Last Updated: 8/5/99
Dr. Ed Vavra's KISS Approach to Sentence Structure
Return to the Essays on Grammar
in the 
c. 1895
# 7: The Crime: Our Failure
to Teach Teachers 
How to Teach Grammar
     Almost two decades ago, I was asked to develop and teach a required grammar course for future teachers at a small college. When I asked what the course would have to cover, I was told that the college would agree to anything I wanted to do, as long as it met the state's requirements. When I queried the state, I was told that I could teach 1) structural grammar, or 2) transformational grammar, or 3) the history of English, or 4) modern English grammar. Having asked for clarification about the meaning of "modern English grammar," I was told that it meant "anything that is being taught in the schools." Because nobody knows what is being taught in the schools, I went with that option. 
     My objective, after all, was to help teachers help their students to improve the clarity of their sentences. I already knew that for these purposes, transformational and structural grammars are useless. As for the history of the language, the knowledge that our language constantly changes may improve the tolerance of some teachers to forms and words they do not like, but does one really need an entire course to learn that English changes? What teachers need is a set of terms and concepts with which they can intelligently discuss the grammatical features of what students read, write, and say. The crime is not only that we are not giving teachers that set, but even worse, nobody in academia even seems to care.
     We can see this indifference if we look at the courses that future teachers are required to take. Even getting information on those courses is extremely difficult. These courses, which should be fundamental given the poor writing and grammar skills of the students in our public schools, end up in different departments in different colleges, and no one is keeping track of what is being taught. The following comments, therefore, are based primarily on personal observations from my fifteen years as editor of Syntax in the Schools

     Within state guidelines (See above for an example.) colleges and universities can do whatever they want. In some colleges, therefore, future teachers do not need to do any course work that is specifically directed to the teaching of English grammar. At other colleges, required courses become political footballs -- some professors and departments want them; others don't. Generally speaking, these courses end up in one of three areas, not one of which does a responsible job.

Education Departments

     Often the grammar or "language arts" course is kept within the Education Department of the college. Education professors, of course, have no special preparation for teaching it, but at some schools no one else wants it, and it does constitute a paying job for someone within the Department. When professors of Education teach such courses, they appear to simply select a survey of linguistics, a book on language development, or perhaps even a grammar book. The book or books then become the foundation of the course. The fact that none of these options give future teachers what they need doesn't seem to bother their college professors.
     Surveys of linguistics, for example, devote chapters to such things as the history of language study (the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, historical linguistics, comparative linguistics, etc.) and/or to the areas of linguistics (phonemes, morphemes, syntax, usage), and/or to linguistic theories (traditional grammar, structural grammar, transformational grammar, systemic grammar, tagmemic grammar). In effect, instead of studying the grammar of language, the future teachers study about the people who study language, about areas of linguistics, or "about" grammar; they do not study grammar. Interestingly, Bill O'Rourke, who apparently taught such a course, complained about the fact that teachers complained about it:

Should an English education staff be proud or ashamed of the fact that fifteen out of seventeen graduates, after one semester of teaching, tell us that the one thing they wish the university would have offered them is a course in how to teach grammar? If it was a goal to purely reflect the public schools in our teaching, this evidence would tell us to be ashamed. If our goal was to reform the English curriculum in secondary schools, then maybe we should be proud. I taught the linguistics methods course at UNL and I taught it with one overall goal: to make language instruction in our secondary schools more than grammar. We covered history of the language, lexicography, dialect, semantics, usage, public doublespeak, and grammar. But we talked about grammar in terms of what is the purpose for teaching grammar, what does research tell us about its relationship to writing and speaking, what is the thinking behind the different types of grammar? It seems to me that this type of approach, this questioning beyond just the methodology, is precisely what English education should be concerned with. ("'Lion Tamers and Baby Sitters': First-Year English Teachers' Perceptions of Their Undergraduate Teacher Preparation" English Education. Feb. 1983. .21-22)
Although this article was published in 1983, I have seen no evidence that the situation has changed. Obviously, O'Rourke was proud of the smorgasbord that he gave his students, even though fifteen of seventeen, after teaching, felt that they needed more instruction in teaching grammar. Most of us who advocate teaching grammar would probably like to see our students have a good introduction, at the least, to the topics O'Rourke covers in his course, but what kind of introduction could O'Rourke give his students? How many weeks did he spend, for example, on the history of the language? On dialect? Can students really absorb the concepts of historical and comparative linguistics in two or three weeks? What kinds of exams did O'Rourke give? Were the students expected to apply the concepts they had learned in the course, or did they simply regurgitate names, dates, and O'Rourke's lectures?
     As for grammar, note that O'Rourke didn't teach it, he taught "about grammar." His "we talked about grammar" is charmingly deceptive: his students had not read the research; they had not mastered any of "the different types of grammar." (He is certainly not telling us that within four or six weeks of his course he produced masters of traditional, structural or transformational grammars: if that were the case, his students either shouldn't have complained or should have known enough about grammar to conclude for themselves that it doesn't help students.) O'Rourke's "talked about," in other words, means the instructor talked and the students agreed. Students do have enough sense to know not to contradict the professor who is grading them. Once they didn't have to worry about his grade, they told him what they really thought -- but is he listening? Has anyone listened in the fifteen years since then?

