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					A Week in the Life


A Week in the Life: A Secondary School “Teaching Grammar in Context” Consultant Elizabeth A. Puente English 574 Dr. Constance Weaver March 18, 2001

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First Day Why Teach Grammar Anyway? Don’t Our Students Already Know the Grammar of Their Language? So, you want to know how to teach grammar? My advice: First, ask yourself why you teach grammar. You hear your students moan when you hand them a worksheet on sentence diagramming: “Why do we have to do this?” Relax. You no longer have to make up reasons that you are not even sure are good reasons for teaching grammar. Why? Because we need to seriously question why we teach grammar and consider exactly what our students are really asking us: What is the purpose of knowing grammar? Sure, for some, language is interesting in itself and many, like linguists, study language like we study science. In addition, if we are teaching to a standardized test, which is a problem in itself, teaching grammar is perhaps justifiable to get the top scores, if that is the goal. The argument could also be that learning grammar in one language helps to learn another language (see Weaver, 1996, p.23-25 for more reasons why teachers continue to teach grammar). With this argument, it will be important to look at the difference between learning and acquiring a language. However, the deciding question becomes this: does teaching grammar help our students become better able to use

language as readers, writers, and even speakers? The studies, personal experience, and the proven alternative approaches to teaching grammar, which I will present to you this week, will hopefully produce a

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paradigm shift in your underlying assumptions about the purpose of teaching grammar. My purpose here is to help you create effective writers, readers, and speakers because isn‟t that really our principal goal as secondary teachers as we consider the teaching of grammar? Let me start with my experience with another language. I have had the enthralling but at times frustrating beyond description opportunity to learn and acquire Spanish. Why do I say “to learn and acquire Spanish?” Glad you asked. It relates specifically to the explicit teaching of grammar. I have spent countless hours learning the rules of Spanish grammar, remembering some, and forgetting the majority. I began learning Spanish as an adult. The teaching methods in my first Spanish classes taken at the college level were structured around the teaching of grammar. We moved in a linear fashion, building on to what we already knew. Piece work. Small parts to big parts. Subject pronouns. The present indicative. Descriptive adjectives.

Possessive adjectives. Reflexive verbs. Present progressive. Demonstrative adjectives and pronouns. The preterit. Prepositions and prepositional pronouns. Indirect-Object pronouns. And so on. This is what Krashen (1981) refers to as language learning, a conscious process of learning and “knowing” about a language. I have a conscious knowledge of Spanish, because I learned about it. On the other side is language acquisition. Krashen (1981) makes the argument that theoretically it is possible for adults to acquire additional languages, a process children use in developing first languages. While studying in Mexico, I was using the language everyday. My focus turned to the content of the language, and its function in the real world—the use of the language in writing such as literature, my own writing, and in oral communication. I began acquiring the language, my focus being how native

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speakers, the experts, used the language. Knowing every grammar rule written since the beginning of time did not help when I needed to interact naturally and without the hesitation that comes with trying to remember and apply the “rules.” In my contention against teaching grammar, it is important to know this about the language acquisition theory: “It [acquisition] requires meaningful interaction in the target language—natural communication—in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding” (Krashen, 1981, p.1). In other words, the content of language is more important than grammatical correctness. Krashen emphasizes that error correction, and explicit teaching of rules, is not relevant to language acquisition. He adds that although it is thought that error correction helps the language learner come to “the correct mental representation of the linguistic generalization,” he questions whether this feedback is effective to any significant degree (p.2). When we talk about teaching grammar, we are talking about learning language and being able to use our conscious understanding of the language. Krashen (1985) discusses the role learning and acquisition play in language production: “Our ability to produce utterances in another language comes from our acquired competence, from our subconscious knowledge. Learning, conscious knowledge, serves only as editor, or

Monitor” (p.2). Thus, learning language serves the role of helping us edit our acquired language. When we are talking about grammar in context or the meaningful use of language, we are talking about language acquisition, or true competence in a language. Competence in a language is far more powerful than knowing the grammar rules of a language. This I witnessed as I observed my son acquiring Spanish.

