How Should Grammar Be Taught? Part 2

This is the second of three posts about why I think we need a new approach to grammar instruction. (Click here to read Part 1.)

Today I’m going to begin by talking not about language, but about math. (Sometimes it’s a good idea to use an unusual example to make a point. Readers pay more attention when your explanation takes an unexpected route.)

A good friend who teaches fifth grade is a strong believer in hands-on learning. When her pupils study fractions, she has them cut various shapes into thirds, fourths, eighths, and so on to make sure they understand why – for example – an eighth is smaller than a fourth even though 8 is a bigger number than 4.

When she hands out a page of math problems involving fractions, she encourages students to draw a little sketch of an apple cut into fourths, or a pizza cut into eighths, and so on. Good pedagogy!

But here’s what’s surprising – and she says she’s seen hundreds of fifth graders do this over the years. After they’ve drawn the pizza or apple, they go back to count the pieces. Mind you, they knew there were 8 eighths when they drew the pizza! But they still want to count (and, she says, often they tap each piece).

I’m going to chime in here with my own experience. When I taught a study skills course, I always included a math unit. (Incidentally, I used a textbook I’d written myself.)

It was disheartening to work with college freshmen who were hopelessly confused about fractions, decimals, and percents. I had a number of students who didn’t know there were four fourths in a whole. (I am not making this up.) They’d never been allowed to experience math in a concrete, hands-on way. And – not surprisingly – they were hopelessly lost when it was time to solve word problems.

(Humor me while I make one more detour. My teacher friend told me she’d had many fifth-grade pupils who couldn’t count past 109. They’d never been allowed to count real objects. Check it out yourself if you have a school-age child handy.)

Back to grammar. Any normal child has an impressive grasp of grammar by the age of five. An English-speaking child knows how to string words together to make perfect sense. You’ll never hear a child say, “Cake birthday baked Mommy.” Children know that in English, the adjective (birthday) usually comes before the noun (cake), and that the subject (Mommy) comes before the verb (baked).

And then that child gets old enough to go to school and is handed a workbook that makes English sound like an alien tongue. There is much labeling and underlining with the object of teaching children how to put a sentence together – even though they’ve been putting sentences together without the slightest difficulty since they learned how to talk.

But isn’t grammar instruction important if you want to write error-free sentences? Tune in next time for the last of these three posts.

a circle divided into fourths



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