Academic Exchange Quarterly         Winter 2003: Volume 7, Issue 4


Grammar for Teachers: Attitudes and Aptitudes


Melvin J. Hoffman, Buffalo State University College


Degrees include English BS and Linguistics MS, Illinois Institute of Technology: Chicago; Linguistics PH.D, State University of NY and Religious Studies MA, Canisius College: Buffalo. Consultant work includes Buffalo and Chicago Boards of Education, Teacher-Corps-Peace Corps and other Agencies. Courses include Composition, Linguistics, and Biblical and Classical Literature.



This article discusses the role of grammar in educating Secondary English Teachers and Elementary Education Teachers with an English Concentration. The term "grammar" is difficult, with varied referents in varied contexts. Students learn to associate a different number with each of five common, but different, definitions of grammar (Hartwell 1985). They must link one such number to the term's every occurrence in their writing. Students learn grammatical labels to discuss writing and to read descriptions in dictionaries and usage books which employ these terms. Students are taught traditional labels but not with traditional definitions. Students learn to read sentence diagrams but not to draw nor teach them. They learn not to teach grammar separate from writing. The preferred texts for analysis are authentic, not canned, e.g., pupils' or students' writing, speeches, literary passages. Final results in terms of both student attitudes and accomplishments are mixed.



If grammar returns or remains within Secondary-English curricula--what kind, when, how much, and how effective and interesting? These questions, raised more vigorously recently in English-teaching fora, occupy Secondary-English teachers' attention more than in the past decades. Necessarily then, grammar instruction must also concern those who educate teachers.


My colleagues and I teach in a state-supported urban commuter campus. Besides considering current curricula, we also monitor curricular developments with implications for the future. Although our course treats language areas other than grammar, grammar considerations alone will occupy the rest of this presentation.


The term "grammar" is difficult, with varied referents in varied contexts. Possibilities for miscommunication when using the term, and terms related to it, has evoked constant commentary. Dates with the names below illustrate how long and how pervasive the problem with language-arts terminology has been.


John S. Kenyon (1948) insisted on the importance of distinguishing public and private uses of Standard English from Standard and non-Standard uses. James B. McMillan (1954) lamented issues present then, ensuing from 19th century failure to distinguish philology, linguistics and rhetoric.


W. Nelson Francis also (1954) wrote an article which--among other topics--defined three uses of "grammar." Karl W. Dykema (1961) briefly discussed grammar history from classical to medieval times, providing four separate definitions.


Much later, Patrick Hartwell (1985), building upon Francis, distinguished five meanings for grammar, the best known schema among those listed above. More recently, Ed Vavra (2001) posted one issue to the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar's list-serve. Consensus on grammar teaching is greatly hindered by how people differently define the term.

Hartwell's definitions are used in the course. Students must associate a Hartwell's number with each use of "grammar" in their essays. Students must show that they know what they mean when they use "grammar." Further, they must identify the term's use by the respective authors whom they cite in their essays.


Students are exposed to Hartwell's five definitions in detail. However, students have trouble grasping definitions which relate to anything but a body of content such as definitions one and five below


Hartwell abbreviated.

1. Innate rules which people know but cannot consciously explicate, though they know when rules are broken. Pedagogy can most closely approach natural grammar teaching through foreign language immersion techniques.

2. Any modern linguistic theory's explanation of language, particularly syntax.

3. A set of usage prescriptions; what people mean by "good" and "bad" grammar.

4. Any traditional grammar version, a body of knowledge including parts of speech and word group labels; prescriptive and Latinate.

5. Uses of labels from grammar 4 (sometimes with help from 2) descriptively in mini-lessons. They provide metalanguage for discussing writing in writing contexts, using actual, not artificial, text.



The importance of recognizing grammatical labels was drawn from personal and recounted experiences, and publications of others. Many who become creative writers, respected journalists and probably most English teachers learn to write well without any formal grammar instruction. However, others do not. How can a teacher discuss patterns of error without some way of discussing patterns of language? How do either good or poor writers access a usage text or a dictionary to fullest advantage? Without understanding the grammatical labels which these works employ, many prescriptions and descriptions are opaque.


Consequently, the instructors teach education students grammar terminology both for themselves and for their students. The instructional goal is to make students familiar with terminology for metalanguage to discuss writing and to read descriptions in dictionaries and usage books which employ these terms.



