A History of English Grammar Instruction

Grammar has long been regarded as the result of centuries of logical improvements in the systematic organization of language. Grammar has been held up as one of the defining criteria elevating mankind above mere animals.

Begun by well meaning researchers looking to improve mankind, Prescriptive Grammar and the rote drills to perfection became a practice to be ridiculed, ignored and then discarded.

In the 1920s and 1930s, two great promoters of the descriptive linguistics tradition, Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield, both wrote influential books that elevated the primacy of speech over writing and the importance of a descriptive approach to language study.

The publication of Syntactic Structures in 1957 by Noam Chomsky of MIT began a revolution in linguistics. This began the on-going widespread belief that language acquisition is considered an autonomic process dependent upon unconscious interactions between an innate, internal language acquisition device and the quality of the raw input material of the child's linguistic environment.

Chomsky's "Naturalist Theory" core premise was that in order for children to be able to learn a spoken language with such rapidity and thoroughness, children must be born with large portions of the universal grammar of language already hardwired into their head.

By the 1980's these Naturalist theories and subsequent transformational-generative grammar additions gained momentum and pushed regulators, education faculties, teacher trainers, educators and textbook editors to eliminate traditional grammar instruction.

It is unfortunate that Chomsky was only right about initial language acquisition.

Babies are born with an excess of neural connections, many of which are lost through lack of use over time. Beginning at about the age of nine or ten and continuing until kids are around the age of fourteen, the internal mechanisms for intuiting syntactic, phonological, and morphological structures start breaking down.

Education theory promoters need to stop preaching the half-truth that grammar develops naturally through simple exposure to language. They need to admit that the internal language-learning mechanism is imperfect and that this ability degrades as students age.

It is interesting to note that some USA states have used 1930's Grade 6 English tests as a benchmark to show that most of the 1990's and 21st century first year college students could not even pass. Historical comparisons have revealed that education tests and standards have been deliberately reduced to disguise the failures of the public English education curriculum.

The second challenge is the elementary school students who had not formally learned English grammar are now teaching English. Many of these teachers have never been exposed to the traditional grammar books of the 1940s and '50s, so cannot explain many of the rudimentary grammatical forms.

These facts should provide language program designers with clear road maps. Program designers have to recognize that they have a window of opportunity in which to expose students to syntactically rich language. Educators should prioritize technical grammar learning early and often.

Teachers must recognize that older students will not learn grammar simply by reading and writing. Teachers must correct grammatical errors that students have acquired during their early years. For older students language learning is not autonomic. Grammar structures and mechanics have to be explicitly taught.

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