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A Week in the Life:
A Secondary School “Teaching Grammar in Context” Consultant
Elizabeth A. Puente
Dr. Constance Weaver
March 18, 2001
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Why Teach Grammar Anyway?
Don’t Our Students Already Know the Grammar of Their Language?
So, you want to know how to teach grammar? My advice: First, ask yourself why you teach grammar. You hear your students moan when you hand them a worksheet on sentence diagramming: “Why do we have to do this?” Relax. You no longer have to make up reasons that you are not even sure are good reasons for teaching grammar. Why? Because we need to seriously question why we teach grammar and consider exactly what our students are really asking us: What is the purpose of knowing grammar? Sure, for some, language is interesting in itself and many, like linguists, study language like we study science. In addition, if we are teaching to a standardized test, which is a problem in itself, teaching grammar is perhaps justifiable to get the top scores, if that is the goal. The argument could also be that learning grammar in one language helps to learn another language (see Weaver, 1996, p.23-25 for more reasons why teachers continue to teach grammar). With this argument, it will be important to look at the difference between learning and acquiring a language. However, the deciding question becomes this: does teaching grammar help our students become better able to use language as readers, writers, and even speakers?
The studies, personal experience, and the proven alternative approaches to teaching grammar, which I will present to you this week, will hopefully produce a
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paradigm shift in your underlying assumptions about the purpose of teaching grammar. My purpose here is to help you create effective writers, readers, and speakers because isn‟t that really our principal goal as secondary teachers as we consider the teaching of grammar? Let me start with my experience with another language.
I have had the enthralling but at times frustrating beyond description opportunity to learn and acquire Spanish. Why do I say “to learn and acquire Spanish?” Glad you
asked. It relates specifically to the explicit teaching of grammar. I have spent countless hours learning the rules of Spanish grammar, remembering some, and forgetting the majority. I began learning Spanish as an adult. The teaching methods in my first Spanish classes taken at the college level were structured around the teaching of grammar. We moved in a linear fashion, building on to what we already knew. Piece work. Small parts to big parts. Subject pronouns. The present indicative. Descriptive adjectives. Possessive adjectives. Reflexive verbs. Present progressive. Demonstrative adjectives and pronouns. The preterit. Prepositions and prepositional pronouns. Indirect-Object pronouns. And so on. This is what Krashen (1981) refers to as language learning, a conscious process of learning and “knowing” about a language. I have a conscious knowledge of Spanish, because I learned about it.
On the other side is language acquisition. Krashen (1981) makes the argument that theoretically it is possible for adults to acquire additional languages, a process children use in developing first languages. While studying in Mexico, I was using the language everyday. My focus turned to the content of the language, and its function in the real world—the use of the language in writing such as literature, my own writing, and in oral communication. I began acquiring the language, my focus being how native
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speakers, the experts, used the language. Knowing every grammar rule written since the beginning of time did not help when I needed to interact naturally and without the hesitation that comes with trying to remember and apply the “rules.” In my contention
against teaching grammar, it is important to know this about the language acquisition theory: “It [acquisition] requires meaningful interaction in the target language—natural
communication—in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding” (Krashen, 1981, p.1). In other words, the content of language is more important than grammatical correctness. Krashen emphasizes that error correction, and explicit teaching of rules, is not relevant to language acquisition. He adds that although it is thought that error correction helps the language learner come to “the correct mental representation of the linguistic
generalization,” he questions whether this feedback is effective to any significant degree
When we talk about teaching grammar, we are talking about learning language and being able to use our conscious understanding of the language. Krashen (1985) discusses the role learning and acquisition play in language production: “Our ability to
produce utterances in another language comes from our acquired competence, from our subconscious knowledge. Learning, conscious knowledge, serves only as editor, or Monitor” (p.2). Thus, learning language serves the role of helping us edit our acquired
language. When we are talking about grammar in context or the meaningful use of language, we are talking about language acquisition, or true competence in a language. Competence in a language is far more powerful than knowing the grammar rules of a language. This I witnessed as I observed my son acquiring Spanish.
