Toronto writer and self-confessed “grammar nut” Gabrielle Bauer admits it made her crazy when her son Jackson, now 13, began bringing home written work from school with unchecked grammatical errors. “It was as if the teacher had been instructed to correct only one or two mistakes and ignore the rest,” she says.
Bauer, a mother of two, was so concerned that she began to hold a series of writing and grammar workshops in her kids’ classrooms. “None of my kids’ teachers have taught grammar systematically,” she complains. “Even the basics like your and you’re aren’t being taught. Kids in grade nine are making these mistakes.”
In fact, grammar is being taught in our schools, says Bernadette Kolonel, a grade-five teacher at Hazelwood Elementary in St. John’s. While there may be some style differences from teacher to teacher and from province to province, today’s approach attempts to walk the line between “beating the death out of adverbs” and ignoring grammar altogether.
Shelley Stagg Peterson, a former Alberta elementary school teacher and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says the emphasis is on editing children’s work and offering mini-lessons aimed at addressing common grammatical mistakes.
What this means in practice, explains Kolonel, is students are asked to write about a subject, and teachers then “discuss how to enhance that writing, in terms of ideas and grammar.” If several students make a similar mistake (say, using apostrophes incorrectly), she designs a short lesson on the subject. Or she removes the punctuation and paragraphing from the work of a children’s author and asks the students to replace them. “The idea is that grammar has a purpose and it’s about communication,” Kolonel says. “It makes it more meaningful if you teach it in the context of writing.”
What has largely gone by the wayside are old methods of teaching grammar methodically through worksheets that focus on parsing sentences (identifying nouns, adjectives, etc.) and correcting errors. “Worksheets don’t work that well because kids know they just have to change the same thing in each,” points out Stagg Peterson. “They may not even read all of the sentences.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced that today’s approach works. Jean Samis, a retired Cranbrook, BC, college teacher, says she has watched in dismay over the years as grammatical errors crept into signs (“Pony’s for Sale”) and letters (“Your invited!”) in her community. But when she began to see them in the local paper, she felt compelled to take action. She wrote a 77-page booklet intended to teach basic grammar skills for all ages. Parents and educators can download the lessons free of charge at bootstrapgrammar.ca. “There’s a whole generation now, maybe two, who haven’t been given the kind of grammatical direction that some of us got,” she says. “They just weren’t taught.”
Stagg Peterson admits that parsing sentences worked for her, but says recent research shows the method is ineffective for many children. She encourages teachers to aim for a happy medium — helping kids get their ideas down on paper without fussing unduly over every tiny mistake, but also incorporating short grammar lessons and editing instruction. For her part, Bauer remains unconvinced. “I think most kids could use some systematic instruction in the basics of grammar,” she says. “What they’re doing now really isn’t working.”
Much to their dismay, Toronto mom Camilla Cornell made her children, Ben and Carly, parse sentences during summer vacation.
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