At long last, here is the post I promised back when I wrote about how I teach writing on how I teach grammar.
Grammar and diagramming is not something that has always come easily for me. I remember 7th or 8th grade when diagramming was introduced in my Bob Jones Language Arts workbook.
My mom and I both gave up because we didn’t get it.
Fast forward a few years and I was an English major at the University of Idaho, enrolling in a 1-credit grammar class. After all, I was an English major so that I could homeschool better – grammar seemed like something I should know. That class met once a week for an hour and all we did was diagramming.
I absolutely loved that class.
One thing I learned: diagramming does make sense when presented as a logical system with reasons and wherefores. It becomes a visual representation of how a sentence is communicating meaning.
Fast forward another number of years when I was trying to help my brother and a couple other kids with a grammar class they were taking, using the Abeka workbook.
Grammar and diagramming, it seemed, was presented as a list of rules you had to follow, no rhyme or explanation or logic given. Here’s the rule. Memorize it. Here’s pages of sentences on which to practice said rule.
No wonder my mom and I were so frustrated with diagramming back in 7th grade (my mom was no grammar slouch). As I was trying to explain the grammar examples to the struggling students, I struggled, too. I didn’t see what was wrong with a number of the sentences given. I didn’t quite understand what the basis of their “rule” was – it seemed more stylistic than actual grammar-based.
No wonder most people are confused by grammar. It might not be your fault.
It might be the way grammar is usually taught.
I have heard stories from kids who were told by their teachers that English makes no sense, so just memorize the rules and pass the test.
Sure, English is a mishmash melting pot. Sure, there are inconsistencies because of that. But grammar does make sense. You don’t have to memorize a random assortment of rules. It is a system that works together and it can be fun to puzzle out a sentence into a diagram. Sure, sometimes it’s subjective – sometimes how you diagram depends on how you interpret the sentence. Those are the most fun and the most instructive kinds of sentences to examine.
If you teach grammar in a way that communicates “Grammar doesn’t make sense, just learn the rules,” neither you nor your kids will care for it nor actually learn it.
So what should we do?
What is grammar?
First, let’s clear up our terms.
Most language arts curriculums mash up punctuation, usage, mechanics, and grammar into one workbook per grade. Then we look at those programs and call it all together grammar.
Grammar, however, is the study of language and how it works. Every language has parts of speech (nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc.) and parts of a sentence (subject, predicate, direct objects, etc.). These terms come up in any language study, whether it’s study of your own language or a foreign language or a dead language. How do we put words together to communicate meaning? That’s the study of grammar.
Grammar gives us the vocabulary to analyze our writing and improve our style. But it needs to be studied separately from writing. It is the logical analysis of language.
Punctuation, usage, and mechanics fit better alongside writing instruction or can be done through copywork. They are really part of composition rather than the study of how language works.
When and how long should we study grammar?
Because grammar and diagramming is the logical analysis of language, I believe it is best studied in the middle school years.
Studying it every year throughout elementary, as most packaged workbook methods have you do it, is redundant. The reason you have to keep doing it is because it’s not going to stick except in the students who are naturally language or logic oriented. It’s like potty training your 18 month old. Some people claim it’s possible, but most kids won’t do it. You can spend a year and a half working on potty training or you can wait until 3 and do it in a couple weeks. You can train yourself to work them through the whole process every time and feel good about doing something “productive,” but it’s really you doing the work, not the child.
A year or two of grammar instruction done in middle school can be sufficient to learn the material. Then that knowledge can be applied in writing, used to discuss poetry or literature, or exercised in the learning of a foreign language. In other words, by high school they should be using grammar knowledge as a tool in other studies rather than as an independent subject to study. And that tool-level can be reached in 1-3 years. I’ve helped dozens of students do it.
In my college-level class, we learned the entire grammar book and diagramming system in 12-13 classes. Taking it down to middle school, it can certainly be done in 1-2 years.
Teacher helps for grammar.
Of course it does help to know the subject you want to teach, no matter what that subject is. Grammar is no exception. However, if you don’t, you have the opposite but just as effective model: instead of being the teacher, you are the co-learner.
Rather than trying to bluff your way through teaching lessons that you’re barely a step ahead in, step down from the front of the class and instead sit next to your students. Buy your own copy of the grammar book. Do it together. If it’s good for your child to learn, it’s good for you, too. Model what interest and learning looks like.
You might be more effective than a teacher who already knows the subject.
If you’re learning alongside your student (or if you’re studying in advance of your students), my top book suggestions are
- Our Mother Tongue
- Sentence Sense
- A Writer’s Reference – this is the reference from my English major days everyone called “Hacker’s,” any kind of reference book like it comes in handy.
These make great references and great brushing-up resources for the adult who wants a refresher or a quick overview. They don’t make the greatest books for a student to use. They might work for an independent and self-motivated high schooler.
What I’ve used.
Though I don’t use their program, I do use the Shurley grammar chants to learn definitions so we can have those on the tips of our tongues. I bought the 7th grade CD and the tracks have been in our morning time audio memory rotation off and on for years.
When it comes time to dig in and do some grammar, I have used Our Mother Tongue as my class outline guide. I skim the chapter to refresh my own knowledge before teaching, then teach the concept in my own words and with my own examples on the fly.
This year I thought I’d prefer a more open-and-go book because coming up with my own homework sentences is tiring. I used The Mother Tongue and I won’t do it again, as mentioned in this post.
Next time I need to do a “next level” grammar study, I’ll use Cottage Press’ Sentence Sense and teach from it like I teach from Our Mother Tongue – as a guide for my own direct teaching and not as a book for the kids to learn from independently – coming up with my own sentences for the students to practice on if I must.
Brandy swears by the free KISS grammar, and I bet it’s great, but I get a headache after about 30 seconds of being on the site.
Other options for grammar.
If you want a curriculum with more guidance and more of the work done for you – a curriculum you can sit next to your student and learn alongside – here are options I’ve either seen and think they look good or I’ve heard good reviews I trust:
- Cottage Press – an all-in-one language arts, grammar, and composition option
- Rod & Staff – workbook approach that does get the job done. You don’t have to do every workbook every year.
- Well-Ordered Language by Classical Academic Press
Grammar can be fun!
Besides the school study time, grammar can be a fun topic to explore and read about just like history and science. No, really!
Check out these resources to add a little grammar to your everyday atmosphere:
- Grammar Girl book & podcast
- Eats Shoots & Leaves (salty in places – read yourself and read aloud selections to your kids – more punctuation than grammar)
- Eats Shoots & Leaves for kids (punctuation more than grammar)
- The Dangerous Book for Boys has great grammar sections
Plus, I have these grammar books waiting for me on my shelf, but I haven’t read them yet:
Grammar is an important subject to study, but one we can learn alongside our kids as we go. It’s ok if you aren’t an expert, just start the student journey with your kids!