Saturday, January 12, 2013

Grammar Is Great

I have a guilty secret: I enjoy teaching grammar. In my10th grade English class, the first 2 weeks back to school after Christmas break (that weird little interlude after exams and before the end of the semester) are always a grammar unit. And it’s always a great little change of pace. 

Grammar gets a bad rap these days in English education circles. The only time you are ever supposed to teach it is in context when a student’s writing could be improved by a particular bit of knowledge. That’s good, and no wonder Americans are the great monolingual nation. 

Most of my students at an international school for missionary kids in Tokyo, Japan, are already at least bilingual. When I ask how many of them think that they will learn at least one additional language in their lives, over 50% raise their hands. They won’t do that without knowing grammar. 

And there’s more. When else would we get to play with Tom Swifties (did my heart good to overhear one 15-year-old boy working to explain to 3 other boys what was funny about “‘He’s dead,’ said Tom gravely”), point out that prepositions in Japanese should really be called “post-positions” since they always come after the noun instead of before, or speculate on the connection between language and culture. 

Here’s one of those speculations: Is Japanese culture more patient and regulated than American because the verb comes at the end of the sentence, or is it the other way around? That thought struck me when I wanted to clear the center of a middle school classroom for an activity and ended up with chaos. I said, “Take your desks and chairs...” and at that point so many 7th graders started running around with their desks and chairs that nothing else I said could be heard. I stood there thinking, “If I’d said that in Japanese, I’d have said, ‘Desks and chairs,’ and they’d have known the direct object that was going to receive the action of whatever verb was coming, ‘to the side of the room,’ and they’d have known the direction the action was going, and finally: ‘take!’” And only then could they begin to move. 

So our essential questions for the unit are as follows: How does knowing grammar help me serve God and others by...
  • Talking about what makes good writing? 
  • Learning other languages? 
  • Appreciating the order and diversity of creation?
The immediate benefit of grammar, of course, is in that first point. Knowing grammar helps us improve our own and others’ writing because it gives us the vocabulary to identify characteristics of good writing and patterns of appropriate conventions. 

Imagine the opposing basketball team suddenly throws on a full court press and scores 3 quick baskets. Your coach calls a time out, but he doesn’t have the vocabulary point guard, post, block, key, lane, elbow, cut, pick, or roll. And he only has 60 seconds to explain to your team what to do. “Now I want the tall person who usually plays under the basket to line up on that little boxy-looking thing that’s close to the basket at the bottom of the rectangle that’s right in front of the basket, the one where the freethrow line makes the side opposite the end line...” EEERRRRR! Buzzer. Timeout over. 

Grammar is just the vocabulary so I can call a quick timeout in your writing and tell you what to adjust to do better. “Pronoun-antecedent problem here.” “Misplaced modifier here.” 

At the same time as we are studying grammar, we’re also revising and editing a paper. And students never simply hand in a paper without doing some reflecting. This year when they handed in their revised draft for editing, I told them to do 3 things to the front page before handing it in:
  1. Highlight all verb phrases
    1. For passive verbs, consider changing to active.
    2. For verb phrases where the main verb is a form of be, consider a stronger verb.
  2. Circle all adverbs
    1. For adjective- or adverb-modifying adverbs like really, very, and extremely, consider dropping the first adverb and choosing a stronger adjective or adverb (very poor to impoverished).
    2. For verb-modifying adverbs, consider dropping the adverb and choosing a stronger verb (walk slowly to trudge, shuffle, wander, or meander).
  3. Underline the first word of each sentence
    1. Consider changing the structure when 2 sentences within 1 paragraph start with the same word.
    2. Beware of too many sentences on a page starting with the same word. 
With this time for focused reflection, students realize themselves what I could have pointed out and they’d have forgotten. One boy realized that he’d started 3 sentences on the front page with “Now.” He also reflected when he turned in his final draft, “I didn’t realize how much passive voice I used.” When I edited the paper of another, he had already marked out the weak “be” verb in “...which is a violation of Jesus’ commandment...” and changed it to “...which violates Jesus commandment....”

If I’d marked those editing changes, the students would have corrected them, and then reverted to the same patterns again the next time.

Three lessons:  
  • Most students will engage with just about anything that you give them a really good reason to. 
  • A little extra time spent on helping students uncover meaning is much more efficient in the long run.
  • Grammar is great.

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