August 25, 2010 | Hindi

A Philosophy of Grammar Education

How best to learn grammar? I ponder a question with a long and ragged history.

In my July 28th entry, entitled “Content Warning,” I went into some fairly graphic grammatical detail about Greek verbs. In response, a reader, Katherine, posted the following.

Grammar is at the same time frustrating and exciting, it’s a real love hate relationship. I was wondering, do you think you could share your method for remembering grammar? I too am a flashcard nut when it comes to vocab, nothing can beat that. Aside from reading grammar books and doing grammar exercises, do you have a method for memorizing grammar rules and irregularities?

Many thanks for these questions to Katherine, who since the start of this project has given me a number of useful language-learning suggestions and tips. My basic answer first: I do not have a particular method for memorizing.

Lots of Drilling Happened Here

Lots of Drilling Happened Here

With foreign language study, I rely on and believe in lots of drilling and repetition. A pretty traditional approach! When studying on my own, without the aid of a teacher, I use different instructional sources with different perspectives, preferably with detailed, systematic, cumulative grammatical explanations rather than the wimpy, fragmented, fuzzy ones one sees so often in books and classrooms today. 

I personally happen to love translation exercises (from English to the foreign language, I mean).

I also find that oral lessons—such as Pimsleur provides—really give me a scaffolding on which to hang grammatical principles, while also reinforcing some of those pesky irregularities. Grammar drills in a vacuum, without oral practice, have limited longevity in my brain.

By the way, I bought grammar flashcards for Italian and barely opened the box. I think flashcards for grammar are probably gimmicky, an attempt to make it look as though you have to learn less than you really do. If something calls for a book, I say get a book! Grammar is not meant to be taught in tiny fragmented pieces like vocabulary.

So those are my brief—and inadequate—thoughts on foreign-language study. I do not purport to be an expert on how others learn foreign-language grammar, so please take the above comments as the fruit of my own specific experiences, based on my own preferred learning styles, and not a general comment on how everyone should study.

If Katherine’s questions were meant to include English as well (or whatever one’s native language happens to be), then that raises a whole bunch of other questions that I find very interesting!

Before I began this language project, I had just spent several months researching the history of grammar education in the United States over the past 250 years. As part of that research, I read numerous grammar books used in schools from the 1700s through the early 1900s.

Reed and Kellogg's Sentence Diagrams: How I Learned Grammar (Though the Method Has Since Fallen Out of Favor)

Reed and Kellogg’s Sentence Diagrams: How I Learned Grammar (Though the Method Has Since Fallen Out of Favor)

It was apparent that various instructional trends and fads had come and gone. Complaints about students’ grammar knowledge apparently also went up and down depending at least in part on where the U.S. found itself in the latest grammar fad. I find the whole question of how best to teach grammar—or really, how to make sure students remember and benefit from it—a fascinating and central one for our culture.

It is also one for which I don’t have a firm answer. However, I can tell you that overall I still believe in the value of repetition and intensive study of rules and principles that I had as a child, for which I must thank Carlthorp Elementary School and Westlake School for Girls (now Harvard-Westlake) out in Los Angeles.

It is hard for adults to learn grammar, but certainly far from impossible, and I think so much of it is just review, review, review. These days people often try to get around the hard labor of real learning by focusing on multimedia and animation and special effects, but the human brain is not fundamentally different from the human brain of 300 years ago, despite the deleterious effects of Cheez Whiz and Cap’n Crunch. Sometimes you just have to sit down and study, hard-core, until your brain hurts.

I feel that an important difference between me and some of my less grammatically knowledgeable acquaintances is that I actually bother to (a) buy books on grammar and (b) look things up that I don’t know. When you look something up enough times, it eventually ends up in your head. Nothing magical about that!

Robert Lowth's 1762 English Grammar Was Very Influential

Robert Lowth’s 1762 English Grammar Was Very Influential

After this foreign-language project ends, I hope to return intensively to this grammar question for English—how best to teach it to kids, and how best to teach it to adults who did not receive the thorough grammatical grounding I was fortunate enough to enjoy in my own childhood. I think being given a solid understanding of language is like being handed the keys to the world. And my sense is that too many educators have been tempted by useless, watered-down instructional fads and away from a fundamental truth, which is that some learning involves suffering, that hard concepts can initially strike students as boring, and that, frankly, sometimes they (the students) will just have to suck it up and suffer a bit.

Teaching students the discipline, the concentration, and the love of learning that are required for a profound and meaningful education in grammar and indeed in all subjects is the most valuable gift an educator can provide. And those things of course start with the parents. (I owe much to my own parents, by the way! Thank you, parents!)

In the meantime, the pervasive lack of grammar knowledge affects writing (and speech) in every aspect of our lives, and I find the loss tragic. A close relationship to one’s own language—and to other languages—is a window into human culture and, though I don’t believe in such a thing from a religious point of view, the human soul.

So, Katherine, I guess I free-associated my way from practical questions to a larger philosophical one. But I appreciated the inspiration of your posting very much, and if and when I have better answers, I will let you know.

P.S. If anyone in the White House ever reads this, I would like to be Grammar Czar.

Comments (6)

Julie • Posted on Wed, August 25, 2010 - 3:09 pm EST

You’ll never make Grammar Czar. Not after pissing off the Cap’n Crunch and Cheez Whiz lobbyists.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, August 25, 2010 - 3:38 pm EST

Sigh. I’m afraid you’re right. Well, at least I won’t have to move to Washington.

Katherine • Posted on Thu, August 26, 2010 - 5:11 pm EST

WOW!  Thank you for the mention too, I am honored!  So interesting.  I am really surprised.  I always imagine that grammar experts have these elaborate diagrams and study sheets which they use to memorize rules verbatim.  I try to do this myself and am rarely successful.  I fall under the group of native English speakers who were never taught grammar, so I have no base to build on except for what I have learned from studying other foreign languages. Most of my grammar knowledge is based on Russian.  I desperately want to learn English grammar.  Perhaps you can involve me on your next attempts, I could be the subject of experiment or something! I definitely agree with you though, grammar exercises and repetition are key.  Hours and hours until it hurts, literally.  I have a permanent callous on my finger from writing out so many grammar exercises.  Thank you for this post, I really enjoyed it!
PS As a Washingtonian I’ll see what I can do about Grammar Czar!  Not that my connections are that great, but you never know!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, August 26, 2010 - 5:20 pm EST

Katherine - Grammar experiments! How exciting. And with your Washington connections, maybe there is still hope for czardom despite my junk-food-lobby gaffes! ;)

James • Posted on Mon, January 30, 2012 - 8:46 pm EST

“I think being given a solid understanding of language is like being handed the keys to the world.”

You are SO right! That sentence should be displayed in every classroom.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, January 30, 2012 - 8:59 pm EST

James, thank you. I alluded to this point just the other day in conversation. It is so important, I think. I would love to do more work with schools.

Post a Comment