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Ten Ways to Keep Grammar Relaxed and Fun

February 19, 2013 Leave a comment

To too many teachers and students, the term “grammar” is synonymous with “boredom.” Further, Patrick Hartwell has suggested that teachers use grammar instruction to assert power over students.[1]

But it doesn’t have to be so.

I was recently asked how I keep my sentence-level instruction relaxed and fun for students. Here are ten ways:

Did you know that ancient Greek manuscripts contained no punctuation? Be thankful English isn't like that.

Did you know that ancient Greek manuscripts contained no punctuation? Be thankful English isn’t like that.

1. Don’t play the drill sergeant.  Teachers easily default into drill-sergeant mode when discussing grammar, trying to explain every detail with confident authority. I avoid this. For one, most rules (or “rules”) aren’t as clear-cut as is suggested by the cocksure writers of handbooks. Things change over time. When we look carefully, we see countless exceptions and countless areas of controversy in the language where attested usages disagree and where respected writers also disagree. Yes, you should generally avoid starting a sentence with “and,” but who cares if you do it every now and then?

2. Ask students to read a paragraph without any punctuationYou can take this to the extreme: no capitalization and no spacing between words!  Not surprisingly, students struggle with the reading. But this struggle helps them understand that punctuation  wasn’t invented for English teachers to torture their students; it serves a real purpose for readers.  (I sometimes accompany this activity with a picture of an ancient Greek manuscript, which shows that the convention of no punctuation was once widely accepted.)

3. Discuss slang and neologisms. When I was recently discussing parts of speech and the discussion moved to articles, I not only gave the standard examples (“a,” “the,” and “each”), but I also added “hella.” (it’s the way youth in northern California make “many” superlative.) When we arrived at verbs, I mentioned “chilax,” and asked a knowledgeable student to define it for the class. When we talked about verbing nouns, I mentioned mention the act of “Tebowing.” When students hear these examples, they light up.

4. Make fun of silly prescriptive “rules.”  These “rules” were invented by 18th-century grammarians who worried that English was a degenerate version of Latin sullied by “false syntax.”[2]  The classic example include the “rule” against splitting and infinitive and the “rule” against ending a sentence in a preposition, both modeled on Latin grammar. Yes, in Latin and the romance languages, you truly can’t end a sentence this way or split an infinitive (because it’s one word). It’s unattested. But English isn’t Latin. It’s not even a Romance language. So the “rule” against ending a sentence in a preposition makes as much sense as applying to English the patterns of Sanskrit or Swahili.

5. Contrast the conventions of school writing with texting. This is a subject where students have so much to say. Most students are keenly aware of the difference, especially when it comes to spelling and punctuation. I ask them about the impacts of texting on their writing. Students are shocked to find out that—contrary to what many assume—texting probably won’t destroy their language skills.

6. Question what we assume about people based on their linguistic habits. These assumptions relate to one’s morals, intelligence, and  manners—as pointed out by Patricia Dunn and Kenneth Lindblom. I ask students if these assumptions are based in logic, prejudice, or both. Again, students have tons to say about this rich topic for discussion, in part because many have themselves been judged based on their linguistic habits.

7. Make fun of the ridiculousness of language. Every language, when carefully examined, contains patterns that are the antithesis of intelligent design, as I’ve written in this post. For instance, we drive on a “parkway” and park on a “driveway.” Uh? Also, English very logically uses the same suffix to pluralize nouns as it does to make present tense verbs agree with third-person, singular subjects. Why? Because.

8. Use memorable or goofy example sentences. Many of my teachers, a long time ago, used goofy examples to prove a grammatical point that still sticks in my head. These sentences featured death metal and violent zoo animals.  Too often, we default to sentences about Dick and Jane. Yawn. The best examples are ones that you’ve designed in advance, rather than generating them on the spot. Quotes of politicians putting their feet in their mouths work well. So do sentence with pop-culture references. I’ve written about good examples sentences in this post and also in this one. A good pair of example sentences often illustrates a point much better than a long-winded technical explanation.

