According to English teacher Marian Anders, learning to write correctly is like learning to drive a car. Driving is a necessary skill, but you don't need to understand how a car works to be a good driver. And people can learn to write well without knowing the intricacies of traditional grammar. Included: Information about grammar instruction.
For most students and many adults, utilizing grammar is like driving somewhere for the first time -- just when you think the trip is going smoothly, you come to an intersection with too many choices. You have a feeling that one road is right, but you're not sure why. Some of the other options look okay, and you wonder if it really matters which one you choose.
Veteran English teacher Marian Anders wants people to know that when it comes to grammar, it does matter which option you choose, but learning to make the right choice needn't be the ordeal most people fear it will be. In Anders' book, My Dog Bites the English Teacher, she outlines simple and practical approaches to grammar to help students learn to write and speak correctly.
Anders has taught English literature, grammar, and composition at the college level for the past 20 years and currently teaches at St. Augustines College in Raleigh, North Carolina. She talked with Education World about her views on grammar instruction.
Education World: What prompted you to write this book?
Marian Anders: I wrote this book because I wanted something that would be more effective and less expensive for my students at St. Augustine's College.
Several college handbooks are available, and I have taught from most of them over the years. They are all quite expensive -- some as much as $80 -- and they are difficult for students to use. Those books contain so much information -- most of which students never use or need -- that many students feel overwhelmed and have difficulty finding the information that they do need. Also, the explanations tend to be quite brief. Most students need a teacher's help to understand the material. I wanted to write a book that students could use in class or on their own to learn what they need to know quickly, clearly, and logically.
EW: How can K-12 teachers use this book?
Anders: Most teachers have to use the school's standard textbook, but they can use the new methods presented in my book to supplement that textbook. For example, the teacher can use the board or overheads to show students the easy way to find verbs and subjects and then let them practice that skill using the exercise sentences in their textbook.
Because My Dog starts with the most basic lessons and moves gradually into more difficult material, a first grade teacher might use just chapter 1, while a seventh grade teacher might use chapters 1-5.
EW: Why do you think grammar instruction faded at the K-12 level?
Anders: I think there are several reasons. Probably the most common is that many teachers never really learned grammar themselves, so they have difficulty teaching it. I'm a perfect example of that. Throughout my school years, I wrote well because I had a natural ability for language. I was in advanced classes, and we almost never studied grammar. When I started teaching, I had just completed a master's in English, but I was completely unprepared to teach grammar. Luckily, I had a colleague who was a grammar fanatic, and she helped me tremendously.
EW: What is the most common misconception about teaching grammar?
Anders: I've heard teachers say that grammar is hard to teach because it's so intuitive. Well, it is intuitive for the teacher, because she or he has a natural ability for language. The problem comes when you have students who don't have so much natural ability. The good news is that grammar is also very logical, and all students can learn grammar when its explained logically. Teachers need to learn the logic behind their intuition so they can teach grammar in a way that all students can understand. That's when grammar becomes an interesting puzzle rather than a misery.
EW: What are some of the most common grammar mistakes you've seen students -- and teachers -- make?
Anders: Comma and apostrophe mistakes are quite common, of course, as well as homophone mistakes such as [confusing] to, too, and two. I think the most serious mistakes people make are fragments, comma splices, and run-ons. Those mistakes make it difficult for the reader to understand the relationships between the writer's ideas. Also, they are quite easy to fix, which is why I cover them in Chapter 3 of the book.
EW: How do you fight the notion among K-12 students that its not popular to speak or write correctly?
Anders: I tell my students that they need a language wardrobe. People have different types of clothing in their closets so they can wear what's appropriate for the weather and for what they'll be doing each day. You wouldn't wear a tuxedo to a beach party, and you wouldn't wear a swim suit to the prom. The same is true of language. Informal language is fine in many situations, but if you only have casual clothes in your closet, your job choices are limited. Standard English with correct punctuation is like a business suit. If you have a suit in your closet, you can wear it when appropriate.
This e-interview with Marian Anders is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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