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Val123's avatar

Is teaching English (parts of a sentence, etc.) really all that important?

Asked by Val123 (12593 points ) April 26th, 2010

What is the point of trying to force kids to learn what an adverb, or a dangling participle, or a reflexive noun is, when they’re just going to turn around and write an essay in another class that looks like this: “Me and Joe was going to the store. We could of got their earlyer, but there was a car reck and we was hung up.”

Seriously…wouldn’t that time in English class be better spent actually teaching students how to simply write a proper sentence, and SPEAK properly, whether they understand why it’s proper or not? I mean, yes, a teacher who is has a degree in English should be teaching it, so they can explain if a student actually wants to know why something is proper or not (and watch their eyes glaze over in dazed confusion)

I remember in HS having multiple answer questions about which sentence was proper. Without fail, every student could pick the right sentence, but when asked why they thought that was the right one the answer would almost always be, “Because it looks right.” Well, isn’t that good enough?

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40 Answers

thriftymaid's avatar

Yes. Learn it so that you can speak and write correctly.

marinelife's avatar

No, it is not a likely outcome to expect a student to write a clear, readable paper without understanding the building blocks of English.

Even if the student cannot answer except to say something “looks right,” how do you know that is not a result of training in parts of speech?

gailcalled's avatar

Agreed. I would skip the technical stuff initially and teach, sentence by sentence. I have seen some shockingly bad writing here, for example.

The first issue is “What is a sentence”?

Have the student read that example you cited; see whether his ear detects the errors, or some of them.

Val123's avatar

@thriftymaid My point….they may be able to diagram a sentence, but then they’ll turn around and write illiterate nonsense, and come out of class saying, “We don’t got no….”

@marinelife I flunked English in both HS and college. I can write a proper sentence without understanding what a gerund (or whatever) is.

@gailcalled It’s funny because if a person who speaks illiterately heard someone else talking the way they talk they’d pick up on it immediately! But they don’t hear their own voice when they talk….

gailcalled's avatar

Do you mind my asking (gerund) how you became literate?

jfos's avatar

It’s definitely important to teach, as @marinelife phrased it, the “building blocks of English.” Yes, it can be tedious or boring, but I would argue that people who have not had a proper upbringing, or perhaps not an English upbringing, might think that an incorrect sentence “looks right” or “sounds right.”

@gailcalled Not only a gerund, but a genitive to go with it.

dpworkin's avatar

Linguistics aside, what can possibly be wrong with promoting analytical thinking? And taking linguistics into consideration, people are judged all through their professional lives by how close their language production approaches the overtly prestigious standard. How cruel it would be to deprive students of an economic leg up!

Val123's avatar

@jfos I disagree. A kid may pass English just by memorizing what he needs to know, but still can’t speak or write correctly.

@dpworkin So far everyone seems to assume that if one doesn’t know the building blocks of English, one can not possibly write a proper sentence. I am living proof that that is not true. I still think that hour spent learning sentence diagramming when a kid just turns around and walks out still having NO CLUE as to how to actually write a proper sentence should be given over to teaching them things like, “Could of,” is a no no. “We got six of them,” is a no no. “We was,” is a no no, and you don’t have to know why, just deal with it.

dpworkin's avatar

@Val123 That is a shallow, valueless approach. Like teaching the multiplication tables without teaching what multiplication means.

For my linguistics class last semester I spent hour and hours drawing syntactic trees (diagramming sentences.) I am a fully grown native speaker of English, yet I learned a great deal of things hitherto not known by me.

Val123's avatar

@dpworkin Well hail! I get to teach it now! That, along with HS history, science, match, etc. As I have a vested interest in actually learning it, I am trying harder than I ever had, but I still ask myself…why? Why do I have to know what a gerund is? If I wrote, “She was running across the street.” WHY do I have to know that the word ‘running’ is a gerund?

Math is a whole different animal, too.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@Val123: it is a mistake to assume that the way you have learned the written language (which is not a natural process, btw – literacy, by and large, needs to be taught in my experience) is the single appropriate way for language to be taught.

Some learners favour structural approaches to the language, whereas others favour an exposure-derived inductive approach. The trick of teaching is to adapt the methodologies to best suit the learners in the class. Often this requires an eclectic approach.

