Kids don’t know no grammar

Less than 10 percent of Robert Archer’s 10th graders know grammar:

What’s a noun? How about a verb? Can you tell the difference between a complete sentence, a fragment, and a run-on? Can you make sure your subject and verb agree?

A 14-year veteran teacher in Spokane, Archer doesn’t blame middle-school teachers. He blames curriculum developers for “imbedding” grammar in the curriculum.

. . .  in my experience, the term “imbedded” is nothing more than educationalese for “not ever specifically taught.” Somehow, this grammar-is-imbedded movement is supposed to help students naturally take in what proper grammar is (i.e., grammar by osmosis). It’s very much a hyper-constructivist approach to education; the students are supposed to “discover” proper grammar on their own as they read good pieces. Then, somehow and some way, they are to emulate these proper mechanical structures in their own writing.

. . . Allow me a moment to let curriculum developers in on an English-teacher trade secret: It ain’t working! When I’m hoping for nothing more than 3-4 grammatically correct sentences being strung together at a time as the sign of a “good” paper, then my expectations have dropped far, far too low.

Preach it and teach it, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog.

On Back to School Night, my daughter’s eighth-grade English teacher told parents she was going to go off curriculum for two weeks to teach grammar and punctuation. She got a standing ovation.

About Joanne


  1. <<<She got a standing ovation.

    That's all well and good. But what are her value-added scores?

  2. My son’s 11TH GRADE HONORS ENGLISH CLASS teacher spent the first few weeks of the school year reviewing, I mean teaching, basic grammar. I’m pretty sure it was an attempt to help them with the SAT.

  3. Diagramming sentences is the single most useful tool I was ever taught. I think that learning that structure helped me become a good writer.

  4. What makes me crazy is that the kids do not retain this information even when it is explicitly taught. I have taught grammar to middle school kids in my Study Strategies class as an elective; most have problems identifying nouns and verbs (and the class ranges from SPED to TAG). Then the Language Arts teacher also teaches grammar explicitly…and they still don’t recall it! When I was working with sped kids in 5th grade, the 5th grade explicitly taught grammar.

    So it’s not just the curriculum (especially when so many teachers are presenting it), there’s something else not working. I tend to teach diagramming which seems to help, but even that is far from perfect (as an aside, sentence diagramming is a marvelous means to teach grammar to kids with learning disabilities. Many of them do better at it than their non-disabled peers).

  5. joycem-
    What likely isn’t working is that students are not receiving enough reinforcement of correct grammar. I wonder if teachers of other subjects in your school grade spelling and grammar. Most of my non-language teachers used to deduct points for misspellings and poor grammar.
    Add in the fact that students communicate a lot more with text nowadays on their cell phones and Facebook, which serves to reinforce poor spelling and grammar.

  6. joycem,

    I will suggest to you that the problem is that the students didn’t learn anything before you got to them. Grade school is when you can explicitly teach the 8 parts of speech and still have interested students. Since they’re reading on that level it makes sense to teach it then and not when they’re in middle school.

    By middle school you should be reviewing all of that, and then adding on from there, but you can’t review things they’ve never learned. The grammar seems like baby stuff to a lot of middle school readers if they’re just learning nouns in the 7th grade. Like math, they don’t realize that they need to know the basics before they can learn it at a higher level.

    Middle school teachers can’t save kids who don’t know their math facts or basic grammar. Even if one teacher tries, the next might not “value” it (as I have found over the years) and simply ignore or skim it.

    Then the bomb drops when the kids hit high school. In my son’s freshman honors English, several kids from his middle school classes were dropped based on their lack of grammar skills alone. Since I saw early what was going on in grade school, I started afterschooling him with homeschool grammar sheets, so he aced most of the quizzes and tests. It also made a huge difference with state tests and the ACT.

