SAHS Academics > English Department Web Site > Philosophy & Mission Statement > Policy on the Study of Grammar
- Communication skills are recursive. This means that grammar concepts may need to be taught, reviewed, and retaught at each level according to students' needs.
- Teaching grammar in isolation, for its own sake, is counterproductive.
- Errors are a necessary by-product of various stages of language development.
- Students must understand the way sentences work, not only what they mean.
- Best practice calls for presentation of a target skill/concept, a model of the concept in reading, and a strategy for applying it in composition. This is consistent with our focus correction method.
- Language holds thought; language structure helps to make thought clear. There is no other reason for knowing the structural rules that describe language.
- Stylistic elegance is the precise use of language to express subtle, elaborate, insightful ideas.
Use the links below to find out more:
The Role of Grammar in the Secondary Classroom
From: Lester, Mark. Grammar in the Classroom. NY: McMillan 1990.
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Braddock et al. Research in Written Composition. Urbana, Ill: NCTE 1963.
" The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on improvement in writing" (37-8).
What do we mean by grammar?
In 1985, Hartwell identified five meanings for the term:
- Our internal, unconscious rule system
- The scientific analysis of grammar. The linguist's model.
- The schoolroom versions usually found in textbooks.
- Stylistic grammar. The use of grammar for the purpose of teaching style.
"Grammar is essentially a technical vocabulary for talking about language" (Lester 342).
Conclusion: Teaching grammar for its own sake is counterproductive.
Teaching Grammar as a Way of Helping Students Write Better
Student Writing Error
From Shaughnessy, M. Errors and Expectations. NY: Oxford U. Press 1977.
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"Basic Writing students write the way they do…because they are beginners and must, like all beginners, learn by making mistakes…Yet a closer look will reveal little that is random or illogical in what they have written" (5).
Three key ideas are implicit in this statement:
Learning to write Standard English is like learning to acquire a new dialect.
- The written language rejects many grammatical features of the spoken language.
- The written language is a special form of encoding the written.
- The written language requires larger vocabulary and more complex constructions than spoken English.
Errors are the results of a deliberate strategy.
- Strategies are employed consciously or unconsciously with some erroneous effect. An example is the strategy of placing commas at voice pauses or its reverse "When in doubt, leave it out."
Errors are necessary
- Errors are a necessary by-product of various stages of development of an adult-like rule system.
- A disproportionate emphasis on grammatical error gives students the message that good writing is nothing more than error-free writing.
"Exposure to mature writing is absolutely a precondition for writing maturely. Only through direct reading experience can students acquire the features of written language that differ from spoken language" (Lester 357).
Elley et al in 1976 found that teaching grammar in isolation from writing teaches students that grammar is not connected to writing. Students connect grammar with writing only if we explicitly link the two. Important links are:
- Basic Grammar Terminology
- Key grammatical concepts
- The sentence
- Self-monitoring strategies
- Sentence combining
Key instructional engagements
- Teach students to look at the way sentences work rather than only what they mean.
- Isolate a key grammatical concept and teach students a strategy for checking their own writing.
Shaughnessy's key topics:
- Sentence completion
- Basic word order
- Basic modification (clauses, phrases, words)
- Advanced sentences (parallel, periodic, cumulative etc.)
- Basic inner
- Basic quotations
- Academic quotation
- Regular standard inflections
- Basic agreement
- Basic tense formation
- Irregular verbs
- Tense consistency
- Special usage
- Standard and non-standard variations
- Sound letter correspondence
- Word class shifts (courage-courageous)
- Semantics (roots and affixes)
- Formal idioms
- Academic terms
- Order and development
- Sense of structure
- Temporal order
- Spatial order
- Basic abstract patterns (cause-effect, comparison, etc.)
- Patterns of argument
- Academic forms
- Research paper
- Proofreading (285-6)
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One of the strongest arguments for utilizing a grammar text and sequential program is that it seems to present an organized attack on providing students with essential skills in grammar. Unfortunately, I have not found one piece of evidence that indicates this method is superior for improving student achievement. The fallacy of a sequential program lies in a basic understanding about composition and communication skill in general. Composition and communication skills are not sequential; rather they are recursive. A look at the table of contents in a grammar series will reinforce this point. The Warriner series, for example, has multiple levels designed for use in sequential grades, yet each level contains the very same topics. The grammar handbook in our Language of Literature series follows this same concept. Our students' reports that they, "never learned that," are accurate. In their own compositions, students show varying degrees of mastery of the grammatical rules. However, it is a gross error to leap from, "never learned that," to "were never taught that." Darryl Smith's exhaustive survey of grammar instruction grades 6-12 affirms a high level of concern on the part of respondents regarding teaching grammar and the importance of it as a skill for students.
In fact, we are teaching grammar, and we are teaching the same points year after year. We are introducing grammatical concepts, monitoring our students' application of them, and adjusting our teaching to the levels of sophistication of our students.
Using the suggested topic guidelines above, a target skill lesson that includes a concept, a model of the concept in reading, and a strategy for applying that concept in a composition is best practice. Coaching students through analysis of the language structures they read and create will help them realize that language holds thought and language structure helps to make thought clear. There is no other reason for knowing the grammar or structural rules that describe language. I believe that our individual teachers are skilled in determining the skill levels of their students and that a more prescriptive recommendation for our grammar program would be counter-productive.
Recommendations (Middle, Junior, and Senior)
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Middle Level Recommendations
Students should acquire a basic grammar vocabulary in grades six and seven so that they have the language to talk about their own writing with their teachers and peers. Middle school students should develop a sense of sentence by examining well-crafted sentences in their reading and receiving positive reinforcement for well-crafted sentences in their writing. The basics of word order, end punctuation, and spelling should be reinforced at this level.
Paragraphing should be introduced by making students conscious of how paragraphs are put together. In reference to their own writing, students should be able to ask answer the question, "What is this sentence doing in this paragraph?"
Junior High Level Recommendations
Building on the working vocabulary students acquire in middle school, the junior high program should focus on common areas of error such as subject/verb agreement, pronoun usage and antecedent agreement, verb tense form and consistency, and modifying words, phrases and clauses.
Inner punctuation should be the focus at this level. Roots and affixes along with dictionary use for referencing words should be reinforced in the context of reading and writing. The basics of sentence sense should be expanded through sentence combining techniques. A reinforcement of parts of the sentence and their function may be needed. Sentence types both functional and grammatical should be taught. The basics of paragraphing should be expanded to multiple paragraph structure for the three modes: narration, exposition, and persuasion. A particular effort should be placed on helping students develop strategies for self-correction, editing, and drafting.
Senior High Level Recommendations
The focus of the senior high program should be the use of grammatical structures to improve style. Sentence variety should be examined and practiced in terms of the effects produced by various sentence forms. The basics of editing should be demanded with mini-lesson reinforcement as needed. Analysis of well-crafted sentences within the context of reading and student writing is important along with reinforcement of strategies for self-editing and drafting to improve style. Certain academic usages and forms should be taught following MLA style.