What we know about learning (what we’ve known at least since the National Research Council’s, How People Learn) is that when information is contextualized, it is understood and remembered better. We can memorize lists of discrete things, like vocabulary words, multiplication tables, or rules of grammar, but to truly understand those things, they need to relate and connect to each other and form a larger schema, or concept, in our minds. We can memorize disconnected words, but we only make new words part of our daily vocabulary when we use them in a variety of sentences.
If you make a habit of reading challenging stories and essays, do you need to memorize lists to grow your vocabulary? Probably not it’s how literate people have expanded their vocabularies for centuries.
The same is true for the rules of grammar. A good reader intuitively understands how words work together, how sentences form, and how punctuation works. She might not be able to tell you precisely what a comma splice is or why dangling modifiers are confusing, but she may know enough, instinctively, to avoid those errors in her own writing especially if her daily reading material is more sophisticated than a Cat in the Hat book. Children in ye olden days who learned how to read using the King James Bible became adults who learned how to write things like the Gettysburg Address or I Have a Dream.
If we limit exposure to complex text for young readers, we may be restricting (for years!) their access to sophisticated vocabulary, grammar, and sentence construction, a problem schools try to mitigate through direct instruction of vocabulary lists and grammar rules. We end up teaching things disconnected from any context, which leads students and the adults they grow into to ask questions like, Why does grammar matter
Some reading intervention programs limit exposure to complex text by placing students into reading levels based on test scores or allowing students to choose a comfortable reading level for themselves. This may work well for students who are intrinsically motivated to excel if they are given opportunities to accelerate into more challenging levels (opportunities such as the monthly Lexile adjustments provided in Achieve3000 Literacy). For many students, however, leveled reading can become a jail cell of old-fashioned tracking, where some students are challenged and other students are simply…managed. Students who are kept at lower reading levels will have limited access to complex sentence structure, rich metaphor, and artfully crafted thought. The issue here is not the rules of grammar but the uses of grammar.
Grammar matters because meaning matters, and grammar is the tool we use to construct that meaning. Grammar matters especially in written language, because in person we can always make up for muddiness with facial expression and body language. In print, every bit of meaning has to be conveyed through how words work together on the page. In print, there’s a world of difference between Let’s eat, Grandma and Let’s eat Grandma. In print, you need to be careful about when to use there, their, and they’re. In speaking, or texting, a more common form of communication for young people, not so much.
Every little drift from what is correct is like a tiny smudge or inky thumbprint on a photograph. One mistake won’t ruin the picture, but a whole series of them will obscure the image entirely. We write because we want to make ourselves understood to persuade, to entice, to explain, to insist. If we decide that grammar doesn’t matter, we’ve decided that the burden of understanding should fall on the shoulders of the reader, not the writer. The reader should care so much about what we’re trying to say that they should work extra hard to make sense of what we’ve written. That’s just an unreasonable expectation. You want someone to care about what you’re trying to say? Make an effort to say it well.
This is why, in Achieve 3000 Literacy’s new WordStudio lessons, we provide direct instruction in very targeted, bite-sized chunks, to be delivered as needed, when needed–and why we immediately connect that instruction to engaging reading material in which students will see examples of the grammar concept or rule. If students don’t see grammar work as helping them read better and write better (understand better and communicate better), it becomes just another assignment to complete.
There is a time for teaching the proper names of things for making sure students know what a phrase is, what a clause is, when to use conjunctions, and what the difference is between a complex and a compound sentence. Drawing that instruction out of engaging reading material, instead of worksheets, makes the learning more meaningful and connected for students. But instruction can be even more powerful (and ultimately stickier), if it rises naturally from examples of a student’s own writing and a teacher’s gentle but insistent prodding to manipulate, expand on, and experiment with those sentences. How could you make this sentence shorter without losing the main idea? How could you change this sentence from positive to more ambivalent? What would you have to do to add three more descriptive words? How could you connect these two ideas? If I didn’t let you use the word, very, what would you use instead? What would make this sentence more powerful? What would make this sentence more beautiful? What makes a sentence beautiful, anyway?
All these questions give students opportunities to tinker with the text they have created, to learn how plastic and malleable written language can be, how many different shades of meaning a sentence can take on. And every tinkering can provide an opportunity for the teacher to pause and explain what rule or concept the new sentence or a new word might be an example of.
You might even dare I say it bring back a little, old fashioned sentence diagramming to show students the underlying structure of their own, simple sentences, and how that structure changes as the sentence becomes more complex. When it’s applied to their own writing, students can find diagramming fascinating especially students for whom English is not their first language, and who think the rules of this new language are arbitrary and insane (which, of course, they can be).
Grammar isn’t a thing that we have to learn because it’s on a pacing plan or a state standard. It’s not a thing at all, really. Grammar is the way our language works it’s the skeletal and muscular system that holds the body of written thought together and lets it move. If you pick up grammar by reading great works of literature, and by repeatedly tinkering and playing with sentences of your own, you can learn not only how make writing move you can learn how to make it dance.