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Friday, April 27, 2012

Guest Blogger: A Polemic From the Prairie

The Political Challenges Inherent in Solving English Language Instruction and the Push for Latin as a Tool to Instruct Children in Learning Grammar

This essay is in part in reply to an article Pamela wrote concerning her frequent use of the present active participle. I was struck by the way in which American society at present rarely discusses grammar and the way in which grammar is taught today.  Originally, I had planned on writing only about how Latin might better teach children grammar in English, but my thoughts soon turned to the larger problem of NCLB and the way in which English is taught to children today. 

I read your article on the present active participle (that you posted some time ago), and I wanted you to know I enjoyed it. We as a society rarely discuss grammar, and it's good to know someone appreciates it as much as I do! Maybe we could reverse this trend if we brought Latin back into the curriculum, but that's a hard sell these days, though for what it's worth I was a colloquium a few years ago at U of I and the chair of the classics department at Indiana was going on and on about how Latin and foreign language in general are so effective at teaching kids grammar in English. I would surmise this is likely because our English grammar was adapted from Latin (and later French as well) and as such is not very intuition-friendly. Once the grammar has been established in another language, however, the student "translates" the grammar he or she knows from that language to English, just as the original grammarians did.

Yet, despite the common sense conclusion of the above stipulation, there is little reason to believe that school districts are going to start implementing Latin into their curricula at any time in the near future.  There are a number of reasons for this, mostly rooted in the fact that school districts must educate students in such a way so that they pass state standardized testing requirements at the end of the year.  These requirements, set forth in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, serve as a metric for which to judge school performance. Schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” in consecutive years may be forced to close, and states that fail to meet guidelines may lose federal funding.  So in response to the need to meet these requirements school districts across the country have implemented curricula that place emphasis on the material covered in these tests to such a degree that a standard curriculum has been adapted to meet the very language of the test, often to the detriment of the education the child actually receives. A good example here is the use of the term “magnitude” for “absolute value” in mathematics education. Even though the term “absolute value” is used across the board in higher education mathematics and the academic world in general, because someone decided that the term “magnitude” was more palatable this is the term used to educate students.

The situation is no better in the reading and writing curriculum which, instead of nurturing a desire to read and an appreciation for language via grammatical instruction, forces children to memorize the differences between, for example, the “main idea” and “supporting details” in very boring passages so that they can pass the tests the state needs them to pass in order to receive federal funds. Forget diagramming sentences, which have almost entirely gone by the wayside; the push now is to develop only those ideas which are tested at the state level.  This is a tragedy, students are denied the best tools to develop actual comprehension, teachers are denied the autonomy they need in order to teach effectively, and those who develop a curriculum must tailor it in ways to meet the standards set forth by the states at the expense of what actually works. Yes, there is presently a “dumbing down” in curriculum development, and almost everybody is losing.

--Which is why it is all the more difficult to argue for changes such as the implementation of Latin and French as instructional tools in teaching effective grammar skills. The blowback that academics who push for this change undeniably face (if they are heard at all) is perfectly well understood because in many cases there simply is no space for these ideas in the curriculum.  Where there is space, educators are hard at work implementing their own ideas and might not be receptive to what they perceive to be little more that elitist academic suggestions. 

This is unfortunate, to say the least. Elitist or not, it is simply a fact that English grammar was shaped by Latin and that grammarians who taught English historically understood that language as well. There is no good reason not to teach English in such a way in that it “makes sense” to the students, especially those who come from backgrounds where English is not a first language or where the English spoken as home differs significantly from the English as it is taught in the schools.  Latin allows for the implementation of grammatical rules that do make sense, that teach subject and object, imperfect and perfect tense, and the relative pronoun in such a way as that it is abstracted from the politics of the English language; no matter what variety of the English is spoken at home, the rules learned from Latin carry over and comprehension is improved. 

