“The truth of what you say is what really matters, and the only importance of technique is that when you say it badly you haven’t said it.”
John Gardner ---Author of Grendel
I used to have this quote by John Gardner hanging in my classroom. That way I could just point to it every time I heard the question, "Why do we have to learn grammar?"
A friend of mine who was a successful business executive taught me that communication is always the responsibility of the communicator. In other words, it doesn't matter if I think I've told, taught, or texted a message. If that message wasn't successfully received and comprehended, the responsibility was mine. It's up to me to design and deliver my message in a way that gives it the best chance of hitting its target and making an impact. Impact is the result of clarity and precision, which is only achieved through effective use of language. We can't use language effectively if we don't understand how it works. How language works is all about rules. Without rules, communication breaks down. Grammar, in fact, matters.
Yet teaching grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and particularly the diagramming of sentences, is not trending. It's the unsexy side of English Language Arts. As a literacy instructional coach, I regularly encountered teachers who fell into two general camps on this:
- They carried on using outdated, ineffective, and isolated instruction methods to teach grammar, even though they saw no transfer to, or improvement in, student writing. They did this because they didn't know what else to do.
- They let grammar instruction fall by the wayside because it seemed like a waste of time. They found it difficult to engage students, and they saw no transfer to, or improvement in, student writing as a result of instruction.
I even occasionally heard the lack of grammar instruction defended under the umbrella of diversity, as if teaching students to conform to language conventions is a violation of their right to express themselves as they choose. Cynthia D'Amico, founder and creator of The Colors of English, confronts this thinking.
"We celebrate language diversity and embrace cultural rhetorical differences, and yet we also understand that the political and economic foundations of our society are grounded in standard academic English. We believe that every student can and should have the opportunity to not only understand the structure of language but become skilled to engage in all the types of discourse necessary to be active and engaged citizens. Once students know the rules, they can defend their choices to break them."
Breaking rules can be a powerful tool in intentional hands, like those of E.E. Cummings. But breaking rules for impact is not the same as sloppy or fuzzy writing. Meandering, poorly structured, and fuzzy writing is generally the result of fuzzy thinking. Deconstructing and cleaning up writing forces students to deconstruct, clean up and clarify their thinking. Writing is a tool for thinking.
"Learning how words work is more than just writing skills," says D'Amico, "it helps students make the transition from 'learning to read to reading to learn.'"
D'Amico witnessed that transition first hand when she shifted from practicing law to teaching English at a Title I high school. She found it challenging to provide her students with the tools needed to succeed in college when many of them lacked foundational skills in academic English. Her frustrating and futile attempts to find effective resources accessible for diverse learners culminated the development of her own program. The program proved highly successful and got her thinking.
"I realized that if we could reach students earlier, we could have a profound impact on their educational trajectory," says D'Amico.
She spent over a decade working with Special Education and Elementary experts to create The Colors of English --a comprehensive, holistic program that helps students understand how the pieces of the English language “fit together." The program incorporates multi-sensory, multi-modality educational activities and teaches language through characters, illustrations and color-coded sentence structures (a graphic organizer at the sentence level) with adaptable topics such as sports, music, or film. It is engaging, interesting, and relevant, and it can easily be tailored to appeal to students in any demographic.
A visual, kinesthetic approach to teaching grammar is a breath of fresh air for teachers and is the key that finally unlocks the door for many learners. Kitty Burns Florey, the author of Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences affirms this approach, which includes diagramming. "I like to call it a picture of language. It really does draw a picture of what language looks like."
D'Amico loves to tell people, "This isn't your grandma's grammar"--the biggest differentiator being results. When used with high school students, English ACT scores went from 18-24 with no test prep. Fifth-grade students, having completed the materials, can confidently and competently draft sentences in excess of 25 words knowing the name, function, and purpose of every word.
Mario, a 20-year old ELL college student, said, “The Colors of English was an AMAZING program that has really helped me know the rules of the English language.”
Language can be a great equalizer. It opens doors. For example, you'd be hard pressed to find any job posting that doesn't include "strong oral and written language skills" listed as a qualification. However, you'd be equally hard pressed to find more than a handful of English teachers who feel confident in their abilities to produce strong writers.
As standard academic English language will retain a firm hold in the U.S. as the language of business, law, medicine, and higher education and the lingua Franca in global commerce, addressing the increasing achievement gap is essential. An accessible and adaptable program to make language learning approachable, engaging, and most importantly, effective for all students is the place to start.