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Having the opportunity to study in Mexico for 10 months, I felt I would be a terrible mother if I did not give my 7-year-old son the same opportunity. Therefore, with son in tow, I was able to feed two birds with one feeder. I enrolled him in a bilingual school because I felt an all-Spanish school would be too overwhelming for him, since he knew very little Spanish when we arrived. I remember the first couple of weeks, at night lying in bed, when Jonathan would express his frustrations, saying he would never learn Spanish. I would try to ease his impatience by teaching him the things in our bedroom: cama, espejo, pared, recamara. For about two months, Jonathan said little Spanish, only some phrases he would hear frequently, and some he merely memorized without comprehension. What was happening in his little mind, I would think. At school his classes, except for one hour each day of Spanish, were conducted in English. While Jonathan did receive traditional grammar studies of English, his Spanish studies were focused on reading comprehension, whole language activities, and the natural use of the language. For example, during recess, although he and his classmates were encouraged to speak English in the classroom, they spoke what was most comfortable for them: Spanish. At home, with his cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, Jonathan would use only Spanish. An amazing thing happened after about two months: Jonathan began speaking not only more Spanish, but also he was using structures that were more complex. One indication of the complexity of his speech was his use of verb tenses. He began with the present progressive, then the present, the past, and with time, he was using compound verb forms. But he learned nothing of Spanish grammar, concepts I had studied formally for years; he was just trying to participate in life and communicate. He was acquiring Spanish. He was gaining true competence of the language. So much that

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he, rightfully so, began correcting my use of Spanish. The delay in communication Jonathan experienced is actually a normal occurrence that Krashen (1985) describes as “the silent period” (p. 9). Children may experience a time, sometimes more than six months, when they are simply trying to understand messages in another language before they can produce the language. Understanding this “silent period” and recognizing that our students are still acquiring English helps us to appreciate that our students need time to understand new structures before we can expect new structures to emerge in their writing. It is essential to allow our students to use their language naturally. They

already intuitively know the grammar; although, they may not be able to explicitly talk about it, they certainly are capable of using and generating grammatically correct structures in their language and developing powerful writing through exposure to literature, and practice with their own writing.

Second Day Breaking the focus on Correctness: The Complete Sentence Syndrome. Let me begin today with these exclamations: Let your students write, freely! Let them develop their voice! Let them use their language, naturally! I find comfort in Tom Romano (1987), who could not agree with me more: “The key to helping our student writers grow is to keep them writing” (p.8). Something we do all the time can only become second nature to us, and so it must be with writing. Romano advises us that the majority of writing done in school should be free from judgment of correctness; only in the later stages of the writing process, toward the publishing stage, should standard conventions of writing be emphasized. He does not downplay the importance of

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conventional standards; rather, he emphasizes the development of the student‟s voice. I am sure all of us have worked with reluctant writers and I myself am a reluctant writer: I dread the look of a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled with my writing. I have worked with young writers in elementary school who suffer from what I call the “complete sentence syndrome.” These students have been trained to emphasize the complete sentence over creativity, freedom of expression, and developing voice. For

example, they have journals in which to write, and their instructions are to write four complete sentences on a topic chosen by the teacher. These students do not freely write because they are over-concerned with writing complete sentences. They have expressed this concern to me: “Can I write that? Is it a complete sentence?” These students are also overly concerned with spelling. Helping them write freely, with no holds barred, is difficult. Sadly, they are in the “complete sentence twilight zone.” Worse, you cannot detect their voice in their writing. Romano understands the dilemma of reluctant writers and he offers us this approach: “If teachers are willing to cut students loose by letting them write from the very first day, if they are willing to accept their students‟ dialects, idiolects, and developing understanding of written language conventions, students will quickly learn that they need not fear and loathe paper and pen” (p.9). Thus, let‟s get our students writing freely and then we can help them develop correctness. We certainly can learn a lot from Lois Matz Rosen (1987), who demonstrates how correctness in student writing can be developed as part of the writing process. She rejects traditional approaches such as drill exercises in grammar texts to teach mechanical and grammatical correctness. Studies show there is little transfer of skills learned during

