Teaching Grammar. (Literacy Links)

By Asselin, Marlene | Teacher Librarian, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Teaching Grammar. (Literacy Links)


Asselin, Marlene, Teacher Librarian


What educator has not heard the laments over society's declining grammar and by extension, our very morals? While critics can partially and rightly blame teachers for this situation, the explanation is not as simple as teaching or not teaching grammar. Effects of teaching grammar are influenced by teachers' own attitudes towards and knowledge of language, as well as the instructional methods they use. This column discusses the multiple meanings of grammar, summarizes research about its instruction and identifies recommended approaches to teaching it.

Defining grammar

There are at least three distinct meanings of grammar, all of which get mixed in a stew of confusion when people talk about grammar. Linguists refer to these multiple meanings as Grammar 1, 2, and 3. Grammar 1 is the unconscious knowledge of language that allows people to produce and comprehend language. It is learned informally by all language users; thus everyone acquires grammar.

Grammar 2 is conscious knowledge of language structures including concepts (e.g., parts of speech, nominalization), terminology (e.g., verb, sentence) and analytical techniques (e.g., parsing) for talking about the language. While early English grammars derive from Latin, recently developed grammars are based on views of language other than objective and neutral systems. When people talk about teaching grammar, they usually mean the Latin-based systems.

Grammar 3 is "linguistic etiquette" and consists of rules about correct and incorrect usage. Historically, Grammar 3, or "proper English" can be traced to the dialect spoken by educated people in the London, England area several hundred years ago.

At that time, increased use of written language necessitated a common dialect and it was the dialect of the elite social class that became the norm, not because of any innate superiority but because its users constituted the power brokers of England. This is where Grammars 2 and 3 often merge in schools in that teachers exclusively teach the grammar systems of the elite.

The notion of a superior grammar ignores major principles about language. First, all languages and dialects have grammars. The notion of an ungrammatical language is theoretically impossible. The languages of the diverse students who fill our schools do not represent a mix of grammatical and ungrammatical languages. Rather they represent privileged and non-privileged languages. Furthermore, students who read and write Grammar 3 acquired it informally as Grammar 1; that is, they did not formally learn "proper English." Mira Shaughnessy's (1977) revealing study of "basic writers" showed that these students' "errors" were in fact indications of their unfamiliarity with "proper English" and not simply slip-ups of something they already knew.

A second principle of language that is ignored in the biasing of Grammar 3 is the dynamic nature of language. The inextricable relationship between language and culture explains the changing nature of language. Pleas for the return of "proper English" are imbued with notions of fixed language forms and a past golden era of universal usage, which also ignores such realities as numerous dialects and differences between oral and written language.

These views also underlie and confound the concepts of a standard English and an English standard. A standard grammar (of a language) connotes a common form of speaking and writing that increases communication across dialects. However, the chosen standard is that of the culturally elite, therefore necessitating formal learning by those whose Grammar 1 is not the standard. A grammar standard means a measuring stick to which all other grammars are compared, and always unfavorably. When a standard grammar slides into the position of a grammar standard, any natural change in language becomes negative and, given its difficulty to acquire by non-natural users, social, political and economic hierarchies are fortified. …

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