Jason Feliciano

Explicit Grammar in the Classroom
Of the many issues in relation to language instruction, grammar instruction is one of the most hotly debated and misunderstood. When discussing grammar instruction with other teachers, I often refer to Diane Larsen-Freeman’s article, “Grammar and Its Teaching: Challenging the Myths” ( http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/larsen01.html ). Although it focuses primarily on second-language learners, I feel that it is also useful for English Language Arts (ELA) teachers, since they too often struggle with the issue of explicit grammar instruction in the classroom. In this article, Larsen-Freeman attempts to disprove 10 common beliefs about grammar instruction, which she calls “myths.” Below is a list of those myths and a synopsis of her rebuttals of each:
  1. Grammar is acquired naturally; it need not be taught. Some learners acquire grammar naturally, but it’s also true that learning more specific features of English grammar demands extra time and attention.
  2. Grammar is a collection of meaningless forms. Grammar involves language form, meaning, and use. In order to use English effectively, all three features must be utilized.
  3. Grammar consists of arbitrary rules. There is some arbitrariness to grammar, but with a broad enough perspective, it is possible to see that not all of it is arbitrary.
  4. Grammar is boring. “This myth is derived from the impression that grammar can only be taught through repetition and other rote drills.” Interactive activities can be used in place of rote drills to make learning grammar, much like anything else taught, more interesting.
  5. Students have different learning styles. Not all students can learn grammar. All learners approach language learning differently, but there has been no research to show that students are unable to learn grammar.
  6. Grammar structures are learned one at a time. “Teachers may teach one grammar structure at a time, and students may focus on one at a time, but students do not master each one at a time before going on to learn another.”
  7. Grammar has to do only with sentence-level and subsentence-level phenomena. The subsentence level is also involved, governing such things as number and person agreement between subject and verb in a sentence. Grammar rules also apply at the discourse level.
  8. Grammar and vocabulary are areas of knowledge. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are the four skills. Grammar can also be considered a process. “Language teachers would not be content if their students could recite all the rules of grammar but not be able to apply them.”
  9. Grammars provide the rules/explanations for all the structures in a language. Explaining how language works as it is constantly changing before our eyes is an ongoing process. Languages evolve, so linguists' descriptions can never be complete for all time; they have to have room for the changing nature of language.
  10. "I don't know enough to teach grammar." “While it is true that teachers can only teach what they know, teachers who say this often know more than they think they do.” Teaching grammar can serve as an opportunity for both teacher and student to learn.

Grammar is an important part of my instruction in the classroom. I do employ some grammar drills, but that’s not all we do to understand grammar. I also observe the grammar as it is used in pieces of writing—sometimes in prefabricated writing samples, sometimes in student work, and sometimes in professionally written work, like novels.

Although I am labeled as “old fashioned” by colleagues, I am a big proponent of grammar instruction—I believe that students need more instruction on the rules and guidelines for English use, as well as fabricated examples of English use for study. Although I don’t agree with using this methodology all the time, the introduction and use of grammar is key. These children need some kind of educational foundation on which to build their learning experiences. In the case of both English as a Second Language (ESL) and ELA, students need rudimentary guidelines for English usage that they can use to build all of their sudsequent learning experiences.

For example, children should be taught that adding an “-s” to a naming word (noun) means that there is more than one of that naming word. Although there are exceptions to that rule (“feet rather than foots” being a good example), students now understand singular and plural nouns for a good majority of English nouns, and can now build upon that rule with the exceptions that he/she may encounter. My students had not concluded that adding an –s to a noun makes it plural from the constant instances of use they have seen and heard in their reader’s and writer’s workshops. They were still saying, “I have been in the United States four year.” After a lesson on using singular and plural, they were saying four years, and they told me it was because there was more than one year, so they add the –s. There are further permutations that need to be presented (–ies, –es, etc.), but it’s a start, and they can utilize what they have learned immediately.

It’s not enough for students to just know that English just “is the way it is” for no reason. Grammar instruction helps to demystify the English language, and shows students that while there are exceptions, there is a core set of steps that they can take to write, edit, and otherwise evaluate the English language. It’s not perfect, but students can use grammar as a stepping stone to improve their English, and in turn improve their grades in general.

I couldn't agree more. So many of our students are from homes and neighborhoods where English is not their primary language and they cannot be expected to learn grammar by osmosis. Also, many do not come from print-rich environments and do not have the opportunity to often read well written books and articles. I often find errors on web pages, in advertisements, store signs, billboards and even newspapers. It might be a good contest for students to identify and correct errors they find in such writings and in their neighborhoods. My third grade teacher was considered old-fashioned back in 1961. She encouraged us to correct each other's mistakes as a matter of course, in a non-demeaning way. I believe there was a penny jar which grew in quantity for each error. That was the year I learned grammar and brought it home as well. One of my grandmothers was from an ESL background (Italian) and she would mistakenly use don't instead of doesn't. I'm sure it was somewhat annoying of me to correct her speech then, but she, too, learned from this exercise. [Lynne Bailey}

Feedback from Steven Schnee:

Grammar instruction can be a very useful tool in a child's development. The problem is that it is difficult for some instructors to fit it in to the curriculum, especially if the course is not an english or literature class. Writing skills should be addressed across the curriculum in all classes through written exercises. Research papers and projects are assigned to students to assess both their writing capabilities and concept awareness. This is a great opportunity to address a child's grammar mishaps, but how detrimental will grammar skills be in the determination of a child's grade in a class like science that doesn't focus predominantly on the english language? Yes, grammar is very important but how can it be addressed so that both the teachers and students benefit? If an additional grammar class was implemented in the school so that students receive a full year of training, the outcome will greatly affect the child's progress across the board. Too many times have students handed in work or written answers on exams that are either illegible or too confusing to interpret. Using the example shown above a teacher can easily misinterpret a child's written response. Given the scenario where a child answers a time related question in regards to a character in a book in reference to their stay in the United States and responds with the statement, "I have been in the United States four year". If the correct answer to the question was one year, would the response be written correct. This is a problem that I face often in class. Do we assume that the child meant to say "for a year" or "for four years"? How do we interpret what a student is saying when their writing is hard to decipher? Will this problem ever get solved? All I can do is pray. (Steven Schnee, July 16, 2007)

I personally find it amazing how many students lack basic grammar skills and are able to proceed into high school. Since I moved to NYC in 2003 to teach in The Bronx I have found myself teaching students how to write and layout papers. I never thought that I would be teaching in my Physical Education and Health classes, how to write a five paragraph essay or how and when to use a comma or a capital letter. To me this is the basics that have to me mastered before leaving elementary school. The situation was so bad in my last school that one of my administrators who also happened to be an ELA teacher asked me to omit the short answer questions from my mid term exams.
[Dave Manzalaoui]

Grammar in Early Childhood http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/writing.htm

The above link is to an article on grammar research and whether or not early grammar instruction improves writing skills. It states that little research has been done to support the fact that grammar instruction improves writing. Perhaps new research needs to be done. There is, however, some positive evidence to support the fact that some, grammar instruction does improve writing skills. However, are not positive which type of grammar instruction works best.

Personally, I have always tried to incorporate my grammar instruction into my content area activities and themes. My students have always had trouble learning a grammar rule and not applying it to real life writing. If I want them to work on plurals then I have them write using plurals. The content they are writing about is related to a subject area theme. I do not teach isolated grammar and separate it from my other subjects.

deirdre doherty 7/25