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Grammar is not a lost art … so why is teaching it such a challenge?


The Grammar Debate

The grammar debate is never ending. Should we waste our precious time – and our children’s time – by teaching grammar in schools?

Most parents would say, “Absolutely, please teach them grammar,” while correcting their children’s written assignments. Yet, there is an ongoing push in education to let children learn grammar through “absorption.” Where did we get the belief that students will “pick up” the art of grammar the same way they pick up learning to speak a language? If it were possible, what are the implications of such a method?


Writing How We Speak

We all know learning to do something well is not as simple as being exposed to it. You don’t learn to paint by looking at paintings, and you don’t learn to play the guitar by listening to Slash rip-out solos. So why do we think people can pick up the art of grammar, especially when they are mostly exposed to mediocre grammar at best. Yet, for better or for worse, people do pick up language and speech through hearing it. As creatures of imitation, we learn everyday colloquial speech easily. Children learn from media and peers, adults pick up hip lingo from kids, verbal and nonverbal expressions from colleagues, newscasters, talk show hosts, or cultural icons.

Regrettably, writing the way we speak rarely conveys the message we intend. Speech is full of many other social cues that deliver a person’s intended meaning. From tone-of-voice to hand gestures, environment to social context, meaningful looks, or perhaps slipping-in an analogy for clarification, there are many elements that make us understand people when they speak, whether or not they actually say what they mean.


Write Exactly What You Mean

Writing stands alone. It lacks environmental, visual or acoustic cues that express meaning, which speech provides. Writing must use exact words, contain more detail, draw upon fully formed examples, and follow grammar rules. Consequently, writing must be more precise than verbal communication, or it risks becoming confusing.

If it were possible to learn to write well through “absorption,” students would have to spend an equal amount of time engaging and re-articulating grammatically correct texts as they spend communicating vocally. Unfortunately, with only 24 hours in a day that is a luxury few people can afford. One option would be to major in literature or humanities. However, in a world that prioritizes business acumen, majoring in literature alone results in limited career options. Instead, we teach our children how to be great business people, with no foundation in basic communication.

The consequence: for all the business sense our young, brave, wide-eyed, engaged, and entrepreneurial citizens have when they enter the workforce, many of them can barely string together a sentence in correspondence. They have difficulty finding work, supervisors don’t respect them as much as their work colleagues who write well. They can’t adequately or professionally convey their opinion to management and they may find themselves unable to move up “the ladder.”


Teaching Grammar

Contrary to popular belief, it is not social media that’s doing this to young people. It’s us. We need teachers to actively teach grammar in schools, to push for grammar to be taught, regardless of what the provincial curriculum says. We need parents to support that effort; we need small businesses and large corporations to support it.

A big problem with teaching grammar is finding the most effective methodology. Every new study that comes out seems to indicate that one teaching method or another doesn’t work. I find this peculiar, since grammar has been taught in the past, and historically there have been entire generations of educated people who learned “good grammar.”

When I taught writing composition at Simon Fraser University, I found that every class was different. Every class had a unique set of problems when it came to writing their essays. Teaching methods that may have worked for one class just weren’t appropriate for another. Now, while I don’t know much about teaching children grammar, I do know what it’s like to stand in front of a room of stubborn 18-20 year olds who think they know everything, and proceed to tell them that they are not making any sense. I had three short months to teach my classes how to write well. I only saw them once a week. Thus every semester I had to reinvent my approach and only had a small window of time to do so. This is to say, teaching writing – grammar, syntax, form, etc. – with limited time and unexpected obstacles is not impossible. Succeeding in the effort is infinitely rewarding. Every semester my students left my classroom having learnt something.


For Elementary and High School Teachers

At Alpha Textbooks we have an array of books and resources to aid elementary and high school teachers in teaching grammar and writing in general. Not all of them are going to work for every teacher, but that’s the beauty of having options. What makes us unique is that we specialize in all publishers and we aim to source materials that work for you regardless of producer, origin or cost. We want our clients to be happy. When teachers come to us with a request to look at books, we take them through our warehouse to show what we have in stock and what we can source.

We will dedicate some future posts to reviews on books that tackle writing and grammar. In the meantime, if you are interested in looking at options for teaching writing composition, give us a call.


Here are some other articles that also deal with the topic of grammar in Canadian schools:

“How is grammar being taught in schools?” by Camilla Cornell in Today’s Parent. 

“The Case for Teaching Grammar,” by Paul Budra in Education Canada.


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