The Grammar Lesson
By Steve Kowit
A noun’s a thing. A verb’s the thing it does.
An adjective is what describes the noun.
In “The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz”
of and with are prepositions.
The’s an article, a can’s a noun,
a noun’s a thing. A verb’s the thing it does.
A can can roll – or not. What isn’t was
or might be, might meaning not yet known.
“Our can of beets is filled with purple fuzz”
is present tense. While words like our and us
are pronouns – i.e., it is moldy, they are icky brown.
A noun’s a thing; a verb’s the thing it does.
Is is a helping verb. It helps because
filled isn’t a full verb. Can’s what our owns
in “Our can of beets is filled with purple fuzz.”
See? There’s almost nothing to it. Just
memorize these rules…or write them down!
A noun’s a thing, a verb’s the thing it does.
The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz.
Grammar. Many of us remember endless worksheets with hundreds of drills that were totally unconnected to reading or writing in school. And, most of us probably don’t remember any of the skills from those worksheets. And, then there are those of us who never learned grammar at all. Instead, our teachers expected us to pick up it up from the reading and writing we did in class.
Why Is Grammar Important?
There has been a movement away from explicit grammar instruction because students found it boring and ineffective. However, research shows that an understanding of grammar greatly improves reading comprehension. Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Founding Director of the Center for Literacy, explains, “Studies over the years have shown a clear relationship between syntactic or grammatical sophistication and reading comprehension; that is, as students learn to employ more complex sentences in their oral and written language, their ability to make sense of what they read increases, too.” In other words, students need to be able to break down (and build up) different pieces of the sentence in order to better understand what they are reading. He gives an example:
Look at the following sentence from Nikki Giovanni: “The women of Montgomery, both young and older, would come in with their fancy holiday dresses that needed adjustments or their Sunday suits and blouses that needed just a touch – a flower or some velvet trimming or something to make the ladies look festive.”
It is a long sentence (44 words), and it has lots of embedding (witness the author’s use of two commas and an em-dash). I surmise many students would struggle to make sense of this sentence primarily because of the complex grammar. How would you deal with this?
…I’d show them how to break this sentence down. For example, I would point out that the phrase between the commas, “both young and older,” adds an idea but that I want to set it aside for now. That would simplify the sentence a bit: “The women of Montgomery would come in with their fancy holiday dresses that needed adjustments or their Sunday suits and blouses that needed just a touch – a flower or some velvet trimming or something to make the ladies look festive.”
Professor Shanahan continues to break down the sentence into its distinct grammatical parts. Through this parsing, students gain a great understanding of the text. In the example above, Shanahan is pointing out how important grammar is to reading comprehension.
How To Teach Grammar
So, what do we do about grammar? Should we do grammar drills? Should we hope that the students pick it up from reading?
A study in the International Organization of Scientific Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences published in March 2014 discusses effective grammar instruction. The researchers found that in the past, drilling and implicit instruction impeded the acquisition of language. That means that not only did that kind of grammar instruction not help students comprehend better, it actually held them back.
Instead, the researchers suggest a “consciousness-raising” form of grammar instruction. They explain consciousness-raising as “…techniques that encourage learners to pay attention to language form in the belief that an awareness of form will contribute indirectly to language acquisition. Techniques include having students infer grammatical rules from examples, compare differences between two or more different ways of saying something, observe differences between a learner’s use of a grammar item and its use by native speakers. A consciousness-raising approach is contrasted with traditional approaches to the teaching of grammar (e.g., drilling, sentence practice, sentence combining), in which the goal is to establish a rule or instill a grammatical pattern directly.”
Consciousness-raising grammatical instruction engages learners in thinking and communicating about language. Therefore, language, rather than content, becomes the focus of the conversation. The students do not need to do worksheets about the grammar; they need to communicate about the grammar and develop knowledge. The above-noted example is exactly the kind of consciousness-raising grammar instruction that has proven results. Students gain grammatical knowledge and can then apply that knowledge to the next passage they read. Through this grammatical instruction, students become more fluent and motivated readers.
It’s time for teachers to move away from drills, but not away from grammar.
We can help students grow as readers through an awareness of grammatical structure. In that sentence, can is a verb. We can take action!