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Having the opportunity to study in Mexico for 10 months, I felt I would be a terrible mother if I did not give my 7-year-old son the same opportunity. Therefore, with son in tow, I was able to feed two birds with one feeder. I enrolled him in a bilingual school because I felt an all-Spanish school would be too overwhelming for him, since he knew very little Spanish when we arrived. I remember the first couple of weeks, at night lying in bed, when Jonathan would express his frustrations, saying he would never learn Spanish. I would try to ease his impatience by teaching him the things in our bedroom: cama, espejo, pared, recamara. For about two months, Jonathan said little Spanish, only some phrases he would hear frequently, and some he merely memorized without comprehension. What was happening in his little mind, I would think. At school his classes, except for one hour each day of Spanish, were conducted in English. While Jonathan did receive traditional grammar studies of English, his Spanish studies were focused on reading comprehension, whole language activities, and the natural use of the language. For example, during recess, although he and his classmates were encouraged to speak English in the classroom, they spoke what was most comfortable for them: Spanish. At home, with his cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, Jonathan would use only Spanish. An amazing thing happened after about two months: Jonathan began speaking not only more Spanish, but also he was using structures that were more complex. One indication of the complexity of his speech was his use of verb tenses. He began with the present progressive, then the present, the past, and with time, he was using compound verb forms. But he learned nothing of Spanish grammar, concepts I had studied formally
for years; he was just trying to participate in life and communicate. He was acquiring Spanish. He was gaining true competence of the language. So much that he, rightfully so,
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began correcting my use of Spanish. The delay in communication Jonathan experienced is actually a normal occurrence that Krashen (1985) describes as “the silent period” (p. 9). Children may experience a time, sometimes more than six months, when they are simply trying to understand messages in another language before they can produce the language. Understanding this “silent period” and recognizing that our students are still acquiring English helps us to appreciate that our students need time to understand new structures before we can expect new structures to emerge in their writing. It is essential to allow our students to use their language naturally. They already intuitively know the grammar; although, they may not be able to explicitly talk about it, they certainly are capable of using and generating grammatically correct structures in their language and developing powerful writing through exposure to literature, and practice with their own writing.
Breaking the focus on Correctness: The Complete Sentence Syndrome.
Let me begin today with these exclamations: Let your students write, freely! Let them develop their voice! Let them use their language, naturally! I find comfort in Tom Romano (1987), who could not agree with me more: “The key to helping our student
writers grow is to keep them writing” (p.8). Something we do all the time can only become second nature to us, and so it must be with writing. Romano advises us that the majority of writing done in school should be free from judgment of correctness; only in the later stages of the writing process, toward the publishing stage, should standard conventions of writing be emphasized. He does not downplay the importance of conventional standards; rather, he emphasizes the development of the student‟s voice. I
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am sure all of us have worked with reluctant writers and I myself am a reluctant writer: I dread the look of a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled with my writing. I have worked with young writers in elementary school who suffer from what I call the “complete sentence syndrome.” These students have been trained to emphasize the complete sentence over creativity, freedom of expression, and developing voice. For example, they have journals in which to write, and their instructions are to write four complete sentences on a topic chosen by the teacher. These students do not freely write because they are over-concerned with writing complete sentences. They have expressed this concern to me: “Can I write that? Is it a complete sentence?” These students are also overly concerned with spelling. Helping them write freely, with no holds barred, is difficult. Sadly, they are in the “complete sentence twilight zone.” Worse, you cannot detect their voice in their writing. Romano understands the dilemma of reluctant writers and he offers us this approach: “If teachers are willing to cut students loose by letting them write from the very first day, if they are willing to accept their students‟ dialects,
idiolects, and developing understanding of written language conventions, students will quickly learn that they need not fear and loathe paper and pen” (p.9). Thus, let‟s get our students writing freely and then we can help them develop correctness.
We certainly can learn a lot from Lois Matz Rosen (1987), who demonstrates how correctness in student writing can be developed as part of the writing process. She rejects traditional approaches such as drill exercises in grammar texts to teach mechanical and grammatical correctness. Studies show there is little transfer of skills learned during these exercises to student writing (p.139). In elementary school, my teacher thought it a good idea for the students to memorize the following and dictate it to her:
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Am, are, is
Be, being, been
Do, does, did,
Have, has, had.
