Grammar and literacy go hand in hand. Understanding grammar is the key to unlocking the secrets of the written word. Without a firm grasp on grammar, it is impossible to become literate. In the English speaking world, we place a high emphasis on developing literacy. And for good reason. Being literate can make life easier and more rewarding.
However, if literacy is really the primary goal when teaching grammar, are most classrooms going about it the right way?
Does Grade-School Grammar Promote Literacy?
Studies have shown that literacy and grammar are linked. Just like the alphabet, new readers need to become familiar with the basic rules of grammar. They need to understand how sentences are formed, or else they will not be able to read.
In most classrooms, students learn grammar through a series of highly formalized lessons that progress them through the various parts of speech, usages of punctuation, and so on. These lessons are generally learned through guided exercises. This helps students to de-construct sentences and examine how parts of speech work together.
And this method works- for the most part. Most students do learn how to construct sentences through this process. But, many ex-students of middle school English will remember well. The emphasis of these exercises is placed on the grammar rules themselves, not the actual job of grammar. So, what is the true purpose of grammar?
Why Do We Need to Learn Grammar?
As contrary as it sounds, mastering principles is not the end goal of learning grammar! The real goal is to become literate. Grammar is simply a series of agreed upon guidelines that writers use to break up thoughts. It also helps to create a natural flow within their work.
We need to learn grammar to read. But, in some circles of thought, it seems like reading is being taught to better understand grammar. There is a sense that, if you do not, or cannot, follow these agreed upon guidelines, you cannot be considered a truly literate individual.
This emphasis on following rules to such a degree ends up becoming a barrier to those learning to read. Low test scores, classroom mockery, and other stressors, can severely impact an individual’s desire to learn to read.
So, if literacy is the real goal of teaching grammar, what can we do to make the learning experience more focused on the end result?
How Can We Focus More On Promoting Literacy When Teaching Grammar?
All human beings have the right to literacy. To be able to express oneself through reading and writing, is something that transcends the pomp and circumstance surrounding formal education.
If you love learning about grammar, and work hard to master the mysteries behind the oh-so divisive oxford comma, that’s wonderful! But much like the cherry sitting atop a sundae, grammar mastery is only a delightful garnish to the wonders of the written word. Once it becomes the main attraction, those learning to read and write for the very first time, might find it a paltry dish to behold.
Instead of drilling students with grinding lessons about the importance of the semicolon, maybe it’s better to start with a conversation about writing. Find beautiful sentences that express ideas or plot points, and then point out how grammar made it possible to express that sentiment in such a way.
Literacy allows us all to connect with each other, the world around us, and even ourselves in a deep way. Let’s not gate-keep the entry to literacy through exacting grammar laws. Instead, the conversation surrounding grammar should shift to showcase grammar as the guideline it truly is, in order to guide us to a brighter, and more literate, future.
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