“Why Modern American Schools Don’t Teach Subjects Such as Grammar Directly Anymore”
by an anonymous English teacher
Capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling (CPGS) should often be taught directly so that students will speak and write logically and according to standard rules. Not teaching CPGS directly results in poor capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling, and illogical and undeveloped thinking. One cannot consistently think logically or deeply if one does not know a language well, and (at least in most cases) one will not know a language well if one is not directly taught its rules frequently. One might end up fluent in the language without being directly taught its rules frequently, but one will not master it. Mastering a language means being able to speak, read, and write it in a very sophisticated way without making many mistakes.
What is the difference between directly teaching CPGS, which is what almost all English Language Arts teachers used to do frequently, and indirectly teaching CPGS, which is what many modern English Language Arts teachers are strongly encouraged to do now exclusively? (For the record, English Language Arts teachers used to be called just English teachers. I suppose that the name change has to do with some goofy political correctness.) Directly teaching CPGS is telling students in a systematic way how to properly do capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling. For example, for capitalization, an ELA teacher might teach the students many capitalization rules and then have them do a capitalization worksheet; for punctuation, an ELA teacher might teach a particular punctuation rule and then have the students write a sentence or two that follows that punctuation rule; for grammar, an ELA teacher might make the students memorize the definitions of a noun, pronoun, verb, conjunction, preposition, prepositional phrase, adjective, adverb, interjection, subject, and predicate, and then teach students how to identify those things in sentences; for spelling an ELA teacher might regularly give students spelling words to memorize for upcoming regular spelling tests. It makes sense, doesn’t it? That is why it was done for decades, if not for centuries.
Indirectly teaching CPGS is usually something like this: Have students read, write, and speak and, while doing those things, figure out capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling by themselves. I kid you not. Indirect teaching can be a useful supplement to direct teaching, but it should not be the only method. One should be told how to read, write, and speak well as one attempts to read, write, and speak well. One should not just be told, “Go ahead. Try to read, write, and speak well. You’ll figure it out.” No, you probably won’t, at least not to any great extent.
I used to be a wrestler, and my wrestling coaches didn’t just tell me, “Go ahead. Go out there on the mat and try to wrestle. You’ll figure it out and become a great wrestler,” which is what learning CPGS only through indirect teaching is like. Instead, my coaches taught me wrestling moves and parts of moves, and they had me practice them over and over again. Then they had me go out on the mat and wrestle. That is the type of ELA teaching that I recommend. Teach directly and indirectly mixed together, with the part of the direct instruction often coming before the indirect instruction. In other words, tell students a little about how to read, write, and speak well, and then have the students try to read, write, and speak well. I’ll tell you what, in a match between a wrestler who has had both good direct instruction and good indirect instruction versus a wrestler who has had just good indirect instruction, 99 times out of 100, the former will easily defeat the latter. Likewise, comparing readers, writers, and speakers who have had both good direct instruction and good indirect instruction with readers, writers, and speakers who have only had good indirect instruction, the former will almost always read, write, and speak better than the latter.
CPGS were directly taught to the vast majority of American students for at least a century, and since about 1968 with the rise of much hippie-ish thinking in American academia, they have been directly taught less and less. This is bad for individuals and society as whole, so why doesn’t the modern American public school system frequently teach them directly? Why is it that, in many American public schools, English Language Arts teachers are greatly pressured to NEVER teach CPGS directly? I am currently a public school English Language Arts teacher in the United States, and here is my honest answer. Get ready to be sad and/or angry.
1) Many people, even many ELA teachers and facilitators, are bored by CPGS, In other words. CPGS are supposedly too boring.
I did some research, and the following is the structure of a typical school hierarchy in Texas, which is where I teach. Principals and assistant principals have been omitted from this hierarchy because the focus of this hierarchy is on who decides what will be taught and how. The first mentioned is the most powerful group or person, and the last mentioned is the least powerful group or person: the voters, state legislature and federal government, Texas Education Agency and state board of education, district board of education, superintendent, executive director and/or assistant superintendent, director, facilitators, teachers, teacher aides, students. My understanding is that the national standards (a.k.a. the Common Core) and the Texas standards (a.k.a. the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) are good enough. The problems come when people such as the superintendent, executive director and/or assistant superintendent, director, and facilitators insist that they be implemented in a foolish way. For the sake of convenience, I lump all these these people under the title of facilitators. I define a facilitator as someone with authority over a teacher whose job is to tell teachers how they (the teachers) should teach.
To be fair, the facilitators are also told by their superiors to do stupid things such as lump fast learners and slow learners in the same classroom, and they might not be given adequate funds to educate students properly. Ultimately, I blame the voters for our less than stellar public schools. If they demanded and were willing to pay for excellent public schools, that is what they would get. Instead, too many cooks spoil the broth. In other words, the public school system is trying to satisfy too many people (such as people who do not want to reward and challenge the most advanced students for fear of upsetting the least advanced students, or people who do not want to separate poorly-behaved students from well-behaved students, even though the poorly-behaved students are greatly detracting from the education of the well-behaved students), and in the process the broth of public education satisfies very few people. It certainly does not satisfy the most intelligent, virtuous, and compassionate people–whether students, parents, or teachers.
