Why is Good Grammar Absent from Education?

good grammar

Good grammar is essential to a good education.

A while back, I was chatting with a friend when she casually mentioned she had plans to spend an evening helping out another friend of hers with some work that needed to be done. I asked, “What kind of work?”

“She’s an English teacher. I’m going to help her grade papers.”

I experienced a moment of envy. “That sounds like fun,” I said. I love perusing written documents in search of typos, misspellings, and other grammatical mistakes. What can I say? I always endorse good grammar.

“These papers are written by teenagers,” she responded, “not so fun.”

Good Grammar is Fun and Education Should Be Too

I considered this, then remarked, “Yes, judging by the amount of writing errors I see coming from adults, those papers will probably be more red than white by the time you’re done.”

“Oh no,” she exclaimed. “No mark-ups. She just grades them. She says there are too many errors and she doesn’t have time to mark every single mistake.”

Well, if that’s the mentality of today’s English teachers or schools, it’s no wonder the written word is treated with such complete and total disregard. I said as much to my friend and then we moved along to other, less disturbing topics.

What’s Happened to Our Education System?

Since that conversation, I’ve spent ample time wondering what, exactly, the English and Language Arts teachers are teaching students, if not good grammar. Looking back, I realized that I hadn’t had a decent grammar lesson past fourth grade. My spelling and punctuation skills were largely inherited from the massive amounts of reading I did, so I didn’t need grammar lessons necessarily, but it sure would have been nice to have graduated high school knowing the difference between farther and further.

During high school, I had an English teacher who found time to teach the class dating etiquette, which was supposed to prepare us for prom. We learned things like how to step out of a car, which arm to fold your coat over, and which forks to use for salad and the main course in a fine restaurant. While I found the lessons interesting, and the teacher was one that I liked very much, I look back with much chagrin, because we really should have spent that time mastering split infinitives.

A year later, I had a teacher who proceeded to read the entire novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest out loud, in class, for several weeks, when the class should have read the novel at home and spent time in class writing about and discussing the novel.

Teachers Have a Hard Job To Do

I have a friend who teaches high school science, so I’m not completely without insight as to the many challenges that teachers must overcome: delinquent students, overbearing parents, oversized classes, and ridiculous requirements handed down by a politically-driven school board. Don’t even get me started on the bureaucracy in the public school system. So let me clear: I’m not blaming teachers. The school system itself is broken and that responsibility belongs to all of us.

Is there a solution? Why are we letting these kids down? What’s wrong with a system in which a teacher cannot mark up her students’ papers in an effort to teach them good grammar? And if this is a problem for an English teacher, what are math, science, and history teachers skimping on? Are the kids getting shortchanged?

How will those kids ever learn how to communicate effectively if they don’t learn how to read, write, and master grammar, spelling, and punctuation? In a world where written communication is becoming more and more critical, where will these kids obtain the skills they need to succeed? Or is good grammar only to be relegated to the privileged, the talented, and the self-starters?

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


42 Responses to “Why is Good Grammar Absent from Education?”

  1. kexbrown says:

    Amen! I know my son had a horrible time with language and grammar. Then he became interested in Dungeons and Dragons. He read voraciously for a couple of years. Then his reading, writing and content understanding blossomed.

    Imagine, Dungeons and Dragons doing more for him than a grade school education.

  2. Based on many of the blogs out there, grammar does indeed seem to be a skill that is losing its necessity.

    However, I’ll take some grammar errors in stride to learn what some of these people have to say – though I am a self-professed grammar snob and English geek, I don’t get too hung-up on mistakes when the passion is there. Some of my favorite writers have not followed the rules of grammar “to a tee” (Richard Bach, for example).

    Anyway – my wife is a new English teacher (and theatre), and she has struggled (and continues to struggle) with the exact situation you describe. What is most frustrating for a teacher, I’m told, is when corrections and suggestions are made but not followed. She’s graded papers and made suggestions and corrections that were completely dismissed in teh final version of the paper. Unbelievable.

    A. Caleb Hartley

  3. I know what you’re saying, Melissa. I can just keep counting the teens and young adults I know who can’t even read big words, some can’t read at all, and forget spelling or grammar. How do they graduate without knowing how to read? How do they complete their assignments and homework? I’m stunned. When I was in school, there were spelling tests, other tests, homework that was graded. If I hadn’t been able to read, how would I have passed? It’s crazy!