I’d also suggest that there is a gulf between what teachers think they’re teaching, what the learners think they’re learning, and what is actually being learned.

I never once received explicit instruction in ow to write formal English for compulsory academic contexts – I’m the product therefore of an academic liberal humanist education. I understand the approach has changed since I was at school, however, to a far more instrumentalist approach. Therefore, the teaching and assessment of literacy has arguably shifted to fitness for the learners’ purposes, rather than the direct teaching of a prestige form. This is not to suggest that I approve of such an approach, but how important is it that your joiner be able to write text in the academic voice, for example?

(Note: I live in Britain)

jfos's avatar

@Val123 I understand that some students can memorize what words are what part of speech, but lack the ability to formulate a grammatically correct sentence. I don’t understand why, instead of also testing them on how to create sentences, you suggest dropping the details altogether.

Couldn’t a student also memorize what sentences “look right” or “sound right”?

Val123's avatar

@the100thmonkey LOL! I have no idea what you just said, but I gave you a GA anyway!

My whole point is, why focus on English when at least 60% of the kids graduate and don’t really have the faintest idea of how to actually write a proper sentence? This is to @jfos too…and I gotta go to work!!

jfos's avatar

@Val123 When you get a chance, read my previous answer. I think it answers your ”My whole point is, why focus on English when at least 60% of the kids graduate and don’t really have the faintest idea of how to actually write a proper sentence?

More learning > less learning.

thriftymaid's avatar

@Val123 A percentage of any class is hopelessly stupid. That doesn’t mean the material should not be presented.

JLeslie's avatar

I think it is important. It has been my experience that the people who can map a sentence or know the various parts of speech like adverbs and prepositions are more likey to speak and write well. A friend of mine once did a mini-survey for a college class giving multiple choice answers for “which sentence is correct” and then asked why that sentence was correct. One question was a sentence that ended with the choice a) between you and me, b) between me and you, c) between you and I. Only about 40 people took the quiz, it was not a scientific study, 30 had gone to high school in state, and 10 out of state more or less, I don’t remember exact numbers. Only 2 out of the 30 people in state answered it correctly, but they did not know why. 8 out of the 10 people out of state answered correctly and all knew why. If your community commonly says something incorrectly, it will sound correct to you, and there is a good chance even your teachers say it wrong, except for maybe your English teacher.

Keysha's avatar

I don’t feel it should be abandoned. But I do feel it should be streamlined. Things like dangling participles and such should, to me, be tossed by the wayside. Knowing nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns and such should be enough. You can infer a lot if you know the primary parts of a sentence.

I think spelling should be addressed more than sentence structure, to the degree it is. Most kids, at the level they learn diagramming, tend to not retain that info, use that info, or care, for very long.

Just like your body. You know how to use it, you know what the major parts are called, but you do not need to know the name of each of the phalanges, arteries, or veins.

wundayatta's avatar

Grammar comes after the fact. The language is here first and then people study it in order to try to develop “rules” that keep the language in a standardized form. I don’t know what a gerund is, either.

Developing a standardized (non-changing) language is useful for people who must teach the language. They can teach to a specific standard. In former times, there was no standardized English, and spellings were all over the place. However, I think the grammar remained pretty much the same. No one needed to be conscious of the rules in order to follow the rules. It’s something that’s built into our brains.

We study grammar and diagram sentences in order to see what we are doing. It helps us create more nuanced sentences. Perhaps even more importantly, it helps us learn other languages. We can see how their rules of grammar are different and compensate appropriately. Anyone for the dative case? The genitive?

The language moves on, no matter what the champions of standardization want. It streamlines itself. It changes forms of conjugation. Spellings change. The language as it is spoke care nothing for the grammarians. That’s why you can speak it perfectly well without having ever studied it.

Teaching grammar isn’t necessary in order to speak the language. It is necessary in order to understand what is going on inside the language. It is necessary in order to study many things that have to do with language. So it all depends on what you want to do.

gailcalled's avatar

If you want lots of laughs, do not teach what a dangling participle is.

