Saturday, December 15, 2007

Blessed Be the Grammar Fascists

In this time of giving, it is fitting to give thanks to the grammar fascists in our classrooms and rejoice in the resurgent of "direct grammar instruction," described so well by Daniel DeVise in The Washington Post. Of course the question in the headline below is rhetorical. Direct grammar instruction will sweep our land like a mighty wind, lay low the mountains, fill the valleys, cause great shouting and tumult, and, perhaps, bring an end to pronomial expressions without clear and stated antecedents!

Will more direct instruction continue to gain ground?
By DANIEL DE VISE, Washington Post October 25, 2006
WASHINGTON - Mike Greiner teaches grammar to high school sophomores in half-hour lessons, inserted between Shakespeare and Italian sonnets. He is an old-school grammarian, one of a defiant few in the Washington region who believe in spending large blocks of class time teaching how sentences are built.

For this he has earned the alliterative nickname "Grammar Greiner," along with a reputation as one of the tougher draws in the Westfield High School English department.

Or, as one student opined in a sonnet he wrote, "Mr. Greiner, I think you're torturing us."
Greiner, 43, teaches future Advanced Placement students at the Chantilly, Va., school. Left on their own to decide where to place a comma, "they'll get it right about half of the time," he said. "But half is an F."

Ten or 20 years ago, Greiner might have been ostracized for his views or at least counseled to keep them to himself. Grammar lessons vanished from public schools in the 1970s, supplanted by a more holistic view of English instruction. A generation of teachers and students learned grammar through the act of writing, not in isolated drills and diagrams.

Today, Greiner is encouraged, even sought out. Direct grammar instruction, long thought to do more harm than good, is welcome once more.

Several factors - most notably, the addition of a writing section to the SAT college entrance exam in 2005 - have reawakened interest in Greiner's methods.

Nationwide, the class of 2006 posted the lowest verbal SAT scores since 1996. That was the year the test was recalibrated to correct for a half-century decline in verbal performance.
Gaston Caperton, the College Board president, has lamented the scarcity of grammar and composition course work in public schools. In surveys, not quite two-thirds of students said they had studied grammar by the time they took the 2005 SAT.

Those concerns, and a growing consensus among scholars that many high school graduates "can't write well enough to get a passing grade from a professor on a paper," drove the addition of a third section to the SAT, upending decades of balance between reading and math, said Ed Hardin, a content specialist at the College Board.

The new section introduced a long-form essay and - less publicized - a series of multiple-choice responses that test how well students can assemble and disassemble sentences.
"We're interested in writing at the sentence level, at the phrase level, at the word level," Hardin said.

The National Council of Teachers of English, whose directives shape curriculum decisions nationwide, has quietly reversed its long opposition to grammar drills, which the group had condemned in 1985 as "a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing."
Now, even the sentence diagram, long the symbol of abandoned methodology, is allowed, if not quite endorsed, in the classrooms of high-performing school systems.

"Our time has come," said Amy Benjamin, who presides over a council committee that concerns itself with grammar. In 17 years, her Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar has evolved from "kind of a revolutionary cell" into standard-bearers.

The nascent movement to restore overt grammar instruction began subtly. A 2002 council publication reasserted the importance of "knowing about grammar" and encouraged teachers to "experiment with different approaches," including traditional drills and diagrams.
Greiner, it should be noted, does not diagram; he prefers livelier methods.

For a half-hour one recent morning, students repaired broken sentences, one after another, an exercise with all the glamour of a linguistic assembly line. When one young woman read right past the proper noun "southwest" without stopping to capitalize, Greiner politely reminded the class: This very word, or something like it, is bound to show up on Virginia's Standards of Learning exams in spring.


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