Carroll County's English teachers are dusting off their grammar books as part of the school system's effort to bolster students' writing and reading skills.
For nearly four decades, grammar instruction was discouraged in school systems across the nation, as researchers asserted that the stringent rules robbed students of their creativity.
But in a back-to-basics move, school officials are emphasizing the need for students to learn grammar as the key to developing strong writing skills.
"Students need to have the type of skills for written communication that are going to keep people from judging them inaccurately," said Brian Wienholt, supervisor of middle school reading and language arts. "If students have poor grammatical skills on resumes or applications, people will judge them as lacking intelligence. Unfortunately, that's the reality."
'The new grammar'
English teachers, who gathered recently for a professional development session on grammar instruction, learned about "teaching the new grammar," a concept that calls for integrating grammar with reading and writing exercises.
The county's effort, being piloted this year, will stress that students learn the structure of language as a means of improving writing and critical reading skills.
The new initiative, at least in part, stems from community sentiment that students are graduating with weak writing skills. Residents - including area business representatives - have bent the ear of schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker on the subject.
"Some in the business community say that sometimes they come across graduates who are weak in reading and writing," Ecker said. "We need to do more with grammar. ... It's one of our priorities."
Other factors fueling this renewed interest in grammar include parents' concerns that writing standards have been slipping over the years, and that the Maryland High School Assessment English exam and the new SAT test each have grammar components, Wienholt said.
Changes in opinions
In May, the school board adopted a writing policy that stressed the inclusion of grammar instruction.
"The Board of Education recognizes that grammatically correct writing is essential to student success in school, in the workplace, and in the larger world," according to the board's policy statement. "Teachers shall provide content-specific, explicit writing instruction so that all students will learn to write and write to learn."
Much has changed in grammar instruction since the early 1960s, when researchers first made claims that teaching it was "a waste of time and harmful," said Martha Kolln, a retired associate professor of English from Pennsylvania State University, who led Carroll's professional development session.
"Researchers said that students who studied traditional grammar in an isolated way - learning parts of speech and filling in the blanks with the right word - didn't write any better than people who didn't study grammar," said the author of Understanding English Grammar, a textbook in its sixth printing.
"But instead of those researchers saying that the isolated way of learning things isn't best and coming up with something that incorporates grammar with reading and writing, they threw out the baby with the bath water," she said.
In the mid-1980s, the National Council of Teachers of English officially discouraged grammar instruction, she said. The council has since begun to retreat from that position.
Kolln points to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, state assessments, and their emphasis on testing to measure student achievement as a key reason for the resurgence of grammar instruction.
"Grammar is one of the things you can test objectively," she said. "It's much harder to objectively grade writing."
While she advocates students learning the traditional practice of diagramming sentences - a skill she continues to champion by including it in her textbook - she said it should be used in a larger context of teaching students how to recognize good sentence structure and solid writing.
Not just diagramming
Because Carroll County school officials agree with Kolln, students here won't find themselves subjected to endless exercises in sentence diagramming.
"Many times grammar was taught in drills and in isolation," said Jan Jayman, Carroll's supervisor of English and modern/classical languages. "Instead, we want to use it with writing. ... We want it incorporated into composition and literature activities."
Jayman said that means students will learn sentence diagramming.
"It's not diagramming for the sake of diagramming, but to help students understand sentence structure," she said.
The hope is that students will learn how to analyze good writing and apply that to their own writing, she said.
Jayman said that while students may do better on standardized testing because of the county's efforts, the bottom line is "they're going to be better communicators."
"They need to be able to speak and to write, to communicate for a wide variety of audiences," she said. "People do judge us by the way we communicate."