Reforming English Language Arts Let's Trash the Tradition

By Schuster, Edgar H. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Reforming English Language Arts Let's Trash the Tradition


Schuster, Edgar H., Phi Delta Kappan


Let's stop teaching traditional schoolroom "grammar" entirely, Mr. Schuster suggests. There is no good reason to continue wounding youngsters with something they will never learn and never need. And, while we're at it, let's deal with usage and mechanics in gentle, encouraging, nontechnical, and innovative ways.

ON A fine spring morning several years ago, while I was serving as English supervisor for a city school system, I was called to observe a first-grade language arts lesson. The teacher, Ms. Abbott, began by giving three children cards marked respectively Noun, Verb, and Adjective and sending each of them to a separate corner. In the fourth corner, the other students took turns picking word cards out of a pile, after which they were expected to march their word to the correct corner.

Amy was third; her word was "wet." I can see her still: a pretty, frail waif with a blonde ponytail, frozen in doubt. Finally, she drifted to the Verb corner. "Amy!" Ms. Abbott thundered. "Think! Isn't 'wet' a picture word?"

By this time Amy was shaking and in tears (wetting her face?). I have never forgotten her. And I have never quite forgiven Ms. Abbott.

The teaching of this sort of traditional school grammar extends throughout the grades, even into college, and everywhere it is a staggering, Pentagonesque waste -- a waste of time and money, a waste of wounds to students. Until we stop teaching it, there will never be significant reform in the English language arts.

What Is 'Grammar'?

The first step toward reform is to define terms. While to a layperson "grammar" may refer to practically anything (especially if it involves "errors"), professional educators should be more discriminating. Without belaboring the point, I would like to make a few fundamental distinctions.

First, "grammar" should not include spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, which are covered by the general term "mechanics" and which concern the written language only.

Second, we should make a basic distinction between grammar as 1) the set of formal patterns -- rules, if you wish -- in which words are arranged to convey meanings and 2) the description and analysis of these formal patterns. What I will call traditional school grammar is one example of grammar in the second sense; another would be transformational generative grammar.

Third, we must attempt to discriminate between "grammar" and "usage." Compare your reactions to the following sentences:

A. Where's the teacher English?

B. Where's the English teacher at?

If English is your native language, the first sentence left you baffled, at least momentarily. In contrast, you understood the second perfectly, though it may have provoked a frown or even set your teeth on edge. I suggest that question A violates a grammatical rule (viz., that modifiers precede headwords), while question B violates a rule of (standard) usage.

The notion that a grammatical rule is violated by ending a sentence with a preposition is easily disproved. "Where is the teacher?" asks for his or her location in space. If one wishes to know the teacher's origin, the natural question is "Where is the teacher from?" and not "From where is the teacher?" Indeed, it is the second of these sentences, not the first, that verges on ungrammaticality. Of the "rule" that one should not end a sentence with a preposition, the poet John Milton said, "What a fine conformity would it [the rule] starch us all into."

"Grammar," then, refers to an internalized set of rules that determine whether words and phrases communicate an intended meaning. If a communication is correctly understood by a native speaker, then that communication is grammatical.

Grammar, in this sense, is built into our heads. As Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, points out in The Language Instinct, language is as instinctive for human beings as spinning a web is for a spider, every 3-year-old is a grammatical genius, and the design of our syntax is "coded in our DNA and wired into our brains. …

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