Grammar Makes a Comeback

by Robert Pondiscio
October 20th, 2008

The government has released a draft curriculum that unequivocally calls for the explicit teaching of the basic structures of the English language. Grammar will return to the classroom along with punctuation, spelling, pronunciation, and phonics, for all students from the first years of school.

Oops, I left out a key word.  The Australian government.  The draft curriculum also retains the teaching of critical literacy, ”a model analysing gender, race and class in literature to expose inherent prejudices and agendas,” The Australian reports.  The critical literacy component had been hotly debated.

The draft addresses the debates, saying the “explicit teaching of decoding, spelling and other aspects of the basic codes of written English will be an important and routine aspect” of the curriculum. The draft says critical literacy is the analysis of texts in terms of “their potential philosophical, political or ideological assumptions and content”.

The principal author of the curriculum notes that critical literacy “should not occupy a big part of the curriculum, but it had a role in enabling students to protect themselves against propaganda and being manipulated.”


  1. Last year, my youngest brother asked me for feedback on his college honors thesis. He was attending a prestigious private university and had received good high school English grades and >700 on the verbal portion of the SAT. Yet the paper he gave me to look at was a huge mess. Granted, one would expect to find a certain number of errors in a rough draft since the primary focus is on content rather than style. However, my brother’s paper had a grammatical error and/or awkward phrasing in almost every single sentence.

    I’m convinced the blame can be placed squarely on the “whole language” instruction my brother received growing up. The traditionalist English teachers who’d taught me had all retired by the time he was going through.

    I had to give him a crash course in sentence diagramming, something I’d learned way back in middle school but that he had never been taught. It’s true that I’d found the unit very dull at the time, but it’s been very helpful to me over the years. My brother found it helpful as well & wished the school had kept it as part of the curriculum.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — October 20, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  2. I don’t think its an inevitable consequence of “whole language.” After all, a focus on meaning and entire sentences could be a good starting point for talking about what makes an effective sentence.

    I remember liking sentence diagramming because it was like math — but I think the writing instruction that really sunk in came later in the classes where we talked about things like parallel structure and subject-object agreement.

    The aspect of writing my daughter is having trouble with is the idea that the burden of communication is on the writer, and I wonder whether some of that comes from the idea that writing is more about expressing your feelings than about communicating ideas.

    Comment by Rachel — October 20, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  3. I agree with the point the last commenter posted: “…the burden of communication is on the writer…”
    I have tried to stress this point with my students, but they resist this idea. If the reader cannot grasp what they are attempting to communicate, it is because the reader must be an idiot…until they have to re-read their own writing!
    I teach 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in an alternative education setting. I stress to them that misspelled words or simple punctuation errors can be corrected with spell check. Poorly written sentences cannot.
    Common problem when I give my students a writing assignment include, but are not limited to:vague phrasing, incomplete sentences,run on sentences, excessive use of slang or “text” speak. When I point these errors out, (and the difficulty in finding the meaning in their writing) the common reply is, “You know what I meant”. I explain that it this is a writing assignment, not an assignment on high level encryption. I am not a mind reader, but I the closest I can get to it is reading a well written idea.
    I don’t know why students are resistant to the idea. If anyone has insight, please let me know.

    Comment by Tamara — October 20, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

  4. I attended a board of education forum about a week ago, and one of the items addressed was the desperate need for a stronger writing curriculum in our county’s schools. I agreed whole-heartedly. Lack of student motivation overall is also one of the culprits of poor writing skills. I hear groans and complaints of the “length” of assigned writings when students are asked to write four complete sentences…or a one-paragraph response! It seems like almost anything that takes extra thought and effort these days (i.e., that requires students to sit still and ponder) – especially as it relates to “boring” educational stuff – has become the dark cloud hanging over a student’s existence; and so often, he or she just won’t do it, or will only put forth minimal effort (I see this as I work in various classrooms at various grade levels). Good writing is definitely one of those things. What greatly disturbs me are the strategies we are attempting to put in place to motivate students: fake monetary rewards, other similar incentives, reducing standards, trying to make everything “fun” for students (and so what happens when something isn’t fun…?), or eliminating strict grammatical (or other) requirements altogether. What also causes me fear is that teachers are just getting plain tired of battling with all of these problems (lack of motivation on students’ parts, being required to reduce standards, not having enough time in a day to apply the type of rigor they would normally want to insist in their students’ work…etc.). And so like “Crimson Wife” stated above, the lack of clear and concise writing ends up popping back up even at the college level. I do believe our educational system is heading “90 miles an hour down a dead-end street” (to quote a Bob Dylan song)…and only by doing a radical turnaround in many areas (not just in writing) will we avoid crashing into that proverbial wall that is at the end of that street. With much concern, Terri Liska

    Comment by Terri — October 27, 2008 @ 7:41 am

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