Posts Tagged ‘Grammar’

What We Study and Why: Language

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In this part of our series we are looking at individual subjects and asking why and how we study them. So far we have discussed mathematics, science and history. Today’s subject is language. I am thinking here both of one’s native language and of foreign languages. Literature we will save till another time. My interest today is in all those things which one must learn to learn a langauge — the fun stuff like spelling (phonetics, phonology) and grammar which itself is a very broad topic including both how we form words (morphology) and how we put them together (syntax and semantics).

I think most people will agree that langauge is a necessary subject. But most also are just as happy to pass quickly over through the essential bits and to get on to something else. More than any other subject, we tend to have a very pragmatic approach to language; we see it as a tool, a very essential but very boring and often troublesome tool.

Why We Study Language

If langauge is a tool it is one so powerful it was used by God to create the universe. As I argued is this earlier post, words — those building blocks of langauge — are absolutely essential to our relationship with our Creator. God used them to create us and our world (Gen. 1). God the Son is identified as the Word of God (John 1:1-3) and it is through words (and distinctly not images) that God chooses to reveal Himself to us (Deut. 4:15). Words and names are powerful things (Gen. 17:5; 32:28; Mk. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). And it is through words that God continues to save His people (Rom. 10:14).

Education is sanctification. It is us confronting the things of God, drawing us closer to Him, and making us more like Him. Language is not just essential to almost all other learning – though it certainly is that — but it is also one of those things of God. If anything it is more closely associated with God than any other subject. Math, they tell us, is the code behind the universe, but the Word is God.

I don’t know how it works in the Godhead, but for us humans we don’t seem to be able to have ideas without the words to put them in. How could we understand God Himself without the word Trinity? Words and phrases like “nature” and “begotten” and “saved by grace through faith” are carefully chosen because they communicate very specific ideas. The words embody the ideas.

As we move beyond our own language, we also begin to see the possibilites in other languages. Biblical Hebrew is a language well suited to narrative but does not lend itself so well to philosophy and theology. Greek, on the other hand, is able to express complex ideas much more readily because it contains a case system and allows for much more complexly structured sentences. English, I have heard it said,  works very well for science and technology because, being a mash of so many other languages, it easily takes on new ideas.

Since there is such a tie between langauge and thought, when we learn another’s langauge we also learn something about how they think. This allows us not only to convey our own ideas to them but to understand their thought. If we know our God through langauge, we also know our fellow men through language. Being able to connect with others, both to communicate our own ideas and to learn from them, is a major goal of language learning.

If we too often view langauge as a tool and not as something that is beautiful in its own right, then the fault lies in our own educations. One of the major principles I have set forth in this series is that we need to let the beauty of knowledge (for all true knowledge is from God) shine through in its own right. We don’t need to dress it up to make it pretty but we must also not weigh it down and make it cumbersome and boring. Most of us have had langauge made boring for us.

We need to rediscover the beauty of language so that we can pass it along to our students. The primary way I know to do this is to read people who are themselves in love with language (I will add a brief bibliography at the end to get you started). In addition to reading about langauge, we need to read well-written books, whether prose or poetry, fiction or non-fiction. I am thinking of those whose words just seem to roll off the tongue. I found when my kids were little that there were some picture books that I just enjoyed reading aloud. The words were a pleasure to say. The same is true of some big books as well. Authors that come to mind are: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Russell Hoban (of the Frances books), and Charles Dickens (though I am often winded by the end of his sentences). These authors clearly love language themselves.

How We Teach Language

I think one of the biggest problems we have in teaching language is that we do too much. Perhaps in this subject more than any other we provoke our children to frustration. I am convinced that we need to take the formal elements of langauge slowly. The most important thing is to read children those well-written books that roll off the tongue. If you don’t love reading a book, don’t. Say no. Throw it away or return it to the library and get books that you, as an adult, can enjoy reading. Set an example of reading and give them access to good books (and limit access to poorly written books).

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of how we teach langauge, I can only offer you some observations I have made; take them for what you will:

  • Don’t rush into spelling before the child has a good ability to read and don’t rush into grammar for a while after that. These are subjects which can be learned more quickly a few years later.
  • Many, but not all, students will naturally pick these things up if they are reading good books.
  • Spelling seems to be a visual skill more than anything else. Some kids take to it naturally; others need to be encouraged to “see” words.
  • My observation is that worksheets on both spelling and grammar translate very poorly into children’s writing. As much as possible, there should be a context to what we teach, a literary and a social context.
  • English is a tough langauge because it is such a hodge-podge but there are some rules, however arbitrarily applied. Especially for the child to whom these things do not come naturally, it can be helpful to learn these rules.
  • When it comes to spelling, etymology and history are often helpful. If we know, that “crochet” comes from the French, we may remember that the “sh” sound in the middle is spelled with a “ch.” This can help us as well with chef and chauffeur (at least the first part of it). If we know some English history, we may also understand that chef and chauffeur, those fancy words for people with servants, come from the French. In Greek words, on the other hand, like chaos and anarchy, the “ch” sounds like a “k” (and what does that say about the Greeks?).
  • Choose your approach to grammar wisely. Many of us had the experience of not learning English grammar until we took a foreign langauge. The truth is most grammars were originally developed for other languages (like Greek and Latin) and were applied to English. We need an approach to grammar that it suited to the language.

