If you want to understand why so many students hate grammar, find a student and ask them the following questions:
- What is grammar?
- Who made it?
- Why did they make it?
I start my discussion of grammar every year with these three questions, and the responses I get tend to go like this:
- “Grammar is writing rules.”
- “I don’t really know who made it. Maybe English teachers or professors.”
- “Why was it made?? [confused shrug]
Responses like these tell us all we need to know about why so many students loathe grammar. While humans tend to have a nearly bottomless well of curiosity for things that they see as connecting to their lives, they generally have a profound indifference towards things that don’t apply to them. The problem with grammar is that if students don’t know what grammar is, who made it, and why it exists, then the chances of them feeling like it truly applies to them are low. Sure, English teachers can and do make the argument that a firm grasp of certain grammar rules will help students get better scores on things like standardized tests, but that argument rarely persuades students to learn more than the bare minimum needed to get the scores they want.
If we want students to get interested in grammar, we need to make a more convincing case than that. We need to show them that grammar applies to their whole lives–not just a class, test, or college admissions essay. This task might seem difficult, and it can be, but it is made easier by the fact that grammar is actually one of the few things that applies to nearly all lives. The fact of the matter is that we all use grammar with every word that we say or write. At its core, grammar is simply our internalized rules for how we use language, and it matters because others are constantly scanning our language–consciously or unconsciously–for grammatical shibboleths, or a markers that can be used to classify us.
With that in mind, my first day discussing grammar is all about answering the what/who/why questions above in a way that makes a case to students that grammar does apply to them and is worth investing in. Here is what I do:
I start my discussion of grammar with the what/who/why questions above. In that discussion I talk about how grammar is a system of internal guidelines for how we use language. I also discuss that while we may get some of our guidelines through direct instruction, we also get a lot of them through observing how those around us use language. This mix of direct/indirect instruction is why no two people speak in exactly the same way, as no one has experienced the exact same blend of lessons and mentors. To make this point, I have students take this wonderfully engaging personal dialect quiz from the New York Times (see below). The results of this are always entertaining and clearly show that even a classroom full of students who are the same age and grew up in the same town actually speak in remarkably different ways.
After the dialect quiz, I then tell students the story of the word shibboleth (see above). The story comes from the biblical Book of Judges, and I like to use the succinct account from Rice University:
In the story, two Semitic tribes, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, have a great battle. The Gileadites defeat the Ephraimites, and set up a blockade across the Jordan River to catch the fleeing Ephraimites who were trying to get back to their territory. The sentries asked each person who wanted to cross the river to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites, who had no sh sound in their language, pronounced the word with an s and were thereby unmasked as the enemy and slaughtered.
I then let the student know that while we all may talk in different ways, people regularly use other people’s word usage—how they use verbs, punctuation, sentence structure, and other grammatical elements–as a shibboleth to help sort them into a groups. This sorting is generally the most pronounced in moments where a choice must be made between people, and those moments often happen to be some of the most important in our lives. A few examples where someone’s grammar could impact how they are viewed during critical moments include, but are not limited to…
- Applying/interviewing for jobs
- Applying to college/programs
- Trying to impress bosses, audiences, or readers
- Trying to get dates (seriously; think about the overwhelming popularity of online dating)
In these important moments, being put in the right or wrong group by a gatekeeper–the person in power who can either let you in or keep you out–can change someone’s life, which is where the study of Standard English comes in. In many realms, including academia and business, the gatekeepers tend to look for the shibboleth of Standard English, or the English rules that are codified in grammar manuals and often taught in schools.
The concept of Standard English and why it is favored by the gatekeepers in power can often be a bit hard to understand, so my next step is to show students the following excerpt from rockstar linguist Anne Curzan* and video from (of all people) Weird Al to show two linguistic viewpoints that both help to define what Standard English is.
After reading the article and watching the video, I ask the students the following:
- What is the difference between the two?
- Who is right?
- What is your definition of Standard English, now that we’ve talked through these two viewpoints?
What I am doing here is getting the students to engage in the classic prescriptivist/descriptivist debate, and I usually find that there are fierce adherents of both in the room. This conversation can be tricky to lead–as it is connected to issues of race/class/background–but I have found that seeing varied viewpoints on Standard English is a much more effective way to teach what it truly is than simply giving a definition. Further, the debate often makes it real for students how the study of commas and colons applies to the larger world they live in, and once they see that the grammar groans tend to disappear, and sometimes (seriously, this has happened) they are even replaced with classes requesting more and deeper grammar!
Thanks as always for reading, and if you liked this, subscribe today and get more grammar posts soon, as October is grammar month in my classes!
Yours in Teaching,
*Anne Curzan also gives weekly linguistic podcasts that are really interesting. A link to them is here; my personal favorites are the origin story of the work “OK” and the one on why you aren’t supposed to have your cake and eat it too.