There are many ways to teach grammar, but they all tend to fall into one of two basic schools of thought. The first is a rigorous teaching of grammar rules that begins as early as the Starting Out stage and continues on through high school. The second is a rather laissez-faire approach, where students are expected to absorb grammar through reading good literature, with little or no formal instruction. Let’s take a look at the reasons behind grammar instruction, consider the pros and cons behind each of these approaches, then discuss a third possible alternative.
Grammar essentially is a study of words and how they are put together. The study of grammar was invented by the ancient Greeks as a science of analyzing the words of a language. The Romans adapted the Greek model for Latin, which eventually led to English grammar that is based on the Latin. Because modern English also has many other linguistic influences, it does not always fit the Latin mold, thus the reason for many of the inconsistencies of English grammar, such as irregular verbs.
So, why do we study grammar then? There are several reasons. One is to improve our writing and speech. Another is to make learning a second language easier. A third is to learn how to study abstract concepts.
Approaches to Grammar
Knowing that grammar is important does us little good if we do not know how to teach or learn grammar. Here is an overview of the standard approaches to grammar training and a look at a third optional approach.
State and national education standards require explicit grammar instruction beginning in kindergarten. A variety of homeschool curricula use this philosophy, with graded grammar textbooks that begin in kindergarten and extend through high school. Most of this teaching is done through memorization, fill-in-the-blank exercises, and drill.
If your child must take yearly standardized exams as part of their education, this approach will help ensure that he or she knows the grammar concepts that will be asked on the tests. Starting early will also give you more time to cover the concepts, without running a grammar marathon just before the ACT or SAT. Young students have a huge capacity for memorization, which is why the classical approach uses elementary school to memorize English, science, and history facts.
However, this approach does have some drawbacks. Grammar is an abstract concept. Young children’s brains are not ready to understand abstract concepts, so while they may memorize grammar rules, they probably won’t truly understand what they are learning. All of the drill and workbooks exercises may turn them off to the beauty of the English language. And very early formal grammar does not necessarily translate into better writing.
A Laid-Back Approach
Let’s look at the second option, then. In this approach, formal grammar is not taught until late in high school, if at all. Students learn grammar concepts simply through reading good literature. No workbooks or worksheets are found in this approach.
This second way of teaching grammar is a gentle approach. Students learn informally through their reading and discussions. This philosophy does not result in students who are completely turned off grammar before they hit the high school years.
It does, however, present some problems. Students who intend to attend college or take college entrance exams will find themselves at a huge disadvantage. It is expected that students will have learned formal grammar at some time during their elementary and middle school years. And your student may find himself playing “catch up” just before taking the ACT or SAT. Also, if your student takes a foreign language in high school, understanding grammar terms is often a necessity.
So, if a rigorous approach can take the joy of learning right out of grammar and a laid-back approach can leave your child at a disadvantage, is there a third option? Yes!
The Starting Out and early Getting Excited years (PreK through 4th grade) should be about exposure. Read lots and lots of good literature (learn to pick out good quality books that will give them an ear for good language). Gently make corrections in speech and in writing. Try to speak correctly yourself, but as you read literature, discuss the difference between speaking and dialects and how the narration of the story is written.
By the later part of the Getting Excited period (3rd or 4th grade, depending on reading proficiency), consider beginning some basic grammar instruction, particularly if your student is expected to take yearly standardized exams. This does not need to be pages and pages of worksheets. Instead, if you are studying nouns, for example, have your student point them out in a paragraph she is reading, or circle them in her own writing. Much of the grammar instruction at this age can be done orally.
During the Beginning to Understand stage (5th through 8th grade, again based on reading proficiency), begin exploring some formal grammar instruction to prepare your child for college entrance exams and college expectations. This will help ensure that your child isn’t at a loss if he or she chooses to take the ACT or SAT, studies a foreign language, or takes early enrollment classes during high school. Even during the Learning to Reason stages, however, be sure to help your child make the connections between the grammar drills and his or her writing.
With some thought and planning, you can help ensure that your child ends his homeschool career prepared for higher education without completely exhausting his interest in it.