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these exercises to student writing (p.139). In elementary school, my teacher thought it a good idea for the students to memorize the following and dictate it to her: Am, are, is Be, being, been Do, does, did, Have, has, had. May, might, must Can, could Will, would Was, were It went something like that. I still remember most of it. But what in the world is the point of it? What was my teacher trying to do? Was she doing what Constance Weaver (1996) refers to as “disciplining and training the mind” (p.3)? Hardly. She was wasting my mind, time, and talent. Rosen (1987) offers methods for developing correctness in student writing that are breaths of fresh air in the stifling pit of traditional grammar drills. She outlines important underlying assumptions to her methods that I wish my teacher had assumed:   Writing is a complex process, recursive rather that linear in nature, involving thinking, planning, discovering what to say, drafting, and redrafting. Learning to use the correct mechanical and grammatical forms of written language is a developmental process and as such is slow, unique to each child, and does not progress in an even uphill pattern. When students struggle to learn new skills such as using dialogue or writing a persuasive essay, they need time to master the unfamiliar aspects of mechanics and grammar that accompany them. The mechanical and grammatical skills of writing are learned when a writer needs to use them for real purposes to produce writing that communicates a message he or she wants someone else to receive. Responsibility for correctness of any given piece of writing should fall mainly on the student, not the teacher.




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Students learn to write by writing, and they learn to control the mechanical and grammatical elements of written English by writing, revising, and proofreading their own work (p.142).

If we respect these assumptions, we give our students freedom to be, freedom to create, and freedom to write. Third Day Literature, Imitation, Passion, and Prewriting Activities Romano would tell us to let students write, and so would Rosen (1987), who would add to let students read because exposure to literature allows students to observe and absorb variant uses of language in changing sentence and paragraphs structures. Reading literature, students observe conventional punctuation and grammar usage—and not so conventional punctuation and grammar usage since creative writers often experiment with language. Harry R. Noden (1999) knows the importance of literature in developing effective writing. The strategies he offers for developing student writing are creative and work without the traditional teaching of grammar. One strategy is imitation: “By imitating [a published writer], a writer attempts to internalize the structural design, not the specific content” (p.70). Imitation is an effective way for students “to enrich the grammatical options for original creation” (p.79). One imitation strategy he suggests is creating a parody of a well-known children‟s story using a different voice such as that of a sports broadcaster or newspaper opinion columnist. I have to think imitation is also effective with reluctant writers, giving them some structure to follow, similar to a fill in the blank but much better. It is encouraging that imitation reflects language acquisition: Students are seeing language being used meaningfully in literature and are learning to apply it.

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Prewriting strategies help trigger ideas and emotion in our writers. I have been working with a kindergarten student who speaks Spanish at home and is learning English in school. He has a high level of English comprehension but struggles with speaking in complete ideas or thoughts. He uses one word or short phrases, often leaving out a verb. Following the curriculum of the teacher, I help him write sentences using three assigned weekly words, for example, when, for, and but. Understandably, he struggles with using the words in complete sentences. What I have tried to do is stimulate his thoughts by looking around the little room in which we work. There is a poster, colorful and bright, of a rainforest full of animals, from a snake to a tiger. He knows the names of all the animals and has successfully created sentences using the idea-generating poster. I

believe his teacher could be more creative in helping her students write. Giving them three words and having them write three complete sentences is too constraining. I believe these children would use the words she assigns eventually and naturally in their own free writing. Prewriting activities such as helping students create images and

pictures in their mind in order to help students create detailed writing, is something Harry R. Noden applauds. Our students today live in a visual world: film, television, and video games dominate their lives. Noden (1999) explains: “Recognizing the appeal of media to students, teachers can use art and film as tools for enhancing detail” (p.36). An example strategy using visual stimulators is having students draw scenes from their own writing using a four step procedure: “write a description; draw and color an image of the description; discuss the drawing with a friend or teacher; revise the original written description after comparing it to the drawing” (p.37). Being able to visualize their writing helps students fill in details about what they see.

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Fourth Day Please, Teacher, No More Grammar Worksheets! Moving Beyond Behavioral Principals of Learning Have mercy on your students! Understand how they learn! It would be nice if we could neatly package the learning process. However, it is a messy chaotic process. The traditional teaching of grammar, a behavioral approach, does not fit the reality of the learning process. Luckily, we have the cognitive and constructivist learning theories to help us develop effective curriculum that reflects how learning really happens. Constructivist and cognitive theories of learning reflect these observations: “Learners do not typically master something correctly all at once”; “Something learned may be temporarily not applied as the person is trying something new” (Weaver, 1996, p.61); “Errors are a natural part of learning a language; they arise from learners‟ active strategies: overgeneralization, ignorance of rule restrictions, incomplete rule application, hypothesizing false concepts” (Weaver, 1996, p.62); “It is not unusual for people acquiring a skill to get „worse‟ before they get better and for writers to err more as they venture more” (Shaughnessy quoted in Weaver, 1996, p.70); “One of the problems with overreacting to error is that it stunts our students‟ growth as writers” (Weaver, 1996, p.81). These observations help illustrate the discord between behavioral approaches to

student error—they reflect the failure of the student to learn the correct form—and the

