State Standards and Grammar in the Curriculum 
The Meaninglessness of Most States' Standards



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     Across the country State Departments of Education are struggling to develop educational standards. These standards are very important because school systems, and the teachers in them, often tell parents that they must follow their state's standards. But in many cases, especially as they concern the teaching of grammar, state standards are meaningless.

     Because I cannot briefly deal with the standards of all fifty states, I will use the proposed standards for Pennsylvania as an example. I do so simply because Pennsylvania is where I live -- I do not mean to suggest that Pennsylvania's standards are worse (or better) than those of other states. People who live in other states can simply apply the questions and reasoning in what follows to their own state's standards. The basic problem with almost all of the states' standards is that they are not testable; hence, although they may be goals or objectives, they are not standards.

     Section 1.6 of Pennsylvania's proposed standards concerns "Quality of Writing," and has the subtitle "Write with a command of mechanics, usage and sentence completeness. " This section includes the following table:

GRADE 3 GRADE 5 GRADE 8 GRADE 11
Spell common, frequently used words correctly using the dictionary as a tool. 

Use capital letters correctly. (beginning of sentences, proper nouns, titles) 

Use ending punctuation marks correctly:
     period (.),
     exclamation point(!),
     question mark (?),
     comma(,). 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Write with proper usage of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions. 
 
 

Write complete sentences, including:
     simple and      compound,
     declarative, 
     interrogative,
     exclamatory, 
     and imperative.

Spell correctly, using necessary tools and strategies (e.g., dictionary). 
 

Use capital letters correctly. 
 
 

Use punctuation correctly:
     period (.),
     exclamation point(!),
     question mark (?),
     comma(,),
     quotation marks ("),
     apostrophe ('). 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Write with proper usage of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections. 

Write complete sentences, including:
     simple and 
     compound,
     declarative, 
     interrogative,
     exclamatory, and 
     imperative.

Spell correctly, using necessary tools and strategies (e.g., dictionary). 
 

Use capital letters correctly. 
 
 

Use punctuation correctly:
     period (.),
     exclamation point(!),
     question mark (?),
     comma(,),
     quotation marks ("),
     apostrophe ('),
     colon(:),
     semi-colon(;),
     hyphen (-),
     dash (-), [sic]
     brackets ([ ]),
     parentheses (( )),
     ellipsis (...),
     virgule (/).
 

Write with proper usage of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections. 

Write complete sentences, including:
     simple, compound 
     and complex,
     declarative, 
     interrogative,
     exclamatory, and 
     imperative.

Spell correctly, using necessary tools and strategies (e.g., dictionary). 
 

Use capital letters correctly. 
 
 

Use punctuation correctly:
     period (.),
     exclamation point(!),
     question mark (?),
     comma(,),
     quotation marks ("),
     apostrophe ('),
     colon(:),
     semi-colon(;),
     hyphen (-),
     dash (-), [sic]
     brackets ([ ]),
     parentheses (( )),
     ellipsis (...),
     virgule (/).
 
 

Write with proper usage of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections. 

Write complete sentences, including:
     simple, compound 
     and complex,
     declarative, 
     interrogative,
     exclamatory, and 
     imperative.

     There are numerous problems with this section, the most obvious of which is that it is repetitive. Not as obvious is the fact that the standards for grades eight and eleven are identical. Apparently the designers of the standards believe that students have nothing to learn about mechanics, usage and sentence completeness after eighth grade?
     It would be helpful if the writers of the standards would give some examples of the "frequently used words" that third graders are supposed to be able to spell correctly. Even many professional writers have trouble, for example, with the difference between "it's" and "its." More interesting is that the writers of the standards view the comma (Grade 3) as an "ending" punctuation mark. It would certainly be helpful if they could give some examples of what it is supposed to end.
     More troublesome is the fact that the standards reflect almost total ignorance of natural syntactic development. Note, for example, the third grade standard: "Write with proper usage of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and conjuctions." As a college professor who has devoted over fifteen years to the question of what grammar should be taught, I have no idea of what this means. It is especially perplexing in that "prepositions and interjections" are added for grade five. Would the writers of the standards care to show us some examples of the writing of third graders in which prepositions are NOT used?
     In fact, complex sentences (Grade 8) can be found in the writing of third graders! The standards include the statements, "These proposed standards should be applied to the students' own writing. Students should work to achieve these proposed standards in all subject areas." Because many third graders write complex sentences, they have, with the exception of some of the punctuation marks, achieved all the standards for eleventh graders! Some standards!
     As for the punctuation marks, the state standards are also meaningless. As the editor of Syntax in the Schools, the newsletter of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (of the National Council of Teachers of English), I know that the experts are frustrated and cannot agree about how students should be taught to use colons, semi-colons, and dashes. Indeed, many English teachers themselves do not know how to use these punctuation marks correctly, and, in some cases, there are disagreements about what is considered "correct." The proposed standards therefore reflect either total ignorance of the problem, or conscious deceit, i.e., the standards "sound good," and make it look like the state is doing something, even though the writers know that what is being proposed may be impossible to accomplish.

