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Confessions of a Grammar Nerd

Anne Smieszny Silva

I have a confession to make. I am a grammar nerd. I love grammar. I always have, and always will.

Now, before you get all aflutter or vote me off the island or anything, let me explain. It’s somewhat unpopular to be fond of participles nowadays. Even the word “grammar” is passé; we prefer to speak in euphemisms like “forms” or “structures.” The grammar movement seems to have passed out of fashion around the turn of the century, or at least when Latin was the “world language” in vogue.

Those teachers who are passionate about “Communication” (as though it could happen without grammar) seem to scorn the affinity for grammar like the head cheerleader scorns the chess club in a bad teen movie. And like that chess club, some of us grammar geeks have felt the peer pressure to fit in, leave grammatical explanations aside, embrace the catch phrases of language pedagogy as though we truly ascribed to them and only them. “Cool! Rad! Spiffy!” we say. But we don’t really mean it.

I admit, I’ve dabbled in TPR. I’ve experimented in immersion. But no matter what, the way I learn new languages—namely, by analyzing patterns, applying rules to new terms, reasoning out new expressions—has affected the way I tend to teach them. Even as I write this, I feel the need to defend the approach, as though it were somehow devious or subversive.

But “word on the street” has it that elementary students can’t or shouldn’t learn grammar rules, that middle school students will be bored out of their minds, and that high school students will stage an outright revolt if you try. I guess the fear is that your students will be so focused on the rules that they forget to “absorb” any of the language. “That’s not how you learned your first language,” they say. (“Perhaps not, but it is how I learned my second and third languages…” I say, sticking out my tongue defiantly.)

But I made a startling discovery when I decided to loosen up, give rein to my love for affixes and gerunds within my lesson plans. My students loved them, too. I ventured to explain pluralization to 2nd graders, and subject pronouns to 5th graders.

The excitement I felt upon learning that, just by applying a rule, I could use hundreds of previously unknown words…I saw it in my students’ eyes as well. I daresay that my enthusiasm was contagious, and that the benefit I saw for that kind of analysis was made clear to them, too. Like the chess club captain who, at the end of the movie, takes pride in her nerdiness, I’ve come to embrace this tendency and use it to my advantage in teaching.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all become grammar nerds. My particular students were ready for that kind of approach, and I certainly didn’t use a grammar approach exclusively! Everything in moderation, as they say.

The important thing is that, whatever your passion, whatever makes the language speak to you, SHARE that with your students, even if it isn’t in fashion right now. Music, film, poetry, current events, realia, task-based assessment, differentiated instruction, TPR, interpretive dance, whatever…incorporate it into your teaching as you incorporate it into your own learning. Our students learn what we present to them, but they FEEL what we present to them, too.

We need to show them that there is more than one way to explore this intricate—and sometimes tortuous—path called language.

So be wild and crazy…use a grammar chart every now and then. I won’t tell!

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