May, might, must
It went something like that. I still remember most of it. But what in the world is the point of it? What was my teacher trying to do? Was she doing what Constance Weaver (1996) refers to as “disciplining and training the mind” (p.3)? Hardly. She was wasting my mind, time, and talent. Rosen (1987) offers methods for developing correctness in student writing that are breaths of fresh air in the stifling pit of traditional grammar drills. She outlines important underlying assumptions to her methods that I wish my teacher had assumed:
; Writing is a complex process, recursive rather that linear in nature, involving
thinking, planning, discovering what to say, drafting, and redrafting.
; Learning to use the correct mechanical and grammatical forms of written
language is a developmental process and as such is slow, unique to each child,
and does not progress in an even uphill pattern.
; When students struggle to learn new skills such as using dialogue or writing a
persuasive essay, they need time to master the unfamiliar aspects of mechanics
and grammar that accompany them.
; The mechanical and grammatical skills of writing are learned when a writer needs
to use them for real purposes to produce writing that communicates a message he
or she wants someone else to receive.
; Responsibility for correctness of any given piece of writing should fall mainly on
the student, not the teacher.
; Students learn to write by writing, and they learn to control the mechanical and
grammatical elements of written English by writing, revising, and proofreading
their own work (p.142).
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If we respect these assumptions, we give our students freedom to be, freedom to create, and freedom to write.
Literature, Imitation, Passion, and Prewriting Activities
Romano would tell us to let students write, and so would Rosen (1987), who would add to let students read because exposure to literature allows students to observe and absorb variant uses of language in changing sentence and paragraphs structures. Reading literature, students observe conventional punctuation and grammar usage—and
not so conventional punctuation and grammar usage since creative writers often experiment with language. Harry R. Noden (1999) knows the importance of literature in developing effective writing. The strategies he offers for developing student writing are creative and work without the traditional teaching of grammar. One strategy is imitation: “By imitating [a published writer], a writer attempts to internalize the structural design, not the specific content” (p.70). Imitation is an effective way for students “to enrich the grammatical options for original creation” (p.79). One imitation strategy he suggests is
creating a parody of a well-known children‟s story using a different voice such as that of a sports broadcaster or newspaper opinion columnist. I have to think imitation is also effective with reluctant writers, giving them some structure to follow, similar to a fill in the blank but much better. It is encouraging that imitation reflects language acquisition: Students are seeing language being used meaningfully in literature and are learning to apply it.
Prewriting strategies help trigger ideas and emotion in our writers. I have been working with a kindergarten student who speaks Spanish at home and is learning English
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in school. He has a high level of English comprehension but struggles with speaking in complete ideas or thoughts. He uses one word or short phrases, often leaving out a verb. Following the curriculum of the teacher, I help him write sentences using three assigned weekly words, for example, when, for, and but. Understandably, he struggles with using
the words in complete sentences. What I have tried to do is stimulate his thoughts by looking around the little room in which we work. There is a poster, colorful and bright, of a rainforest full of animals, from a snake to a tiger. He knows the names of all the animals and has successfully created sentences using the idea-generating poster. I believe his teacher could be more creative in helping her students write. Giving them three words and having them write three complete sentences is too constraining. I believe these children would use the words she assigns eventually and naturally in their own free writing. Prewriting activities such as helping students create images and pictures in their mind in order to help students create detailed writing, is something Harry R. Noden applauds. Our students today live in a visual world: film, television, and video games dominate their lives. Noden (1999) explains: “Recognizing the appeal of media to students, teachers can use art and film as tools for enhancing detail” (p.36). An example
strategy using visual stimulators is having students draw scenes from their own writing using a four step procedure: “write a description; draw and color an image of the description; discuss the drawing with a friend or teacher; revise the original written description after comparing it to the drawing” (p.37). Being able to visualize their writing helps students fill in details about what they see.