. While my first inclination upon reading about this was to complain to myself that these studies never examined my outstanding classroom-renowned teaching methods—and, for the record, they didn’t—a little coffee-aided reflection has lead me see that Freddie may be right, and most likely right about the reason. He says his experience “is that the people who learn descriptive and prescriptive grammar are those who already have facility in functional grammar.”
Diagramming made sense to me because I already had a practical frame of reference from which to understand it. I knew how to speak and write with proper grammar. I wasn’t approaching diagramming as a student might hesitantly take a first step toward conceptualizing the Id, elasticity of demand, or imaginary numbers. Diagramming helped me visualize all the possible structural variations of a sentence. I grew more conscious of these structures and how best to employ them in discourse, but I doubt diagramming would have improved my language skills if I didn’t already get grammar at a practical level and know by heart the rules of the road. It may instead have confused and frustrated me.
Did diagramming sentence help my students? I hope it did. A lot of them were really good at it; some could diagram any sentence I threw at them. Nevertheless, I can’t prove that diagramming or my other methods of teaching grammar made them better readers or writers. Those who quickly figured out prescriptive grammar may have succeeded for the same reason I latched on to diagramming: they already had the necessary foundation to build upon.
Grammar nerd that I am, I cannot avoid or dismiss the problem that Freddie has highlighted here. Like him, I see a grave need for pedagogical innovation. And yet I just can’t quit my devotion to traditional grammar instruction. If I returned to the classroom, I’d teach diagramming, the parts of speech, the difference between the gerund and participle. I’d cover clauses and phrases, subjects and predicates. I’d explain passionately why the predicate nominative should be in the nominative case.
If it’s true that teaching prescriptive grammar does not lead to better reading and writing outcomes, then why would I bother with it? Three main reasons. First, while the detailed study of grammar may not typically help students develop the fundamental functional grammar skills needed for reading and writing, it does in my experience help students already somewhat proficient at reading, writing, and functional grammar improve their proficiency with the language arts. Second, grammar is the structure in which people think and by which they understand reality. The study of grammar, especially diagramming, makes one conscious of this structure and how it frames thought and understanding. These are things worth knowing. Third, there’s grammar-related humor to be enjoyed!