A thumbnail history of grammar teaching provides grammar-discussion context and alerts students that grammar-teaching goals change over centuries and decades. We contrast the present grammar milieu both with the past and with possible futures. Leist and Hoffman's (2000) preface briefly sketches the history of grammar and language attitudes. A similar, narrower grammar-teaching history, occurs in the fifth chapter of Lester (1990).


State Education offices and school boards affect what is taught. Their policies can be influenced by:


1. Well-disseminated reports of current research.

2. What is popular or well known in pedagogy, particularly in mathematics and language arts.

3. The sociopolitical climate within the state or the district.


The political and/or religious milieu can create unexpected changes in school curricula or appearance . Danitz (2000) reports teaching creationism beside evolution in some states and the attempt to post the ten commandments in public school buildings.


Conservative parents, principals, schoolboard members, tax-payer groups, and public-office holders have advocated various back-to-basics curricula. Some return to a traditional-grammar curriculum is possible despite all evidence of lack of application.


Less drastic are reconsiderations of returning to teaching grammar to discuss writing in context rather than as a separate body of knowledge. Great Britain is moving in that direction with its new National Literacy Strategy (2000). A BBC education site reports that Teachers are having to go back to school to learn grammar well enough to teach it in Grammar Crammer for Teachers (2000).


Also, the state of California has instituted formal grammar requirements for every grade level K-12. In the later grades, the same requirements may exist for two-years. Details are available in "K-12 Academic Content Standards for California Public Schools" (2001.)


In times past, the NCTE was less welcoming to discussing classroom grammar. Presently, the NCTE has an assembly, the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, ATEG.


Limitations of Modeling.

Another concern which we address besides the renewal of grammar interest is over-reliance on, and over-confidence in, modeling. The theory--that providing students with good models of fictional and factual literature will enable their speaking and writing well--is attractive.


English teachers and creative writers who write and/or speak well without having learned and/or under-stood grammar are legion. Further, how much grammar of their language people unconsciously know without any formal instruction is an axiom of modern linguistic theory.


However, more than modeling affects production. Shakespeare, Milton, other 16th to 18th century British, and American Literature courses have let me neither speak nor write early modern English.


I had a year of French Literature after a year's introduction and two years of German Literature after a year's introduction. I have no fluency in speaking or writing either language. Then, there is the case of pupils whose unconscious grammar rules do not produce the kinds of writing and speech that teachers and employers want.


My students, the general public, and part of the profession have trouble with second-dialect interference. The prevailing assumption is that non-standard speakers and writers exist because their educational experience failed to provide a plethora of good models. Repeated failures of the most frantic application of the model theory has affected few people's cherished devotion to it. (In this discussion, I will use the term dialect without definition, simply naming the well-known tongues which I am calling dialects.)


African-American Vernacular English speakers, Southern Mountain /Appalachian speakers, Hawaiian Pidgin /Creole speakers and Louisiana Creole speakers occupy a unique position. Unlike foreign-language speakers, second-dialect pupils comprehend both standard and popular English through media and class-room presentations. However, what pupils get from modeling often depends on individual aptitude.


Some nonstandard speakers reproduce standard speech and standard edited writing the same way as the general population. Some can reproduce standard speech but not writing, a situation possible in the general population. However, what our students need to know is that second-dialect pupils can mediate the models. That is, some pupils will subconsciously translate the models into the dialect equivalent, in which case, the models have minimal impact. With our students, we address second-dialect pupils' special circumstances with material gathered nearly thirty years ago in Hoffman (1972.)


We confront students with the difficulty of contrasting grammar rules of two speech systems without vocabulary to discuss it. Of course, We have to deal with disbelief that nonstandard speech is rule governed, but that is not within this article's scope.



We decided to continue students' learning traditional terminology for several reasons.


1. For metalanguage purposes, some grammar-four labels are necessary in order to talk about the role of language in writing.

2. There lurks a possibility, however remote and unwelcome, of resuming traditional instruction either in whole or part in some venues. Familiarity with terms will certainly serve anyone who must teach them

3. The scientific linguistic community lacks any consensus on theory. Twenty-five plus theories on the Internet oppose the dominant theory. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future.

4. Very little pedagogical infrastructure exists for teaching modern grammars of any sort. However, a plethora of resources exist and continue to be published for traditional grammar.

5. Most of our students cannot distinguish adverbs from adjectives or prepositions from a conjunctions. Thus, teaching x-bar diagrams from government binding syntax, optimality theory or competing theories is not a viable choice.


