Give grammar the importance of the three R's

The Education Beat

Rules: English usage deserves respect in today's schools, and should be considered necessary in a child's education.

February 20, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MY COLLEAGUE Susan Reimer complained recently that her daughter thought North America was a "consonant," while her 15-year-old son couldn't tell the difference between "there," "they're" and "their."

A lot of parents and a surprising number of educators sympathize. Grammar is the wallflower of American education, standing at the fringe of subjects taught in most schools while its cousins, reading and writing, bask in attention.

Not that it doesn't get lip service. Heavy emphasis is placed on grammar in the Maryland "core learning goals," which require that students know "how words are classified grammatically by meaning, position, form and function."

The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests grammar, calling it "language usage." While Maryland children score somewhat better in language usage than they do in reading, their MSPAP grammar scores declined in all three grades tested in 1999.

The problem is that many teachers don't know how to teach grammar. For many years, as standards were relaxed in the 1960s and 1970s, teachers were admonished not to teach grammar "in isolation."

The idea, says Allan Starkey, language arts coordinator in Howard County, "wasn't to abandon grammar, but to demonstrate how good grammar is used in practice to enhance writing, speaking and reading. Unfortunately, many teachers took this to mean don't teach grammar."

Starkey points out that the new teachers of 2000 are of a generation that failed to learn the rules of grammar in elementary school.

The word "rules" is another part of the problem. A friend recently gave me a yellowed volume titled "The Maryland Primary Grammar, Designed for Beginners in the Study of the Science." Published in Baltimore in 1857, before formation of a state school system, the book contains 102 grammar lessons, each propounding at least a dozen rules.

If you love the English language in all of its complexity, this is a great read. You learn something, too. I learned that "brutes" can only sound vowels, which presumably don't require conscious effort, and only "people can sound consonants." So much for a cow's moo.

As lessons in the primer get more complex, children are instructed to take out their slates and begin conjugating and parsing verbs.

When I described the exercises to a state education official, I was reminded that "parsing isn't an end in itself. It's not an isolated exercise. There's no use in piling grammar on grammar with no connection back to oral or written presentation."

Visit Redeemer Classical Christian School in northeastern Baltimore County, and you'll hear children singing jingles that identify the function of each word in a sentence: "This little noun, floating all around, names a person, place or thing "

It's called the Shurley Method, named for Brenda Shurley, a classroom teacher in rural Arkansas who maintains that grammar can be taught -- and remembered -- through the use of rhythm, rhyme and repetition in the same way we remember nursery rhymes and childhood songs.

Shurley says English teachers tend to dread grammar as it has been taught historically. "Every year they try to do it in isolated pieces, and so there is no long-term retention. Grammar taught piecemeal doesn't work."

Shurley is only one of many people and organizations who care that grammar gets attention. There's Mary Newton Bruder, the Grammar Lady, who keeps track of the parts of speech from her home in Pittsburgh (

The Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (linked to Bruder's site) is a storehouse of grammar information. A recent assembly critique tells us that Microsoft Word 97's "Grammar Checker" picks up 60 percent of sentence fragments and only 40 percent of run-on sentences.

J. N. M'Jilton, author of the 1857 primer, couldn't have dreamed of a computer grammar checker, but he so respected grammar that he called its study a "science."

We should give it similar respect.

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