The Case for Teaching Grammar

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The following is a conversation via text with me (the names have been changed to protect my neighbor).

Neighbor: Can you get me and Steve tickets to the football game today?

Me: Yes.

Neighbor: I mean Steve and me.

(30 seconds later with no reply from me)

Neighbor: Steve and I

(30 seconds later with still no reply from me)

Neighbor: *^#*!# you English teachers!!

Scroll through my text messages, and on any given day you can find something like this. Apparently, just by my title alone, people assume I am the grammar police, and I secretly am. Even though I tell you not to worry about that dangling participle, neglect of the Oxford comma, or misuse of the pronoun “whom,” I am silently correcting your grammar. Whether it be a curse or an obsession, this is as much a part of me as coffee in the morning: I can’t divorce myself from it. But do you want me to? Consider a doctor who doesn’t internally flinch when he or she sees someone smoking, an engineer not assessing the design of a bridge, or a professional athlete amazed at the neighbor who can barely walk to the mailbox and back without being winded. Of course, I care, and I should care because a part of my job is to champion the use correct grammar.

My students often ask me why they need to know grammar especially in this day and age of auto correct. The reason is simple: grammar is the building block for communication. Much like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division skills are needed for higher math and problem solving, grammar is the foundation for good written and oral communication which are desperately needed in today’s society.

Would you show up to work dressed in sweats, your go-to t-shirt, and hair in a pony tail with no makeup? (For the younger generation, the answer is “NO”).  We put our best foot forward to impress people and give great attention to how we look and even how we act but spend very little time thinking about how we communicate, yet communication is the first impression we leave with someone on our thought life. Our thoughts are communicated through language, whether spoken or written, and while you may have the most brilliant idea in the world, you can lose a person if you are communicating like some redneck Alabama native (totally hypothetical example).

Twitter, text messages, and other social media have made the use of good grammar even more challenging. The lines between formal and informal grammar are often blurred, and grammar seems to be a lost cause. A typical paper for me includes text talk, and I have even had a #hashtag in a research paper. While I am not arguing for formal communication in all settings, students (and adults) should have the knowledge to communicate clearly when needed.

The good news is we don’t have to spend time diagramming sentences to learn grammar and speak clearly. In fact, my thesis is a 75 page document on why we shouldn’t be doing this but rather makes the case for teaching grammar holistically. (If you’re having trouble sleeping one night, let me know, and I’ll send it to you). So what can we do to encourage good communication among students?

Read and encourage reading. Make sure your child reads individually and read with them – no matter how old they are. I’m in the Chomsky camp and believe grammar is innately learned, so  reading only reinforces what we already know.

Have conversations without technology present. Many times thoughts and speech are interrupted by texts, tweets, or television, and we have lost the ability to string words together without distraction. I am convinced technology has hurt our communication skills; fight against this by having technology-free conversation time.

Coach but don’t continually correct your student. Just as I have laid down the metaphorical red pen, don’t be the grammar watchdog in your house. Discuss principles behind usage and help your student understand when it’s appropriate to use formal versus informal language. Share the benefits of speaking correctly and encourage, encourage, encourage good communication.

Don’t punish your child by making him or her write. I could write a whole post on this and may one day.

Good communication skills come more from home than the classroom even though you can be sure teachers are doing their part to help your students. Be intentional about partnering with us to help your child communicate clearly and effectively. And by the way, my neighbor had it right the first time.


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