  4. Eliza says:

    I used to move around a lot as a kid, and I’ve been to eleven or twelve elementary schools. I have no faith in the public school system: even if the teachers are sincere about their jobs, the students aren’t. You end up spending the entire class period describing something that should have been taught in ten minutes. Students seem to be expected to be lazy and slow, and with no challenge they almost always slumped to the occasion. Private schools were better, but I learned three times as much twice as fast when I briefly tried home school for a year.

    Now, universities teach these English skills as part of college composition classes. I was never taught how to write an essay until I reached college.

  5. Rhett Soveran - Epiblogger says:

    I think a couple things: (1) some grammar and sentence structure is on the way out—the exclamation mark and the comma (except for lists and maybe those joiny words (however, furthermore) (I have an English degree: joiny words)), (2) language is taught all wrong and (3) I can’t think of anything else.

    The problem with the way language is taught is because the majority of teachers take a classical approach to teaching language: formal, repetition, memorization. However, I believe a romantic or maybe you’d say postmodern approach to language education would be more significant. Make it about passion and the excitement of writing a sentence or paragraph. The pure joy that comes from using a well placed dash.

    I don’t love grammar or sentence structure but I do love a beautifully written sentence that employs those devices to make me think and wonder.

  6. @kexbrown, It seems that most people who went through public school and who have a good grasp on grammar are mostly self-taught. That definitely says something!

    @A. Caleb, If someone has valuable knowledge to share, I too overlook grammar and typos and poor writing in general. I appreciate and encourage good grammar, but I’m not a stickler. Having said that, I do believe that writing is a huge aspect of blogging, and bloggers would do well to make more effort in that area.

    @Michele, You’re right about that! It’s crazy! I mean, what are they doing in school all day? Is school becoming more of a day care than a place of learning?

  7. @Eliza, The closest I came to learning any grammar in college was a class I took on the history and structure of the English language. We were expected to arrive knowing basic grammar, and many did not.

    @Rhett, Yes, teaching with passion is a much better way to gain the trust and interest of the students. I once read an essay explaining that because arithmetic assignments were frequently used for punishment (i.e. talking in class results in one page of multiplication), it caused a general dislike of math among students, which spread wildly. Teachers (and parents) need to instill kids with a greater appreciation for knowledge and learning. When I was in junior high, it was uncool to get high marks and those who did were called “study buddies.” Ridiculous!

  8. --Deb says:

    My best friend has been teaching Italian to college students for the last 10 years or so, and she loves teaching the grammar, the mechanics. She tells me that she’s always amazed when students don’t know what, say, a past participle is, but also that her students have thanked her for explaining the grammar because it’s something they were never taught by their English teachers. I suppose I was lucky that I had teachers who taught that–my 7th grade English teacher even taught sentence diagramming. I don’t necessarily remember everything, but am grateful for the solid foundation–both from my old teachers and that lifelong reading habit (grin).

  9. Rudy says:

    It is easier to correct 1 or 2, or even 10 mistakes. But to check 100+ mistakes? It gets dull, doesn’t it?

  10. Elver says:

    I don’t mind bad education. All it means is less competition for those who make the effort to learn. Plus my kids are going to be home-schooled, if I ever have any.

    By the way, there’s a book on this topic that you might be interested in. Gatto’s “The Underground History of American Education”. You can find a very good review here.

  11. Chad | ProFreelancing says:

    While I agree with the basic idea of this post…I find it hard to expect that a high school teacher should have to mark every single mistake.

    Give a poor grade and explain the mistakes in class…sure!

    Edit every single little error on 20-30 papers? Crazy talk!

  12. Courtney says:

    A better question is:

    What kind of a world do we live in where professional athletes get paid millions to play a game and teachers get paid a pittance and are expected to put in extra unpaid overtime just to correct papers?

    When we start making education a priority (and parents start getting involved), then we’ll have a society we can be a little bit more proud of.

