Sunday, April 25, 2021

Grammatically Inclined: The Missing Link in Educational De-evolution B. Lynne Zika

Grammatically Inclined: The Missing Link in Educational De-evolution

 B. Lynne Zika

In a remote, dilapidated corner of higher education, a solitary coin clatters into a metal box; a hinge squeaks; a furtive hand darts forward and captures a weekly paper. The paper is folded into the lining of a London Fog and makes its way to the safety of a private office. There, spread-eagled on a pockmarked desk, the tabloid of academia offers up scathing headlines to shock and confirm its readers:

70% of College Grads Failed Grammar Quiz

PhD Flatlines English Exam

and the simpler: Students, Meet the Comma

A university instructor blames the issue on students’ unwillingness to read. An academic essayist holds the high school teacher accountable. A high school teacher labors to salvage damaged goods. An elementary teacher photocopies and mails to parents: “Johnny does not understand how to write a sentence. Please read to him at home.”

Obscured, perhaps, by our most legitimate academic angst (or compounded by our apathy) is a simple cause: Johnny cannot write a sentence because Johnny does not know what a sentence is. The abandonment of comprehensive instruction in English grammar has relieved many a student—and doomed many more to fail.

During the 1960s, grammar was largely dropped from English courses. Although more recent research indicates the positive effects of grammar instruction, prejudicial attitudes and teachers who were, themselves, never recipients of direct instruction have perpetuated its dearth. However, grammar instruction can benefit students’ writing such that replacing writing or vocabulary instruction with grammar can actually be a more productive use of class time1.

As manager of a staff of editors at a major public television station, I tested numerous candidates for hire. I turned away a sixth-grade teacher unaware of the “could of” imbedded in her resumé. I rejected professional writers with degrees in English or journalism who could not differentiate between “its” and “it’s” or repair a comma splice. I, too, have feared for the literacy of our nation.

In 1966, Miss Goodgame of Sylacauga High imposed the cruelest assignment her students had ever suffered. She required us to memorize 100 rules of punctuation. Each student would be tested; each required (and allowed) to take the examination 10, 20, 100 times—or until the student accomplished an A.

I fell into conversation one day with several of my classmates. “She’s awful,” they said. I said, “No, she isn’t. She’s just giving us the hammers and nails.”

“C.J.,” I said, “what if your mother tried to bake a cake for your birthday but didn’t own a mixing bowl? Larry, what if your dad said he’d loan you the car as soon as he repaired the carburetor, but he didn’t have a screwdriver or a wrench? Bonnie, what if you found a note your boyfriend had written that said, ‘My girlfriend Suzy and I are going to the game Friday night’?” C.J. commented that her mother would just go to the bakery. Maybe it was only the lunch bell ringing, but I thought I saw a flicker of interest in Bonnie.

That afternoon, Bonnie caught up with me in the hall.

“My girlfriend COMMA,” she said, “Suzy COMMA and I, right?” I nodded and she grinned. “Rule #43: ‘Separate items in a series with a comma.’”

I didn’t have the heart to mention the fact that commas may also be used with appositives, but I had an inkling that, thanks to Miss Goodgame, Bonnie would pick it up on her own.

As for me, when given the results of my own applicant tests at aforementioned public television station, I was a bit aggrieved by my two errors but mollified when told that no one had ever made only two mistakes. Of course, I knew where the credit lay: Miss Goodgame and her 100 Punctuation Rules at Sylacauga High.

1 Wikipedia, “Linguistics in education”