    Joycem, I hope you keep on doing it in spite of the frustration. My suggestion would be to treat it like you are teaching a remedial skill and make it as fast and fun as humanly possible to try to reach mastery at least for a moment. I had a teacher recognize long ago that the class I was in was very weak at identifying adverbs. She just slammed us with work sheets, but made it fun and had us compete. I think we had so much fun that we forgot to eye roll.

  7. It’s the Foreign Language Paradox:

    Teach it in French III and the kids learn French grammar — and gain a clear understanding of English, even subjunctive mood and three kinds of past tense. It’s okay in French.

    In English class, however, grammar and such are embedded and no one learns it. Everyone is surprised the kids are clueless and no one can figure out why.

  8. “Imbedded” learning? Sounds like “whole language” reading to me.

  9. The teacher who said she was going to deviate from the curriculum for two weeks to teach grammar probably said so out of frustration, but it was ignorant.

    The parents who gave the teacher a standing ovation assumed their children were going to improve their grammar skills. They didn’t know any better either.

    Sounds like the Tea Party discussing health care.

    Students who can tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor don’t necessary use them well. Learning grammar isn’t like learning geography.

    Joanne, your grammar is excellent because you read a lot. You were using appositives and using them correctly before you even knew there was a name for such a thing.

    You also learned to ride to bike before you knew physics.

    Direct instruction of basic grammar for native speakers has the primary value of making it easier to learn a foreign language.

    It has value for the native language, but it’s limited.

    The best way to improve the grammar of native speakers is to require a great deal of reading and writing.

    Oh, and learning physics has value, too, but for those who keep falling off a bike, it’s not going to help much, that is, not when it’s taught as direct rather than imbedded instruction.

  10. Robert, lots of reading and writing works for most students, up to a point. And I agree that learning English grammar helps in learning to speak and read another language (which we should expect most of our students to at least get a start on). But, explicit grammar instruction is not just an extra; there is a vocabulary involved in learning grammar that is very helpful in analyzing and understanding English, and a set of rules involved that give my writing and speaking a power they wouldn’t otherwise have.

  11. By high school all teachers should be taking points off for spelling and grammar, at least in formal papers – at least in my opinion.

    Good luck getting “lots” of reading and writing from today’s kids. For most of them, this seems an impossible goal. They’ve probably never seen an adult sit down to read a book, so asking them to do so seems unreasonable.

    It’s the culture at least as much as it is the educational system. Our educational system is in tatters, but the culture is in much worse shape when it comes to valuing education for its own sake or when it comes to the idea of lifelong learning. Fix the culture and the demand to fix the educational system will fix itself.

    How do you fix a culture? This exercise is left for the student.

  12. RW- I disagree with you that prolific readers will necessarily internalize proper grammar. This did not happen with my youngest brother, who is bright and has always been a voracious reader. However, he had the misfortune to go through our alma mater during the “whole language” fad after the retirement of the old-school teachers who had taught me.

    I had to spend the better part of an evening giving him a crash-course in sentence diagramming when he was a senior at a “name brand” college. He had asked me for feedback on his honors thesis but I could barely comprehend it because of his atrocious grammar and awkward syntax. He had the sense that what he had written “didn’t sound right” but was unable to correct it. I mentioned that diagramming the sentence often helped me figure out how to fix it. He had no idea what I meant by diagramming, so I spent the next several hours teaching him how to do it. After I had finished, he thanked me profusely and expressed regret that he hadn’t learned it in middle school as I had.

  13. Sentence diagramming is frustrating when you don’t know how to do it and it can be downright fun when you’re good at it but there’s virtually no transfer to the skill of writing.

    It seems like it would help a lot, doesn’t it?

    And it seems like weekly spelling tests would improve spelling and memorizing vocabulary lists would improve vocabulary.

    It’s simply common sense.

    But that’s only if you ignore the research.

    There’s quite a gulf between traditional notions about learning language and what the research tells us, year after year, about how reading and writing skills are developed.

    You can trust your gut or you can trust the research.

    It sort of depends on the kind of person you are.

    I trust the research.


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