What did you learn? How did you learn it? How much of it did you remember coming into this class? What might this mean about the value of teaching traditional grammar in the public school?
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Well, when I was growing up and in school in Central California, we did not have to learn the parts of speech. We had this lovely new teacher (probably her first year of teaching) in eighth grade and we had begun on the parts of speech. We had completed Direct Object and were about to tackle Direct Object. She came in that morning and said something very much like this:
"When we left off we were just about to cover indirect Object, but I have bad news for you. The curriculum has just been changed, and I am not permitted to teach the parts of speech anymore. Starting today. But, I'm going to take just ten minutes to review this. If you have any questions about what we've said up to now, ask them now. No questions? I hope that means you really don't have questions. I could lose my job for this, but I'm going to very quickly go over what an Indirect Object is because I think it is important and that you will need this knowledge all your lives. I could get fired for this, so listen carefully."
She proceeded to quickly explain Indirect Object then erased it thoroughly from the chalk board, with, "Well. That's the end of that. Now. What's next?" I don't remember a thing of what she said about Indirect Objects; I was far to amazed at the strange and unprecedented occurrence taking place before my eyes. I was far too impressed that she was willing to sacrifice her job for the sake of teaching us (or trying to teach us) something. I was far to impressed by the idea that she thought learning knowledge was "important." In fact, it took me years to get my attention turned back to Objects, which are Direct and Indirect Objects, and it took years after that to get it sorted out!
The way I remember, and have always remembered, the event, is that she actually said "the State of California" has removed Grammar from the State curriculum, but since it sounds so strange to say that California forbid the teaching of grammar in the whole State, I changed my story to just include our school district, but truly, I think it was State wide.
I absolutely remember being taught the eight parts of speech as I learned (gasp!) sentence diagramming. Even though sentence diagramming is patently 'old-school,' learning the relationship between all of the parts of the speech on that diagram line really stuck with me. Sure, it is old-fashioned, but for students who are more visual learners, seeing how all of the parts fit together and correspond is really helpful. I dusted off my old sentence-diagramming ways one summer when I did an inner-city summer program for Language Arts. The kids had never seen it before, but really liked the idea of all of the different parts having their own place in the sentence diagram. The idea was just novel enough to raise the kids' interest and develop buy-in. Everything comes full circle, even the parts of speech!
I don't remember how I originally learned the eight parts of speech, but in 7th grade our class was broken into eight groups who each learned a song and choregraphed a dance routine which we then performed for the younger elementary grades at our school.
I honestly think in early elementary, our grammar books just went through the eight parts of speech in succession, and likely, I never considered how they all went together.
As a high school teacher I continue to teach the eight parts of speech to my students. I give a quick-list refresher, then once a week in our warm up, I have students analyze a sentence and label the parts of speech for each word.
I am old enough to have studied grammar in isolation, had Latin be the foreign language I studied along with French, and remember my mother correcting my speech so that it was standard English. I remember diagramming sentences which made me know the parts of speech, but I cannot remember learning them specifically. As a teacher, the middle school I taught in used a rhyme which started with "Every name is called a noun" and then gave examples of nouns. When students were writing and using parts of speech in their writing, if they asked for an example, we had them recite the rhyme which helped them. Soon, they didn't ask but simply recited the rhyme for themselves. This method produced the transference which we wanted as teachers.
Fortunate to have lived in a home, an area, and a culture in which using Standard English was de rigeur, learning parts of speech was so elementary and already understood that there is no memory of the point at which these were considered. Perhaps the strongest memory of grammar is from ninth grade as my classmates and I spent many an hour in the evening conjugating irregular verbs in all tenses and all forms. We returned the next day to our teachers/former Latin students with at least seven or eight pages of the assgned conjugations. While we grumbled at the time, we were so very grateful for the experience when we ourselves studied foreign languages in high school and college. And, when we composed essays and papers we clearly understood the sequence of tenses and which forms, etc. etc. to use and wondered what was wrong with other people.
