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Grammar Interrupted

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I worry about the English language. Thanks to new advances in technology, the impact of pop culture, and the increasing focus on tested areas of our curriculum, the Queen’s English is in more trouble than ever before. Until someone develops a high-stakes test on the use of the past participle, will anyone really be interested in how well our students are writing and speaking?

First, let's talk about technology. Spellcheck has clearly made the world lazy. Students think they don’t need to learn the rules of spelling and grammar because one click will do it for them.

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These same students (and my own children) are addicted to Instant Messaging. My son, who in high school struggled with attention issues in the classroom, could sit at his computer desk at night and carry on 16 simultaneous conversations. Those conversations did not include correctly spelled words or any attempt at punctuation; in fact, IM-speak is actually meant to be incorrect, just so long as it’s fast! For an example, check out this excerpt from a MySpace page that belongs to a student at my school:

Join a discussion on this article, “The Fall of English?.”

"wut it do i ain't talked 2 u n a minute ever since da last day of skool fo christmas break wut been ^ 2 me nuttin jus sittin @ home ain't gone nuttin 2 do........well i wuz jus stoppin by 2 sho ur page sum luvin get baq @ me when u can"

Enough said on that subject.

Pop culture plays a part in the slow, painful torture of correct English in another way, too. Songs on the radio reinforce incorrect usage of grammar (and have for years). Take this oldie from the 80's:

"I feel the magic between you and I" (from Eric Carmen's "Hungry Eyes" on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack).

I ask you, would the songwriter say, "Give it to I, baby!"?

In "Brick House," The Commodores sang, “Ain’t nothing wrong with dat.” This usage of non-standard English for emphasis is actually less offensive. Eric Carmen's use of “I” as an object of the preposition is an ill-fated attempt to sound formal, which adds pretentiousness to the list of crimes committed here.

And don’t get me started on Pink Floyd’s “We Don’t Need No Education.” Ugh. Who says?

Nostalgia for Diagramming

In addition, there has been an enormous shift in our schools in the way they teach—or don’t teach—grammar. We feel those tests looming, hanging in the air over us, gray clouds of reality waiting to descend in mid-May. My students have heard the morning announcements: “There are 165 days left until the end-of-grade test.” (Would the students tell on me if I attacked the intercom speaker with my yardstick?) Focusing on tested areas of the curriculum has often resulted in teachers being forced to give up instruction they love, including the fine points of English grammar.

I remember teaching diagramming. Sentence diagrams were the granddaddy of graphic organizers. I took pride in drawing those precise lines and knowing exactly where to place the indirect object. They were like perfect puzzles, and those of us who mastered them felt like we had just figured out how to do calculus to the third derivative (I don’t even know what I just said).

Not only did I teach diagramming, I taught parts of speech and had students do random, isolated sentences. I did realize that those exercises never seemed to transfer to a student's casual writing and speaking. Just because students could identify pronouns in a sentence didn’t mean they stopped saying, “Me and her need to go to the bathroom.” But we had to start somewhere! Nowadays, however, there is little room in the curriculum for such time-intensive instruction.

The Art of the Mini-Lesson

So what do we do? Sit back and watch our language continue to deteriorate? I, for one, refuse to go down without a fight. Here’s how I’ve changed my teaching:

First of all, I teach short mini-lessons on grammar. Nancie Atwell (In the Middle), Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell (Guiding Readers and Writers), and Lucy Calkins (The Art of Teaching Writing) have touted the mini-lesson for years. It's a short lesson focused on a specific principle or procedure. And for me, it works wonders for those irritating grammatical problems.

So, I'll play a bit of "Hungry Eyes," then say, “Class, why is it improper to say, ‘between you and I?’ How do we usually use the pronoun ‘I’?” I have the students provide a couple of sentences for the overhead, and we have a grand musically enhanced discussion!

On another day, I might ask the students to explain the different ways we speak to one another. I hope they’ll tell me that we speak more informally with our friends—the mode Ruby Payne (in A Framework for Understanding Poverty) calls “casual register.” I explain that we write that way, too, on our MySpace pages and in our text messages. However, formal writing calls for adhering to the conventions—“Remember that discussion we had about pronouns?”

And last, I hit ‘em where they live. I pull out examples of those MySpace pages and ask students to write them over in standard English. I tell them, “This is not art. No symbols – I want words!” Most of the time, they rise to the expectations that are placed on them.

Oh, and one more thing: I challenge them to represent themselves as being intelligent writers and speakers. With luck, one of them will grow up to write the songs. And I won't have to struggle to keep my car on the road when I listen to the radio.

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