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Not Your Mother's Grammar Lesson


If you find diagramming sentences an ordeal to learn and teach, you are not alone. English teacher Les Parsons in his book Grammarama offers new strategies for teaching grammar that are more engaging for everyone. Included: Activities for helping children recognize and learn grammar.

Diagram a sentence? Undergo root canal? For some, it's a no-win choice.

Teaching and learning grammar, though, does not have to be as excrutiating as many found it to be, according to English-language arts teacher Les Parsons. While interest in grammar is resurfacing, Parsons maintains that the issue should be not whether it is taught, but how.

In his book, Parsons outlines ways to integrate grammar study into lessons, with activities for small groups of students.

Parsons has taught from the primary grades through secondary school. As an English consultant, workshop leader, and university lecturer, he has worked with classroom teachers at all grade levels. His work with curriculum initiatives includes implementing response journals and writer's workshop techniques and effective evaluation and gender equity. He is the author of several other books, including Response Journals Revisited, Revising And Editing, and The Classroom Troubleshooter.

Parsons talked with Education World about his ideas for practical, painless grammar instruction.

"The debate really isn't about whether or not to teach grammar: most teachers think they should be teaching grammar and most parents would like to see all teachers teaching grammar. The real debate is actually over which grammar to teach and how to go about teaching it," says teacher/author Les Parsons.

Education World: What prompted you to write the book?

Les Parsons: The demand for more grammar instruction is heating up once again in any number of jurisdictions and about the only thing new in this current "back to grammar" movement is history ignored. Whatever we've learned about what works and doesn't work in the teaching of grammar seems to be dismissed and disregarded in favor of misconceptions and myths kept alive in the "common wisdom."

What troubles me most are the assumptions that grammar isn't being taught now and that we need to return to so-called "traditional" (read "prescriptive") approaches to the teaching of grammar to improve how students use language. Both these assumptions are false but, since they're politically driven, hard to resist.

What I wanted to do with this book was first examine the issues involved in any "back to grammar" movement and then branch out into research-based practice. I wanted to reaffirm for teachers the approaches to grammar instruction of most benefit to students and offer a series of ready-to-use lessons based on those approaches. I also wanted to help busy teachers stay up to date with our ever-evolving language, culling a variety of reference texts for specific points of grammar and usage that have changed since the last "back to grammar" tsunami swept through the curriculum.

EW: Why do you think the debate over whether to teach grammar continues?

Parsons: The debate really isn't about whether or not to teach grammar: most teachers think they should be teaching grammar and most parents would like to see all teachers teaching grammar. The real debate is actually over which grammar to teach and how to go about teaching it. Too many people inside and outside the profession still equate the term grammar with prescriptive grammar, the kind of instruction their parents received when they went to school. When the cry goes up that we need more grammar instruction in schools, no one asks if that should be prescriptive, descriptive, or transformational grammar. All grammar isn't alike.

In the final analysis, however, the debate about grammar continues because the debate isn't about grammar at all. The term, grammar, like its cousin, phonics, has become a symbol, a banner, and a rallying cry for anyone who wants to "fix" whatever they perceive is currently wrong with education. Grammar is an emotional evocation for a more rigorous and demanding curriculum and a benchmark and standard against which our current students can be judged. It's hard to counter such an emotional construct with research and an intellectual argument. And so the "debate" goes on.

EW: What are some of the misconceptions about grammar instruction?

Parsons: The misconceptions are legion. The classic misconception, of course, is that there is only one grammar. Advocates of more grammar instruction are usually laboring under the quaint notion that the only way to teach grammar is through the traditional, prescriptive approach. In this approach, the rules governing the language are taught through such practices as analyzing sentences, defining parts of speech, and distinguishing between direct and indirect objects, transitive and intransitive verbs, and active and passive voice. Prescriptive grammar, in fact, is the least effective way to help students understand the structure of language.

Get the Book

Want to learn more about Grammarama, by Les Parsons? Click here to see the detail or to purchase a copy of the book.

A related myth about grammar that stubbornly refuses to die is that the teaching of prescriptive grammar improves writing skills: even professional writers will repeat that one. The truth is that metastudies of research into grammar instruction have clearly shown that the rigid implementation of prescriptive grammar has either no effect on student writing or a slight negative effect. Some students get so confused or frustrated trying to keep all those rules and patterns straight that they get turned off writing altogether.

Grammar is supposed to illuminate and facilitate student writing. But the rules students learn are so complex, arcane, and difficult to apply that there's no practical payoff for the learner. The more students learn the more confused and unsure they become. They're taught rules and patterns supposedly to help them explain their own writing. Then they run into a brick wall when they try to apply those simple models to language they use every day, such as:

  • How I do on the test depends on how hard it is.
  • I don't know why he'd do something like that.
  • Here comes the teacher.
  • Between five and ten dollars seems right.
  • The place to start is where your questions begin.
Another misconception about the teaching of grammar rests in a number of "rules" about language that teachers pass down from generation to generation that have no basis in fact.

Yes, you can split an infinitive, end a sentence with a preposition, and start a sentence with "because." In the same vein, we're teaching a living language in a constant state of flux. A previous generation learned a traditional distinction between "shall" and "will;" pick up any book, magazine, or newspaper and you'll quickly see that contemporary usage accepts "will" in all cases. "So" is now accepted as a conjunction, adverbs, such as "hopefully," may modify sentences, and a case can even be made for "gotten." It's a brave, new world, indeed.