9. Play the typo game. This game reverses the usual power dynamic: usually the teacher catches student errors. For the typo game, the students catch the teacher’s errors. Whenever the teacher makes a typo on the chalkboard or a handout, the first student to bring it to the teacher’s attention gets a point. At the end of the term, the top point-getters receive extra credit. The typo game helps students see that yes, even English teachers make mistakes, and it teaches them to shed their paranoia about the tiny mistakes we all make and instead focus on what’s important.

10. Admit what you don’t know. Just like in Psychology, Astrophysics, or Medicine, the study of language contains many mysteries and idiosyncrasies that defy easy explanation. Some questions about grammar I truly don’t know how to answer, or might require research. For instance, when students ask me whether certain compound words are written as two words, one word, or a hyphenated word, I often confess that I don’t know, more than one way might be accepted, and we could use Google to research what actual writers are doing.


[1] Patrick Hartwell. 1985. Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. In Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Second Edition. 2003. Edited by Victor Villanueva. P. 228.

[2] Brock Haussamen. 1997. Revising the Rules: Traditional Grammar and Modern LinguisticsP. 14 – 19.

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Out with “Teaching Grammar,” in with “Sentence-Level Pedagogies”

February 15, 2013 1 comment
Chalkboard at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

Chalk at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

After many years of thinking, I’ve decided the term “teaching grammar” is problematic. If I could control how English is used, I’d abolish this term from the vocabulary of writing teachers.

Here’s the problem: first, the term “grammar” is in many ways ambiguous, as I’ve discussed at length in this post and this one. It could mean anything from helping students learn to proofread for run-on sentences, to sentence diagramming, to rhetorical style, to teaching students Chomskyan transformational grammar.

If something doesn’t help us disambiguate, each speaker interprets “grammar” however they want. And often times each teacher has a different assumption guiding their interpretation. To most, the most salient interpretation holds that “grammar” means a rigid set of clear-cut prescriptions on the correct structure of English (whatever that means).

Now the common phrase “teaching grammar” carries all these problems, and more. “Teaching grammar” seems to entail the following:

  1. Students lack “grammar.”
  2. Teacher possess “grammar.”
  3. The act of “teaching grammar” is completed when teachers have deposited “grammar” in the minds of their students.

So when we say we’re “teaching grammar,” it seems to suggest we’re operating in some sort of authoritarian, anti-Freirean regime—contrary to what I think most intend. (Interestingly, if we talk about “teaching writing,” I don’t think it carries a parallel set of entailments.)

I propose replacing “teaching grammar” with the less explosive “sentence-level pedagogies.” Why? Because it more accurately captures the meaning I think most intend when they say “teaching grammar.” As a plural, it entails multiple approaches. It defines the domain it encompasses—everything that goes on inside the sentence—from spelling, to syntax, to mechanical correctness, to style.

The rest is left conspicuously vague. And that’s good! “Sentence-level pedagogies” suggests nothing about what the end goal is. It says nothing about the pedagogical methods used to reach the goals. It says nothing about whether our pedagogy is Freireian or the banking method. It practically forces teachers and scholars to clarify the rest.

To be fair, my proposal here will probably prove futile. For one, “sentence-level pedagogies” sounds clunkier. And If I followed my own advice, I’d have to change the change this blog’s URL. I’d also lose traffic from search engines. When I Google “teaching grammar,” I get over 400,000 results, compared with less than 1,000 for “sentence-level pedagogies” and “sentence-level pedagogy” combined.

But more broadly, communities of language users naturally resist schemes to replace one word with another. For a classic example, consider the countless failed attempts to artificially engineer a gender-free replacement for the expression “he or she.” These sorts of proposals only gain traction amongst the highly educated and self-conscious, and rarely for long.[1][2]

I’ll keep campaigning in favor of “sentence-level pedagogies,” but I’m just one teacher in California. In the meantime, I’d be happy just to see teachers and scholars clarifying exactly what they’re talking about when they’re talking about “teaching grammar.”


[1]  John H. McWhorter. 2001. Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution. In Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. 2009. 10th edition. Edited by Paul Escholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. p. 373 – 379.

[2] The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996. p. 172 – 174.