“I Don’t Understand Grammar” is part nine in a ten-part series devoted to English grammar teaching. 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: to teach English grammar is difficult. I am empathetic toward these teachers because I have not always understood grammar—the study of language and syntax.
This honest post is targets English grammar teaching and English teachers who 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. If you’re teaching grammar but are not confident in your lessons, I am here to help.
I decided to be straightforward about why some ELA teachers don’t teach grammar: They themselves do not understand grammar, let alone English grammar teaching.
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. Some of my students will be linguists and others will earn degrees in international business. Lawyers. Advertising executives. Writers. Tons of careers call for a knowledge of grammar, and I won’t be the teacher not to teach it.
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.
- Present day, parents and administrators expect ELA teachers to teach grammar.
- 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 when we are expected to teach grammar.
I have sympathy for this situation because I once was this situation.
I attended school in the 1980s and 1990s. Really, 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. Teaching grammar is unfamiliar to may teachers.
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. (Side note: 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 embarrass 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.
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 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. Plus, I will also happily help a coworker or colleague who doesn’t have a strong grasp of grammar.
You can join Grammar Gurus. I 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. Teaching grammar can be so much more than what is wrong with language or student writing!
UPDATE: In 2018, Callisto Media hired me to write The English Grammar Workbook for Grades 6, 7, and 8, and my appreciation of grammar grew. I grew as a grammar teacher and writer from working with a team of editors and researchers. My Facebook group is still alive, and we would love to collaborate with you.
Ready for the final part of this grammar series? The Perfect Grammar Curriculum is next.
Please leave a kind, constructive comment to those ELA teachers looking for English grammar teaching methods!