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  • Grammar's back in school

    Daniel De Vise reports in the Washington Post that grammar is coming back to the high school English class in response to the SAT's new essay. 

    Explicit grammatical instruction has cycled in and out of the school curriculum since the mid-1800s.  It was first seen as an aid to good writing, then a deterrent, then an aid, then a deterrent.  And now it's back again as an aid, not to good writing, but to higher test scores. 

    The writing sample on the SAT is only worth about 200 of the 800 points students can earn on the new writing-and-grammar section, while grammar accounts for the other 600 points.  So it's natural to expect that schools, constantly pressured to teach what will be tested, will focus not on nurturing a writer's voice while developing critical and analytical skills, but on drilling students in the difference between a noun and a split infinitive. 

    That, to me, is not grammar.  And it won't make for better writers.

    I've been teaching grammar to college students for over 30 years, and I taught it to high school students for several years before that.  I teach my students the humanness of language, its ambiguity, its contingency, its flexibility, its infinite variation, its dependence both on context and on the needs of speakers and hearers, writers and readers.   

    I teach them that language can liberate or control, benefit or harm.  It can be beautiful.  Or ugly.  Or playful.  Or deadly dull.  Or deadly.

    Language analysis should form part of the curriculum because language is part of being human, because it surrounds us, because it expresses our creativity and our rigidity, and because if properly taught, it is actually a whole lot of fun.

    Sure, I want my students to memorize a bit, and I want them to think, a lot.  I also want them to write.  Nothing that I teach will help my students fill in bubbles on an answer sheet.  Nor will it turn them into writers. 

    But I find that students know a lot more about language than teachers and testers give them credit for.  And if my teaching works, it will make these students even more sensitive to their own language and that of other people than they already are.  And maybe it will help them transmit a flexible, welcoming, and inquisitive attitude about language to others.  

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