Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Listen Up, People!

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Listen Up, People!

Article excerpt

I RECALL with much pleasure my 11th-grade English classes. Back in my high school days, the junior year was the time to give students a heavy dose of what Edgar Schuster calls, in this month's Kappan, "traditional school grammar." And by the time I had reached that level of schooling, I was ready for the experience. I was a native speaker of English, so the grammar of the language was already deeply embedded in my brain. I was an avid reader. I had been reared by parents for whom standard English usage was the norm. And I had just completed two years of Latin, which had given mea solid introduction to the vocabulary of grammar.

Small wonder, then, that I found diagramming sentences an intellectual challenge. A few of my classmates -- those whose backgrounds resembled my own -- shared my enthusiasm. But most groaned at the thought of spending yet another interminable hour in anguish and uncertainty, diagramming the latest sentence that we'd been asked to parse. For them, the experience was punishing.

And despite my own enthusiasm for the study of traditional school grammar, I must confess that four decades later I'd be hard pressed to define a gerundive or to list the modal auxiliaries. I haven't used the vocabulary of traditional school grammar for a long time, and many of the "definitions" I used to know have long since escaped me. However, I don't worry that I'm experiencing "senior moments." After all, I use gerundives and modal auxiliaries daily -- and correctly -- in my work.

The point is that one needn't be able to talk about language in order to use language correctly. And that's a lucky thing, since -- as Schuster points out -- English speakers already know what's really important in grammar, and neither teachers nor textbooks "have ever successfully taught the rest through the traditional approach. …

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