Why Grammar?

Feb 28, 2019 | Posted by Jennifer


The three R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic—are generally agreed to be the foundation upon which all other subjects, including science and history, are laid. But buried within the writing component is the thing we call grammar. As educators, we know we need to teach it, or at least suspect we should, but frequently we aren’t certain why it matters or even how it is best taught. Oftentimes our trepidation is colored by our own negative experiences of wrestling with the subject when we were ourselves students. I hope I can allay your fears and share with you a few tips that will smooth your own journey to effectively teaching grammar to your students, but most importantly, calm your anxieties about the subject as well.

Let’s deal with the first question. Why does grammar matter? This is actually a very good question. And superficially it doesn’t seem to make too much sense to teach a subject that we as native speakers already intrinsically understand. For example, most people wouldn’t say, “Me went to the store.” Without anyone having to school us, for the most part we all know to use the nominative case “I” for this sentence—”I went to the store.” So why is it important that we teach a subject to our students that they already wield fairly well by simple dint of being raised in the language? In a nutshell it comes down to this: Grammar is the first stage of the Trivium (followed by Logic and Rhetoric). And without understanding at least the basics of grammar, of being able to read a sentence containing a complex thought and being able to discern the subject of that sentence and its action, we cannot progress to analyzing it, let alone defending or challenging it. In other words, good grammar allows us to think, and from that freedom of being able to think, to decide what is true and what is not. Understanding grammar to be so important, then, we must make the leap to discovering how we ought to teach it.

Approaches to teaching grammar vary, but there are a few methods that work better than others. One of the most effective ways to learn grammar is to learn another language. Latin is an excellent choice for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is a “dead” language that is no longer spoken today, making it a static (unchanging) language perfect for analyzing. Another benefit to the study of Latin is that it is an inflected language. Inflected languages are highly regular and change their forms to reflect tense and a number of other qualities such as number or even the mood of a word. Inflected languages make learning grammar easier because it is very easy to tell which words are nouns or verbs or other parts of speech. A bonus to studying Latin arises, too, in that there are many words in the English language that are derived from Latin. Learning Latin, then, can also help students discern the meaning of unfamiliar words, derived from Latin, that they encounter in their reading.

Another effective approach to teaching grammar is to teach at the point of need. To help me prepare to write this post, I reached out to some of my favorite teachers from my childhood. One of them, my fifth grade teacher, mentioned that while she did teach some diagramming of sentences, ultimately she didn’t feel that that approach really penetrated her students. She explained it like this: “Sometimes grammar is caught, not taught.” My high school English teacher backed her up. She used this analogy: “Most of us can sing without knowing the importance of the diaphragm, but every voice teacher I know has used that biological term to help students sing better.” While my teacher enjoyed grammar study, she acknowledged that it wasn’t as useful in teaching the writing process itself.

Let’s circle back to teaching at the point of need. This method of using applied grammar helps students “catch” good grammar. How does this look? It is what arises when you see something or hear something that you recognize as wrong and you are able to fix it. You may not know why it’s wrong necessarily, but you can still fix it. A way to simulate this experience is to provide your students text with embedded errors and have the students correct them. The students practice their editing skills and learn grammar at the same time. IEW’s Fix It! Grammar program is structured to facilitate this type of learning experience.

Andrew Pudewa gives a powerful presentation about grammar instruction called “But, but, but ... What about Grammar?” that provided much inspiration for this piece, but there is so much more wisdom to be gained from it. During the talk he reveals five paradoxes about grammar, four methods of teaching the subject, and three divisions that will help you understand the idea of grammar and how to appropriately teach it. To access your free download of this informative talk, click here. We hope that this blog post and most especially Andrew’s talk will inspire and encourage you to instruct your students about grammar in a way that will be meaningful and lasting.


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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