Another misconception that always arises when grammar is discussed is that students need a solid grounding in prescriptive grammar in order to learn a second language. That "truism" is always stated but never explained. How would learning the strict word order for adjectives in English, for example, help you learn an entirely different set of rules for using adjectives in French?

Along with some basic terminology that comes in handy when discussing language, such as noun, verb, or adjective, what second-language learners really need is a meaningful and complete immersion in that second language. If you look out in the schoolyard, you'll see the classroom where students who are struggling with English as a second language are doing their essential language learning.

EW: How do you think teachers should approach teaching grammar?

Parsons: First of all, grammar instruction is tailor made for cooperative learning strategies. Use small-group learning as much as possible in whatever you do. Then begin by building on students' own competencies. Far from being blank slates, they bring a considerable level of expertise to any study of language. Students know a lot about language that they can put to good use and they can independently figure out a lot more.

Here's an example. If you try to teach students the eight or so different categories of adjectives and the sequence in which they're usually used, their frustration level and yours will go through the roof.

On the other hand, if you give them a list of adjectives, such as "black a Persian little sweet" to describe "cat," put them in groups, and ask them to sequence them in the most usual and natural way, the groups will put them in the proper order almost every time. Using their own expertise, they come to understand that word order is important and that they already know a lot about it.

In the same way, we are so attuned to syntax and to making sense out of what we read that we tend to fill in the missing parts when we're presented with sentence fragments. Cloze passages rely on this tendency and can be used to increase students' awareness of and sensitivity to the grammar of written language. They also help students make appropriate substitutions as they focus on the meaning of text. And students do all this with the language competencies they already possess.

Another approach, sentence combining is a relatively straightforward teaching technique in which students build a single, complex sentence from a series of simple sentences. For example:

  • I have a dog. His name is Spot. Spot likes to run. Spot likes to play.
  • Combined: I have a dog named Spot who likes to run and play.
  • Combined: My dog, Spot, likes to run and play.
Although this technique has been shown to have a positive effect on the complexity of student writing, it's fallen into disuse for several decades. It's time to bring it back but under certain conditions:
  • Don't overuse the technique. The goal is always to turn students back to their own writing.
  • Don't limit the number of solutions. Encourage students to discover as many ways as possible to acceptably combine the sentences.
  • Do play up the problem-solving nature of the exercise.
The study of models is another proven technique for helping students understand the grammar of the language and, in the process, improve their own writing. In spite of that fact, we spend a lot of time in schools asking students what they understand from their reading and relatively little time asking them about how that reading is constructed.

Please understand that I'm not advocating that teachers pull sentences out of readers and have students parse them. Instead, I'd like students to become aware of the style of professional writers, including the rules of grammar they follow and the rules they consciously and purposefully modify. Writers manipulate language to achieve specific effects. Grammar, usage, and spelling are all part of the palette from which effective writers choose when crafting their stories. We should be helping students mine that mother lode for nuggets they can carry off to enrich their own writing.

At all times, we have to link the study of grammar to the purposeful use of language and keep coming back to the students' own reading and writing. The study of grammar is a means to an end and not an end in itself. If we can find ways to intrigue, involve, and amuse our students through the study of grammar, we may just hook them on a love of language.

EW: What are the benefits of teaching grammar?

Parsons: Grammar is at the heart of a living language. If we approach it from the inside out, we illuminate and enhance our own emotional and intellectual appreciation of what we read and refine and enhance the way we write. Conversely, the danger is that students can easily feel overwhelmed and disempowered, especially with prescriptive approaches or a grammar course that seems disconnected from their everyday use of language.

The goal of any encounter with language in the classroom should be empowerment. Students intrinsically understand communication: grammar only helps them refine, not find, their own voices.

The study of grammar is also an important life skill. Grammar is all around us. Take the world of advertising, for example. We can't turn on a radio or television, read a magazine, walk down a busy street, or ride a bus or subway without being bombarded by manipulative messages. The more we understand how grammatical conventions are utilized, bent, or even broken in a calculated effort to entice, entertain, startle, persuade, pique curiosity, or even annoy, the more able we are to resist being manipulated.

EW: What are some activities teachers can use to engage students in the study of grammar?

Parsons: Grammar, like reading, is more caught than taught. The best grammar lessons come from the language you and your students encounter every day. Be on the lookout for phrases or images from your own life that grab your attention. Accent the positive: find examples of language used well for students to appreciate and emulate. Whenever a striking, vivid, apt, or unusual use of language attracts you, that kernel could become the core of an illuminating lesson for your students. It might be a stunning description from a novel you're reading, an image from a song, a persuasive essay from a newspaper, or a slogan from a commercial.

Your students also have a keen appreciation for the differences between the way adults use language and the way their peers do. These differences can be a fascinating window into how a language operates. Get in tune with the informal language your students are using. They can inform you about the current slang or jargon in vogue. They can let you know about the catch phrases that are fresh and ubiquitous and those that have run their course. Enjoy their reactions when you disclose the slang and catch phrases popular when you were their age. You also can't deny them their own use of language. Instead of repudiating the language of e-mails (hw r u? gr8! u2?), for example, explore that language and use it as a stepping stone into a discussion of register.

In all your discussions about language, freely admit when you don't know the answer. The more students realize that you still grapple with usage the more you empower their own struggles. Confess some of your own spelling or usage "demons" and share the tricks you use to manage them. Above all, resist placing adult standards on emerging language users. With age and experience, their fluency will grow.

This e-interview with Les Parsons is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.