Story of My Wonderings

Part 1 of Inquiry

             In many ways, I am a dinosaur as an English teacher, a relic of an older age even at 24. Though I am not a prescriptivist cut from the cloth of 18th century English academia, I am by today’s standards a staunch grammarian. Knowing five languages and coming from an editing background in journalism, I am frequently asked about split infinitives and comma usage. In college, my electives within the English major were not the traditional literary deep-dives into Chaucer or Milton. Instead, I took History of the English Language, where we looked at the foundational grammatical structures of Old and Middle English and the historical influence of culture in the language’s adaptations and transformations over the centuries. Following that course, I designed and completed an independent study where I spent half the year studying American grammar systems in depth and the latter half examining regional dialectology. At Gilman School, where grammar remains an everyday component of the middle school Language Arts curriculum, this unorthodox grammatical background has made me an asset. But over the course of my first year as a fellow there, I became uncertain if people like me have a place in the classroom going forward. Many parents and administrators, it seems, no longer believe grammar is as relevant as it once was. I came to wonder not just about my own future as a grammarian, but primarily about the futures of our children who might soon lack the communicative and writing skills that I believe develop through learning the nuances of grammar. The central issue driving my day-to-day inquiry last summer grew from the question: how can we adapt the way grammar is taught in this age so that it remains relevant to the 21st century middle-schooler?

            The pressing nature of this question became apparent to me in December of 2017 as I saw two sets of parents disregard their sons’ struggles on my midterm grammar test. As this was the first cumulative assignment of the year, I expected parents to spring into action upon notification of the failures. Instead, these parents communicated that they no longer believed grammar to be important in the technological age. With autocorrect on iMessage and similar features on word processing platforms, children no longer need the same command of the English language, they told me. As the spring continued, I saw countless advertisements for Grammerly online claiming that this program could perfect my grammar on any paper or email. Nobody would not need to master it on their own. I could only assume my students saw the saw videos too. Knowing my belief that learning grammar puts a magnifying class on our language, allowing us to build effective oral and written communicative skills through examining the mechanisms underlying the creation of meaning, I wondered how I could combat those influences working against its continued place in education.

            I also came to wonder whether factors beyond technology were subtly making grammar seem less attractive this century. Thinking back to the history of English grammar, I was particularly interested in how its roots as an overly restrictive and elitist endeavor affected the way people consider grammar today. Many of the rules commonly taught, such as preposition fronting and split infinitives, are traced to members of 18th century British upper-class who feared the language was losing its prestige. As such, they standardized rules that held Latinate origins. As only the schooled knew Latin, use of “perfect grammar” became yet another class signifier. Even today, there are traces of this elitism in the way grammar is primarily taught. The prescriptive rules remain antiquatedly rigid. One might argue the way language is taught privileges those born into families with more academic backgrounds. The term “Grammar Nazi,” commonly assigned to people who correct others’ grammar, reflects the uncomfortable ways in which our grammar system retains its unseemly roots. While I was not of the belief most opposed the teaching of grammar for its history, I could not help but wonder if teaching it in a less binary, right-or-wrong, prescriptive way could impact the enthusiasm.

             During the conceptualization of how I might research grammar education through inquiry, I recalled a competing, descriptive philosophy of grammar to which my influential college professor and I ascribe that treats the English language as fluid and changing. The rules here are not so rigid, but rather reflect the ways in which our language is actually spoken and written. Traditionally, schools only teach “academese,” what most people consider to be correct in formal papers and in emails, in grammar education. Yet, in reality, learning grammar has benefits beyond knowing what is considered appropriate in academic language. For one, studying our grammar system makes learning other Romance languages much easier for students can identify patterns – it helps people understand how and why their sentences communicate nuanced meanings. However, another possible benefit happens when we teach from the descriptive angle, as students can identify and appreciate linguistic diversity. They could develop greater capacity for empathy. As a teacher, I wanted to see whether approaching grammar from this angle would impact engagement and possibly bring middle school grammar instruction into the 21st century. How that would affect quizzes and tests I was not sure, however, I believed for grammar instruction to remain relevant, teachers had to dramatically alter the antiquated and elitist prescriptivist methods of teaching.

             Another aspect of traditional grammar instruction I was wondering about was why grammar and writing are siloed and separate in most curriculums, including mine. In faculty meetings at my school, the Middle School Head frequently communicated that parents are increasingly worried about writing skills. Yet somehow it is generally lost that grammar instruction’s primary purpose is to improve communication, especially writing. I wondered if I could gain more support for the importance of grammar if I linked the two components of the curriculum more explicitly. Though I was asking students to create their own sentences on assessments, I was not following that up by encouraging students to use the learned structures on subsequent writing assignments. Thinking about the unit on complex sentences, I imagined seeing how my students could integrate what they learned into compositions. The merging of these areas seemed to be another ripe area for exploration.

             I deeply believed in the importance of the grammar we were teaching at Gilman, but as I was thinking through the complicated history, I had more questions than answers last spring. Given my previous coursework, and given that I would be teaching two year-long grammar units the following year, I felt uniquely positioned to explore how grammar could be more relevant to my students. I sought out to investigate the outcomes that occurred when I enhanced the relevance of my grammar instruction through increased focus on descriptive grammar.

Click here to continue to part 2 - my Educational Philosophy