Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stop, it's Grammar Time!

To be frank, I've always felt that grammar instruction was akin to flossing one's teeth- something that it very important but not enjoyable.

I am grateful that back when I was going through, my school did still explicitly teach grammar. My youngest brother came of age during the "whole language" fad and did not receive much in the way of grammar instruction. I got a first-hand look at how his writing suffered when he asked me for feedback on his college honors thesis. While one would expect a certain number of errors in a draft, I was taken aback by how virtually every sentence needed one or more mistakes corrected, meanings clarified, and/or awkward phrasing revised. And this was a bright kid who'd received decent grades in honors English classes and a respectable score on the verbal portion of the SAT.

While I recognize the importance of teaching grammar, I've found the traditional method to be, well, rather tedious. I can absolutely understand why the "whole language" approach seemed so appealing on the surface. WL did throw the baby out with the bathwater, but critics of traditional grammar are correct when they call it boring.

Two years ago in her kindergarten year, Miss Scarlet did a highly compacted version of the 1st & 2nd grade book of Jessie Wise's First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind. She did not need as much repetition as FLL built into the lessons plus many of the topics we skipped entirely as she had learned them years earlier (days of the week, months of the year, etc). So we got through the whole book in 7 months.

I had heard raves about the old Catholic version of Voyages in English so I made the mistake of ordering the 3rd grade book sight unseen. When it arrived, I found it was too repetitive of the content in FLL for Miss Scarlet. I had originally planned on exchanging it for the 5th grade VIE book but I ended up deciding to keep it in case I wanted to use it with one or more of my other kids.

After shelving VIE, we planned on enrolling her in the Stanford EPGY Language Arts & Writing course, which has a grammar component. Unfortunately, we were unable to do so because of the crisis in the financial services industry and the near-collapse of my DH's then-employer. Needless to say, we could not afford pricey online classes with all the uncertainty surrounding his employment situation.

While I was debating what to use instead of EPGY, I had Miss Scarlet do copywork and narration exercises using Susan Wise Bauer's Writing With Ease program. She also finished up some of the various workbooks I'd used as supplements to FLL such as Language of God for Little Folks Level A from Catholic Heritage Curricula, No Boring Practice, Please! Sentence Structure from Scholastic, and Reading-Thinking Skills 4 for Young Catholics from Seton.

I looked at a number of different grammar programs- the 4th grade book of First Language Lessons, Primary Language Lessons, English for the Thoughtful Child, Queen Homeschool Language Lessons, Simply Grammar, Michael Clay Thompson's Grammar Island, etc. -but while these all seemed like solid options, they did not jump out at me as being what I really wanted.

Then last week, while reading the "Kitchen Table Math" blog, I came across a recommendation for a grammar series by Don Killgallon. I really liked the concept behind the books, which is teaching grammar by having students write sentences imitating ones from literary classics. For a review with a more detailed explanation of this, click here. This approach reminded me a bit of the description I'd read of the ancient Greek progymnasmata exercises. I'd considered using the Classical Writing Aesop book but that one had seemed like it would require too much in the way of writing for my DD's motor skills (always a concern when using an above-grade level program). The elementary level Killgallon book looked like there was much less printing and more underlining, matching, circling the correct answer, and so on. It was relatively inexpensive, so I decided to give it a try.

I have received the copy of Story Grammar I ordered and I'm really excited about it. My goal in teaching grammar is not for my kids to score well on standardized tests but rather to help them become good writers. I have high hopes that the Killgallon book will assist me in progressing towards that goal.


Mark Pennington said...

Why do we continue to teach grammar and mechanics with a strategy (Daily Oral Language) that simply does not work? Why do we force students to rehearse errors and teach grammar exclusively out of the writing context? Would love to hear your responses. More points at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/why-daily-oral-language-d-o-l-doesnt-work/ and, more importantly, a grammar/mechanics warm-up/opener/bell-ringer that uses a balanced approach of error analysis and model writing is detailed at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/sentence-lifting-d-o-l-that-makes-sense/.

Mark Pennington said...

It seems to me that the key lines of division within grammar instruction (meaning syntax, word choice, usage, punctuation, and even spelling—a catch-all term that most English language-arts teachers use to describe the “stuff” that we “have to , but don’t want to” teach) have been drawn between those who favor part to whole and whole to part instruction. As a brief aside… isn’t this much akin to the graphophonic (phonics-based) and whole language reading debate? Anyway, here is my take on the assumptions of both positions:

Advocates of part to whole instruction believe that front-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language will best enable students to apply these parts to the whole process of writing. Following are the key components of this inductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar to provide a common language of instruction.
2. Identification of grammatical constructions leads to application.
3. Familiarity with the rules of grammar leads to correct application.
4. Teaching the components of sentence construction leads to application.
5. Distrust of one’s own oral language as a grammatical filter .

Advocates of whole to part instruction believe that back-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language, as is determined by needs of the writing task, will best enable students to write fluently and meaningfully. Following are the key components of this deductive approach.

1. Minimal memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar and minimal practice in identification of grammatical constructions.
2. Connection to one’s oral language is essential to inform fluent and effective writing.
3. Reading and listening to exemplary literature and poetry provides the models that students need to mimic and revise as they develop their own writing style.
4. Minimal error analysis.
5. Teaching writing as a process with a focus on coherence will best enable students to apply the discreet parts such as subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, and transitions to say something meaningful.

Of course, how teachers align themselves within the Great Grammar Debate (See http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/the-great-grammar-debate/) is not necessarily an "either-or" decision. Most teachers apply bits and pieces of each approach to teaching grammar. I take a stab on how to integrate the inductive and deductive approaches in How to Integrate Grammar and Writing Instruction (See http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-to-integrate-grammar-and-writing-instruction/).