Saturday, March 14, 2015

Teaching Grammar Doesn't Work

"Someone left their book on the table." Wrong, right?

The battle over the use of they and their for a singular antecedent has been a regular struggle for English teachers during the past one hundred years or so. It is a common mistake that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to the hard core grammarians and "strict constructionists." And, it is the cause of many a missed question on standardized tests like the ACT or SAT. Yet, the use of "they" when gender or specificity of a singular subject is ambiguous has become so common that it can certainly qualify for "acceptable use." That is except for standardized tests.

So, what's the answer?

In a recent piece for The Chronicle, scholar Geoffrey Pullum weighs in with commentary on "Valid Pronoun Ambiguity Warnings."

 In other news:

Those in the know - or at least those who seek to remain current in their field - have long understood that teaching grammar the traditional way, with worksheets and practice sentences, has no positive impact on a student's ability to write well. The drill-and-kill method, and even the practice of diagramming sentences, does not actually "teach" kids grammar. Of course, it does teach something. It can teach students to do well on standardized tests like the ACT, SAT, and state assessments.

Having gone to Catholic school - where diagramming sentences is "religion" (sic) - and having taught ELA in Asia where standardized tests of grammar skills are the gold standard of education, I understand grammar. To this day, I help chair our grammar program at my school, where grammar is taught the traditional way. However, I have long asserted that we should not expect the program will create better writers. Teaching writing - teaching composition - will create better writers. And the only "grammar exercise" that has a positive impact on writing is the practice of sentence combining.

Of course, the ACT and SAT still rule the day on college admissions, and teaching grammar skills will help students score higher. In fact, an English teacher and any school would be negligent not teaching grammar to prepare kids for these tests. It's really not that difficult. And some people believe there is a "Better way to teach grammar." Obviously, that depends on your goal and your definition of teaching grammar.

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