Hard-Liners, Revisionists Debate How to Teach It

Times Staff Writer

When was the last time you and a group of friends sat around sipping wine, discussing predicate nominatives?

--comedienne Lily Tomlin

Tomlin has a point. Once most people leave school, they could care less about--and have little use for--terminology describing the parts of speech.

So, many educators ask, if learning the difference between a gerund and a conjunction has little use in the world outside the classroom, why do students spend so much time studying grammar?


Answering that question--and developing a method that makes grammar a more significant part of a student’s life--has divided English teachers and produced two distinctive styles of grammar instruction.

Traditionalists say that teaching grammar through memorization and drills is a time-proven method that helps students master standard English, prepares them for studying foreign languages and assists them in thinking and writing clearly.

Blend Grammar, Writing

But grammar revisionists argue that drills take precious class time away from reading and writing. Blending grammar into writing exercises, they say, is a more effective way to produce competent writers. And, until students are old enough to understand such abstract concepts as prepositional phrases and dangling participles, teachers should not force them to learn the terminology.


Moreover, the revisionists ask, if the goal of grammar instruction is to improve a youngster’s writing, why not just give students more writing assignments?

“Teachers aren’t here to put kids on torture racks, but that’s what they’ve been doing with grammar exercises, torturing kids,” said Shirley Mercer, an elementary English curriculum specialist with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

As is the case at other schools, teachers at Kester Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys are split on the issue.

Representing the traditionalists at Kester is Lila Mayer, who teaches her fourth- and fifth-graders grammar just as it has been taught for generations. Four times a week, her students memorize grammatical rules, underlining the subjects and predicates of sentences, and learn the terminology.

“When students leave my class, they should know what part of speech every word in the English language belongs to,” Mayer said.

A growing number of Kester faculty members, including second-grade teacher Judith Goldberg, apparently believe otherwise. Goldberg explains grammatical rules only when she finds a mistake in a student’s writing. She will point out the error, give the student a written example of how to correct it, then ask the youngster to write another sentence based on the model.

During this process, Goldberg says, she seldom uses such words as adjective , noun or verb . Although the students may not know the technical terminology for the words they use, Goldberg says, they do learn how to write clear sentences and paragraphs.

“Children learn by modeling,” Goldberg said. “If they hear grammatically correct English and read grammatically correct English, they will use it themselves.”


The debate over how best to teach grammar actually began more than half a century ago when the Curriculum Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English cited studies that showed the drills did not eliminate writing errors.

Then, in 1960, an Indiana University report that summarized more than 50 studies of instruction methods concurred, concluding that the traditionalist approach did little to improve writing or speaking.

“Teachers are faced with an apparent contradiction,” said Constance Weaver, a Western Michigan University professor and author of “Grammar for Teachers.” “On the one hand, a considerable body of research and testimony of innumerable students suggest that studying grammar doesn’t help people read or write better.

“On the other hand, the public and many English teachers seem convinced that studying grammar does help, or at least it should.”

Despite the debate, most students continue to learn grammar the old-fashioned way, an approach that was boosted in recent years with the national education reform movement’s “back to basics” push.

“It’s the fraternity mentality of education. New fraternity members must go through a hazing period because old members had to,” said James C. Stalker, a Michigan State University professor who is a director of the National Council of Teachers of English.

‘Ineffective Way’

“The same thing holds true for the teaching of grammar. Most teachers know the research shows that using isolated exercises is an ineffective way to teach grammar. But they still teach grammar that way because it’s the way grammar was taught to them,” Stalker said.


That is not to say that grammar revisionists are not making inroads. They are, at least in California.

The state’s English Model Curriculum Standards, the guide that school districts use in designing educational programs, calls for teachers to integrate grammar into other course work and stop treating it as a separate subject. “Grammar and punctuation are sub-skills and should not be taught as ends in themselves,” according to the guidelines published early in 1987.

The California State University system has rewritten its teaching training programs on grammar, directing that it be taught in combination with reading and writing assignments.

Workshops for Teachers

And in September, the Los Angeles school district, which often is a pacesetter for the rest of the state, instituted a series of workshops for teachers in which the newer methods of teaching grammar were discussed.

“Why turn kids off and bore them with things they don’t need?” asked Mercer, who led many of the Los Angeles district’s workshops. “We’ve got to give them more opportunity to write and, then, using their own words from their own compositions, correct their grammar as the need arises.”

But fundamentalists argue that grammar’s abstractness is part of its beauty and that teaching it in its pure form helps students think in more complex terms.

“Grammar is an artificially neat and compact system, and only in that artificial and compact form can it be learned and remembered,” Jacques Barzun, director emeritus of the conservative Council for Basic Education in Washington, wrote in a recent educational newsletter.

The goal of studying grammar, educators say, is to help people become more effective speakers, readers and writers. To do that, students study the function of words. They learn sentence structure, tense agreement, proper word usage, capitalization and punctuation.

When people talk about “good grammar,” they are usually describing sentence constructions used by the educated and the middle-class. “Bad grammar” is customarily used to describe the speech patterns used by poorer, less-educated people.

The importance of good grammar was dramatized by George Bernard Shaw in the play “Pygmalion,” which later became the basis for the musical “My Fair Lady.” In Shaw’s story, a speech therapist, through grammar and diction lessons, successfully converts a poorly educated flower girl into the darling of high society.

At one point in the play, Professor Henry Higgins describes grammar as being “the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.”

Grammar as an academic discipline was invented by the Greeks and Romans when they developed rules to govern language. Then, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church required priests to study Latin grammar as a way to preserve history, science and other knowledge and to help with biblical research.

In the United States, the first public schools were called Latin grammar schools because the curriculum focused on Latin. A grammar-based education is one reason that elementary schools are often called grammar schools.

Today in the schools, grammar instruction begins in the second or third grade, with students learning such axioms as “a noun is a person, place or thing.”

Diagraming Starts Early

By the third grade, students generally start simple sentence diagraming. They identify the part of speech to which each word belongs by placing the word on a line that branches out from the original sentence.

By the time they enter high school, students are expected to know most terms for the different parts of speech. Sentence diagraming, by this time, is often so intricate that it looks like an abstract drawing.

But, if revisionists have their way, sentence diagraming in elementary school will become a thing of the past. At that level, the new California curriculum model stresses reading a series of highly regarded books, such as “Charlotte’s Web,” “Aesop’s Fables” or Helen Keller’s “The Story of My Life.” The books would be used as a jumping-off point for class discussions and writing assignments.

If a grammatical problem is apparent in a writing assignment, the guidelines recommend that teachers work with individual students to correct the errors.

The one thing teachers should not do, according to the state model, is use the traditionalist approach of teaching grammar by drilling youngsters through a series of artificial exercises.

No Chance to Write

“In the past, we spent so much time isolating and fragmenting grammar skills that kids didn’t get a chance to do what we wanted them to do--write,” said Mercer of the Los Angeles school district.

Although the California curriculum model states that teachers should use the revisionist method, educators can teach any way they want once they are in the classroom.

“The reason most teachers stick with the old ways is that it’s easier to test a student’s knowledge of infinitives and gerunds than it is to read 35 essays and then sit down with each student to discuss their grammatical mistakes,” said Marilyn Whirry, an English teacher at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach.

Kester Avenue traditionalist Mayer argues, however, that the instructor in the classroom is the best one to decide how to teach the students. Mayer said there often is a great gap between what students think they need and what “I, as the teacher, think they need.”

Argument for Delay

Revisionists also say that teachers should delay introducing the terminology and sentence diagraming until students are in junior or senior high school, at the same time instruction begins on abstract math concepts such as algebra and geometry.

“Grammar instruction probably doesn’t make any sense to kids until they are 15 or 16 and already successful readers,” said Phillip Gonzales, a language arts consultant for the California Department of Education.

But, even in high school, the new California curriculum model warns teachers not to separate grammar from composition and literature courses.

“When you look at grammar exercises in most textbooks, they don’t resemble the real-life situations,” Gonzales said. “If you want students to use grammatically correct language in real life, teachers have to give them real-life situations in their schoolwork so the students can see how grammar functions in their world.”