I think eventually we will come to terms with NCLB and the way in which education is disseminated in America, but it may well be years down the road when we realize that the standardized testing–driven approach to education is counterproductive.  When that occurs, we will look more seriously at the arguments made by academics and educators to implement a better English curriculum, and we will undoubtedly find arguments to return to sentence diagramming, the teaching of Latin, and also the teaching of foreign language not just as a tool to understand another language but to better understand our own.

Despite the fact that I am pessimistic about change in the near future, I am not willing to capitulate, because if there is no push from those of us who are aware of the benefits of teaching English in this way, then we will most certainly lose. Maybe the solution is a push from the nonprofit sector to implement more "Language Arts" (a nebulous phrase as we rarely use the term "arts" in that sense any more) and incorporate some Latin into the curriculum--in other words, taking an entirely gradualist approach. At present that's not where the money is, but once is case is made to the right people, in the right way (i.e. not just expecting people to adapt their curriculum because we are right and they are wrong), perhaps it will be.

We also have to be aware of the politics at play and be sensitive to the fact that many individuals have their hearts in the right places and really are doing what they can to educate students.  I'm not on vanguard here (yet), but I do recognize that this push must come from people from different walks of life, not just academics who are known to shout angrily into the wind on occasion. 

In any event, it’s a long, tough road ahead.

- Matthew Case
B.A., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Master’s in Public Administration candidate, 2013,
University of Illinois at Springfield

P.S. Monday, April 30: For another view and response to Matthew's position, see Ben Wetherbee's blog post here


Karen Casebeer said...

Matthew (and Pamela)...As a retired public school English and Latin teacher, I read your guest blog post with interest. When I retired from public school teaching in 1993 to pursue a doctorate in psychology, I left behind a full Latin program, meaning students could and did take four years of Latin. A few short years later, there was no Latin program left, mostly because the teacher who replaced me lacked the passion for making Latin not only a study of the language, but a language that could be applied to practical modern day uses, especially with respect to an understanding of our English grammar and vocabulary. I'm sure that students of Latin will readily attest to how studying Latin helped them in real lives. I've had countless letters from former students telling me they'd never gotten into grad/medical/law school if they hadn't had Latin as a practical helpmate for their GRE/MCAT/LSAT exams. Currently, I do some adjunct teaching of psychology at the university level. My university believes in "writing across the curriculum". In other words, my psychology students must demonstrate college-level writing skills, and in my feedback to students about their writing, I must include some assessment of their writing skills. I've found, however, that task to be challenging since students have very little understanding of how their language is put together. They have no idea what I mean when I say "your pronoun does not agree with its antecedent" or "you've switched verb tenses". A common context for discussion about language is completely lacking. So I know I'm preaching to the choir when I concur with your premise of students needing to study foreign language, and Latin in particular. But unless our educational system begins to "go deeper" with its instructional modalities, I believe our students will be doomed to mediocrity at best. Thanks so much for your insights; I believe they are right on. Karen

Matthew Case said...


Your experiences in the classroom are likely similar to the experiences of many such college professors and high school teachers across the country who really just don't know how to help their students improve their writing skills. I do hope our students are not "doomed to mediocrity" and I don't think many of them are, but I do think it will be interesting when they graduate from high school (or even college) and then one day down the road finally learn by happenstance what the gerund is?


P. J. Grath said...

It’s easy to see grammar as nothing but nit-picking. Whar harm is done by a dangling participle, for example? “Walking down the street, the Empire State Building was sighted.” Everyone knows the Empire State Building was not walking down the street! In longer, more complex sentences, however, the error can cause trouble, because reading involves memory and anticipation, as well as perception and “decoding.” A sentence beginning with a present participle sets up an expectation. The reader holds the memory of the participle throughout the rest of the sentence, anticipating a sentient being as a subject. Good readers are annoyed, and struggling readers confused when sentences don’t make sense. It’s hard to be a good reader of bad writing.

