Q: Why doesn’t English grammar stick?
A: Because we don’t follow the natural order: memorization in the grammar stage and analysis in the logic stage.
The name grammar school comes from the early Renaissance, when the major subject of the elementary years was the Latin grammar.
The young grammar student memorized Latin grammar forms—declensions and conjugations—and gradually transitioned to the more abstract study of Latin syntax and translation in his upper grammar school years. This plan of work was consistent with the trivium stages of learning—memorization for the younger student and logic-level translation skills for the older.
As the study of Latin declined over the centuries, the study of English gradually took its place. English grammar, however, being very irregular and lacking inflection, is actually more abstract and difficult for the young child than Latin. Although the technique of diagramming was developed to make the invisible English grammar more concrete, the study of English grammar in the grammar school years has remained a frustrating and often fruitless experience for both teachers and students. Experience has taught us that the logic-level skills of English grammar analysis and diagramming are difficult for the grammar school student and perhaps not the best use of academic time.
Before we offer a solution to this dilemma, first let’s clarify what we mean by the term “grammar.” Most English grammar books are actually comprehensive language arts texts in which the grammar section is relatively small and the bulk of the text is devoted to punctuation, capitalization, composition, and English usage, all of which are important. But limiting ourselves to the question of “grammar” alone, what should we be teaching our students in the elementary years?
I propose that we adopt the same plan as the Renaissance grammar schools, a plan that is consistent with the trivium and has been proven successful: memorization for the younger students and analysis/diagramming for the older ones. Students can memorize the terms and definitions of English grammar at a young age, although applying them is often too abstract. I believe this memorization step is the missing component in our unsuccessful attempts to teach English grammar. Once definitions and examples are commited to memory, the student is prepared to work with English grammar in a profitable way in the logic stage. This is the same plan used in the First Form Latin series—memorization of declensions and conjugations with limited practice for the younger student, gradually transitioning to a study of syntax and translation for the older student in the logic stage.
For this plan, we need a grammar catechism for memorization and recitation. Thus we have developed our English Grammar Recitation, a catechism of approximately 156 grammar questions/answers/examples organized systematically and divided into five sections of increasing difficulty, to be covered in five years beginning as young as 3rd grade. The English Grammar Recitation is a manual of English grammar for the grammar stage—a convenient tool for memorization, reference, and review.
Each of the five sections of the catechism has a companion workbook covering approximately 30 questions each with accompanying exercises. The purpose of the workbook exercises is to illustrate the grammar question so the student has a preliminary understanding of what he is being asked to memorize. However, application is neither tested nor mastered. Analysis, diagramming, and understanding will always lag behind the memorization of the catechism. The goal is for the student, over the period of five years or less, to master this catechism as a foundation for a deeper and more thorough understanding in the logic stage.
A change in emphasis in these grammar years will give us a pedagogical approach that is more age-appropriate and consistent with the trivium stages of learning. The trivium plan, after all, is to use the early years for memorization of the facts that will be used later for analysis, application, and mastery.
A second objective of our English Grammar Recitation is to teach grammar topics in a sequence that closely follows the First Form Latin Series, and thus serves as an aid to learning Latin grammar. Each of the five workbooks corresponds to five levels of Latin study, Latina Christiana through Fourth Form Latin.
It is hoped that this plan will increase understanding of both Latin and English as they reinforce each other. It is hoped that this program is a better and more efficient use of time and can be completed in much less time than a conventional English grammar program.
English Grammar Recitation also covers capitalization and punctuation. Application of these rules is more within the grasp of the grammar school student as the rules are practiced and tested through dictation.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2013 edition.