English and Grammar

A lot of people (myself included) bemoan the fact that kids today – and adults too – cannot spell and have terrible grammar. Some call it laziness. Some say it’s because of social promotion. As an educator, to me the issue is more complex.  Here is a short piece that I wrote in 2009 in reply to someone on another blog site.

     I am a “grammar guru” so the misplaced apostrophes and misspellings that have become commonplace are very irksome to me.
     As a teacher, I see another side of it also. First of all, “invented spelling” has become the norm – it’s what kids do in Kindergarten & 1st grade when they can’t spell correctly yet. In the later grades, most schools have a spelling program which generally comes with workbooks of lists and activities to do. I have tried to do more with a spelling program than this, but there isn’t enough time. It’s more important for students to be able to express themselves coherently and have them correct their spelling as they go along. In an hour and a half, I’m expected to teach reading which includes shared reading (students read with teacher and discuss the reading), guided reading (students receive instructional reading at their level) and independent reading (students read books on their own, with set goals and monitoring necessary); spelling & grammar, and writing (it’s a process and very time consuming). 90 minutes a day may seem like a lot of time to do this, but believe me it isn’t! Guess which is the first thing that doesn’t get taught enough? You guessed it – spelling and grammar. It’s hard to teach these things in a vacuum but unless you tailor your instruction to each student’s needs (which is very time consuming), that’s what you end up doing, and students don’t always apply what they can easily do in grammar and spelling workbooks.
     With my students (English Language Learners), there’s the issue of phonics. Many of them don’t know the rules of English phonetics, but in the intermediate grades (3-5, which I teach) there is little emphasis on phonics in the curriculum because the people who write the curriculum assume it’s been taught in 1st-2nd grades! So we have to do it on our own as well as try to fit in all the grammar instruction as well.
     My experience is that, with many children, the more the read, the better they can spell because they see the words over and over again while reading. Others don’t make the connection. Still, good readers are in general better spellers than poor readers. So the emphasis is to help students read more and use strategies that good readers do.
     Another problem – and this is one I don’t have an answer for – is that in most school districts students are promoted to the next grade whether they are ready to go to that grade or not. We keep kids with their age-group peers. Why do we do this? It has a lot to do with lawsuits, I think. You fail a child, their parents may sue the school for “not doing its job” in educating the child properly, even though this is usually not the case. High stakes testing, even more important now with No Child Left Behind, has added to this problem. In the writing tests for these standardized assessments, there is less emphasis on spelling and grammar (conventions) than on focus, content, organization, etc. So we don’t emphasize these things either. (I say “we” in a broad sense, not necessarily what I or any individual teacher does).
     If we think a child should repeat a grade, we have to jump through hoops to get it done. There is a lot of paperwork, everything must be done far in advance to give parents fair warning, then we have to present documentation showing why the student is not passing and all the strategies we’ve tried to get him/her to succeed, etc., etc. It’s so difficult that most teachers don’t even attempt it. In some schools, principals don’t even allow it! (My husband taught in a school with a principal like this – it was very frustrating to watch kids graduate from high school when they hadn’t even gone to class for half the year).
     What is in place, therefore, is differentiated instruction, meaning that at each grade level, students are supposed to get the kind of instruction that is appropriate for their level and meets their needs. So they may be grouped in the main classroom, they may be pulled out for extra reading or writing instruction, there are special ed classes, ESL and bilingual classes, etc. Even so, there are plenty of kids who “fall through the cracks” – partly due to lack of funding so that class sizes are increased and you have to “meet the needs” of every one of your 25+ students in a 5 1/2 hour school day!!
     Teachers are some of the most caring, compassionate, dedicated professionals in this society. They get paid less than most professionals and often are not even treated as such. But it is a labor of love – we do it because we want to help kids grow and succeed. I am only saying this because many people think we aren’t doing our jobs, because kids seem to come out of school as semi-illiterate. This is not true for the majority. Teaching is a very complex and often frustrating profession, but as I said, we do it because helping students is our main concern.

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