What is the best way to teach grammar?

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Answered by: Heather, An Expert in the English Grammar Category
To, too, and two. Three words, all different meanings. Public schools everywhere have been preaching this concept for years, yet for some mystical reason, society cannot seem to figure it out. If one is truly honest about the topic, he or she will have to admit that the collective grammar of this country is simply tragic. With rampant fagments, run-ons, and the sentence, "Your to old for me, I ain't got no reason to date u," the people are demanding a remedy.

Into whose lap does this task fall? English teachers. Teaching English grammar to a group of students is a job that should grant super human status to any teacher who manages to do it successfully. There is a steaming buffet of options to pick from when it comes to choosing the best way to teach this age old and ever-relevant area of study. There is the traditional "sit down, get out your grammar books, turn to page 134, listen to me drone on for 15 minutes about verbals, and then do pages 135, questions one through sixty" method.

There is the new-age method of teaching grammar, which ironically doesn't actually teach grammar at all, but instead hopes students just sort of "pick it up" as they read different texts; then, there is a method somewhere in the middle, the "discuss some grammatical concept in a mini-lesson format, then analyze that concept as students read and write" method. Each method depends on who is doing the teaching, what kind of students occupy the classroom, and the demands of the school system, and each method has plenty to smile about and sneer upon.

The traditional method of teaching grammar is still very popular among experienced teachers and teachers that have been in the profession for a while. Everyone knows these kinds of teachers. They're the ones who stamp their little feet and say, "Back in MY day, when children had some RESPECT..." and similar mantras. They proclaim this world has gone to the deepest pits of hell in the roughest of hand baskets, and truly the rest of the teachers wonder why they are still teaching at all.

There are a few young, fresh, brave souls who enter the teaching field and follow the example set by their teachers in high school-- the traditional, grammar book, worksheet, right or wrong example. Regardless of whether they look at the student population and see the wasting away of society or a field of young and potential-filled flowers, these teachers see grammar as something that should be taught in isolation. It should be given its own time, its own unit, and its own space in the curriculum. Not incorrectly, they see their chosen field of study as something so highly important that it cannot be ignored nor tainted with other subjects; the students must learn it because, well, that's what students do: they learn grammar. Period.

Well, there may be one fact these traditionalists are overlooking when it comes to teaching grammar. Why is it that students, when taught grammar the traditional, isolated way, have to be re-taught the same grammatical concepts year after year? It seems to the common observer that they're simply not learning it. They remember the concepts for the worksheet and the test but soon forget and have to learn the next year-- for the tenth time-- the function of an adverb. There is certainly something awry in this system. Are teachers wasting their time trying to fill young minds with grammatical facts? If they're not, then why do so many adults who have graduated high school and gone through years of repetitive grammar instruction display horrific grammatical skills. (Don't believe me? Take a look at Facebook or any other online forum. It is stuff of English-teacher nightmares.)

Based on this information, many have decided to abandon the practice of teaching grammar all-together. They have brushed it off as worthless and have instead chosen to cross their fingers in hopes that if students read enough and write enough, they will start to naturally see the patterns of the English language. For some students this may work. In fact, it may work for many students. However, teachers may collide into a problem with this system. In every state, teachers have a curriculum to follow, a list of "to-do's" if you will that they must get covered in a year's time. These curriculum lists usually contain a set of pure grammatical skills that the students must learn, and unless the teacher wants to rebel against the curriculum (and, therefore, the school and state boards) that teacher must teach those things. Ah, the endless dilemmas of the English teacher.

As a teacher, I have known colleagues who have abandoned grammar all together and then right before testing they experience a sort of panic of the conscience. They realize, "Oh wow, I have ignored grammar all year. It's going to be on the test and my students aren't going to know it! They're not going to know how to distinguish an infinitive from a gerund! Oh, and those dreadful dangling modifiers! I should have been teaching those things all along. Stupid, stupid me. I'm going to get fired, because their test scores are going to be in the toilet!" The panic continues until summer break when the teacher's mind has gone into somewhere between the "at least I survived" mode and the "nothing I can do about it now" mode.

For those teachers who are neither traditional nor rebellious, there is a middle road of grammar instruction. This type of instruction combines grammar with reading and writing as an everyday experience in the classroom. The teacher usually introduces a grammatical concept, let's say "adjective series", that the students need to know. He or she gives a short "mini-lesson" on the issue and maybe has the students do a quick activity (not a worksheet, more like a creative exercise like, "Write a paragraph about your ideal career and include two adjective series in the paragraph.")

Then, the students may read a story, discuss the story, and then find examples of the grammatical concept in the story. This method is very much dependent on the teacher's creativity and his or her ability to weave grammar into every other area of the English classroom. It is by no means the easiest way to teach grammar, but as research has shown, it may be the most effective. It is definitely the method that takes the most time and creativity on the part of the teacher, but for a dedicated professional, these are both secondary concerns to the level of learning the students achieve.

Grammar is one of those issues that does not have an easy solution. It is tricky and it is tough, kind of like all important things in life. It is not for the faint of heart or the creatively shallow. There are teachers who make the traditional method work; somehow they have found a way to get bits of information to implant themselves into student minds like tiny eggs of precious information. There are teachers who don't handle grammar at all, but they make their students read enough and write enough that somehow the they pass their state tests and grow up with a basic knowledge of the concepts; and there are teachers who creatively combine grammar to other classroom activities.

Which method works the best is up to the individual teacher, but one thing is certain: "there, they're, and their" all have different meanings, and it is the English teacher's job to make sure this information is cleverly presented. If it is not presented for the benefit and advancement of the students, it must be done at least for the sake of nile-biting, socially disenchanted Grammar police everywhere who look at their news feed on the internet and shed a little tear with every non-agreeing subject/verb pair.

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