Here’s a comment that came to me as an e-mail: “...I think Latin is a very useful subject to learn at school. I am pleased that I had to study it, and French, and I would like to see them returned to schools. By the time we started to learn Latin and French we had already learned parsing and analysis of sentences (at about age 9 or 10) in primary school so Latin and French were used to further our grammar studies and, most importantly, to extend our English vocabularies. I enjoyed learning them, especially Latin, and I think it's a great shame that they have been dropped from the general curriculum in Australia.”

There you go, Matthew—a vote from Down Under for your proposition!

P. J. Grath said...

Okay, okay! WHAT harm is done...?

I hate how it isn't possible to go into posted comments and correct (my) errors!

Dawn said...

All good points...though I never had grammar in least I don't remember having it in class. My siblings and I were talking about that last fall. I think it was because we were always on half days throughout school due to budget issues where we grew up. Such a shame.

P. J. Grath said...

I had a lot of grammar instruction in school but must acknowledge that much of what I learned or understood or recognized in the lessons came from my parents and from reading.

Michael J. Sheehan said...

Studying Latin showed me that language is a system, something that was not clear to me with the piecemeal method of one grammar rule taught at a time. It also improved my vocabulary. But there can't be a direct correlation between Latin and English.Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytical language. See this for a quick example: http://​​06/shell-game.html

That said, I endorse teaching Latin for a number of reasons.

Ben Wetherbee said...

Pamela asked me to weigh in on this conversation, which I’m glad to do. This is all very interesting, both the original polemic and the responses it’s generated. It’s nice to see such intelligent conversation happening online.

For what it’s worth, here are my credentials: I’m a graduate fellow the University of Louisville now, where I’m working on PhD in Rhetoric and Composition – a field for which writing studies is one primary front. I have an MA in Rhet-Comp, too, from Miami University (OH) and a BA in English from the University of Michigan. Most of the research I’ve read and conducted about writing has focused college-level pedagogy, so I’m admittedly less knowledgeable about high-school education. I can at least speak about that as a former student, though.

I agree with many of the points above. Certainly, I’m with Matthew that standardized testing harms and compartmentalizes writing instruction by confining student writing to a rigid set of genres that exist nowhere in the real world. Typically, students are tested on fabricated genres – five-paragraph themes, for instance, or the “identify the main point” essays Matthew identifies, which are rhetorically analyses stripped to their weakest and more puerile form. Such writing assignments will help students to pass tests, but not fulfill any other writerly tasks once they finish their academic hoop-jumping.

Ben Wetherbee said...

(continued ...)

I agree with Matthew’s main warrant, too: Learning foreign languages which share some lineage with English do help students (or adults, or anyone) rethink the construction of English grammar. I’d put it like this: learning a different language forces you to think abstractly about grammatical rules, and verbalize titles for those rules, in a way that speaking your native tongue does not.

I have a concern about the Latin proposition, though. Personally I’d love to know Latin, mainly for etymological reasons. I also agree, wholeheartedly, as I said, that learning Latin would help me think about English grammar in the abstract. I think, too, though, that any number of other languages can have a similar effect. For me, it was Spanish. My four years of Spanish (two in high school, two in college) did exactly what Matthew describes, spurring me to return to English grammar with a new vocabulary and linguistic awareness. A good thing, for sure. But learning a language is a serious undertaking, and I think it makes a lot more sense, now, to pursue a Romance language like French or Italian – or especially Spanish, given the influx of Spanish-speakers in the country. Maybe our educational push, then, should go in that direction – toward real, socially relevant bilingualism.

