Teaching Grammar By Osmosis

by Robert Pondiscio
August 16th, 2010

OK, fess up.  You don’t know what a dangling participle is, and you couldn’t pick the past perfect tense out of a police lineup.  Neither can I.    But you know nouns from verbs.  And you can probably tell the difference between a complete sentence, a fragment, and a run-on.  Consider yourself part of a vanishing breed.  Writing at Betrayed–Why Public Education is Failing, Robert Archer, a high school English teacher in Spokane, Washington estimates that fewer than 10% of his 10th graders have command of basic grammar.

“Honestly, it’s gotten to the point that trying to make my way through the grammatical land mines that await me anytime I assign a writing assessment becomes so painstakingly tedious that even the solid content of any given essay becomes lost in the ghastly-writing-skills shrapnel. (And don’t even get me started on the spelling skills of this generation of non-phonics-learning texters! OMG!)

“When high school students cannot use their own language correctly, their overall communication skills—both in written and oral form—suffer tremendously,” writes Archer, who blames curriculum developers for his students’ poor skills.  Somewhere along the line, he writes “teaching grammar has become something that we teachers can simply ‘imbed’ into the reading and writing curriculum.”  Trouble is, it’s not working. 

“I’m sorry, but in my experience, the term “imbedded” is nothing more than educationalese for ‘not ever specifically taught.’ Somehow, this grammar-is-imbedded movement is supposed to help students naturally take in what proper grammar is (i.e., grammar by osmosis). It’s very much a hyper-constructivist approach to education; the students are supposed to “discover” proper grammar on their own as they read good pieces. Then, somehow and some way, they are to emulate these proper mechanical structures in their own writing. And if the students don’t quite “take it all in,” the teacher may take 2.5 minutes here and there to show them what a damn verb is.”

“When I’m hoping for nothing more than 3-4 grammatically correct sentences being strung together at a time as the sign of a “good” paper, then my expectations have dropped far, far too low,” Archer concludes.  “Yet, sadly, this is exactly to what I’ve resigned myself.”

Preach it, brother.  And teach it.


  1. Again, bad journalism is central to yet another instructional problem. The National Council of Teachers of English should be the organization called to account on this score, yet, has any major publication put them under the white light? Maybe a few have considered it but gave up the idea when they realized the enormity of the target. Where do you begin? How do you convey, in layman’s terms, the degree to which the NCTE willfully, proudly misinterprets reality? Taking them on, I admit, might be beyond the powers of rational inquiry. It might be a job only an artist can tackle, though who that might be is not apparent. Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken are long dead. Maybe there hasn’t been a satirist capable of such a feat since Aristophanes wrote “The Birds” and invented Cloud-Cuckooland, the only polity I know where the NCTE’s thought-world is in harmony with the surroundings.

    Comment by bill eccleston — August 16, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liz Ditz, Chan Stroman. Chan Stroman said: Teaching Grammar By Osmosis « The Core Knowledge Blog: http://bit.ly/cNPOk7 [our 11&13yo will hv grammar lessons this yr in new schls. Yay!] [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Teaching Grammar By Osmosis « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- Topsy.com — August 16, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

  3. It upsets me that everyone claims that kids who read and write will just absorb grammar (and often spelling) and so we don’t need to teach it. First of all, an awful lot of kids *don’t* read. But even if they do, that is no guarantee at all. I did practically nothing but read as a kid. I was even taught some rudimentary grammar (nouns, verbs, adjectives, not more). I’m a perfect candidate for the grammar-by-osmosis model, and I made embarrassing mistakes in my grad school papers.

    Not only that, I can testify that when your education is entrusted to osmosis, you always feel insecure. How does you *know* that an important business letter is correct? You don’t. (My friend gets his wife, who went to an elite private school, to edit his business letters.)

    I did learn quite a lot of grammar by studying other languages, so that was helpful. But now I have two kids and I don’t want them to have to muddle through the swamps of grammar like I did. So I put them through a rigorous grammar program–I give them a map to the swamp, and someday they’ll see it as a beautiful garden, clear and easy to navigate. I’m learning too!

    And while I talk about my muddling, the fact is that I’m pretty lucky. I know how to write a coherent sentence and all that. As far as I can tell, I came out near the top of the pile and an awful lot of people are far worse off. They cannot communicate clearly, nor can they tell if they are thinking clearly. Osmosis did sort of work for me, but it seems to utterly fail far too many people.

    Comment by dangermom — August 16, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

  4. I’ll never understand the elementary school practice of having students attempt to write essays when they know nothing about constructing a sentence (nor anything about handwriting). My daughter is homeschooling for 6th grade. I’m thrilled to have her spend a year studying grammar – something she would not get in the public middle school she would otherwise attend.

    Comment by Gina — August 16, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

  5. Some of the very people who oppose explicit grammar and spelling instruction insist that strategies must be taught explicitly and repeatedly.

    Apparently some believe that the strategy is tailored to the child, whereas grammar and spelling conventions are imposed on the child.

