Week 20: The War Against Grammar

The War Against Grammar, by David Mulroy

Mulroy is a classics professor, which gives him some really good insights into the issue here. He starts off by quoting the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and their steadfast opposition to the explicit teaching of grammar in schools. For several decades now, the NCTE has maintained that grammar instruction is actually counterproductive to students' writing and that grammar should never be mentioned in class except in passing as part of a writing lesson. Students should read and write a lot, and that will teach proper grammar intuitively.

Now, I think I'm pretty much the poster child for this method of teaching. I learned very little grammar in school (I did not get as far as adverbs or prepositions), but I read all the time, and I did some writing for classes. On the whole, I can write coherent sentences and make myself understood. I'm about as good as it gets if teaching grammar is mostly ignored.

And I am not at all happy with the education I received. I don't think I am alone among my classmates in feeling that writing, as a discipline, is a murky swamp full of mysterious pitfalls. If I make a mistake, I often don't know it and can't fix it. I really wish that I had been taught better, and I've spent a lot of time since trying to remedy it, but I'm still struggling with gerunds and participles. Grammar, like language in general, is much easier to learn for children.

So Professor Mulroy's manifesto in favor of teaching grammar to students was right up my alley. He offers a clear argument for the importance of grammar, along with quite a bit of history as well. Mulroy points out that students who don't know the basics of English grammar often exhibit what he calls a "higher illiteracy;" they can express themselves well enough, but they often cannot comprehend complex texts. As proof he offers the results of a test he gave his students: to paraphrase the first line of the Declaration of Independence. Such students also tend to shy away from learning other languages. So the need for "21st century skills" would seem to dictate that we need to teach more grammar!

My solution for my own kids is to put them through the most rigorous grammar program that I know of. I also use a writing program that is very explicit in every step. It turns out that writing doesn't have to be a swamp; there are tools and methods for saying exactly what you want to say, it's just that I don't have many of them. I hope we can do better for the next generation, but don't expect the NCTE to help much.


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