December 20, 2005

Grammar Geek

The recent issue of the Core Knowledge Foundation's e-newsletter, Common Knowledge, arrived in my inbox this morning. Found a very interesting article about the sad history of grammar instruction in America, The Naturalist Fallacy and the Demise of Grammar Instruction (with Practical Advice on Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics) by Robert D. Shepherd, the CK Educational Materials Director, which you can read here in its entirety. Shepherd writes that he owes debts to both CK founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and CK board member Diane Ravitch, who had asked Shepherd what teachers today could do about the teaching of grammar.

Shepherd writes,
The traditional grammar textbook disappeared because of the emergence of a new orthodoxy regarding child language acquisition. The orthodox belief promulgated in our education schools today is that grammatical ability is not something that has to be taught. A child’s grammar, or so many educational theorists have come to believe, is something that develops naturally, without intervention by teachers. ...

Where did the education theorists get this idea that a child’s grammar develops naturally, with little or no outside intervention? They got it by listening at the keyholes of linguists. ... It was not until the second half of the twentieth century, however, that the anti-grammar camp came into possession of the big guns that would blow grammar out of the classroom. Beginning with the publication of Syntactic Structures in 1957 and continuing to the present day, Noam Chomsky of MIT led what can only be described as a revolution in linguistics, one consequence of which was the widespread belief that language acquisition is largely an autonomic process dependent upon unconscious interactions between an innate, internal language acquisition device and the raw material of the child’s linguistic environment. It was this idea that led educators in the National Council of Teachers of English and editors in the major textbook houses to move decisively against traditional grammar instruction. ... Like many great thinkers, Chomsky started with a simple question, asking himself how it is possible that most children gain a reasonable degree of mastery over something as complicated as a spoken language. With almost no direct instruction, almost every child learns, within a few years’ time, enough of his or her language to be able to communicate with ease most of what he or she wishes to communicate, and this learning seems not to be correlated with the child’s general intelligence. If one looks scientifically at what a child knows of his or her language at the age of, say, six or seven, it turns out that that knowledge is extraordinarily complex. Furthermore, almost all of what the child knows has not been directly taught [all emphases in original]. ...

So, education professors began teaching their students that grammar textbooks contained nothing but irrelevant skill and drill, that the internal language-learning mechanism was autonomic, that “teaching grammar” made as much sense as teaching breathing, that what one should do was expose kids to language and let their grammar develop naturally.

There’s a problem with that line of reasoning, however. As Alexander Pope famously said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the education theorists’ bit of knowledge of linguistics turned out to be very dangerous indeed. Chomsky was right about language acquisition, but the theory developed by the education professors in Chomsky’s name is wrong in ways that turn out to be crucial.
Shepherd goes on to talk about children's brains:
The innate, or inborn, language-learning device is such a thicket of neural connections. Beginning at about the age of nine or ten and continuing until kids are around the age of fourteen, the internal mechanisms for intuiting syntactic, phonological, and morphological structures start breaking down. So, for example, if a small child is exposed to the liquid l sound in Russian, he or she will grow up being able to produce that sound, even if he or she does not learn Russian until much later in life. However, if a child is not exposed to that sound, then he or she will never be able to produce it as an adult. The machinery for hearing and producing that sound, that distinctive feature of a possible language, is weeded out. There is a window of opportunity for learning linguistic structures — for setting the parameters of the internal grammar. After that window is closed, it cannot be reopened.

Here’s the problem: if a child has “learned” a nonstandard version of his or her grammar, it is difficult or impossible for that child, past the age of ten or so, to learn a different, standard version using only the innate language-learning machinery, for that machinery has to a large extent stopped working by that time. That’s why it is much harder for an adult to learn a new language through simple immersion than it is for a child to do so.
Shepherd then asks, "how can we, in light of current linguistic knowledge, address the problem of teaching students how to avoid errors in grammar and usage or the problem of how to style shift when it is useful to do so? This remains very much an open question":
If you are a teacher, if you are in the trenches, if you face in your classrooms, every day, students whose syntax rarely exceeds the complexity of that used to be found in Dick and Jane readers, students for whom “Me and Jose love playing video games” is perfectly grammatical, students who sprinkle commas through their writing as though they were salt and for whom commas and end punctuation are interchangeable, what can you do, now, to improve your teaching of grammar, usage, and mechanics?

Unfortunately, contemporary textbooks will be of little help. As I mentioned earlier, the traditional grammar handbooks have all but disappeared, and at any rate, most of those were practically useless anyway because they dealt primarily with taxonomy of forms. In contemporary textbooks, especially those of the so-called “integrated language arts” variety, grammar instruction is a random, hit-and-miss, willy nilly affair. Typically, a few activities employing traditional terminology are scattered, according to no rhyme or reason, in exercises appearing at the ends of literary selections in integrated language arts and composition textbooks. These exercises are not, typically, presented in a systematic, incremental matter, and the learning that results from having students do them is minimal.
This is where a home educating parent seems to hold a distinct advantage over the average public school teacher. We have a wealth of materials available -- admittedly, some better than others, and not all secular -- in a discipline that is roundly ignored in the public school arena, the latest of which is Tamy Davis's excellent, new Growing with Grammar program, which is a wonderful follow-up to Jessie Wise's First Language Lessons, which gets those neural connections while they're still alive and snapping. Yoohoo, Mr. Shepherd...

No comments: