Substantive Education

April 6, 2010

The How and Why of Grammar

Filed under: Uncategorized — kbagdanov @ 11:33 pm

Not having a basic grasp of sentence structure and grammar rules puts students at a disadvantage.  Their writing suffers along with their scores on tests like the SAT and ACT.  In working with students, I’ve realized that there are a few areas that are particularly problematic.  Over this next series of posts, I’m hoping to address some of these issues. The lessons that are to follow are intended for Jr. High and High school students…to hopefully give them the tools necessary to avoid some common pitfalls.

In the next post we will get straight to the practical matters, but first I want to lay a foundation.  It is always helpful to have a clear understanding of why you are teaching something, and why you are teaching it the way that you are.  So, before we begin in earnest, let me share some of my thoughts on teaching, and on teaching grammar in particular.

Children learn grammar by listening to us speak.  Yes, at some point we teach them a few special names, like ‘noun’ and verb’, but for the most part kids absorb grammar.  (And the process of listening to a young child pick up some of the finer parts of language is one of the joys of parenting…don’t you just love all the creative, ‘incorrect’ usages they come up with.)  The point is, while we may need a few worksheets to perfect picking the verb out of a sentence, that is not where children gain their understanding.

We gain understanding as we ‘hear’ that certain word combinations just don’t sound right.  Before children are in school they realize that they shouldn’t yell, “Looked over there!”  Young children  may not understand that verbs have tense, but they know that sentence is wrong.   As time passes children pick up the speaking patterns of those around them.  This painless process allow us to transmit the grammar lessons our children need to learn.  Add in a year of solid grammar instruction in the later elementary school year and your kids should be prepared for high school work.

For me, teaching grammar was similar to potty training.  (Stick with me, the analogy is going somewhere.)  I never understood parents who obsessed over early potty training, spending inordinate amounts of time and effort to get their child to do something that in another year or so (more for those boys….) they could master in a week.  Okay, a week might be an exaggeration, but you get the point.  When we pay attention to our child and teach concepts when they are ready for them it’s not just easier, it avoids a great deal of frustration and failure.  This is true for potty training, and for academics.  Whether it’s reading, grammar, or long division, starting the instruction early can often backfire.  Children find, what could be a relatively simple process, to be long, laborious, and difficult…not because the subject matter is that complicated, but because they weren’t ready to tackle it yet.

Always, ALWAYS, keep in mind, you are teaching a child, not a curriculum.  Children do not develop on a nice. neat time-line.  It may seem that way as we look at the list of standards that our government has developed, but those standards and benchmarks are about some mythical sampling of children.  You have a unique person living with you.  Your little boy has his own set of strengths and ways of learning.  Children don’t learn in a neat upward curve, but in stops, starts, circles, and backward steps.  Minds and hearts can’t be forced into a one size fits all mold.  Isn’t this one of the reasons you chose to homeschool, so that you could provide an excellent, individualized education for your child.

So don’t fall into the trap of comparing what your child does with you at home, with what the neighbor child brings home for homework.  Because they are doing 5 worksheets on nouns doesn’t mean you need to.  Endless worksheets serve a purpose in school.  They provide busywork when the teacher needs to work with one group of children, they provide repetition which increases the odds that all 30 of the children will get the concept, and they provide proof that the standards are being met and children are learning. (Well, whether or not they prove that is a question for another time.)  BUT, you aren’t in a classroom.  You know your child.  You have the option of lingering for a while on a concept, of moving on, or of postponing it’s introduction to a later date.

Teaching the abstract concept that, a ball is a noun, takes a great deal of work in 1st grade.  With enough reinforcements and worksheets you can get there, but why?  A short lesson in 4th grade would accomplish the same thing.  The point is, you have options.  I wanted my children to love learning and to master the necessary material to move on from high school to college.   I wanted them to feel successful in their schoolwork, not continually frustrated or bored.  In order to accomplish these goals I waited to introduce concepts until I was sure they were ready, and once a concept was mastered, we moved on.  I occasionally used worksheets for reinforcement or assessment, but I tried to make sure the exercises  served a purpose.

So, what exactly did we do?  In the early years we talked and read to our children ALOT.  I can’t overemphasize the point that this where children acquire their verbal and written skills.  We focused on helping them express themselves verbally, and we focused on developing a love for the written word.  I suspected that my active, easily bored boys would have balked at pages of worksheets, and I was far more concerned with developing their love of learning than diagramming a sentence.  (On the flip side, I know some girls who would love nothing more than to sit and fill out worksheets. They love watching the stack of completed work grow…if this is your child, follow their lead.)  As they began writing sentences they learned some basics; capitalize the first letter, put a period at the end etc.  In later elementary school we did a year of Easy Grammar (with a little Winston Grammar on the side.)  Then in Jr. High and High school they all studied Latin, which solidified their grammar knowledge.

The result…the boys all love to read; they love to write.  They didn’t just survive at college, they excelled there.  No doubt I could have hammered home a few more comma rules, but I’m not sorry I chose to place my emphasis where I did.   So yes, grammar and punctuation rules are important, our children should learn them…and these following posts are designed to help you with doing just that.  But don’t get so caught up in teaching rules, filing out worksheets, that you forget the big picture.

Well, enough of that, on the practical stuff.

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1 Comment »

  1. Well stated. Some teachers get so caught up in the formalities of prose, hunting down every sentence fragment or comma splice, for example, that they forget to teach students to develop their ideas.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Comment by Jose M. Blanco — July 29, 2010 @ 8:52 pm | Reply


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