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constructivist approach, which views errors as a natural part of learning a language. Errors in student writing should be welcomed, not shunned. They show risk taking and exploration. Donald M. Murray (1989) says it this way: “Students should share in the purposeful unknowing, for writing is not the reporting of what was discovered, but the act of exploration itself” (p.4). This exploration should not only include the content of what is being written but also the use of the language, sentence and paragraph structure, punctuation and grammar included.

Fifth Day O.K. I’m Not that Radical: Teaching Some Grammar Can Be Helpful It‟s all about context. Grammar should be taught—if it must be taught—within the context of students‟ writing and through the use of literature. Period. I will not move to the left any more than that. With that said, let‟s look at a limited number of grammar concepts that can be helpful and best learned while students are editing their own writing. I believe Constance Weaver, Carol McNally, and Sharon Moerman (2001) have it right when they say: It is convenient for us to be able to refer to “nouns,” “subjects,” and “predicates” when we are talking about things like subject-verb agreement. However, a little grammar goes a long way when it comes to helping students edit for the use of standard conventions of writing, and the concepts can be taught as we discuss literature and the students‟ own writing. (p.17) Going by their teaching experience and professional reading, they conclude that the question should not be whether to teach grammar but rather what specific grammar concepts help students fortify and improve their writing.

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Based on Francis Christensen‟s work in his Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, Weaver suggests teaching grammatical structures that published writers commonly use: the participial phrase and the absolute. Using mini-lessons, we can teach these grammar concepts using examples from literature and then have our students experiment with them in their own writing. Weaver also suggests using sentence-combining exercises. Like Noden, Weaver et al. demonstrate the power of prewriting activities, along with art and literature, in helping grammar emerge naturally in students‟ writing. I remember helping a second grader write about skateboarding in his journal. After having worked with him before, I knew he suffered from the “complete sentence syndrome.” To help him move beyond such structured and drab writing, I tried to stimulate visions in his head using the five senses. I asked him what he smelled, saw, and heard when he skateboarded. I asked him what he tasted when he skateboarded—I got a laugh with this one. Finally, I asked him what he felt when he skateboarded. I was so excited when he answered: rocks pounding under my skateboard. I said, “Yes, write it!” What a great example of “emerging grammar” with the use of what I think I will call “stimulators.” He had no idea he had used an absolute. With this student, I had experienced exactly what Weaver had learned from the experiences of a former student and seventh grade teacher, Sarah:   Various kinds of prewriting experiences can greatly enhance the quality of students‟ writing. A variety of adjectival and adverbial constructions will probably emerge when students are guided in focusing on the details of experience, rather than on grammar (p.20).

What a wonderful revelation, the idea that decorative language emerges without necessarily teaching grammar constructions. I imagine this is not a new idea. I bet that

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published writers use absolutes and participial phrases and have no clue what they are. I used them in my writing before I knew what they were. Concluding Thoughts I truly believe that we can help our students become effective, powerful, creative, and engaged writers without explicitly teaching grammar concepts. And I encourage you to develop curriculum that helps students naturally use language with the help of literature, students‟ own writing, and “grammar emerging” activities. However, I am sure it is comforting to many of you to know that teaching a limited number of grammar concepts proves to be effective in developing writing. The key is to teach grammar in moderation and always in context: in the context of literature, in the context of students‟ writing. I like to think by teaching students grammar in context we allow them room to explore and take risks, thus giving them freedom to develop, transform, and transcend language.

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Works Cited Krashen, S.D. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Krashen, S.D. (1985). Longman Murray, D.M. (1989). Expecting the unexpected: Teaching myself—and others—to read and write. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook. Noden, H. R. (1999). Image grammar: Using grammatical structures to teach writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook. Romano, T. (1987). Clearing the way: Working with teenage writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Rosen, L.M. (1987). Developing correctness in student writing: Alternatives to the error hunt. English Journal, 76, 62-69. Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook. Weaver, C. , et al. “To grammar or not to grammar: That is not the question.” Voices from the Middle. 8.3 (1991): 17-33. The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. New York:

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