Grammar is Really Effing Boring


I don't teach grammar. Maybe that's is a little misleading. I do teach grammar, but I generally don't believe in teaching it in isolation. My opinion is very simple. 

Students learn grammar by:

1. Reading a lot, whether it's magazine articles, books, TMZ posts, etc...
2. Writing. And then writing some more
3. Engaging in academic conversation and discussion (at home and school)

I don't believe grammar is effectively taught by:

1. Diagramming sentences
2. Worksheets
3. Multiple choice activities

Grammar is really effing boring. And I'm an English teacher and have my degree in the topic. And I love to write. And read. But I can't stand grammar.

An article published last year in The Atlantic confirmed my way of thinking, citing over 250 studies over the past few decades that show the typical "drill and kill" style of teaching used in the past ("What's the predicate, Sally?") is useless. One large, very interesting study focused three groups of students, one taught traditionally, one taught through alternative lessons, and one just given literature and writing assignments. There was no difference in their acquisition and utilization of correct grammar, although the traditional group was shown to develop an "antipathy" towards the subject of English.

Writing, including the fundamentals like grammar, is best taught by, well, writing. In order to become a better writer you write more. 

This isn't to say I never teach skills in isolation, because sometimes I do. Maybe not quite as much now that I teach IB, but when I taught the traditional English classes I would a few times a semester review skills I saw the whole class struggling with (apostrophe usage, subject-verb agreement, etc...), especially since I work with a high percentage of English learners. 

What I do do is assign a lot of writing and a lot of reading. When I grade essays I don't edit them- I fill out a rubric for content (the bulk of their grades) a checklist for grammar/mechanical issues. Then I allow them to rewrite some of them for better grades. They're encouraged to read their essays aloud, have their peers edit for them, and to sit down with me (although that is tough in terms of time). We read six texts during the year with various supporting articles and references. They have to read 700 pages of academic literature or non-fiction writing each semester. Exposure is key.

I also try to give students a lot of opportunity to engage in academic conversation, whether it's talking to a partner about answers to a question, working with a group to analyze something, or having a whole class discussion on the larger issues of a text. They hear examples of both good grammar and bad grammar from their classmates, as well as what I model too (and I confess, sometimes I do speak casually with them, but when we're focused and getting down to business I try to stay academic). 

Think about learning a foreign language- it's widely believed that immersion is far more advantageous than classroom learning. Living in Italy for a year is going to result in far better skills than just sitting in a classroom filling out worksheets. 

I'm sure that there are some awesome teachers that make grammar fresh and hip and cool. Maybe they dress up in costumes and rap. Or maybe their students create interpretive dances that show the different sentences types. But while that's all fine and dandy, that's just not how I roll. 

Students do better when they're engaged; they are in classes almost six hours a day, five days a week. Boring lesson after boring lesson after boring lesson does not make them want to get out of bed in the morning and come to school. Not that my class is always amazingly fascinating, but I try to avoid monotonous things like diagramming sentences. 

I remember spending hundreds of hours going through a grammar text book page by page in fifth grade. We had to do every single exercise and couldn't move on until we got most of them right.

I hated that teacher. 




  1. Bless you for teaching proper apostrophe use!

  2. I love grammar! But I agree that usually the explicit teaching and always the drill and kill is pretty ineffective. I remember getting hit hard with it in high school, and I still don't have a clue what a gerund is! Like you, I'm a big proponent of reading and writing more in order to be a better reader and writer. When parents ask me how they can help their kids, I just tell them to help their kid read for enjoyment. It really is that simple. Unfortunately, I teach 7th grade English in Texas, which means a big, fat state test on writing, and the trickle down impact is that sometimes I have to teach grammar. I try to make it fun, but it is against my will! I want kids to like English, not despise it.