Return of grammar

Grammar is back in fashion at a Washington area high school where Grammar Greiner teaches students the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation and capitalization. The Washington Post reports:

Grammar lessons vanished from public schools in the 1970s, supplanted by a more holistic view of English instruction. A generation of teachers and students learned grammar through the act of writing, not in isolated drills and diagrams.

Today, Greiner is encouraged, even sought out. Direct grammar instruction, long thought to do more harm than good, is welcome once more.

The SAT exam now includes a writing section and “a series of multiple-choice responses that test how well students can assemble and disassemble sentences.”

The National Council of Teachers of English, whose directives shape curriculum decisions nationwide, has quietly reversed its long opposition to grammar drills, which the group had condemned in 1985 as “a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.”

Now, even the sentence diagram, long the symbol of abandoned methodology, is allowed, if not quite endorsed, in the classrooms of Fairfax and Howard and other high-performing school systems throughout the region. To diagram a sentence is to deconstruct it as if it were a math problem, with the main noun, verb and object written on a horizontal line and their various modifiers attached with diagonals.

The “dirty little secret” is that most English teachers weren’t taught grammar in school and don’t know how to teach it.

When my daughter’s eighth-grade English teacher announced at Back to School Night that she was devoting two weeks to teaching grammar, she got a standing ovation from the parents.

Via Education Gadfly.

About Joanne


  1. This is welcome news. I can’t wait for it to filter down into the elementary schools. I had to teach myself sentence diagramming (with the help of a really good book on diagramming) so that I could teach it to my elementary school students. Most of them pick it up pretty well because it makes sense.

    We are still being told by our writing consultant to not worry about grammar and spelling.

  2. Wayne Martin says:

    We were taught grammar in some detail in the 7th (maybe 8th) grade, but it wasn’t very popular. Parsing and diagramming sentences wasn’t very popular with the students. When I took Latin, starting in the 9th grade, the teacher spent an inordinate amount of time on grammar, and in the process I found myself learning English for (effectively) the first time.

    > We are still being told by our writing
    > consultant to not worry about grammar
    > and spelling.

    It’s astounding how disoriented our schools have become.

    > Grammar lessons vanished from public schools
    > in the 1970s, supplanted by a more holistic
    > view of English instruction. A generation
    > of teachers and students learned grammar
    > through the act of writing, not in
    > isolated drills and diagrams.

    And presumably we have the Ed Schools to thank for this?

  3. mike from oregon says:

    Like many other ‘things’ that we were taught (or was that ‘forced to learn’ (which is the way they would put it in these PC times) I hated it at the time never realizing how it would help me down the road. For the record – we were taught it in 4th grade, and for the record it was a Catholic school.

  4. Alex Bensky says:

    Alas, I’m sure they’ve long passed on to that Great Big Classroom in the Sky, but thanks to Mrs. Marie Sneed and Mrs. Grace Hoffman who in eighth and ninth grade at Norup Junior High School taught me to understand how a sentence works and therefore how to write one.

  5. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Do you mean that the Think System died with Meridith Wilson?

  6. Foobarista says:

    It’s amazing how many people learn grammar by taking foreign languages. I learned grammar in my high school Spanish class, and had a refresher course in Beijing when I took Chinese!

  7. Grammar has to be taught somehow, but I have doubts that sentence diagramming is an effective way of doing it. I recall a sentence-diagramming block when I was in 9th grade. Every kid that had any problem speaking or writing grammatically was totally lost when it came to sentence diagrams, even though this school system had tried to teach diagramming every year since 3rd or 4th grade. The teacher did a good job of explaining diagramming, but he might as well have been lecturing on calculus to someone who couldn’t add fractions. Every kid that could get the diagrams right also had perfect grammar (when they wanted to), and this class was just a waste of time for them.

  8. MarkM –

    I had a teacher who could effectively use sentence diagramming as a tool. When she was teaching us to diagram, she told us that each part of the diagram corresponded to a question. For example, the question “What is going on?” was the main verb in the sentence. Once we answered that, we would ask who was doing it for the subject. Considering this over a decade ago, I can’t remember all the questions. Anyway, once we mastered answering the basic questions, she taught us that each one corresponded to a part of speech.

    Long story short, she didn’t use sentence diagrams to teach grammar, she taught us to use them to account for all the bits and pieces of a sentence when we were applying what we’d learned.

  9. Robert Wright says:

    I’m not sure that learning grammar helps a student do anything other than learn a foreign language.

    I teach grammar because I like it (and they pay me) but after thirty years, I have yet to see any evidence that it improves the writing or the reading of native speakers.

    Useless knowledge might be good exercise for the brain, though. I loved the proof for finding the area of a sphere and I’m probably a better person for having learned it, so I’m not complaining.

  10. Robert –
    I think it has less to do with improving writing than with maintaining what many consider a reasonable standard of writing. In HS biology we introduce many terms… I usually give them definitions and plenty of examples of use. Yet, I still see the kids using verbs as nouns, nouns as adjectives, and all sorts of misuse of new terms. I’d say that this is due to their lack of istruction in grammar.
    Just curious, what type of school do you work in, and how does it rank compared to nearby schools of different types?

  11. Pencil me as another one under the “not sure it helps” category. I studied grammar in school, (basic stuff, sentence diagramming, etc.) and while I could analyze sentences, I don’t ever remember thinking consciously about grammar while writing.

    I suspect that most students (and adults) communicate without conscious thought given to sentence structure (and often enough, sentence content :-)), and that doesn’t necessarily change when you learn grammar.

    To be honest, I think we’re doomed.

    Those of us who have internalized half-way reasonable grammer get to communicate “for free”. For those who have had their communication habits formed in grammar-free environments, we’re essentially asking them to speak a foreign language (at least in terms of cognitive effort).

    The extraordinary effort to form grammatically correct sentences isn’t going to come unless there’s a significant cost for not doing so. i.e. when there’s a social penalty, or at the very least a grade penalty. However, with a grade penalty there’s a significant danger that the personal cost of making the mental effort to speak/write correctly is higher than the reward of completing one’s education.

    In other words, I believe a strong drive towards correct grammar in schools would increase the drop-out rate significantly, in the same manner that teaching in a different language would.