     The problems with the proposed standards as they relate to grammar are also evident in Section "1.8 Characteristics and Function of the English Language," under "Proposed Academic Standards for Reading & Writing"

GRADE 3 GRADE 5 GRADE 8 GRADE 11
Pennsylvania's public schools shall teach, challenge and support every student to realize his or her maximum potential and to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to:
Use a dictionary or glossary to determine proper spelling and word meanings. 
 
 
 

Classify words using a variety of categories to identify relationships and explain word origins. 

Find similarities and differences in how language is used, recognizing that appropriate language varies according to setting.

Use dictionary definitions and symbols (for vowel sounds and accents) as a tool to read, write and speak effectively. 

Analyze new vocabulary to determine their origin and use. 
 

Recognize and describe the effect of language variations (dialects, syntax, specialized vocabulary) in a variety of written and oral text.

Use a dictionary and thesaurus to determine the origin and derivation of words to read, write and speak effectively. 
 

Describe differences in syntax and semantics in a variety of written and oral text. 

Recognize and describe the effect of language variations (dialects, syntax, specialized vocabulary) in a variety of written and oral text. 

Use language variations appropriate to audience and purpose (including dialects, syntax, specialized vocabulary) when writing and speaking.

Use a dictionary, thesaurus and other references and resources to analyze words, sentences and whole texts of written and oral language. 

Evaluate the effectiveness of differing syntax and semantics in a variety of oral and written texts. 

Recognize and describe the effect of language variations (dialects, syntax, specialized vocabulary) in a variety of written and oral text. 
 
 

Use language variations appropriate to audience and purpose (including dialects, syntax, specialized vocabulary) when writing and speaking.

     As an experienced teacher, I know that these "standards" are meaningless because they will be interpreted differently and they include no statements concerning what the student must KNOW and be able to do, i.e., they are not testable. For example, a teacher of third graders can show the class a dictionary, show the students how to look up a word, and immediately thereafter ask each child to look up a word. Having done so, each child could be said to have met the standard. The standards are therefore meaningless.
     As another example, consider the standard about using language variations appropriate to audience and purpose. Suppose a student, in a formal paper, writes "Me and Bill went to the store." Would this mean that the student did not meet the standards? Is there, in fact, any way in which to tell whether or not any specific student has or has not met the standards? Every third grade student already uses "language variations appropriate to audience and purpose (including dialects, syntax, specialized vocabulary) when writing and speaking." They address their friends differently from the way they address their parents, and their teachers differently from the way they address their parents and friends. It can be argued, in other words, that every third grader has already met the eleventh grade standards. If this is true, what do the standards mean? They are meaningless.
     As a final example, consider the frequent references to "syntax" in these standards. In the first place, many middle and high school English teachers do not know what the word means. [If you do not believe me, ask them for a definition.] How are such teachers going to implement these standards? And even if they know what the word means, what does the standard mean? What is a syntactic "language variation"? How does a person "recognize" one? And how does one "describe [its] effect"? One could, for example, argue that contractions are a syntactic language variation. As a result, one could teach fifth graders about contractions. Then one could say that the students have met the standards -- all the way through eleventh grade! If this is not what the standards mean, then what do they mean? Or are they meaningless?


     I want to emphasize that I have picked on Pennsylvania simply because I live here. To my knowledge, none of the states are doing any better. In part, the problem is political. State Departments of Education are attempting to suggest standards, but they do not want to appear to be imposing standards on local school systems. As a result, the standards are vague to the point of meaninglessness. [The problem is particularly relevant in Pennsylvania, where the last attempt -- Objectives Based Education -- was seen as an attempt to impose ethical and moral values on school systems.] But as the following sections suggest, it is possible to develop meaningful, value-neutral standards for the place of grammar in the English curriculum.



Q & A

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