  13. Eileen says:

    Fifteen years ago I was on faculty at a private university and preparing future educators, among others. Students were required to submit weekly abstracts of their outside reading. Just fresh out of a doctoral program myself, apparently I was a bit naive. I thought students would value rigorous critiques of their writing and so I spent a significant amount of time on editing and even gave them opportunity to re-write and re-submit. They were, after all, paying $600 for a three-hour class (again, this was 15 years ago) and I wanted to make sure they got their money’s worth. Many of them had a different outlook – they seemed to figure, Hey I’ve paid my $600 worth for this class. Where’s my A?

  14. Christine says:

    I teach college courses for international students. Correcting English language mistakes on papers and assignments could easily quadruple the time I spend grading papers – and with sometimes up to 200 students a semester, it’s a frightening thought.

    That said, as a writer, receiving that kind of feedback is always useful – even when it was from teachers telling me I didn’t know how to write. Maybe a happy medium is to mark the first paragraph or page and then indicate that there will be no more language corrections from that point forward. It helps avoid overwork but still provides students with some feedback.

  15. Elver says:

    Eileen, I feel your pain. Such grades for money mentality is quite horrifying.

  16. @Deb, Your comment reminds me that I actually learned a lot about English grammar through several years of French. Studying a foreign language is incredibly helpful in better understanding one’s native language!

    @Rudy, You’re right. It would get dull, but how are the kids supposed to learn if their mistakes aren’t corrected? Rock and a hard place.

    @Elver, I can appreciate your sentiment. Poor grammar skills are one of the reasons I get so many proofreading and editing projects through my freelance business! However, I think an entire culture benefits when the masses are better educated. The question here is do we want what’s good for ourselves as individuals or for our society as a whole?

  17. @Chad, You’ve come up with a great solution. If teachers go over the types of mistakes they see on the papers during class lecture, then everyone in the class will benefit! The problem is, I don’t think much class time is given to grammar at all these days.

    @Courtney, Excellent point. Our priorities are pretty screwy.

    • Beth MacKinney says:

      That is the point. It’s not just the time grading papers, which would be lengthy and unpaid for teachers. They’re not even teaching grammar in many cases.

  18. @Eileen, That’s awfully disheartening. It’s bad enough the teachers are too crunched for time to properly correct papers. It’s just as bad that the students aren’t inclined to learn.

    @Christine, Excellent idea! Another great solution. If teachers mark up the first paragraph, or even the first page, at least the students can get some idea of what they’re doing wrong. If this strategy was combined with Chad’s idea of reviewing common mistakes during lectures, teachers could save a lot of time and the students would still be able to learn. Awesome! Hopefully we get some teachers reading this!

  19. I think our education systems (both American and Australian) are in dire straits. I don’t remember learning any specific grammar in school at all. I failed ninth grade English but I have no idea why. I loved writing and was always frustrated when classes were filled with a teacher who spent 90% of class time yelling at students and 10% having us take meaningless notes from the board.

    Almost all I know of grammar and writing structure and rules was learnt post-school. Thankfully, we are given fantastic resources (e.g., this blog) and can continue our education without the flaws of the formal schooling system.

  20. Jaden says:

    Kudos for the most accurate reenactment of a conversation.

    I love everyone’s comments to you on this. And I love how well they all write! It is odd to see people using Caps and punctuation! on the Internet in a comments section.

    What a major topic of discussion to tackle!

    Becoming fluent in French is how I came to understand English grammar and big words.

  21. A. Werner says:

    As a high school English teacher, I’m working hard not to be reactive/defensive as I read this post and comments.

    Yes, we work hard. No, we are not always compensated in proportion with the work we do. For the most part, we do what we do because we care about kids and we want to give them the tools they need to be successful in the future. There are teachers who don’t use best practice to reach kids, just as there are people who aren’t great in any profession.

    Kids come in with lots of baggage, but also hidden brilliance. Our challenge as teachers is differentiating instruction (and grading!) for groups of kids with abilities and experiences that could spread from barely literate to extraordinarily gifted.

    I teach grammar in my classroom. Is it the focus? No. We work on analysis and writing as a whole–ideas, not just structure. For me, grammar is a means to an end (clear, concise, creative and correct communication), not an end itself.

  22. Elver says:

    If learning another language besides the native English is a great way to master English, then by that logic, would it not mean that foreigners who speak English as a second language would, on average, speak it better than someone who only knows English?