Keep scrolling for my list of resources to get you started. I am sure there are many other good books that inspire a love for and a real understanding of language. If you have others to add, please let me know.



Eide, DeniseUncovering the Logic of English (Logic of English, 2012). I consider myself a pretty good speller but this book taught me rules I never knew. There is a curriculum which goes with it which I have never used. I foudn it was useful for me to read the book. I also got the flashcards of phonemes and went through them with my kids when they were littler. Then when problematic words came up later in life I would refer to the phonemes and rules (“remember that  ….  can also make the …. sound” etc.). Teens could also read the book for themselves.

Leonard, Mary Hall. Grammar and Its Reasons (1909; republished by Forgotten Books, 2016). It is the first part of this book, beginning in chapter two, that I really like. Hall discusses the history of the study of English grammar and though she goes on to discuss grammar I thought she actually made a better case that we should not do so.

Norris, MaryBetween You & Me (W.W. Norton and Company, 2016). Norris is an editor for The New Yorker. She discusses grammar and her own career. I learned (finally!) when to use which and when to use that.

Schmidt, Stan. Life of Fred Langauge Arts (Polka Dot Publishing). Life of Fred is known for its math books but there is also a four-volume langauge arts series for high schoolers. The idea is that the child reads all four volumes every year. I am not sure it is necessary to go through them all four times. My high schoolers enjoyed these books though they did come away doing annoying things like telling me I use the word nauseous wrong (which just makes me sick to my stomach).

Vavra, Ed. Professor Vavra has written a number of useful articles on grammar, but the most useful by far is the free grammar curriculum he has developed. KISS Grammar takes a functional approach to the English language, asking what words do in a sentence rather than focusing on parts of speech.  You can find this wonderful resources here and a document I have written in how to use it here (opens a Google doc). Other articles by Dr. Vavra include: “A Psycholinguistic Model of How the Human Brain Processes Language” (here; Click where it says “click here to get article” and you will be able to download a word document). This article explains some of the basis for his approach. He explains how we understand sentences and how words “chunk” together in units of meaning. I found it fascinating and had my high schoolers read it as well. Practically speaking, this article helped me think about how to do dictation with my children.

Warner, George Townsend. On the Writing of English (1918; republished by Forgotten Books, 2013). This is an older volume which speaks to teens on how to write essays. I like Warner’s approach because (a) it is very practical and (b) it favors language which communicates well rather than heaping up long, descriptive words.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well (Harper Perennial, 2012). Though 30 years old, this is a more modern book on how to write well.

Zylstra, Henry. “Formal Discipline Reaffirmed,” in Testament of Vision (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958). Don’t be fooled by the title; this short article is about how we view grammar, not about disciplining children. I didn’t think I favored a formal/prescriptive approach to grammar (as opposed to a normative/descriptive one) but this article makes me reconsider it.

Some Thoughts on Memorywork and Grammar

Dear Reader,

I return once again to Anthony Esolen’s book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. You can read my review of it here. Though I wasn’t thrilled by the book, it made me think. Not to surprisingly in a work on imagination (or the lack thereof) in children, Esolen gives us some insight into his take on education. Though he does not profess allegiance to one particular philosophy of education, he seems to me to fall in the classical education camp. Though my own approach tends to follow along the lines of a Charlotte Mason education, I was intrigued by some of what he had to say.

