Grammar is back

A growing number of teachers are “bringing grammar, the forgotten spinster of school subjects, back to the party,” writes Elise Hahl  in Education Next.

In an honors English class at Needham High in Massachusetts, students rip apart a verbose letter by a 15K race coordinators trying to explain why he misdirected racers and forgot to supply water at the finish line.

“‘In trying to formulate what to say in regards to yesterday’s events,’” Max quotes, “‘I realized that what I said over and over to the folks I helped get on returning shuttle buses was exactly what should be said to all.’”

. . . “He just throws in words!” Max says. He goes on to finish the opening paragraph.

“‘While it became repetitive, it was no less from the heart in any one time from the other:’”

“He ended with a colon,” says a boy who didn’t shave that morning.

. . . A stocky kid named David chimes in. “That’s not just bad grammar,” he says, indignant. “That’s, like, bad PR.”

His comment catches the attention of (teacher Andrea) Bassett, who is making rounds to each cluster of students. “David,” she says, “the life lesson here is that bad grammar is bad PR. You guys remember that.”

Needham High English teachers decided to coordinate grammar instruction so their students would no longer graduate “without knowing the parts of speech or parts of a sentence” or the need to capitalize “I.”

Brent Concilio, a young, Dartmouth-educated teacher, says the push to make classes “relevant” meant more time discussing students’ feelings about contemporary novels and less time for “the systematic teaching of grammar.”

Grammar was considered oppressive by some teachers, writes Hahl.

The Conference on College Composition and Communication in 1972 stated that students had a right “to their own patterns and varieties and language.” The resolution, which was adopted in 1974 by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), went so far as to say that correcting language was “immoral” because it was really an attempt by one social group to exert dominance over another.

With colleges complaining about students’ lack of writing skills, the SAT has added grammar questions, Hahl writes. Needham High parents want their kids to learn grammar, even if they didn’t learn much when they were in school. The school’s teachers believe students will benefit from learning how to communicate clearly in what’s considered the “correct” way.

Needham serves students from affluent, educated families. I wonder if grammar is back in schools with disadvantaged students, who have little hope of learning to write clearly unless they’re taught the fundamentals.

About Joanne


  1. Thank heaven for this small spark of light; may it soon spread to my location. I’d like to be spared sights like the signs: “Celebrate and Festive with us”, “Sign-up now for next semester” (at a CC), and “Happy Holiday’s”. Sigh

    Grammar and composition instruction should start no later than first grade, because it takes 12 years to develop kids into decent writers. Lucy Calkin’s Writers’ Workshop has the philosophy that “grammar should be caught, not taught”, but it doesn’t get caught unless you are dealing with very bright kids with very good language and vocabulary skills who are also voracious readers of high-quality fiction and non-fiction, including academic language; in other words, almost no one. Please, more grammar and composition instruction!

    • Teachers should get on and get old grammar books; I know I’ve seen them in used bookstores. Homeschool curricula also have grammar instruction, as does the Core Knowledge curriculum (online). Don’t waste time developing new stuff.

      • lightly seasoned says:

        Why? It’s not like there’s some shortage of them. I get several catalogs a day from ed publishers, and they all have grammar texts.

        • The linked article said the teachers were developing a grammar curriculum – apparently, they are unaware of the resources, or perhaps they are merely deciding on one.

          • lightly seasoned says:

            They could be pulling from multiple sources for their scope and sequence.

  2. It would be nice if logic and statistics made a comeback. Then people would realize that the claim being made here, that “grammar is making a comeback”, is completely unsupported by the author.

    Here’s the toltalirty of the evidence offered: “Lately, the rules have been making a bit of a comeback. Educators are starting to believe that English grammar, even with its quirky rules, is far better than nothing, after they’ve seen the results of nothing. The SAT added grammar questions to its format in 2005 in response to pressure from college administrators. Parents have begun to push for more English language instruction. The NCTE has softened its position, and now we see a growing number of teachers bringing grammar, the forgotten spinster of school subjects, back to the party.”

    That’s not evidence. It’s a few isolated facts, one eight years old, and some sweeping assertions.

  3. I’m all for it. (Is anyone surprised?)

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    If I get the anecdote right, the mish-mash quoted was an apology or explanation for an even worse piece done earlier.
    Which–this is tough for some people to get–had real-world consequences.
    I had no idea teachers…freaking TEACHERS–had come out against grammar and …”oppression”, “right to …” . Man, I knew those were crazy times but I never figured it had gone that far. I should have paid more attention.
    It would be like saying I have the right to send out a missive in Rumanian. Well, I suppose I do, come to think of it. Does that presuppose another right that I may expect others to understand it? And it not be my fault if what I tried to tell them wasn’t understood, with adverse consequences for some?
    The purpose for grammar is to be understandable, not to torment and be mean to poor, innocent kids.
    It is said that Robert Louis Stevenson once spent a morning taking a comma out and an afternoon putting it back in.That’s because it makes a freaking difference in what he was trying to say, and he knew it and he wanted to be clear.

    • Seattle Public Schools recently had a statement on its website (probably since removed) that said that insisting on Standard Written/Spoken English and emphasizing a future orientation, among other behaviors most would consider desirable, were cultural imperialism and should be avoided.