     Even worse than the surveys of linguistics are the numerous books on language development. In the 1950's, Noam Chomsky set forth his theory of transformational-generative grammar. Unlike all previous grammars, which attempt to describe the surface grammar of languages, TG, as it is called, attempts to explain how the human mind generates sentences. In itself, the theory is important and even, for some people, fascinating, but it has almost nothing to do with the grammar that should be taught in our K-12 classrooms. The theory, however, created an industry of "educational" books on language development. The only problem with them is that these books are almost entirely devoted to language development before the age of five. Thus the future teachers who are forced to study them learn how preschool children teach themselves how to form negative sentences -- "He didn't go." Or how to form questions -- What's for supper? And even negative questions -- "Why isn't he coming?" Such books are also crammed with fascinating little studies about when children teach themselves to distinguish between such constructions as "She is easy to see" and "She is eager to see." No, I'm not kidding, and if you don't believe me, go to the nearest college library. It is sure to have at least a few of these books on the shelves.
     Common sense should tell us that these books are basically useless to the teachers in our K-12 classrooms. Requiring future teachers to study them is comparable to requiring coaches of the New York Giants to take a three-credit course in how babies teach themselves to walk. It's nonsense. It wouldn't be bad nonsense if teachers were also taught to identify subjects, verbs, clauses, etc. and then this information were added, but that is not the way we are currently doing things. We send teachers into our classrooms totally unprepared to discuss the grammar of the students they will be teaching. Why do we need to teach these teachers how children mastered pre-school grammar?

Linguistics Departments

     In universities with Departments of Linguistics, the Linguistics Departments usually want the "grammar" courses for future teachers -- for one reason -- to finance the tuition of their graduate students. The courses, in other words, are not usually taught by professors, but rather by the graduate students. And because the graduate students are themselves students of linguistics (structural grammar, transformational grammar, etc.), that is what they teach to future teachers. But as noted above, linguistics is not what future teachers need to study. Future teachers can get an "A" in such a course and still be totally incapable of even identifying the subjects, verbs, and clauses in the writing of their future students!

English Departments

     Grammar is not a favorite subject among professors in college English Departments. College English professors earned their degrees and their tenure by studying and writing about literature. And that is what they want to teach. In some colleges, however, the required "grammar" course for future teachers is assigned to the English Department. To my knowledge, I am the only member of an English Department who has ever volunteered to teach such a course. Within the English Departments, the course is usually assigned to one or more of the newer faculty members (those lowest down the totem pole). Nothing in their own education has prepared them to teach such a course, and, as noted above, there is no easily available source of information about what should be taught in such a course. These relatively new faculty members, moreover, have several other courses to teach (courses which both interest them more and for which they have been better prepared). They also have to worry about publishing and tenure. As a result, they generally pick a grammar book -- at random -- and use it as the base of the course. But exercises in grammar textbooks are not what future teachers need. (See "Save Money! Burn the Grammar Textbooks!")

     Having attempted to show that we are being criminally negligent in our preparation of future teachers, I hope that someone can show that I am wrong. As part of my work with ATEG, I attempted to collect the syllabi of grammar courses for future teachers. After two years, I received only four. Not very impressive. A good collection of such syllabi would not only provide a better base for determining how well future teachers are being prepared, it would also provide an excellent source for new college instructors who are required to teach such courses. Thus far, my efforts to have someone in ATEG focus on this collection project have failed. To my knowledge, no major educational organization (associations, foundations, or State Departments of Education) appear to be at all interested in the problem.

     If we are committing a crime, the victims are our students -- your children and grandchildren. And although most people think of "grammar" as being instruction in "proper" or "correct" English, it goes far beyond that. As I have attempted to suggest throughout this web site, sentences are the basic building blocks of communication. Students who cannot control sentence structure cannot build good houses (essays, reports, letters, etc.) because the blocks they are attempting to use keep crumbling. Nor can they accurately comprehend the writing of others (i.e., read) because they cannot understand how the parts of sentences relate to each other. How long will this crime continue?