So, while studies show that basic language patterns are formed by age 5, it is important to stress the grammar of Standard English so that people will learn it if they have not acquired the essentials from their home and environment. Learning varied sentence patterns and constructions with more advanced structures such as participial, gerund, and infinitive phrases that employ verbals and noun phrases are certainly the marks of a more educated person who can think with complexity.
Drill, drill, drill--that's all I remember about learning the eight parts of speech. I remember other grammar lessons as isolated bits of instructions. It seems that teachers thought if we learned the grammar "bits and pieces" we would understand how they fit into the big puzzle of reading and writing. This was not the case, and I frequently felt frustrated at my ability to regurgitate grammar instruction. As, an English Language Arts teacher, I realize that what early instruction was lacking is providing real purpose for the grammar in a meaningful context.
I really do not remember working on the eight parts of speech until the fifth or sixth grade. Nor do I remember much about it. My real first recollection of actual teaching of grammar was in the seventh grade, and it was mostly doing exercises.
I will say I learned the parts of speech. I am just not sure how it happened. My schooling was not extraordinary nor very challenging. However, I also chose not to really study anything that I did not find appealing.
In high school, one of my teachers told me that she would bet me a steak that I wound up teaching English. I took her up on that bet and lost. The original grammar book was called:
A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, eventually a three-volume textbook for schoolchildren. The first part of this series became famous as the “Blue-Backed Speller.” According to one biographer, no other book, except the Bible, played such a part in unifying the language of the United States. Parts 2 of the three parts was the original grammar book. The other book was the first reader.
As I look back now, the approach to teaching the basic parts of our grammar system has never been very effective. Somewhere along the lines, we get caught in remembering the names of the parts of speech and forget that the reason that we learn these is only to transfer the knowledge into what is more important: writing and reading the language. There have been some new approaches: mountain language is suppose to be an effective way to learn the parts of speech.
I have seen some teachers who taught the parts of speech like it was a separate entity from writing and reading. They diagrammed 30 words sentences and those students who were visual were delighted. But the transference back to reality still left a good percentage of the students scratching their heads wondering what this had to do with anything.
As a young student, I did not know anything about the importance of grammar. However, I was smart enough to know that I needed to read to know anything. As a reader, it is easy to pick up the syntax of the language and the sentence and eventually, the paragraph. That is what is important.
Naming the parts of speech in isolation does not bring into focus the use of those words as relevant to the more important writing skills.
I distinctly remember learning the eight parts of speech all through my grade school and junior high years. I LOVED learning the science of the English language. I didn't know it then, but I realized now that what made this subject so appealing was the exacting "only one answer" nature of the material. I loved working on a sentence and clearly remembering thinking, "I will not let this sentence trick me or defeat me!" As I learned the more precise art of diagramming a sentence I came to understand better how to write more complex sentences. While I am not sure I am a better writer (of essays), I am absolutely sure that I have a better handle on the rules of usage that have their grounding in the function of the eight parts of speech in a sentence.
I can still recall learning the parts of speech, although I cannot remember what grade I was in. I found it very reassuring to know there was a system for words. And when I learned to diagram, I really enjoyed that, too.
Looking back, I see a great utility in beginning to learn about grammar this way, a systematic division of words and a way to see the structure of the sentence. Teaching grammar without teaching the vocabulary of the discipline is an uphill battle. And furthermore, learning any other language when you cannot identify the parts of speech in your own has got to be dreadful.
On the other hand, I can now see that simply knowing the parts of speech is not enough, without understanding the functionality of words, what it is that a word is doing in a particular sentence. When I teach grammar, I try to emphasize the functionality. For example, what is the word "race" doing in a sentence? Is it acting as a noun, as in "the human race," or is it acting as a verb, as in "They race..."? And what about those pesky participles that act as adjectives, "any given Sunday"? Students need to understand what task the word is performing, too, not just the parts of speech.
This is an interesting question. I have a strong memory of not really learning grammar at all until about third grade, and then not again until about 7th grade. By eleventh grade, our teacher was fed up and brought out old-fashioned grammar books. Why don't I remember learning grammar? I am sure I did learn what a noun and verb was, but I don’t think it was in any kind of systematic way.
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