What, precisely, do people mean
when they talk about teaching "grammar"? In the September 2000 issue of
Journal, for example, Amy Martinsen not only titled her article "The
Tower of Babel and the Teaching of Grammar," but also referred to the field
of grammar as "the land of Babel." (122) Edgar H. Schuster made a similar
argument in 1999 in Phi Delta Kappan. One of his main points is
that grammatical terminology has become so complex and contradictory that
even a well-educated non grammarian will have trouble understanding what
is going on.
The problems that result from the complexity of grammatical terminology are fairly well acknowledged, but what to do about those problems is difficult to discuss in the land of Babel. It is very easy to be misunderstood. Martinsen, for example, who cites, and appears to be sympathetic to, some of my previously published statements, notes that "According to Vavra, some application exercises need to be thrown into 'the cart' along with all those grammar rules." (124) Because of our profession's general perspective about teaching grammar as teaching "all those grammar rule,." that she misunderstood what I thought I was saying is understandable. What I believe (and obviously did not say clearly enough) is that most of those grammar rules should be thrown out of the cart, and the cart should be filled primarily with exercises and only those grammar "rules" which give the exercises direction and meaning.
This distinction is crucial to an understanding of the research, and it probably needs more explanation. In an ideal KISS Curriculum, for example, I suggest that perhaps the only formal grammatical construction that needs to be taught in third grade is prepositional phrases. Over the course of an entire year, third graders can be taught, in a variety of interesting ways, how to identify almost every prepositional phrase in anything they read or write. The third graders' "grammar cart" should be filled with exercises -- excerpts from passages they read (essays, poems, stories, etc.) and from their own writing. In working with these exercises, they would be asked not only to identify the prepositional phrases, but also to discuss what the phrases add to the texts. The variety of possible exercises is discussed later in this book, but here my point is that the load should be shifted from the "rules" to the exercises and that the exercises should come from real, often randomly selected texts. In fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, the students' "grammatical cart" need include only those "rules" necessary for identifying subjects, verbs, and complements (predicate adjectives, predicate nouns, direct and indirect objects). This would give the students three years to develop the ability to discuss how these constructions (and prepositional phrases) affect the meaning of what they read and write.
What led me to suggest this approach was an experience similar to one described by Martinsen, and probably also similar to that of many other teachers. Martinsen begins her article by noting that she eagerly prepared "to gift my students with the power of balance and rhythm, showing them another way to marry content and style . . . But wait . . . what are all these questions? All at once I am faced with a field of furrowed brows. Adjectives? Clauses? Prepositional phrases? No one knows what I'm talking about, and I suddenly feel as if I'm standing at the base of the Tower of Babel." (122) My own experience involved semicolons and college Freshmen at Cornell University. I told them that semicolons should be used to separate main clauses with contrasting ideas. He went swimming. She did the dishes. Those are simply two statements of fact. If, however, they are joined with a semicolon (He went swimming; she did the dishes.) an experienced reader will probably look for a difference in what each did and note that he was probably enjoying himself whereas she was stuck in the kitchen. The lesson didn't take. And it wasn't until after the semester was over that I learned why. I happened to meet one of the students in the library, and we discussed her papers. When I noted that she had problems with semicolons, I asked why, after all my attempts, she still couldn't use them correctly. She noted that most of the students did not know what a "clause" is.
My failure started me thinking, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the number of grammatical concepts that students "need" is really very limited. But if students are to understand why those constructions are important -- how they affect meaning and style -- students need to be able to identify those constructions in whatever they read and write. Rarely, however, do we teach students how to do that. Even worse, as a profession we usually do not even teach future English teachers how to do that. Instead, our grammar lessons, for both students and teachers, are filled with complex definitions, rules, exceptions, and studies of language and linguistics. All of these things may have their place in the curriculum, but, since I have been talking about carts, lets put a horse in front of it. If students cannot identify the limited number of constructions we are talking about, their carts are not going to go anywhere.
The distinction I am trying to make can, perhaps, be seen by looking at almost any grammar textbook, no matter what linguistic approach it takes. In essence, the books all teach the constructions -- This is a noun. This is a clause. This is a participle. The students are then given twenty sentences or so of identification exercises, and then that construction is dropped and forgotten. Where is the textbook (other than the one you have in your hand) that even suggests that it is possible to build on previous instruction such that students will be able to analyze any sentence that they read or write? Where is the textbook that invites students to find the prepositional phrases, and the subjects and verbs, and the clauses, and the participles in a sentence? But it is, I would suggest, precisely the lack of such instruction that accounts for the failures, past and present, in the teaching of grammar.
As we look at the research, we need to keep in mind that the instruction it condemns is precisely this isolated, limited, often only half-thought out focus on individual constructions, illustrated with overly simplistic sentences. John Mellon noted this part of the problem back in 1969:
it may very well be the case that conventional grammar study fails to promote growth of syntactic fluency not because of the usage practice which it features, but rather because of the hundreds of simply structured and altogether childish sentences which it employs for parsing exercises. (63)To my knowledge, the possibility of adapting a traditionally-based grammar to deal with more complex sentences was not explored, either by Mellon or by anyone who read his study.