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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Reforming English Language Arts Let's Trash the Tradition
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.