I just finished reading The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy.
In The War Against Grammar, Mulroy makes a compelling argument that formal grammar instruction is essential to creating a strong foundation for writing, reading comprehension, foreign language study, access to literary culture, and productive civil discourse.
I found Mulroy’s brief history of grammar and progressive education and his criticism of the current standards movement to be interesting.
I laughed out loud when I read this observation:
“Receptive competence” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words. [p. 7]
Then I thought I’ve got to work that into some blog posts. “Balanced literacy” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words. “College and career readiness” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words. “Positive Behavioral Supports” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words.
On a more serious note, Mulroy points out what should be the obvious value of standard English, a value I might add, that I had never consciously considered.
In fact, there are better, or at least nobler, reasons to learn and respect standard English. Its existence not only promotes economic prosperity; it has social and cultural benefits as well. The spread of standard English through schools has retarded the rate of change in the English language. As [E.D.] Hirsch points out, linguist Henry Sweet, the model for Shaw’s Professor Henry Higgins, predicted in the nineteenth century that the English, the Australians, and the Americans would be speaking mutually incomprehensible languages by 1980. Thanks in part to the efforts of people like Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth, this has not happened. In mastering and using standard English, we participate in a collective effort that has given us effortless access to the thoughts of hundreds of millions of people separated by great distances of space and time. [p. 86]
When we consider the value of literacy, it is easy to become frustrated with how little of the talk about education reform in Iowa concerns actual instruction. So, it seems we will be discussing the merits of changing teacher salary structures and requiring more time in school this year without discussing the implications of underlying instructional choices. The War Against Grammar suggests that this is a mistake.
Sentences always have and always will consist of clauses with subjects and predicates and of words that fall into classes fairly well described as verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Individuals who understand these concepts have a distinct advantage over others where the use of language is involved—and that means everywhere. If only for the purpose of helping disadvantaged students, it should therefore be a high priority for all English teachers to find ways to deliver effective formal instruction in grammar in the middle grades of all schools, not just elite ones. There is reason to believe that this change of policy would also increase our nation’s appreciation of its literary heritage, promote the study of foreign language, and improve the quality of the spoken and written discourse in which we are all immersed. [p. 118]
These seem like the sort of things world-class schools ought to be accomplishing, don’t they?