Dear Mr. Vavra:
I have now read through your book, "Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art" twice in the last year and I'd like to know if anyone has used it successfully at the elementary level.
I am on the Education Committee of a very small
private multigrade classroom in Iowa and we're trying to build a useful
curriculum. This is a much greater challenge than I imagined starting out
on this process and I found your book to contain some useful insights into
the process. As you point out, much has come down which is of dubious
value and it sometimes takes a relative outsider
One of our goals is to build a curriculum which
teaches conceptually. This word, much to no one's surprise, is slippery
and I'm working on a definition which sounds like "teaching which represents
or mimics that which is done in the real world". Your consistent
analysis of grammar as something which is more a cause for discussion and
less a reason to retreat to the grammar book to find the "right answer"
seems to fit in nicely. We'd like to go beyond simply doing things
simply because they are useful (I like the term "shopkeeper arithmetic"
to describe this) to teaching the
Any thoughts on this matter would be appreciated! I've always been a closet grammarian but the standard "here's the right way" approach has kept me frustrated because another grammar book would give me slightly different rules so that an interested but non-expert reader becomes easily confused about which is the "right" way.
Dear Mr. Doorenbos,
First, I want to thank you for your interest
in Teaching Grammar as a Liberating
Art and for your questions. Let me start by saying that TGLA
is not a textbook for students in K-12. It was written after I had developed
a manuscript of a book for teaching teachers. It was called Grammar
for Freedom, but publishers were not interested because no one
was using the KISS Approach, and NCTE was not interested in publishing
anything that was not supported by "theory and research." TGLA
was meant to supply the theory and suggest directions for research.
The general tendency in most curricula has been to push advanced concepts into lower and lower grades. Doing so only results in confusion. Let's face it -- the majority of high school graduates cannot even identify subjects and verbs. You do not, in other words, have to go very far in order to give your students a much better education in grammar than most TEACHERS are currently receiving. Although I would like to give it a little more thought, I would say that by the END of fourth grade students need to know consciously only the following concepts: six parts of speech (noun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction -- limited to coordinating, and preposition); singular and plural; possessives (for the apostrophe); and prepositional phrases.
Correcting Spoken Errors
Although my interests primarily concern
grammar as related to reading and writing, I should probably address the
question of correcting students' spoken errors. I shouldn't even have to
discuss this, but unfortunately there are many English teachers who refuse
to correct such errors. Often, they justify their (mis)behaviour by claiming
that "Students have a right to their own language." They never seem to
see the logical consequences of that statement -- if that is the case,
then what do we need English teachers for? I'm beginning to suspect that
teachers who make that claim use it as a shield to hide their own ignorance
-- they don't want to be responsible for correcting errors simply because
they themselves cannot recognize them.
Formal vs. Informal Instruction
We need to make a distinction between "formal"
and "informal" instruction. In "formal" instruction, a teacher addresses
an entire class and attempts to teach either factual information or a concept.
For example, a first grade teacher might use formal instruction to teach
a class about "proper nouns" so that they would all know that the names
of specific people, places, and things (such as titles) are capitalized.
With the use of examples and a short exercise for students to do
-- and then discuss, such instruction should take less than an hour. It
is not, by the way, important for students to remember the term "proper";
what is important is that the students capitalize the names of specific
people, places, and things. The teacher's use of "proper" informs the students
that the rule does not apply to all nouns, but there is no real need for
students to remember that term. Indeed, the concept could be taught without
it -- Nouns that name specific people, places and things (such as books,
poems, and works of art) are capitalized.
By "informal" instruction I have in mind both tutoring and marks on papers. As soon as students begin to write (as opposed to copy), they should be taught the basic steps of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. They should also be taught, as a general rule NOT to think about grammar or spelling while they are storming, drafting, or revising. But they should also be taught to bring all their spelling and grammar knowledge to the process of editing. For most writing assignments, no paper should be accepted unless it is 100% correct in regard to those concepts and constructions which the students have already been taught. 2 If the students have been taught about apostrophes and there is an apostrophe error in a student's final paper, the teacher should simply put an "x" in the margin and return the paper to the student. It should be the student's responsibility to correct the error(s) -- or to get help to do so. 3
The Importance of Reading
I don't think that I have answered your question
adequately, but, as I noted above, I am not an expert in teaching grammar
in K-4. I am hoping that teachers at this level will invite me into their
classrooms and also provide me with unedited samples of their students'
writing. True to what I said above, I need more specifics before I can
give better generalizations. I am convinced, however, that heavy doses
of formal grammar are not the answer -- that was the traditional approach,
and we have clear evidence that the traditional approach does not work.
If I have time, I will try to make more specific suggestions within the
context of both the KISS Curriculum
and the Menu of Errors and Style.
I suggest, however, that the teaching of formal grammar in K-4 be kept
as minimal as possible. Instead of focussing on grammar, as much attention
as possible should be paid to reading.
1. When I say "unknown," I mean in a formal sense. Four-year-olds form abstractions. Learning to catch a ball requires the formation of numerous abstractions. What I have in mind here is induction as a formal procedure -- the essence of scientific method. Asked to write an essay about virtue, for example, most students look in the dictionary and/or go to the library to find out what other people have said about it. Rare is the student who will search his or her memory for specific incidents that they consider virtuous and then use these incidents to arrive at a definition. But it is precisely the specific examples that make a definition meaningful. Similarly, most grammarians, especially those who write textbooks, begin in the troposphere of previous grammarians' texts, often ending up in the stratosphere themselves. They then wonder why down-to-earth students cannot understand the wispy clouds of their grammar books.
2. Because of the mobility of today's society, a standard, national design for the place of grammar in the curriculum, such as that I have proposed in the KISS Grammar Curriculum, would help, but individual school systems can adapt such a design. Although incoming students might have a difficult time adjusting to standards for spelling and usage, the levels of the KISS Curriculum can be made up rather easily. In three weeks, I get college students who are willing to put in a little effort through prepositional phrases, S/V/C patterns, and clauses.
3. The primary reason for the persistence of errors in spelling and usage is that students develop the idea that nobody really cares. In most cases, even their English teachers didn't care, so why should students worry about them. As Art Whimbey has convincingly pointed out, strong students are characterized by two main traits, both of which can be learned. They are attention to details and ability to analyze. Expecting perfection in spelling and usage is one good way to teach students to pay attention to details.