Homeschool Discoveries

Sharing a few things I've discovered along the way…

Thoughts on Formal Grammar Instruction April 5, 2013

Filed under: Curriculum — kirstenjoyhill @ 12:07 am
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In my recent post about our experiences with The Sentence Family, Ashely asked in the comments if I would share more thoughts about my decision to delay grammar instruction. I thought about just writing a comment in reply, but as I gathered my thoughts I realized that they would be more post-like in length.  So here it goes… 🙂

I didn’t necessarily start out my homeschooling journey intending to wait until later elementary school to start grammar instruction.  As I read books about various homeschool philosophies, there was a time when the Classical model of education sounded a bit appealing.  One thing the classical philosophy of education recommends is extensive memorization in the elementary years, including memorization of grammar knowledge starting at an early age.

The closer I got to starting “real” homeschooling (not that teaching a 2 year old the alphabet isn’t “homeschooling” in some sense…but, I think you know what I mean!), the more I realized that many aspects of the classical model didn’t really fit me, and I wasn’t sure they were going to be a good fit for my oldest child either.  The truth is, I hate verbatim memorization.  I have memorized a sad few number of Bible verses in my lifetime.   Miss M showed no particular strength at being able to memorize things, and, in fact, seemed to struggle with even very basic memorization.

Now, I know that Classical education isn’t all about the memorization, but some of the most popular Classically-influenced curricula for grammar instruction are basically about rote memorization of grammar information, possibly before a child is really old enough to need it or apply it.  I looked at a popular curriculum called First Language Lessons, and I thought it would drive me crazy repeating some of this grammar information over and over again in order to get a first grader who could barely read to memorize the definition of a noun.

I had to take a step back and ask myself, “What is the point of grammar instruction anyway? Can a student be successful without it?”  My own grammar instruction was pretty minimal.  By sixth grade I remember being bored out of my mind that we were learning again that year about nouns and verbs and subjects and predicates.  I don’t recall any formal grammar instruction after sixth grade, though I am sure we must have studied a few punctuation rules here and there in junior high.

Somehow, I made it through learning to write various forms of essays and research papers in high school, easily got A’s on nearly every paper I wrote in college, and got a degree in English with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Professional Communication.  And I did all of this without so much as a single higher-level grammar course, and without being able to diagram a sentence or really explain what a dangling modifier might be.

How I learned to be a good writer (at least, good enough for A’s in college), is still a bit of a mystery to me.  I think a good deal of it must be attributable to a natural skill or inclination toward writing.   So, I think it is very possible to be successful with a minimum of formal grammar instruction.  I have a desire now, myself, to study formal grammar — but mostly for the sheer joy of better understanding the English language (and to be a better editor — my co-editor corrects my punctuation way too often!).

Now, back to my journey in homeschooling.  Few people teach grammar in Kindergarten anyway, and at the beginning of her first grade year Miss M was still struggling to get beyond three and four letter words in reading.  Sometime during the late fall of her first grade year, her reading skill exploded without further intervention from me.   Her spelling skills did not take off, so we focused on spelling.

Meanwhile, we were not doing very much writing either.  Miss M started out her school years being pretty writing-phobic.  At first it was a fatigue issue — she couldn’t write more than a few words without getting very tired.  Later, I think it was more of an issue related to her difficulties with spelling (though I am not sure she could have articulated that).  Since Miss M wasn’t doing a lot of writing, grammar seemed relatively…irrelevant.  Yet, when Miss M would orally dictate to me something she wanted written down, her sentences were naturally full and complete, and typically quite grammatical.  So, even without formal instruction she was clearly picking up on something!

By second grade, I was still spending a great deal of time on spelling with Miss M.  We tried out a couple more spelling programs to see if we could find one that would “click.”   Writing was still frustrating — she would write something, and not only could I not understand what she wrote due to the spelling mistakes, she herself couldn’t even decipher it later.

By the spring of Miss M’s second grade year (about a year ago), I discovered Logic of English and we got on the road to better spelling in a way that really works for Miss M.  Spelling is still a bit of a struggle, but it is so much better now that she is finally this year willing to do some writing.   Now, Logic of English Essentials does have grammar instruction, but in order to spend more time on spelling we have simply skipped the grammar portions.  We’ll be going back through LOE-E next year with more advanced words, and we will probably cover some of the grammar at that time.

With smoother sailing in the spelling arena, I finally felt like a bit of grammar instruction might be welcome.  Curricula that teach in the form of a story are always a hit with my kids, hence my decision to try out first the Sentence Family, and now a classic public-domain book called Grammarland.

