Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Grammar Myths for the ELL/ESL Classroom

Yesterday was the first National Grammar Day, a new holiday that encourages people to use and champion good grammar all day long. I first heard about the holiday when Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, twittered that she was working on a Top Ten Grammar Myths podcast that would celebrate the event. Most English teachers will be familiar with the items on her list:

A run-on sentence is a really long sentence.
You shouldn't start a sentence with the word however.
Irregardless is not a word.
There is only one way to write the possessive form of a word that ends in s.
Passive voice is always wrong.
I.e. and e.g. mean the same thing.
You use a before words that start with consonants and an before words that start with vowels.
It's incorrect to answer the question “How are you?” with the statement “I’m good.”
You shouldn’t split infinitives.
You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.

Those rules are the kinds that make English so frustrating for students to learn. When grammar rules are open to popular controversy, how can students ever pin down the right way?

We could explain to students that there are always exceptions or share the old adage “Rules are made to be broken”—but neither response is particularly satisfying. How are language learners to know which rules are real and which are myths? How can they learn the ways that a rule can be broken?

Underlying these issues is perhaps the worst grammar myth language learners bring to the classroom: There is a correct way to speak and write English. One of the telling things about students and language is that nearly all students, language learners or not, will readily accept this myth as true. It can take only one correcting voice to convince someone that there is a right and a wrong way to read and write.

I remember getting a new package of stationery from my parents as a reward for babysitting my younger siblings. I quickly wrote letters to my grandparents describing the things that we were all doing that summer—trips to the beach, walks to the bookmobile, and courses at nearby parks. About a week later, I received a reply that commented on the things we were doing, but ended with admonishing me for errors that I’d made in my writing.

I felt like the worst writer in the world, and I don’t remember writing another letter that summer. I was afraid I’d make more mistakes. I was convinced that there was a right way to write and a wrong way to write . . . and that I could only write in the wrong way. Now, of course, I know that’s a flawed conclusion, but at the time, it was a myth that I easily accepted as true. There was a right way, the way of my grandfather, and there was the wrong way, my way.

For an English language learner, the voice of the right way may be a teacher, a correcting peer, or a family member, but the effect is similar. Students mistrust their own literacy skills and sometimes learn it’s better not to try. What can we do in response? Try these strategies to support English language learners in the classroom:

  • Position students’ home language and cultural knowledge as useful resources. Ask students to share their expertise with the class and draw comparisons among the ways that different language work.

  • Start where students are grammatically. Discuss and extend the grammatical tools they have.

  • Acknowledge the meanings students have constructed as active language users. Remind students to focus on communicating as they use language.

  • Discuss grammar in the context of making meaning of texts that students read and write. Grammar should never be an add-on that’s explored in abstract or unconnected ways.

  • Explore culturally relevant texts with students. Students will better understand discussions of the form and function of different words and structures when they have a thorough understanding of the ideas expressed by those words and structures.

  • Explore language myths explicitly by talking about the ways that rules and usage change depending upon a range of factors including the speaker, the audience, and the purpose for the text.

For more information on supporting English language learners, see the Policy Research Brief on English Language Learners, the Teaching Resource Collections on Elementary English Language Learner and on Secondary English Language Learners, and Pathways for Teaching and Learning with English Language Learners.


Anonymous said...

As an English/Language Arts teacher who teaches a lot of ELL students, I couldn't agree more with your recommendations. HOWEVER (notice I started my sentence with 'however'), I am very worried about the new move in our state to have the state written composition tests for graduation scored by a computer rather than by human beings. I don't know much about these computer scored essays... am I doing my students a disservice if I DON'T freak out about split infinitives and starting sentences with conjunctions?

Anonymous said...

I am currently having some difficulty writing a research paper because I am a creative writer and the APA standards want a very dry third person writing style that does not suit me.

Students need to know that there are times and places for different kinds of writing and speaking and have a chance to practice these differences.

They also need to be taught that there are different grammatical structures in English than in other languages. For example, our descriptive adjectives go before the word they describe, but in Spanish they go after. These are things that need to be taught explicitly, really in the kind of case specific way that one teaches cognitively disabled students. The students need a pattern to follow for different situations of speaking and writing as though they are following a mathematical formula to solve an equation. Then when the formula becomes ingrained they can break from it and informal writing and speaking becomes ok in the right situation.

I don't think you can legitimately score a composition by computer either. Writing is personal and highly influenced by the background of the person writing. What a computer would say is wrong is not always so unless the essay specifically requires a particular type of writin to be correct. Par of the problem with the schools today is that they try to make everyone learn and express themselves in the same way. High stakes testing stripped creativity out of the schools and replaced it with authoritarian test taking skills. It is time for it to go.

Lilas Conuts said...

Hello from Nouméa
I had to learn english and as complicated as it is because of the vocabulary, french grammar is a killer too

Frederick Guyton said...

Thanks a lot for this article, actually I knew nothing from that list. But I want to add some interesting facts that haven't been mentioned here, follow the link