    How sad and wrong.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 16, 2010 @ 7:41 pm

  6. I taught in a suburban Massachusetts system with approximately sixty elementary classroom teachers. As a result of an informal inventory, I was the only one who ever attempted to teach grammar. Hard to believe; one of sixty teaching such a basic and necessary body of knowledge.

    They didn’t teach grammar and were also very reluctant to teach math. I was always amazed that our district and school performed so well on MCAS.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 16, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

  7. When one of our newly hired teachers participated in a grammar workshop which focused on presentation of parts of speech, and commented after a lesson on nouns and verbs, “”Cool, I never learned this stuff before!” I knew we were in trouble. A new generation of teachers, entering our classrooms, is the product of a system that lost its way. My district likes to “hire its own graduates.” Problem is… they will perpetuate the poor practices they are familiar with from their own days in the classroom.

    Comment by LynDee — August 16, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

  8. Perhaps teachers don’t teach grammar because they don’t know it well? Ditto for math.

    Comment by kcab — August 16, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

  9. the crazier thing about not teaching grammar (i wasn’t allowed to but i did anyway) is that in all the grades i taught — 2nd, 4th, and 7th — kids LOVED learning it. it had the same appeal as math: definite right and wrong answers.

    i used capital letters at the beginning of sentences back then, too. the digital era has corrupted me. ;)

    Comment by kerri — August 16, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

  10. Okay, I admit that dangling participle slipped out of mind somewhere since I was in the eighth grade and learned it. But I had known it then. And the past perfect tense is not so hard, I think. But I’m probably being pedantic.

    I have argued that “isolation and concentration” is an important principle in the teaching of most subjects. That means we have to zero in one concept or topic at a time, forgetting a million other things that might be of some relevance. As Archer says, osmosis simply doesn’t work. However I surely don’t know how to convince anyone who thinks it does. That seems to be one of the recurring ideas of progressive education that just will not die. By progressive education I am thinking of the ideas that arose, or at least took well defined form in the early part of the twentieth century, based on the romantic notion of childhood that if we will just get out of the way all the wonderfulness of nature will somehow educate our children.

    That said, I would not argue that “isolate and concentrate” is all there is to teaching and learning. After we have isolated and concentrated on one topic, and that topic is learned, then that topic must be related to the rest of the structure of knowledge. I call this the “spread and relate” principle. I think it is equally important to the isolate and concentrate principle, but it is not the same as just standing back and hoping learning will occur by osmosis.

    No one learns arithmetic, or history, or grammar by osmosis, but I think we do learn some important things by a process that might be called osmosis. Can you learn music appreciation by any other method? or appreciation of any subject? There is some learning, I have argued, that occurs like the unfolding of a flower. Other learning is more like the laying of bricks, or the construction of an intricate machine. Each brick, or each piece of the machine, must be shaped and fitted perfectly. I can’t identify any bricks in music appreciation, but I can identify bricks in grammar.

    For subjects that fit the laying of bricks analogy, osmosis doesn’t work. Concentration does work. Concentration is indispensable.

    I have elaborated on these ideas at http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap17.htm.

    Comment by Brian Rude — August 16, 2010 @ 11:21 pm

  11. Am I crazy or shouldn’t the term be “embedded” not “imbedded”?

    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 17, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  12. Ha! I had the same reaction (Awkward, I thought, in a piece criticizing students’ spelling and grammar). I consulted two different dictionaries, both of which said accept “imbed” as an alternative form of “embed.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 17, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

  13. Okay, I went & looked it up and it’s one of those British vs. American spellings. The other examples given are inquiry vs. enquiry, and impanel vs. empanel. The source goes on to state: “However, since American usage is not fully committed to the im-, in- forms in such cases, and no particular advantage arises from preferring either im-, in- or em-, en-, no choice between British and American spellings is called for.”


    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 17, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

  14. [...] Preach it and teach it, writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by Kids don’t know no grammar — Joanne Jacobs — August 18, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  15. Great minds think alike!

    I stopped short at “imbed.”

    Here in my district, everything is embedded. Not imbedded.


    Comment by Catherine Johnson — August 20, 2010 @ 11:45 am

  16. A couple of years ago my district announced another new initiative: our K-12 curriculum was to be aligned with college requirements using the materials from the “College Knowledge” project.

    After the announcement no one said boo about college alignment again, and, sure enough, the next Strategic Plan made no mention of college preparation.

    When I asked the administration why not, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, technology, and instruction said that college preparation was ‘embedded’ in the plan.

    Comment by Catherine Johnson — August 20, 2010 @ 11:48 am

  17. Gina – good for you!

    The 16-year olds I know still can’t write grammatically. These are sharp kids who have been attending a suburban school with $30K funding per pupil.

    Grammar and vocabulary instruction are embedded in the curriculum.

    Along with K-12 alignment to college requirements.

    Comment by Catherine Johnson — August 20, 2010 @ 11:51 am

  18. Home Schooling…

    Teaching Grammar By Osmosis ” The Core Knowledge Blog is a great post on homeschooling virginia requirements I just read….

    Trackback by Home Schooling — September 5, 2010 @ 12:21 am

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