When and How to Teach Grammar: Beginning Reflections

Since grammar is so important, the question becomes, “when and how should I teach it?”

Happily, the first question is pretty easy, so I’ll deal with it first.

“When should I teach grammar?”

Always.

Or let me be a little more specific: any time you do anything that involves language or thinking.

I’ll remind my readers that the thinking part is just as important, because grammar is not ultimately rooted in language, which is a structured collection of symbols, but in thought itself, which uses those symbols to perform its task.

And I’ll push it a step further and say that grammar is not ultimately rooted even in thinking, but in reality itself. Nothing can exist without something “predicable” of it – i.e. something that you can say or think about it.

Thus grammar goes beyond language to thinking and thinking goes beyond words to reality – to things that exist.

But I can push a step further still and argue that grammar is ultimately rooted in God Himself. I might develop this thought further in a later post, but when Moses asked God whom he should tell the Egyptians and Israelites has sent him, God answered, “I am.”

That’s a pretty profound statement when we come to thinking about the world around us, the soul within, the people among us, and the God above us.

Which may explain why Nietzsche, that famous atheist, famously stated, “We will not be rid of God until we are rid of grammar.”

Indeed.

So that maybe answers the question why a Christian would want to study grammar – so we don’t get “rid of God.”

But it also lays a foundation for the answer to the question “When should I teach grammar?”

We must not think about grammar as an academic study. Life is not for school; school is for life. We should always teach grammar for the simple reason that we always do teach grammar.

If you are speaking to another person, you are helping form the pattern of that person’s thinking. You are contributing to his vocabulary (maybe that’s more obvious), and you are also contributing to the structure of his thought.

If you constantly speak to your two or three year old child in one and two word sentences, that is how your child will tend to think. And that’s more or less OK with a one year old, less so with a two year old, and horrible with a three year old.

Maybe it would help to draw a distinction between formal and informal instruction. But the two overlap a great deal, so don’t let the lines between the two grow too thick.

You are always teaching grammar informally, because you are always setting patterns for imitation for those around you.

To reverse the movement: If you listen to sermons with sloppy grammar, you will make a space in your soul for that pattern. If you like the person giving the sermon, you might even come up with (irrelevant) defenses for that sloppy grammar.

If you are a pastor or preacher, may I entreat on behalf of the God who gave us His written word and is the Living Word, please attend to your grammar.

If you listen to friends use sloppy grammar, you will find it much more difficult to resist the inclination to pattern your minds on the way they are speaking. Friends can literally make each other dumber or smarter.

As a mother, you should do everything in your power to form words correctly and to form sentences even more correctly. If you are not confident in your own grammar, read to your children, but only from books with sound grammar.

And don’t be discouraged. I’ve indicated my need to refine my grammar, which is one reason I keep writing about it when I ought to be working on other things. But this is that important; income or no. Part of rebuilding our civilization is rebuilding our grammar, so we can think and communicate and know better.

So when should I teach grammar? Always.

But a caution: don’t be burdened and don’t make it a burden. As adults trying to learn what we didn’t learn as children, it can be a terrible nuisance because we’ve formed habits. So many of mine arise from late 70’s adolescent cool tones.

I remember as a teenager, about 15 or 16, having a spiritual experience. One strange thing that came out of it was a recognition that the way I spoke was ungodly. I didn’t swear and all that, not very much, but I said “man” all the time.

That really bothered me, so I tried to cut back on it. When I mentioned it to Christian friends, they thought I had a hang-up. That unsettled me a bit, but not anymore. It wasn’t a hang-up; it was a spiritually perceived realization that language matters and that I was using it in self-indulgent, ego-driven ways.

There’s more subtlety to James’s words about the tongue than might be evident on the surface!

We all have habits that we need to break. It’s hard to do so as an adult.

That’s why we should start teaching grammar to our children as early as we possibly can.

But the question arises as to when we should begin to teach it formally.

This also is a more complicated question than we might wish. If you know grammar very well, you might never have to teach it formally. You might be so attuned to it that every time you speak you express it well and every time you hear someone else speak you can guide them to grammatical glory.

But the people who could do that left us when the east coast elite women left the classroom for the boardroom. Thanks a lot…

What about the rest of us? When should we start teaching grammar?

Here we can be intimidated by the ocean of complexity and detail that overwhelms us. It is because of this detail and complexity, combined with our formal ignorance, that text books are needed.

So now we have to add to our questions, “When should I start?” and “How should I teach it?” a third question, “What text book should I use?”

Let’s catch our breath. So far, I’ve tried to convince you that grammar is a wonderful and powerful thing so your students/children will benefit enormously from learning it and God will be glorified.

I’ve also argued that children are learning grammar constantly from the environment in which they live, the pond in which they swim.

Furthermore, I’ve recognized the extraordinary challenge we all face because very few of us were taught grammar rigorously when we were children – even those of us who can look back to the 60’s and earlier.

But my basic point in all of this remains and I’ll argue for it with passion: we absolutely need to teach our children correct, formal grammar until it becomes second nature for them.

Now, I’ve dropped a few hints and comments about how we need to start teaching grammar informally as early as when the child is in the womb for the simple reason that we do start teaching it that soon. What I mean is this: since we do it anyway, let’s do it consciously.

Or even this: since we do it anyway, we are morally bound to do it consciously and correctly.

The discussion about the informal teaching of grammar could last forever because you teach this way in response to circumstances and events. It’s an on-the-fly mode of teaching.

You can only teach what you know that way.

I was fortunate in this area, because my mother grew up in Potsdam (as I have only recently learned) in Germany. She left at the end of WWII when she was in her late teens.

German, therefore, was her first language, and that, from what I can tell, a rather formal version of German.

When she came to the states and tried to raise four barbarian sons, she was not at all hesitant about correcting our speech. I don’t know if we consciously listened to her corrections and made an effort to implement them, but we lived under her voice and with her corrections as part of the water we swam in.

She spoke with a pretty thick Prussian accent, but she used good structure and I have no doubt that my ears were attuned to the rhythms of her speech.

As I recall, she spoke clearly. She used to make up stories for us when we would drive hither and yon (I kept getting drowned in them for some reason!) and in my memory the sentences were crisp and clear.

And an important point: the fact that she corrected our grammar breathed into our souls the idea that grammar mattered, even if only to mom. I could have taken the rebellious path and determined that I would deny her values, but my desire to know what the Bible meant sort of pinned me in.

My mother could teach grammar on the fly – but not technically, as far as I can recall. I don’t remember her ever naming the parts and forms we were supposed to use. I just remember that she told us we were supposed to use them.

So we went to school – the Milwaukee Public Schools for the most part, though we spent a year and a half at a Lutheran school. I learned enough there by third grade to get me comfortably into fifth in the public school.

In fact, I received more than just content there, and I don’t think I’ve ever thought about this since then because my bottom reminds me what an unpleasant time I had there. But the instruction at least included a formal element that not only gives the mind things to think about but sets patterns for the mind to move in when it thinks.

And that leads to the question of how to teach grammar formally.

However, nobody can stand any more of this in a single blog post, so I’ll stop for now and pick that up in a later post.

This much I’ll say: formal grammatical instruction is one of the five foundations of all learning and you literally CANNOT be educated without it.

Thanks for stopping by!

Advertisements

One Response

  1. That was an amazingly long blog post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: