Surprise! English has a set of rules: Grammar

September 28, 1999|By Susan Reimer

MY EIGHTH-grade daughter became the object of ridicule among her private school friends because she thought a "consonant" was one of the seven major land masses of the globe.

The poor child may have her mouth washed out with soap soon if she continues to begin sentences with "Whitney and me" despite frequent correcting from her previously adoring but currently very frustrated father.

My son came home from high school and -- just as he did when he was in grade school -- asked for the meaning of a word he just heard for the first time: "predicate." At 15, he cannot tell the difference among "there," "their" and "they're," and I fear for his future gainful employment.

Thanks to the nuns, my husband can diagram even the serpentine sentences George Will cobbles together. Thanks to my mother, poor grammar assaults my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. We both make our living putting punctuation marks inside quotation marks. But our children cause us to shake our heads and wonder: "Doesn't anyone teach grammar anymore?"

Apparently not.

Grammar, says the aptly named "Grammar Lady," was tossed over the side in the 1970s, a victim of the social turmoil of the times.

"Sometime, somewhere, someone decided learning rules for the sake of learning them wasn't `relevant,' and everything you taught had to be relevant," says Mary Newton Bruder, who answers grammar questions over the phone (800-279-9708), online ( and in the newspaper from her home in Pittsburgh.

"And you couldn't hand a child his essay with all sorts of red marks on it because it would damage his self-esteem," she says.

In fact, the educational research of that time concluded that teaching grammar as a separate subject did nothing to improve students' writing. They were not applying the lessons they learned, and the nit-picking corrections merely frustrated them as they composed. It appears that punctuation and parts of speech were lost in the flood of unfettered creativity that followed.

Ask teachers, however, and they will swear they have been teaching grammar all along and are teaching it now as never before.

Paula Simon, coordinator of English and reading at the secondary level for Baltimore County, says every gathering of English teachers is loaded with workshops on every hot new way to teach grammar so it will stick.

"The problem is, there is no Velcro effect. Kids don't value it," says Simon. "Compared to reading and discussing literature, the business of language is boring to kids. Teachers are forever wrestling with ways to teach grammar so kids will learn it."

Patricia O'Conner, a former staff editor for the New York Times Book Review, has added a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down in two delightful resources she has written for grammar-phobes: "Woe Is I" and her new book, "Words Fail Me."

You can guess her position on the theory that kids can better learn grammar through the process of writing.

"It sounds great, but it doesn't work," says O'Conner from her home in Connecticut. She will be speaking, correctly, at Bibelot in Timonium on Oct. 16.

"It is not so much knowing the technical terms, which I try to avoid because I know they turn people off. It is more a matter that it has never been brought to their attention that English has a structure and there is a logical way that words go together. Now we have a whole generation of teachers teaching in schools who have never been taught grammar, and bad habits just get reinforced.

"People may not think it matters anymore. But how many statesmen of the world can you think of who speak substandard English?"

If the challenge of teaching English grammar is motivating the student to learn, there is nothing like real life to provide that motivation.

For college-bound kids, the College Board has added a writing assessment to the PSAT. Now that great stressor of teen-agers comes in three flavors: math, verbal and grammar.

"We decided to do it for some of the same reasons you are looking at," says Jan Gams, spokesman for the College Board in New York. "There is anecdotal evidence that kids are not prepared with verbal skills when they get to college and remediation is increasing because of it."

The PSATs are returned to the schools so teachers can see exactly where their students' grammatical weaknesses lie and correct them.

"The schools are not happy with the results," says Beth Robinson, director of the PSAT and National Merit Scholars Qualifying Test for the College Board. "And this is an area where they think they can improve."

On every level of education, writing as a way to assess what children have learned is increasing. Kids are required to keep journals in every class from painting and drawing to weight- lifting. And the teachers outside the English department are noticing that the kids can't write.

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