April 29, 2010

To Parse or Not to Parse

As a writer, grammar (i.e., using language correctly) is extremely important to me; in fact, I can be a bit of a "grammar Nazi" about incorrect grammar, visibly cringing when I see all-too-frequent mistakes in any type of professional writing. I have no tolerance for usage and punctuation (or spelling) errors in published articles and stories or on business signage. Such mistakes simply say "unprofessional" and lead me to question everything else about the piece or business.

Yet, you won't find a grammar book in use in our homeschool at this time. In fact, the only "grammar book" in the entire house, Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, is a wonderful grammatical send-up, not an instruction manual. And I fully intend to keep it that way for at least the next five or six years, as I refuse to teach formal grammar until my girls are at least in middle school.

I know - I am speaking homeschool blasphemy! Since becoming involved with the (wonderful) homeschool community starting back when my girls were just toddlers, I've found that grammar instruction is a "holy grail" of sorts among home-educating moms - a topic most revere even as most also revile or fear it...something many feel they "must" teach in a formal way almost as soon as a child can walk, even though they (and their young kids) are continually frustrated with the process and almost daily seem to wish they could chuck it out the window.

And I can understand why that happens. Homeschool moms know that one of the most important skills they can (and must) teach their children is how to effectively communicate, especially in writing. But teaching kids to "really write" is a messy, subjective process with which many parents are uncomfortable. In contrast, grammar is objective (there's one right answer all the time) so it's easy to evaluate and grade. And most people - homeschool moms and the general public alike - have been led to believe that a person who has a solid grip on formal grammar will automatically - almost by definition - be a good writer. So homeschoolers slog through grammar book upon grammar book, despite frequent tears of frustration, a gnawing gut-feeling that the kids aren't really "getting it," and - worst of all - deep angst that it's not helping Johnny learn to write an essay anyway. But, they reason, "I'm supposed to do this. Sometimes necessary things aren't fun or easy. It'll all turn out in the end."

Which is true in many learning and life situations. But the sad fact of the matter in this case is that they've been fed a bill of goods. Knowing all the intricacies of each definition for every part of speech and being able to diagram a 27-word sentence has absolutely no bearing on whether or not a child will be able to effectively communicate in writing. And, in fact, drowning a child in early formal grammar instruction may actually hurt his ability to become a good writer. After all, the best way to learn to write well is to write often, but kids who believe writing equals (understandably hateful) grammar study avoid writing at all costs - which means they practice little and, therefore, have poor end results.

How does this work?

Well, most people make the serious mistake of equating grammar with writing - which is why they believe that making their six-year olds parse sentences for an hour a day will turn them into this century's Mark Twains and William Shakespeares. In point of fact, though, grammar is but one aspect of writing - important, yes, especially in final drafts intended for some sort of publication, but not the end-all-and-be-all of effective composition. Indeed, before an author even begins to think about a piece's grammar, she must first decide on a topic and narrow her audience, then compose a first draft, and then revise multiple times in order to get to the essence of what she wants to communicate. And only when she is finally content with the content does she begin the editing process - which is the proper home for focusing on grammar, as well as spelling and other elements of a piece's "form." So we do our children serious harm in leading them to believe that studying formal grammar from an early age will turn them into competent writers. We may be preparing them for jobs as proof-readers, but they may entirely miss the writing boat in the process.

Of course, knowing how to use correct grammar is an essential part of becoming a good writer - because, eventually, an essay, article, or story must be edited, and an author must be able to accomplish that task on his own. However, beginning formal grammar instruction at an early age and continuing it ad nauseum every year of a child's school career is a huge mistake, in my opinion.

I do believe in formal spelling instruction from an early age - beginning at age six or seven in most cases - but feel very strongly that formal grammar should wait until the teen years. What's the difference?

Well, for starters, spelling instruction - especially using All About Spelling's methods - is a "concrete" activity. It's developmentally age-appropriate for children beginning other areas of early formal academic instruction (learning to read, early math, etc.) because it's comprehensible for the concrete way in which young children think. True, a child must be ready to understand that letters make sounds or "talk" before either reading or spelling makes sense, but early elementary-aged children can handle that concept and then - because sounds can be concretely represented by letters or letter combinations - it makes sense to them.

In contrast, grammar is a wholly abstract concept, and it does not compute in young children's minds. Think about it: You're attempting to teach your child to distinguish between nouns and verbs, and so you lay a pencil on the table and ask, "What is that?" Of course, the child immediately - and correctly - says, "It's a pencil," (in a dutifully-composed complete sentence, as the teacher's manual has insisted he must during these artificial grammar lessons). That's what he sees; it's right there, though he thinks you're asking a rather silly question because he's known about pencils since he was still in diapers. But you respond saying, "No, it's a noun. What's the definition of a noun?" If your child is obedient and good at memorization, he'll spit back at you the official definition of a noun, but - trust me - he doesn't really "get" what you're aiming at because you're talking abstract to a concrete brain.