I saw the Empire State Building walking down Fifth Ave.

kruger_d's avatar

I am visual learner. When learning German in college I really floundered because all of the teaching was auditory. Without my grounding in English grammar I would really have been lost.
Also, it’s natural for kids use poor grammar with each other. There is a hesitancy to use correct grammar with peers and sometimes with family for fear of seeming arrogant or pretentious. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of using it when, in their opinion, the situation calls for it.

Buttonstc's avatar

When you have the situation of college students from foreign lands both writing and speaking better English than native born American kids, then dropping teaching the building blocks is NOT an option.

Most of them know OUR sentence structure and parts of speech better than kids raised in our own school systems.

Sure, they may speak with an accent, but they WRITE better than students raised here.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I don’t see how dropping standards will help in the slightest.

Jeruba's avatar

@Val123, in the sentence “She was running across the street,” “running” is not a gerund. It’s a participle.

Understanding the parts of speech means understanding the relationships of the parts of an expression—of the words to one another, of the sentence to other sentences, of the parts to the whole, of the ideas to the words that express them, and ultimately of the utterance to the world at large. Understanding the relationships is essential to understanding meaning. When you want to understand more complex expressions than just a narrative about going to the store with Joe, grammar is the key to comprehension.

Val123's avatar

@gailcalled ROFL!!! I now know what a dangling participle is!!! Thank you ever so much! I actually found this sentence in a Snopes description (description part of the false story, not on the part of the owners). It was about a guy who got attacked by a dog. The owner’s defense was that the guy was in their yard. Accordingly I saw the following: “The dog was chained and in the back yard, as was the plaintiff.” I rolled!

@JLeslie In reference to the example you gave: The proper way to say the sentence is “between you and me.” I know this not because I can give you the “legal” reason, but simply because if you take the second party out (‘you’) and were just referring to yourself, you would say ”...between me.” In that example, for it to make sense, you’d have to add some dangling portable orthanic like, “The table was between me and….” That’s also how I know when to properly use ‘I’ or ‘me,’ as in “They had James and me run to the store,” v “James and I to ran to the store.’ In taking the final college exam to get my teaching certificate, I’d say out of 100 people, only 5 of us got it right. But, of the ones the 5 of us talked to, those people now know WHEN to use ‘I’ v ‘me,’ and it’s just that simple. No amount of diagramming or confusing words can take the place of simple explanations, which is what is missing in English, IMO. How can 100 people graduate college and not know that simple thing??
Also, the other day I learned what a “reflexive verb” is. Well, it’s like, “I saw myself in the mirror,” or, “He saw himself in the mirror.” (The reflexive verbs are ‘myself’ and ‘himself.’) WTH does ‘reflexive’ have to do with a darn thing in that case? So, I changed the pronunciation in my head just a bit, and to myself I call them ”reflective” verbs. And that’s what I teach my students, and now I’ll never forget. And what does it matter if I know what a reflexive verb is, anyways???

@jfos I haveta get to work here in a moment, so I’ll dig a little deeper into your answer this evening.

I don’t have time to address each of you (but I will after work) but my main point is, teaching English yet letting a kid slide on structure and form when it comes to actually writing a sentence is a total waste of time. I can’t figure how in the world any kid could have graduated from High School, yet actually writes, “He could of.” You KNOW that probably popped up in paper after paper after paper in HS…yet noone corrected it??

To me it’s comparable to trying to teach math by simple teaching the names of all of the different parts and pieces of a math problem, like the divisor and where it goes in the problem, the numerator and where it goes in a problem, the dividend and where it goes in a problem…but looking the other way when it turns out the kid can’t actually SOLVE the problem!!

Anyway, gotta go. I can’t believe this last 15 minutes went by so fast!

Thanks so much for your thoughtful answers.

Oh, and @wundayatta a ‘gerund’ is a, uh, verb thinger that ends in ‘ing.’ Like, “She was running.” Well, ‘run’ is a verb, but when you sticking an ‘ing’ on the end it gets, um, gerunded. And that’s today’s English lesson from Val! XXXOOO all!!

gailcalled's avatar

@Val23: I always say “He graduated from college;” your version “I graduated college” doesn’t ring true.

Re: gerund vs. participle

“She was running” uses the verb “to run” in the past (continuous or progressive) tense of the verb, so “running” is a participle.
I was editing my paper until midnight. :participle

Gerunnds are verbs that end in “ing” used as nouns.

