Posts Tagged ‘teaching languages’

Teaching grammar: does it matter?

November 15, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

This is a difficult one. I never really had a solid grounding in grammar, as I was at school in the late sixties and early seventies, when the general feeling was that it would be picked up almost by osmosis as it were; there wasn’t a structured way of teaching it, and suitable textbooks were disappearing and being replaced by very dumbed-down ones. During my teaching career, things became even more difficult as the terminology used was changed, sometimes by grammarians in the name of accuracy and clarity, sometimes by government quangos in the name of god knows what…

To most school students, grammar is deadly dull, and the necessary drilling in order to inculcate understanding and good practice even more so. In my experience, gaining knowledge and understanding of grammar came mainly from learning other languages, and then reflecting that grammatical knowledge back on to my knowledge and understanding of my own language; if it hadn’t been for my innate curiosity about such things, very little would probably have stuck.

Learning Latin in those long-gone days was very heavily grammar-based, with memorising of the five declensions, four conjugations, principle parts and I don’t know what else. Once you’d cracked subject and object, you were good to go. And then there was French, and again, the grammar and its terminology gave you a handle on your own language. But the overall effect was pretty piecemeal, especially since a lot of it wasn’t directly transferable to English: English and Latin grammar are miles apart, despite the best efforts of several centuries of prescriptivists.

With such an incomplete knowledge of English grammar, trying to impart it to my own students was rather a challenge, to say the least. In the end, there wasn’t enough time fully to explore the subject, and I didn’t want to bore my classes to death; I was about to say there were more important things to teach them, but it would be better and fairer to say, more interesting things. It became a matter of working out what were the absolute essentials that needed to be imparted, starting with the basics of the parts of speech, and moving on from there, developing knowledge as far as was necessary, and when it was particularly called for. I was never happy with this approach, but it was the best I could do. I don’t think anyone has come near working out what to do – I just know how enabling the ability to communicate clearly in Standard English is, and therefore how important it is to be able to offer this to school students.

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