I Don’t Understand Grammar

“I Don’t Understand Grammar” is part nine in a ten-part series. You may want to start with part one.

Sometimes, ELA teachers tell me a secret.

The secret is the same, with small variations. It is always whispered apologetically and reluctantly.

“I don’t understand grammar.”

It’s honest – and it’s ok. I am empathetic toward these teachers because I have not always understood grammar –  the study of language and syntax.

This is an honest post about why some English teachers say, “I don’t understand grammar.” For years, I have considered writing this post. I’ve rewritten it and put it off to the side. As I type this, I still fear that some teachers will be negative about this “secret” or cruel to teachers who are honest.

I decided to be straightforward about why some ELA teachers don’t teach grammar: they themselves do not understand it.

Please read the entire post before commenting, and please provide constructive, kind ideas.

The problem came from somewhere. 

For whatever reason, many ELA teachers today did not learn grammar as students. Yes, we “turned out fine.” Yes, grammar isn’t everything.

I want better for my students though. The Common Core, state standards, and NCTE encourage language be taught within context. Teaching language is important. Language is grammar!

So… these two facts create a problem.

  1. Present day, parents and administrators expect ELA teachers to teach grammar.
  2. Most teachers didn’t learn grammar as younger students. Some teachers didn’t learn grammar as college students.

These expectations combined with a lack of background create a problem.

My story.

I have sympathy for this situation. I once was this situation.

I attended school in the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t recall doing much “grammar.” I remember a few worksheets and corrections on my writing. We didn’t study the specifics of language.

Grammar… was scarce. As a teacher, I do not have a frame of reference for when I learned the parts of speech, parts of a sentence. Active and passive voice? Clause placement? Comma rules? Nada.

Then in college, I took an entire course on grammar, and I learned very little. The book read like an electronics manual. The professor made snide comments that English majors should already know this material. (Sidenote: We didn’t! With a few exceptions, my college classmates and I shared little grammar knowledge). I memorized and left the class, happy for it to be over.

When I got my first teaching job, I learned that I would indeed be teaching grammar. I cannot tell you how fortunate I was.

First, I had an English department full of colleagues who not only knew grammar in an encompassing and broad way, but they also shared their knowledge with me! Never did they shrug me off when I asked a question. Never did they roll their eyes that I was asking questions.

Second, I had a curriculum. The books and activities were outdated – but I had content to teach! I was not starting with nothing.

Third, I knew what I didn’t want. (At the time, I did not consider this a positive part to my grammar story, but it really is). Remember that electronics manual from college? I never wanted my students to feel that way about grammar – that grammar was unimportant and disconnected from their lives.

I’m sharing my story not to embarass myself, but to help other English teachers. In many ways, I had a positive experience learning grammar. I didn’t hate it growing up, and I taught at a school with resources. Aside from the negative experience in college, I never felt that I couldn’t understand grammar.

I know that not all teachers are so lucky.

Some teachers are making grammar lessons for the first time, ever! If you don't know how to teach grammar, this educational post is for you.

A solution.

As a teacher who enjoys teaching grammar, I want to help other teachers who may struggle with learning grammar. Many solutions to this problem exist.

You can study online, privately. Grammar resources are plentiful. Grammar Girl, OWL Purdue, and No Red Ink are all sensible and practical. Those resources are free, too.

You can practice student worksheets. If your school has grammar materials, practice those tools until you understand grammar concepts. Find or buy grammar materials online.

You can create an honest dialogue with coworkers or other teachers. Some teachers love grammar. (I am such a teacher). I happily will analyze a clause’s placement. I will also happily help a coworker or colleague who doesn’t have a strong grasp of grammar.

You can join Grammar GurusI created Grammar Gurus as a private group on Facebook. Teachers there ask grammar questions! Teachers seek the basics of grammar, and they also strategize the best way to teach grammar concepts. All are welcome, and we would love to see you in our Facebook group!

For all ELA teachers who think, “I don’t understand grammar but now I have to teach it”… I hope this post was helpful.

For teachers who found grammar easy and perhaps studied it from first grade on, I hope that you can contribute to our online colleagues understanding of grammar.

Ready for the final part of this grammar series? The Perfect Grammar Curriculum is next.

Want a free grammar activity for verbals? Sign-up below, and we’ll send it to you!

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  • Naty

    Thank you, now I dont feel alone

  • Mary

    I went to a Catholic school for seven years, so I was taught grammar. However, I have found teaching grammar to 8th graders challenging for several reasons. I have resources, but even if they do well with them I have found that the grammar that they have learned doesn’t seem to carry over when they are actually writing their essays. Neither does their spelling. Many of them are more apathetic than they were even five years ago and find it tedious. My curriculum doesn’t allow for a lot of time to teach it in the way it was incorporated as a child and they aren’t even being taught cursive these days! It’s all very frustrating to me.

  • Medrill

    I sympathise with you, Mary. I’ve been a teacher for 50 years now and I’m still teaching English to 4th and 5th graders. I’m struggling to make them learn the language itself let alone learn grammar. At school they practically learn every subject in Chinese except for a 2nd and a 3rd language one of which being English. Could it be any worse teaching them to learn English grammar? It’s my job so I just keep trying futile as it may be. I teach at a private tutorial, by the way.
    Yes, you are right, they don’t teach cursive anymore. That’s deplorable indeed because very often I’ve difficulty in making out what they have written.
    Plodding along…a fellow traveller.

    • Lauralee (author)

      My personal children are taught cursive. Because this is a controversial topic, the school showed the parents research about cursive writing. The idea was that when students “handle” their language, whether through reading, playing word games, writing it, studying vocabulary, whatever – their reading comprehension increases. It made me wonder if grammar is a piece of that puzzle as well.

      In The War on Grammar (really great book, btw), the author presents the idea that reading comprehension is tied to grammar study. He says that when students can identify the subject and the verb, they start to realize what a sentence is about.

      I think we (researchers, teachers) don’t understand how all of these pieces work together. For that reason – I’m with you. I still teach grammar. I really find that it empowers students.

      Thanks for commenting on my blog.

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