In another vein, formal spelling instruction is good and necessary in the elementary years because spelling is a progressive task that does not come naturally. As we know from AAS's six levels, early skills from Level 1 build a solid foundation for what comes later, and learning to spell "everything" correctly is a multi-year process - appropriate to begin early because of its concrete nature, as stated above. And - given our "mixed up" language - becoming a good speller in English does not come naturally to most children. Spanish-speaking children, on the other hand, likely don't need nearly as much formal spelling instruction because Spanish is a much more phonetic language, making it easier to pick up in informal ways. But we are stuck with English, and so learning all the "rules" (as AAS teaches) is imperative for almost every child.

In contrast, however, grammatical knowledge (as is necessary to produce a competent writer by high school graduation) is a static body of knowledge and does come naturally to almost every native speaker of the language. There are only eight parts of speech, after all, and the definition for each is - to an abstract thinker - pretty basic and easy to master. Yes, some usage and punctuation rules can seem complicated (When exactly does one use lay versus lie, for example? And when do I use it's instead of its?). But the vast majority of rules can be understood (when presented at the correct age) in very short order - and most do not build on each other but rather stand as separate bits of knowledge. Furthermore, native speakers of English who have had good models (i.e., parents who speak using correct grammar) will naturally write using mostly correct grammar from the get-go. In other words, my daughter will not write, "The cars goes," because that's not how she speaks; she will write as she speaks, and so her written grammar (though not spelling) will be largely correct even in a first draft.

In addition, grammatical errors are best corrected - at any age - within the context of real writing, not through artificial exercises set up in grammar books. Thus, my daughter now effectively grasps the concepts of starting sentences with capital letters and ending them with appropriate end marks as we talk through and edit her real writing; she will not, however, necessarily apply that knowledge to real writing no matter how many dozens of sentences she corrects in a grammar book. Similarly when she's older, we can much more effectively address any concerns over dangling participles through examining her real writing than through drilling artificial sentences in a grammar text. And - as we teach grammar by examining a child's real writing - we avoid the issue of boring her to tears. That is, we need only address her grammatical problems without wasting her time making her study concepts in a grammar book that she already (automatically) knows.

Having said all that, I will not allow my daughters to "publish" (in any venue) grammatically incorrect pieces when they begin - at ages eight and nine - to study composition in the fall. But I will not pull out a grammar book and attempt to drill them on parts of speech and comma usage between now and then. Doing that might feed them the lie that grammar equals writing or - worse - cause them to begin to hate (and avoid) writing if they (understandably) hate grammar...a tragic problem that occurs all too often in all school settings. Instead, we'll work on grammar as necessary for the next several years through correcting their actual writing as errors occur. And I have no doubt that - just as toddlers who initially speak incorrectly eventually self-correct through repeated practice - they will automatically, naturally - in that informal instruction - "absorb" most of the rules of good writing grammar.

At some point - when they are in seventh, eighth, or ninth grade (whenever I perceive that they are solidly abstract thinkers) - I'll provide a short (probably semester-long) formal grammar course as one (small) piece of their larger secondary-level language arts program. That class will focus on terminology and the more obscure rules and irregular usages. It will be a short study for two reasons: 1.) I fully expect, as I said, that they will already know much of the necessary information from having informally studied it through real writing; and 2.) As abstract thinkers who haven't been beat over the head with theretofore incomprehensible grammar drill, I expect that they'll be able to quickly master any new ideas and, perhaps, even enjoy the short journey, knowing that they'll very quickly get back to more practical, realistic uses of language (i.e., communicating in various ways for real purposes).

And therein lies the bottom line I think we all need to keep in mind: As educators, we probably don't seek to turn our children into little linguists - in fact, kids wired with tons of "word smart" such that they might want to pursue linguistics will happily and with great enthusiasm study all that necessary knowledge in college. On the other hand, we know that each of our children - within the framework of whatever purposes the Lord has in mind for them - must be able to effectively communicate, orally and in writing. And they need to have mastered much of the skills necessary for those tasks by the time they take the SAT or ACT during their junior year or - at the latest - upon graduation. So we need to focus our time and energy on helping our children master what all will need to know. In this case, that means a solid, general understanding of applied grammar (i.e., as it's used in real writing), addressed at the proper time and in the most effective ways. In my opinion, that means delaying formal grammar instruction (while still addressing it informally with young children) and then teaching a short, intentional "Introduction to Grammar" course in the early secondary years with the goal of providing information that can subsequently be applied to sustained, systematic, real writing instruction throughout high school.

As for parsing, our children need to know how to properly compose their thoughts in writing. While diagramming might be an interesting exercise for some, tearing sentences apart will actually do nothing to facilitate that goal. So - as for me an my house - we won't waste our time.


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