But my larger concern is about the importance of grammar in teaching writing. Ironically, I guess, the farther I’ve advanced in my postgraduate study of writing, the less of a stickler I’ve become. There is, in fact, a substantial body of scholarship concluding that teaching primarily grammar is detrimental to good writing at the college level. (Looking back, I think I’d argue something similar about middle- and high-school. No need to digress now, though.) Here’s the most useful way I can think of it put it: What you don’t want, as a teacher, is students who write every sentence in fear, whose anxiety over grammatical correctness impinges on their thinking about the substance, style, and audience of their arguments. Being able to talk about grammar is helpful, certainly, but a thorough understanding of grammatical terms and concepts doesn’t necessarily precede good writing. Much more valuable, I think, is the intellectual dexterity to adapt to one’s rhetorical context; thus I advocate a writing curriculum rooted in classical and modern theories of rhetoric (that is, theories of how discourse achieves persuasive effect). In such a setting, grammar still matters, but its value stems from rhetorical effect, not correctness alone. It is a tool, not an end itself.

So: Grammar is important, yes. But it’s ridiculously easy to write awful, directionless, useless prose which is 100% grammatically “correct.” Writing teachers see bunches of it. Also, I’ll say that students’ grammatical hang-ups tend to vary between individuals; thus, for a given group of students, a decision to allot 40 minutes of a class period to matters of subject-verb agreement might simply waste that time of two thirds of the class. This is why writing classes need to be small, and teachers need to talk with students individually and often. Usually, I’ll add, these talks can helps students with their grammatical woes without invoking words like “gerund” and “antecedent.”

My summative point, I guess, would be that writers don’t become good just by memorizing terms and rules, but by taking guidance from good teachers and then reading and writing—a lot, in manifold contexts, and working continuously to better understand these larger situations and conversations they’re writing themselves into. (Preposition at the end of that sentence, I know. Not a valid rule in all contexts. Neither is “Don’t use sentence fragments.”) To the extent, though, that some terminology is needed, I would rather my students know “ethos” and “enthymeme” than “subjunctive” and “participle.”

BB-Idaho said...

Weighing in as a non-grammarian-
(with two years latin)-
..the work of Steven Pinker and others about language/grammar acquisition in the very young has some merit..the
tot goes quickly and naturally from
'I thinked I dooed it' to 'I thought I did it'. There is some evidence for an inate pre-wiring for this, as well as other evidence
that by a certain age, such abilities decrease. My wife the
teacher stressed grammar to an extent that she overlooked context
(my opinion only!) But, as a non-grammarian, Latin is quite useful
for vocabulary; the feminine/masculine/neuter declension, nominatives and the
whole "Hic haec hoc
Huius huius huius
Huic huic huic
Hunc hanc hoc
Hoc hac hoc"
bore little relation to my native spoken tongue. (Dr. Pinker, was I
passed my inate stage?)

BB-Idaho said...

The non-grammarian wishes to delete
'passed' above and replace with
'past' !

Matthew Case said...


I remember briefly discussing the innate stage in a survey of linguistics course I took in college. Generally, I would agree with your assertion that it is easier to learn the rules at a younger age (and more difficult at an older age) and this is one of the main reasons I am so drawn to Latin as an instructive tool.

I took Latin in college and I had (in my own opinion at least) a pretty good grasp on grammatical rules by that point, but regardless of the efficacy of teaching Latin as a grammatical aid in the late adolescent/post adolescent years, its certainly true that the study of the language confers more benefits in terms of the vocabulary learned than any other language as Latin-derived words form a healthy percentage of our vocabulary (I forget the percentage offhand). In any case, its a worthwhile endeavor and its also pretty interesting.

Michael, prima facie (oh there's that Latin), I am am compelled to agree with your distinction between Latin and English but I'd need to do a little more digging to come the conclusion and accept it fully. Latin certainly seems "more synthetic" than English at first blush, but I'm no philosopher of language or linguist and I'd hate to follow what little I remember of Kant along the wrong path.

And Dawn if you never recall having grammar in school, you may be right in the sense that grammar is very often packaged into a language arts curriculum rather than taught outright. A shame indeed.

Cheers and thanks for the thoughtful responses.