Consequently, the instructors decided to retain traditional terms for the most part. The few students who had had any prior grammar instruction had learned traditional, not modern, terms. However, averse to traditional notional definitions, the instructors preferred structuralist definitions much like Lester (345)


By borrowing methodologies from structural linguistics for teaching parts of speech we have created a slightly different kind of traditional grammar--a slightly less traditional, traditional grammar .... In order to distinguish this version of traditional grammar from schoolroom traditional grammar ..., let us call this revised traditional grammar.


We used labels organized around basic parts of speech and the most commonly occurring groups. We also wanted noun-roles identified and sentences typed both by clause and by complement. We needed no exhaustive grammar. Addressing the issue of minimal terminology, Leist-Hoffman (xx) stated:


Our aim for the grammar component of this course is to teach the metalanguage of gram-mar and enable our students to both perceive it and use it as a means to explore the terrain of real text.


This meshes very well with the role of revised traditional grammar as defined by Lester in the previous citation. In fact he continues with a description of the term he introduced.


Revised traditional grammar ... is not profoundly different from school-room traditional grammar except that it is free to incorporate grammatical concepts ... and to use techniques from structural and transformational grammar ... to help students use their intuitive knowledge of English to gain a better grasp of traditional terms or concepts.


This is apparently the use of labels in California and in Britain. In the "Glossary" (76-83), of California's K-12 standards, quite an eclectic mix of linguistic and traditional definitions appears. The same sort of mix appears in the British National Learning Strategy Glossary which has its own web-page.



The instructors elected not to teach diagramming for two reasons:


1. The time necessary to teach diagramming outweighs the benefits to be derived from it.

2. Although a great many students find the diagrams exceedingly helpful, a slightly smaller number find them confusing and intimidating.


Here, I refer to old Reed-Kellog diagrams (1909), not to anything like government-binding x-bar diagrams or stratificational circuit-board diagrams. See Haegman (1994) and Lamb (1966) respectively.

Diagramming is limited to structures which compare and contrast. With the use of elliptical structures in brackets, traditional diagramming does a quite decent job of showing contrasts and ambiguity. Even those who can't follow diagramming well can see differences in representations of superficially similar structures.


Students learn about teaching grammar.

The students learn enough labels to read usage books and dictionaries as well as have a vocabulary for metalanguage about writing. Also, an assigned textbook and reader (Weaver 1996 and 1998) show such labels' use in age-level appropriate mini-lessons for improving writing.


Such rhetorical grammar is never separated from the writing context. The preferred examples are drawn from pupil's actual writing. Likewise, although our classrooms are tertiary level, we draw analytical examples from actual texts such as speeches or literary passages. In no case, do we reinforce the old notion of grammar as an isolated body of knowledge which improves writing by osmosis.



Most students learn to identify any author's use of the term "grammar" before evaluating the author's arguments or claims. Does the term mean innate, unconscious grammar; a linguistic grammar; usage or etiquette; traditional, prescriptive, Latinate, grammar; or rhetorical or contextual grammar?


Most students also learn that nonstandard English productions are not the result of pupils' being empty of standard grammar. The students learn that the presence of an alternative grammar is the likely cause of any repetitive, persistent non-standard English pattern.


Students easily understand the concept of surface and underlying structures, if not the representations for them. Student-teachers usually know what a pupil intends whether or not a pupil writes clearly or in standard English. They understand that intuition and experience outside the text enable teachers to understand most pupils' messages despite many pupil-essay shortcomings.


Problem areas.

Preparing for unexpected grammatical demands is not necessarily the most welcome aspect of our course. The length of time necessary to master some concepts frustrates quite a few. Many of our students, particularly the younger ones, want to learn something immediately to take to the classroom immediately.


Instructors would prefer students knowing how and why terms address what data rather than just memorizing traditional (or modern) terms. Yet, students resist this goal. Students are annoyed and unhappy with language abstractness and with how varied grammatical structures can be to which identical labels apply.


End of course reactions are mixed. Some students are grateful for chances to fill gaps which they were unaware had existed. Others see immediate applications to present, or future, classrooms. Still others see the course as an attempt to indoctrinate them with arcane notions of an atypical corner of academia. They are happy to get through and get out without confidence that they have learned anything "practical." Some are unsure and wait to see whether grammar will have been worth the effort and will enhance their teaching.




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