2) Many people, even some ELA teachers and facilitators, lack the intellectual ability to learn some aspects of CPGS easily. In other words, CPGS are supposedly too difficult.
3) Some misleading studies insist that CPGS should not be taught directly.
4) Maybe the powers that be, such as certain sections of the government and certain influential plutocrats, want to keep the vast majority of Americans stupid so that they can be easily managed and manipulated.
5) Maybe facilitators want to undermine teaching CPGS directly so that they make teaching students how to read, write, and speak English more difficult. That way, they force teachers to rely on them for guidance and, thus, the facilitators get to keep their cushy jobs. For example, it would be easy to use a well-written grammar book to teach English grammar. Take that book away, and teachers have to find another way to teach. Then tell teachers that they can’t even teach grammar directly in any way but must rely on the “expert” guidance of the facilitators, and the facilitators have unwarranted job security.
6) English teachers and facilitators have been hearing, reading, and speaking against directly teaching CPGS for so long that they have been indoctrinated to believe that it is bad.
7) People seem to look cool and smart if they seem to know a better way of teaching than the well-established way, especially when the well-established way is very disliked by many people; and, as was mentioned in Reasons 1 and 2, many people are bored by CPGS and/or find learning CPGS very challenging. These anti-CPGS teachers and facilitators are like dentists who say, “Go ahead, eat all the candy you want, and don’t brush or floss either. The good news is that you can always have a great smile without doing anything unpleasant.” Translation: “Go ahead, forget about capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling. The good news is that you will be smart, articulate, and well-respected without learning those things very well.”
8) Computers will fix our spelling and grammar problems for us. Don’t misunderstand me. Spell Check is great, and Grammar Check is OK. The English language has much illogical and confusing spelling, and Spell Check points out many possible mistakes. I love it! However, Spell Check does not catch homophone mistakes. (A homophone is a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning, and may differ in spelling.) For instance, Spell Check will not point out that your is the wrong word in the sentence, “Your coming home tonight.” Your without an apostrophe is pronounced the same as you’re with an apostrophe, but has a different meaning. The latter, not the former, is the correct word for that sentence.
Grammar Check is sometimes helpful, but often its suggestions are unnecessary if not plain wrong. As far as I know, no computer program yet made is close to being better at grammar, capitalization, and punctuation than an intelligent, educated human.
Now, let’s talk about Autocorrect. At least in many cases, it is crap. It often makes mistakes that cause the user to seem very stupid or perverted. For example, you might text a friend, writing, “I’m so hungy I could eat a dog,” and Autocorrect might write, “I’m so horny I could eat a dong.” Unlike Spell Check and Grammar Check, Autocorrect does not even give the user a chance to approve or disapprove of the computer program’s suggestions, and it can be very difficult to turn off. I absolutely hate it, and, almost needless to say, an educated human’s language skills are generally far superior to Autocorrect.
Furthermore, even if a computer program exists that always capitalizes, punctuates, does grammar, and spells correctly, one should still know how to do CPGS correctly, because it makes one smart and it helps one master the language thoroughly. A person who has a computer program with perfect Grammar Check but who does not know grammar well is like a person who owns a vast library but has barely read a book: ignorant. It is generally better to have knowledge in one’s brain rather than in one’s computer or books. Moreover, most people still write with pen and paper, at least occasionally, and no Grammar Check that I know of will perfectly highlight handwritten mistakes.
OK, what can I do about this problem of CPGS and American public education? Not much. I have little power to improve the American public school system, and I need to keep my teaching job. I guess that I can tell the world the truth about this problem, at least through this article, and I can directly teach CPGS to an extent behind the facilitators’ backs. In other words, I can sneak in as much direct CPGS instruction as I dare. Not all change is progress, and most of the changes regarding the instruction of CPGS in modern American public schools are regress. I believe that our society is regressing to a noticeably less enlightened level when it comes to reading, writing, and speaking English.
4 thoughts on “Why Modern American Schools Don’t Teach Subjects Such as Grammar Directly Anymore”
Thank you for commiserating with me.
I completely agree with everything that you wrote except for one thing: “Newer, younger teachers don’t know CPGS beyond what they have to teach for the state test.” Sadly, probably most of them don’t understand that material well enough to teach it properly. If there is a mist in the pulpit, there’s a fog in the pew.
I firmly agree with this article and its conclusions. I have been an English teacher in the Texas Public School system for 36 years. When I began teaching, we were still directly teaching grammar and writing for an entire semester. Then we taught literature and writing during the second semester. Soon thereafter, we were told we could not teach grammar directly and in isolation. Newer, younger teachers don’t know CPGS beyond what they have to teach for the state test. It is a pitiful situation. Many students are not taught what they need to know and do not even have the vocabulary to be taught in the higher grades. One example is trying to teach the correct case of the pronoun to use if students cannot tell the difference between a linking verb and an action verb and they have never heard of linking verbs or action verbs.
Wow, I cannot believe how similar the educational situation is in the USA. I live in Canada, and I share the exact same concerns and methods.
As a teacher, I believe it morally wrong to deny my students the understanding of grammar, punctuation, and syntax that allowed me years ago to harness the power of language. Once I learned grammar–and only then– could I write things worth reading. It would be morally wrong not to share that ability with my students. I can see that you feel the same way. Glad to know there is another closeted “old school” teacher.
Best wishes from Canada.