Esolen is a fan of memorywork, not for the sake of rote learning, but as a means to further innovation and inspiration. He says:

” . . . a developed memory is a wondrous and terrible storehouse of things seen and heard and done. It can do what no mere search engine on the internet can do. It can call up apparently unrelated things at once molding them into a whole impression, a new thought.” (p. 9)

It is the first part of this that makes me think Esolen might fall into the classical camp with its division of education into stages– first the grammar stage with its memorization and then later logic and rhetoric. This has never appealed to me. But I rather like the picture painted by the second and third sentences of how those seeds come together to form new ideas. Combining disparate threads into something new seems like a wonderful outcome of an education to me. To support his view, Esolen also references the ancient Greeks who said that the Muses, those bearers of inspiration in all the arts, were the daughters of Memory. What a lovely connection that is. Esolen goes on to clarify that it is not merely a matter of memorizing anything that is available. The subject of memorization must be valuable or worthy (note that the whole tone of the book is tongue-in-cheek; therefore Esolen speaks as if he is advocating the killing of the imagination and his advice here has that goal in mind):

“We can encourage laziness. by never insisting that young people actually master, for example, the rules of multiplication, or the location of cities and rivers and lakes on the globe. Then we can allow what is left of the memory to be filled with trash . . . Therefore, for children, books with silly, flat, banal language is best.” (p. 14)

Esolen moves on to discuss other areas of education, among them grammar. His advice here (and remember he speaks as if the goal is to stifle imagination) is to not teach grammar or, if one must, to only pretend to teach it. I really wish he had expanded upon what he means by this. It seems that much of what he would he would term “pretending to teach grammar.” But I am not sure I understand what it would look like to really teach grammar. From what I can gather, the pretending looks like learning a lot of disjointed, picky rules.

I have noticed in my own homeschooling that what we teach often does not seem to match the kind of writing we find in great books. For example, we tell children to use lots of good descriptive adjectives, but the sentences they come up with are not what I would call impressive writing. They are overburdened with details when they are not necessary. Similarly, we rail against run-on sentences but as far as I can see great books are full of them. This is the example Esolen uses as well. He quotes a long passage from Henry Fielding and then says, “But teachers will undoubtedly call that carefully structured sentence, building to its absurd climax, a run-on, because it happens to be long” (p. 19). But what can we do to teach children to write well other than expose them to great writing? Esolen implies there is a way, but he does not give me enough information to know what he means. Admittedly, his book is not meant to be a guide to teaching grammar.  Still, I would like to think more about this. How can we teach grammar in a way that really produces good writing? Any ideas?


KISS Grammar: What it is and How we use it

Dear Reader,

I mentioned in another post that we use KISS Grammar. This is a free curriculum one can access online, but it tends to generate a lot of confusion initially so I thought I would give a little info on it.

KISS was (and actually still is being) developed by a professor, Ed Vavra, who was unhappy with his students’ understanding of English grammar. It takes a very functional approach. In contrast to most grammars, it does not start by introducing parts of speech. Rather, it looks at every item in a sentence based on how it is used. This is an important distinction as English often uses words in different ways. For example, nouns may be used adverbally as in the sentence “One day he went to the zoo.” “Day” here is being used abverbally to tell when he went.

Other aspects of KISS that I like are that it can be used for many ages at once and that it can be done in just a few minutes a day. There is not a lot of busy work (unless you want there to be I suppose). We introduce a concept and then look at a few sentences using it. Sometimes we just take a sentence or two we have read and see what we can make of them. KISS uses sentences from real books. One may not always have the skills to explain all parts of a sentence, but that is okay.

A lot of the confusion regarding KISS seems to come from how the website is laid out. Really, though, it is not that tough. There are six levels, some of which have sublevels. Not all of these have been produced online yet. But if you were beginning, you would do level 1, then 2, then 3.1, then 3.2, and then 4 (that is what is currently available). There are books available for different grade levels but not all grades are available yet. So, for instance, for level 1, you could choose the book for 2nd, 3rd or 6th graders. If you have a 4th grader, you would probably choose to use the 3rd garde level. If you have a ninth grader, they can still do the 6th grade level. The grade levels here are not hugely important, and, honestly, I don’t think there are big variations between them. If you have your 2nd grader in level 1 this year, next year they would do level 2 for third graders, not do level 1 again at the 3rd grade level. You always move forward through the levels. Everyone should start at level 1 and then go on to 2 and so on. The different grade level books are more like guidelines. Just pick the one available that is closest to your child’s grade in school.

We use KISS a couple of times a week. If we have come to a new concept, I will explain that to the kids. Then we go through a sentence or two together. Usually I write them on a dry erase board so we can all see it. Depending on the time, I may or may not give each child a sentence to analyze. Even the youngest (mine being now 7 and 8) can learn to find subjects, predicates, and prepositional phrases. It is okay if we cannot figure out everything in a sentence. Because we use real sentences, not ones made for a certain workbook, there will sometimes be parts that we just don’t know what to do with yet. The kids aren’t always happy to not be able to deal with everything, but I think it is probably good for the soul to have to say we just don’t know that yet. So really I’d say we spend less than 20 monutes per week on grammar, often closer to 10, and yet I do feel like my children are getting what they need in this area without a lot of the busywork that so often seems to accompany this subject.