Editing is not fun.: gerund
My constant nItpicking is even less fun: gerund

JLeslie's avatar

@Val123 I think the tricks are fine. I am not saying don’t teach those. I have noticed many people not using adverbs lately, people must be getting accustomed to not hearing it. Or, maybe my English knowledge is lacking and I am wrong? Goodness knows I am not an expert. I hear Please drive safe isn’t it safely? Or, I took it personal Isn’t it personally? I think knowing what an adverb is would help, because it seems many people are not using the adverb and it is beginning to sound normal.

As far as the past tense of verbs, I would not be able to tell you all of the different forms either, I just know what sounds right for the most part.

When I learned a foreign language the English language became clearer to me. How it is structured, the grammar. Since in school we learn a foreign language in a very text book way, the rules are spelled out, and you have less of a feel for what sounds normal in the foreign language. So, in turn when translating from English to Spanish for instance, knowing what part of speech you are using in English can help you choose the correct wording in the foreign language.

I still think it is worth while to learn the rules, between you and me is correct because it is the object of a preposition. Learn them once, it might come in handy, especially if you and your community commonly use a part of speech incorrectly.

Val123's avatar

@gailcalled ? I’ve never said I “graduated college.” If I did, I was wrong because that would be like saying I graduated a building. Graduated it to what? AND, actually, my mom once told me you don’t graduate from college. You are graduated FROM college!

You know, gerund is going to become a dirty word in my book! But thank you for the lesson…

gailcalled's avatar

@Val123: No biggie; but, check your long answer (four above this). All the complicated punctuation was perfect and clear, however.

How can 100 people graduate college and not know that simple thing??) Last sentence in first para’ answer to @JLeslie.

And then to @jfos: I can’t figure how in the world any kid could have graduated from High School, yet actually writes, “He could of.”

There is, also, the unnecessary “of” in phrases such as “not that big of a deal.”

The Amish women always put a patch upside down or of the wrong color into their quilts so as not to compete with a perfect Deity.

JLeslie's avatar

@gailcalled I am not sure it is the addition of the word “of.” It is using of instead of the word have. He could have but we shorten it verbally to he could uv, phonetically. I am guilty of making the mistake when writing myself, and then going back and fixing it. Same as I write there instead of their and your instead of you’re, even though I know very well which is correct in a sentence.

gailcalled's avatar

@JLeslie; I was thinking specifically about “not that big a deal” and the “of that keeps sneaking in.

How about I could’ve? as a way of sneaking around the problem?

Yours truly, Gail

Val123's avatar

@gailcalled Yep, I see. My bad!

JLeslie's avatar

@gailcalled Oh yes. Seems the word of encounters all sorts of problems. :)

gailcalled's avatar

@JLeslie: Of course it does. It’s (or is that its) endemic.

@Val123. You’re not to worry. When I write something, I save it for a re-read the next day. Mistakes galore. And if it going to be seen by the public, I have someone edit.

I am keeping a list of malapropisms generated here; the latest is “copyable” for “copable,” which itself is understandable but not yet a word in the dictionary, although “capable” is. We do muddle through, one way or the other.

Val123's avatar

@gailcalled Yep, it was a mistake~thankfully my job isn’t hanging on that! I, for one, look forward to seeing that list!

gailcalled's avatar

@Val123: The list is shudderable.

Val123's avatar

ROFL!!! Shouldoferable!

gailcalled's avatar

@Val123; Teaser; Cerebullum for cerebellum.

Val123's avatar

@gailcalled I just saw your question asking how I became literate without being able to name the parts of a sentence…..I was educated! It’s simply memorization, and being corrected by my parents and teachers.

gailcalled's avatar

For me, in addition to the formal traditional English classes, it was reading all the time. I began to differentiate between good and dreadful writing.

My parents had a subscription to The New Yorker when I was in high school. I was stunned by what one could do with language. Once a week, I came home, grabbed the magazine from the mail pile and shut myself in my room. EB White was then writing squibs for “The Talk of the Town.” He wrote with clarity, brevity and with few adjectives.

Val123's avatar

@gailcalled Oh yeah! That too! I was reading before I entered kindergarten. Words are magic.

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