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Should we teach English grammar in our schools?

Authored By: 
Daniel Shabasson, language teacher

Is it important to teach English grammar in our schools? Do kids need to know the difference between a noun and an adjective, or between the subject and the direct object of a sentence? Before the 1960s, educators generally believed that understanding grammar was crucial to becoming an articulate speaker and a good writer of English. But a sea change in thinking occurred in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In the words of David Mulroy in his book The War Against Grammar, opponents of grammar teaching commenced a “war against grammar.” This was a systematic effort to eliminate grammar instruction from the classroom on the grounds that learning grammar was supposedly a waste of classroom time. The opponents of grammar instruction won this war. Nowadays, grammar is rarely taught to our kids, which Mulroy thinks is very unfortunate. Mulroy believes that the loss of grammar instruction has led to the deterioration of writing skills.

I’m not sure I agree with Mulroy in his claim that the demise of grammar instruction has led to worse writing skills. I know plenty of good writers who know little grammar. For the most part, native speakers of English implicitly know the grammar of their language. Learning to write well is arguably best taught by reading the works of great writers and imitating them. Lots of writing practice is critical.

Nevertheless, I fully agree with Mulroy in lamenting the removal of grammar instruction from schools. There are other important reasons for kids to learn grammar that have absolutely zero to do with writing or speaking English well. A person who does not understand grammar knows little about what language is. There is a whole field in academia known as linguistics that is concerned with how languages work. You can major in linguistics in college and go on to get a Ph.D. in it. Linguistics is not some esoteric field studying something peripheral to human life. Language is one of the most important phenomena impacting who we are and what we know and do in life. Language is the medium through which we represent everything else we know or do. It is what makes humans unique on our planet.

Without knowing the basics of grammar, it is impossible to know anything about linguistics because grammar is the starting point of linguistics. Just as you cannot understand higher math without knowing arithmetic, you cannot understand advanced linguistics without basic knowledge of grammar. A whole area of critical inquiry, linguistics, is ignored in our schools if we relegate grammar to the dustbin.

Failing to teach grammar to kids also complicates the learning of foreign languages. As a Spanish teacher, I know that a significant obstacle to learning Spanish is many students’ complete ignorance of the grammar of English. While a student can surely pick up a lot of Spanish without knowing grammar, it is significantly more challenging to become an advanced second-language speaker of Spanish without understanding its grammar. And familiarity with English grammar is a prerequisite to understanding Spanish grammar.

Finally, each language has an entirely different grammar, and that’s part of what makes each language uniquely beautiful. Its grammar is a significant component of its “personality.” Familiarity with the distinctive grammar of each language is needed to appreciate the language in its splendor so that each foreign language you pick up can become an old friend that you can love with all its defects and virtues.

 

Works Cited

Mulroy, David. The War Against Grammar. Heinemann, 2003.

 

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