Don’t Eat Grandma!
As an editorial consultant, I’m often appalled at the prevalence of poor grammar. As a homeschool parent, I’m committed to ensuring that my child learns the rules of English grammar. While poor grammar and syntax are not exclusive to homeschooled students (there are some papers I’ve seen as a university instructor that scare me), I have noticed that grammar is an area many homeschool parents could use a little help with. It will not matter how much your student knows about nuclear physics if he or she cannot clearly communicate about ideas and theories with others.
While word processing spelling and grammar checks have become more sophisticated, relying upon this resource is not sufficient! Sometimes the spell check will not pick up whether you mean there, their, or they’re. It won’t pick up run on sentences. Sometimes it misses subject-object agreement issues (please do not write something like “A student wants to get their test back quickly.” If there is only one person in the subject, there should only be one person in the predicate.)
In order to help your student learn proper English usage, it’s going to be important for you to learn proper English usage. This way,
you can model good sentence structure. Before I list resources for students needing grammar assistance, here are a few fun resources to help you with your own grammar (if you need help):
Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips - This is a fun podcast, and blog. The author of the podcasts also created a book with the same title. Grammar tips are presented in small, bite-sized chunks for you to learn from.
Eats, Shoots, & Leaves - Lynne Truss gives humorous consequences to using poor grammar. The title of her book comes from a poorly edited wildlife manual, which stated that a panda eats, shoots, and leaves. As if eating Grandma wasn’t enough, here’s more hysterics over the poor placement of commas.
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire - Karen Gordon’s work on using words properly is a lot of fun. While you won’t find Edward or
Bella among the pages, you will find answers to common grammar questions.
Once you’ve started improving your own grammar, you can begin to help your student improve his or hers. Aim to spend at least thirty minutes to an hour on grammar each day and another thirty minutes on writing each day. The more you have your student write, the better a writer he or she will become. Do not forget to give feedback on the student’s writing - every day. Students won’t know they are making mistakes unless you point those mistakes out.
The Elementary Years (K-4)
During the elementary years, it’s important to develop your student’s ear for good grammar. Because we often start out writing how we speak, by instilling good grammar in a student from a young age, you can help students with a head start. There are four key components of developing good language arts skills during this age:
- Speak to your child using complete sentences and proper grammar from an early age.
- Read good literature to your student (E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, E.E. Milne, and adaptations of the classics).
- Have the student copy sentences and paragraphs from good literature when he or she is learning how to write.
- Make sure your curriculum includes sentence diagramming so the student will learn how the different parts of the sentence work together. I cannot stress enough how helpful that has been to me.
There are really good curriculum options available for this age group. Peace Hill Press has a series - First Language Lessons - that focuses on the components I just mentioned. For the first and second levels of the program, students complete most exercises orally. For the third and fourth levels, there is more of a focus on written language. This is the program I used, and I found it to be really great. It took 20-30 minutes to complete a lesson, and by the end of the fourth book, I felt he had a very good command of the English language.
Another great grammar program is put out by Milestone Publisher’s Rod and Staff series. Before I go further, I should mention that I would prefer this program to First Language Lessons, but it’s put out by a Mennonite publisher. That means that it is very heavy-handed on Christian doctrine. If that does not bother you, then by all means take advantage of this wonderful, rigorous program. Your student will know English grammar inside and out, and the program is very cost-effective. My son and I found the program to be a bit over the top in terms of religious references, and so I used a different resource.
There’s a third option for this age group that’s more secular than Rod and Staff, but I did not use the program because of the cost of the materials. Voyages in English, like Rod and Staff, is a very rigorous foundation in English grammar. The problem with it is that the program costs a pretty penny.
I’m going to be different from others. I don’t think you should use websites or games to teach grammar at this stage. In fact, I’d argue you should keep students off the computer for learning activities as much as possible at this age - they need a firm foundation in grammar before they see text-talk “u goin’ to da mall?”
The Middle School Years (5-8)
As you can guess, I’m going the traditional route here. Sure, students can read comic books in their spare time, but I’d suggest not allowing this until the student has a firm understanding of grammar. Comic books encourage the same kind of thinking that watching TV encourages - thinking in short bursts with everything spelled out for you. Students who have been using Rod and Staff or Voyages in English can continue with the programs they are familiar with.
Students who were using First Language Lessons will need to find a new curriculum at this point. I recommend Steck-Vaughn’s Hake Grammar and Writing. This program is rigorous, offers lots of opportunities for review, and allows the student to work independently. Students who are excelling at grammar can skip some of the review exercises, though I don’t recommend this. There’s something to be said about learning grammar hermeneutically, as this allows the lessons and the structure of language to be fully absorbed by the student.
Make sure you assign plenty of opportunities for the student to stretch his or her writing legs at this age. While writing in the elementary years involved copywork, writing at this age should include outlining, short reports, and summaries of what was read in a passage of literature. Take the opportunity to give the student feedback in a timely manner. Make sure to correct grammar errors and spelling errors as you go. If you’re not using a spelling curriculum, you can use words that were misspelled during writing exercises. The more practice the student has with using the written language, the stronger shape he or she will be in going into the high school years.
The High School Years (9-12)
In high school, there are many ways to go about grammar. By this point, your student should have a firm foundation in the rules of the English language. At this point, looking up specific grammar rules online is fine. There are a few online resources - Grammar Girl is one - that can be helpful to the high school student:
- OWL - Purdue’s online writing lab. This website allows you to look up answers to any questions you may have about the finer points of writing. Learn how to write a précis, when commas are appropriate, and how to schedule a research project.
- Grammar Phobia -This is a question and answer blog where the author answers questions about etymology and tricky grammar situations
- The GrammarPhile Blog - This is a blog that talks about common grammar conundrums - like when to capitalize “north” and when you should use a comma with the word “because.”
Additionally, you will want to make sure your student has access to a style manual for research reports. Chicago Manual of Style is one that is widely used, but if you have a student going into English you may wish to have the student learn MLA style while a student interested in psychology should learn APA style. Diana Hacker’s book A Writer’s Reference is a must-have for any bookshelf.
There may be times when you need extra grammar help for your homeschooling students. If English is not your first language, if you struggle with grammar, or if your student needs remedial help or has a learning disability, you may wish to hire a tutor. In fact, I would highly recommend hiring a tutor in any of these circumstances. In the information age, being able to clearly communicate your ideas to someone else is a vital skill. If people cannot understand what you are saying, if you have poor grammar, or if you have poor syntax, it is going to be very difficult to get ahead. The investment in a tutor will more than pay for itself in the long-run.
- All references mentioned in the text are available at your local bookstore or online at Amazon.com and bn.com.
- Image courtesy of Fastfood, http://www.sxc.hu/photo/885250
- Ronda Roberts has been homeschooling for five years, and all five of those years, grammar has made up a big part of the curriculum she uses. Her view on homeschooling has been heavily influenced by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well Trained Mind.