Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Topic: Grammar--Why Did You Teach It?

10-second review: Base the teaching of grammar on problems that can be predictably expected in compositions. These problems involve sentence structure, punctuation and usage. Composition should be taught at the same time as grammar so that students can apply their knowledge of grammar to their compositions. The purpose for a knowledge of grammar in composition? To polish writing.

Title: “Grammar and Composition.” Teaching English, How To…. Raymond Stopper. Xlibris, 2004. pp. 164-206.

“Why did you teach it?”

Mrs. May was reputed to be the best teacher in the high school. She taught foreign languages—I think mainly Spanish. She was matronly in appearance and had little time for wasting time.

I thought I was a pretty good teacher that first year, so I decided to ask the best teacher in the school to observe my teaching and reinforce my good opinion of myself. I am glad I did. I never forgot what she taught me. One morning I saw her slip into a seat in the back of the classroom. With supreme confidence I kept right on teaching.

Using the grammar book, I was teaching the difference between the direct object and the predicate nominative to a class of ‘Ag boys,’ young men enrolled in the agricultural program offered by our rural high school. Many of these boys were bright and headed for college. I really did explain well the essential difference between the direct object and predicate nominative by highlighting on the blackboard action verbs followed by the direct object (vertical line between the verb and direct object, “The boy hit | the ball) and verbs of being—‘be,’ ‘am,’ ‘is,’ ‘are,’ ‘was,’ ‘were,’ and any verb ending in ‘be,’ ‘being,’ or ‘been’—followed by the predicate nominative (slanted line toward the subject: “It was\ she who left first.”). I felt good about teaching a pretty dull topic. The boys were bright enough to stay awake and seemed to understand the distinction.

As the students trooped out of the room, Mrs. May came up to talk to me. I expected praise.

“You did a pretty good job of showing the difference between direct objects and predicate nominatives,” she said. Then she hit me with a thunderbolt! “Why did you teach it?”

I was dumbfounded. I had never thought about “why?”—it was a necessary part of grammar—it had been drilled into me—and I had never asked why I was learning it. If I had answered her question, I would have said, “…because it was the next topic in the textbook.”

That would have sounded dumb, but I never answered her, because she told me why I should have been teaching it: “If you don’t come back tomorrow and explain to those students that they need to know the difference between the direct object and the predicate nominative in order to know when to use ‘I’ or ‘me,’ ‘he’ or ‘him,’ ‘she’ or ‘her,’ ‘we’ or ‘us’ and ‘they’ or ‘them,’ I guarantee they will forget what you taught them today in a very short time.”

“Oh,” I said and thought to myself, “So that’s why you need to know this stuff.”

Mrs. May smiled, turned around and left the room. And I decided that I would never teach grammar again without knowing why students needed it—in other words, how to apply it to their writing or speaking.

I began to define my purposes for teaching grammar—most frequently involving usage and punctuation. However, I would like to suggest one other purpose to which a knowledge of grammar can be applied—a purpose closely related to composition—coherence, that which achieves the flow of expression from beginning to end. Ideally, the reader begins to read, and, because of coherence, because of the flow, the reader can not stop reading, but feels compelled to proceed from beginning to end, uninterrupted. I have concluded that a knowledge of grammar can improve coherence, as well as correctness, and, therefore, can have a significant effect on improving writing.

Next Blog: Grammar with a Purpose.

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