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“Teaching Grammar is In” Post

Teaching Grammar is In

On 22 September 2020 the Sydney Morning Herald published an article titled, “How does grammar help writing?”

Changes in the New South Wales school curriculum are afoot to introduce the teaching of English grammar in explicit ways. It has always been there but lacks continuity into upper primary and secondary school education. So the curriculum is to be narrower and deeper. In Maths the curriculum must pave the way for a compulsory Year 12 Maths subject in 2025.

In English, explicit teaching of grammar will replace some curriculum areas. The question posed in the SMH two years ago is now answered. Of course knowledge of grammar helps writing! Labelling parts of sentences into main clause (or two) and subordinate clauses is content based knowledge. With this knowledge teachers can discuss with students; mark and explain mistakes in students’ writing; and coach them in writing correct English using a common set of descriptors.

Complex ideas often require complex expression in complex sentences. Science and history do not require a different “type” of English. Different fields of study call for terminology for use in discussing subject matter, but the ways of thinking within one field are not different fundamentally from ways of thinking in other fields. The notion that science subjects require a different type of English and that thinking in the humanities is nuanced and value-laden (and probably emotionally-driven [wink-wink]) has been put forward in the media very recently too. What we need is a common language with commonly understood terms and meanings.

To discuss the field of English language expression we must have a pocket books of terms. And that is the nomenclature for the components and collective parts of a sentence in English. If you write on a student’s assignment “This is not a sentence” the student does not know why. No finite verb? Just a phrase? So the teacher writes an acceptable sentence to replace the non-sentence but is unable to discuss the fault in the student’s writing. Talking about English becomes so much easier with known and understood terms.

Is the teaching profession ready for the changes? Probably not. Teaching of grammar disappeared when Whole Language Theory became the dominant and prescribed teaching methodology for English language teaching. Two generations of teachers hence and it’s no wonder they don’t teach grammar because their own knowledge is poor. Not their fault!

Primary school teachers have, over time, introduced confusion in their use of terms due to their own lack of knowledge. If students in primary school can learn the word ‘multiplication’ they can also learn the word ‘conjunction’.  The word ‘connective’ is used to apply to adverbial phrases and adverbs as well as conjunctions, such as ‘despite’ and ‘allowing for error. In other words, they use a blanket term: connective. It also suggests that students cannot identify adverbial or adjectival phrases.

Another example is the misunderstanding of the perfect and past perfect tenses. Primary teachers across the board insist that the perfect tense of the verb be called the Past Perfect Tense. They want students to understand that the perfect tense is a past tense.

Example: “The instructor has made the point many times.”

Teachers teach that  ‘has made’ is called the Past Perfect Tense.” So what would teachers say to this sentence,

“The instructor had demonstrated many times before the students learned how to solder pipes.”

Teachers have no answer and yet ‘had demonstrated’ is the past perfect tense in this sentence. Wrong labelling, and I don’t know what they are going to do about it. There will be much to learn and re-learn in the teaching profession before we can teach English grammar effectively.

And round and round we go – after thirty or forty years we come back to where we left off. How old hat the teaching of grammar was for forty years!

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