Why We Should Teach Grammar

I hope I ruffle quite a few feathers today. I hope people become upset. I hope people take a moment to think about what we are teaching our children.

As an English teacher, of course I support teaching grammar in language arts. As a future mother, I support teaching grammar in language arts. As an English speaking citizen of the United States of America, who hopes to work closely with all kinds of people — no matter age, race, background, or livelihood — I support teaching grammar in language arts.

Here’s why!

Grammar includes sentence structure, parts of speech, different types of phrases, punctuation, and spelling. Yes, spelling.

While many things about our language have changed through time, and are continuing to change, I am a prescriptivist with descriptivist tendencies. English is a fluid language, adding words daily, changing the ability of an adverb to be in a certain place by simply popularizing the new way in a TV show (thanks, “Star Trek”). However, there are rules; and there are a lot of them. There are rules that need to be followed.

I was recently teaching my kids principal parts of verbs and the difference between the singular helping verb has and the plural helping verb had. The principle parts of verbs, while accompanied by rules, are sometimes broken. Rarely, but sometimes they are broken! With the helping verb has, I would never, ever say “I has a question;” however, I is singular and so is has! I breaks the rules. So does you.

We could move on even further into the “i before e, except after c” rule that is only followed by about 30 words in the English language.

We have rules for how words work, but not every word follows every rule all of the time. However, we would not know the difference if we didn’t first know the rule itself.

Now let’s pause and think how this affects our kids — because it does. While I may never, in common conversation, analyze a sentence and find the predicate noun or the appositive phrase, and I may never be quizzed on what an independent clause looks like or whether or not I should use a semi-colon or start a new sentence. However, I am expected to speak and write like an intelligible human being. I am expected, not merely as an English teacher, but as a professional. Over half of our lives are spent communicating, either with our loved ones or with authorities, with new people and old acquaintances, with commoners and VIPS. We cannot call ourselves good communicators until we have mastered our given language of communication.

My creative writing professor, Dr. Myers, told me that he did not want to see any of our poetry or short stories until we had mastered and understood the proper ways to write both genres. He said we had no ability to add to the culture unless we understood the culture. I was a little hurt by his words, but since then I have analyzed my pre-CW class poetry with post-CW poetry and let me tell you… It’s a world of difference. Since then I have played with form and broken some rules, but I was not allowed to do so, and I could not effectively do so, until I had mastered the forms, the rules, the guidelines.

The same is true for our children and students: we cannot let them play with conversational speech until they understand how it’s purest form is to be written and spoken. We cannot let them say, “Well, it doesn’t matter; that’s just how I do it.” We cannot let them throw out the rules because they seem archaic, because mainstream ignorance has changed them and deemed them out-of-fashion. I myself throw in a perf (perfect) and totes (totally) now and then. I myself may type “c u latr” in a text (that’s a lie, but you get the point) but understand that in a formal essay, an email to my boss, or a work application: THAT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.

We must know the rules before we can break them. We must understand how to write and communicate formally before we endeavor to do so informally. The same is true with friendship, is it not? When I met my Sophomore roommate, I wouldn’t have dreamed of calling her names for fun or “letting my hair down” — I wanted her to like me, to see me as intelligent and adult-ish. As time wore on in that Taylor suite, we became familiar and thus the names started being called, the hair started to be let down. From formal to informal. From picking up our dirty clothes to forgetting how to clean our room, we started formally and ended informally. The same is true for writing and communicating: we cannot break the rules until they know what the rules are.

Now, spelling. I have heard many elementary teachers protest spelling by saying it is unimportant in light of the fact that we have spell check; it’s too stressful on kids to learn vocabulary or have spelling tests. Try typing in colonel when you don’t know how to spell it. “cernal?” “cornel?” “cernel?” Sorry. No dice. How about the difference between saying there instead of their. Both are spelled correctly. Spell check won’t catch that. Spelling exists for a reason. Without consistency of spelling, our language would fall apart. We wouldn’t be able to communicate. Webster figured this out and thus we have the dictionary! Without consistency of spelling, the language wouldn’t exist.

I know many ignorant people who would say “Well, this is how I do it so who cares?” This kind of thinking, this blatant disregard for the rules is a creeping weed that will soon destroy a whole green, beautiful lawn.  Say y’all. Say ain’t. Speak in ebonics or deep southern drawl: I don’t care. What I do care about is that we acknowledge, understand, and can aptly apply the rules when necessary.

I am not trying to exclude certain ethnicities, cultural differences, or people groups. I am not trying to stand on my Puritanical soap-box of English teacher-y-ness. I am, however, trying to save my language. I am, however, dying to create competent, intelligent students who can effectively communicate.

If we cease to communicate, we cease to exist. If we must use the rules on the road, if we must use the grammar rules in foreign language classes, then I implore this generation of teachers, students, citizens, parents, kids, math-majors, and English-majors alike that if we do not follow the rules of our given language, we will soon become relics in a tomb where no one will be able to make sense of us.

That is why we should teach grammar in schools, K-12. I cannot wait to have children so I can teach them how cool and confusing this language is. And I cannot wait until they discover its nuances, its puns, its figurative language, its idioms. I cannot wait until they discover that there is an apostrophe with their name when they are speaking of their own items; that dependent clauses are joined to independent clauses with commas, thus giving clarity to a sentence; that when there are other commas in a sentence, we must then use semi-colons to separate the different parts.

If our land is beautiful and we must respect it, so should we do to our language. If our people and cultures are beautiful and we must respect them, so should we do to our language.

We must teach grammar. We must.

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