A final piece of that decision to wait until sometime “later”  for grammar was the advice my good friend and co-editor gave me.  She is a seasoned homeschooling veteran who has now graduated all her children (and several have gone on to writing or other language-related careers.)  D. V. recommends Winston Grammar and advises, “Instead of teaching them the same things every year from an A Beka workbook, which they will promptly forget, let them slowly go through these two work books, and that’s about all they need to know.”

This advice seems so wise to me! A common complaint about grammar programs is how repetitive the are!  Why not just avoid the repetition in the first place and teach this information at an age when the student is truly ready to remember it.

She also mentions that standardized testing is often not done until 2nd or 3rd grade anyway (it’s age 7 by Oct 1st here in MN, so some test as early as 1st grade) — and even those first standardized tests only expect a knowledge of the most very basic grammar terms like noun, adjective and verb and a few common-sense things about writing (like using a period at the end of a sentence).

The Winston Grammar website itself offers this advice on when to begin instruction: “Most grammar concepts are abstract with the exception of nouns (things a child can hold in their hand), action verbs (things children do) and adjectives (descriptive words such as colors or numbers). State of being verbs, helping verbs, nouns that are concepts (such as a May 1, or love, happiness, etc), many adverbs, all the ways nouns and pronouns are used (direct and indirect objects, predicate nominatives, etc) are all quite abstract. Until a child has developed their abstract thinking skills, which usually occurs about 5th-6th grade or 10-12 years of age, trying to teach and have him/her retain abstract concepts is very difficult. My advice is to not worry much about grammar until 5th grade. If you feel a great need to do grammar, then just start with the very basic concrete nouns, action verbs, and adjectives.”

So what will I do with Miss M? Next year, when she is in 4th grade, we will try Winston Grammar along with some of the LOE-E grammar instruction.  But if it is a struggle, we will wait again.  I think most of what is truly key to know about grammar could be learned in a very short time when a child is at the right age and stage of maturity. Meanwhile, I will be looking for my own reference or text to help me become a better editor.  Commas, clauses and dangling modifiers watch out! I may finally learn some editing based on technical details rather than intuition!

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5 Responses to “Thoughts on Formal Grammar Instruction”

  1. Julie Says:

    We don’t worry about grammar very much. The focus is on communication. The kids get excited about their writing and if I go through it and correct all the grammar mistakes it seems I have missed the entire point. They were trying to tell me something and all I saw was no capitals, no commas and so on. I think it will come with writing practice.

    • Tonja Says:

      I love this Kirsten! I always enjoy reading what’s going on with your homeschooling. I would concur with the idea of waiting til they are at least in 5th grade to teach formal grammar. Let them develop the love of writing first and then focus on those details. I would also agree though that at some point earlier (maybe 2nd grade) you can spend a couple of days learning the basics of noun, verb, adjectitve, and adverb because that will come up in other areas. There are fun books out there like To Root, To Toot, to Parachute that put this learning to a funny story with great illustrations! (Way more fun than memorizing definitions).

  2. cartagenafamilia Says:

    I do agree that there’s some spectrum of sensitivity in terms of how easily a child picks up on things related to language. My question is what should be happening between 5-6th2-3 grade and they college? As a college-level instructor who requires a good deal of writing in class, I’m finding many students do NOT have an intuitive sense of grammar nor do they possess the ability (or perhaps have not practiced) self-editing. I agree there’s no need to squish a child’s enthusiasm at 6, but what needs done at 16?

    • I am really vexed by that question as well. I know that not all students pick up writing as intuitively as I apparently did. Obviously the standard (in most public schools) educational philosophy doesn’t produce consistently good writers. I don’t find the classical education methodology of teaching writing in the early years via copywork, dictation and narration to be all that compelling.

      I started a thread based on this question on a homeschooling message board that I read (it’s public — you don’t have to join to see it): http://forums.welltrainedmind.com/topic/451413-what-should-i-be-reading-to-decide-my-philosophy-of-writing-instruction/

      The responses are really interesting but I haven’t had a chance to follow all the links suggested or to pursue very much other reading on this topic yet. Maybe this summer. 🙂

  3. Amy @ Hope Is the Word Says:

    We’ve had success and even enjoyed FLL, but my eldest is really good at memorizing. We’ve also enjoyed Michael Clay Thompson’s materials, and through both of these pieces my 3rd grader has a rudimentary understanding of parts of speech and parts of a sentence, etc. She even enjoys diagramming! :). I’ve taught high school English and both reading and English at the community college level, and I agree that many teens and young adults (almost all public school graduates) have very little grasp of grammar. I’m hoping that our early exposure and very incremental approach will build a strong foundation for my girls. However, if they were (are, in the case of my younger dd) frustrated by it, I would hold off.


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