    If you also take into account the fact that the internet has broken down many barriers between countries, then would it not make sense to predict that in 10-20 years a large portion of United States bestsellers will be written by people who speak English as their second language?

    As the global culture becomes more and more English-centric, there’s less motivation for an English-speaking person to learn a second language, but more motivation for a non-English-speaking person to learn English as their second language. If knowing two languages dramatically increases your language skills and if the United States education system is as poor as it seems to be, then that prediction doesn’t seem very odd.

    So, yeah, writing will also be outsourced. Lovely 😛

  23. Writing is already outsourced. I’m an Australian (living in Australia) who often works for US publications. 😀 The ScreenWriter’s Strike has also tempted producers to look outside the US for alteratives. Thankfully, the opinion from writer’s about the strike is fairly universal. There may be some unloyal fish out there but they probably won’t be the quality writers needed for the brilliant work guild members usually produce.

  24. @Rebecca, I do think that there are plenty of writers out there who maybe learned the basics in school and through reading, but who purposefully pursue knowledge on their own. Despite all my reading and schooling, I still look things up all the time!

    @Jaden, Yep, that was our conversation alright! Heheh.

    @A. Werner, Thanks for sharing some of your teaching experience with us. Teaching is one of the most honorable and underrated professions in the world. The idea of developing a curriculum for a group of students ranging from brilliant to barely literate is one that disturbs me. I know this arrangement is not designed by the teachers, of course. It just seems like those students at either end of the spectrum are sure to lose. I’d love to hear more about that from a teacher’s perspective!

  25. @Elver, When I learned my native language, American English, I learned it organically as a small child. But when I learned French, it was methodical, examining nouns, verbs, conjugation, and sentence structure. The French, for example, say Je t’aime. I you like. We English speakers say I like you. I learned a lot about the structure of English through comparing it to a second language.

    No, I don’t think this means that foreigners who speak English as a second language will speak it better, but through learning English, they may come to better understand their own native language. Having said that, a long and arduous study of a foreign language could result in someone speaking the language better than natives do; I just don’t think it’s commonplace.

    As for best sellers… much of what makes them best sellers is their tie to the culture. Even if someone overseas masters the language, there is much about a culture that can only be absorbed though living within it. Sure, a foreigner could write a U.S. best seller (and many have) but there is more to writing than mastering a language.

    Anyone who knows two or more languages is at a clear advantage in more ways than one. The U.S. is putting itself at a great disadvantage by not mandating a second language starting early on in school. I’ve always felt that way, and it bothered me that there were no opportunities to learn foreign languages here in California until I reached eighth grade. Now, Spanish is spoken here just as much as English is, so shouldn’t all the kids be learning both languages? I think so.

    Outsourcing is a concern for all industries. Writing certainly is no exception.

    Thanks Elver, for great thought-provoking comments!

  26. @Rebecca, I’ve tried to write a few posts about the WGA strike, but other than pointing to the latest news, what’s there to say? We all know right from wrong, and the writers are (as usual) getting ripped off. How sickening that the originators of the material, the people who came up with the brilliant television plot twists, fantastic film characters, are so snubbed by the moguls.

    There’s nothing wrong with business. But there is something wrong when people are so driven by greed that financial gain drives their every decision to the point that they don’t care how their actions negatively impact others. We all need to be a little selfish now and then, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money, but for it to be your sole purpose in life? I just see that as a hollow existence.

    I’m afraid it’s an age-old dilemma. Reeks of feudalism, and not in a good way.

  27. Nicole says:

    I’ve never liked grammar.
    Maybe because the teachers in German schools overdo it?

    I guess I got the hang of it thanks to reading a lot. Sure not during school, but at least they tried. Hard ;).

    Having Etiquette lessons so you don’t look like a fool on your Prom?
    That’s just plain weird.
    Reminds me of some teachers we had when I did my “2 years job training school” – they came up with some pretty useless crap too ;).

  28. @Nicole, I think most people feel the way you do about grammar. In fact, many writers I meet seem to have a pretty relaxed attitude toward it. The problem is, this shows up in writing. I don’t think people need to stick to the rules 100% of the time, but I do believe that if you don’t know the rules, it shows.

    Yeah, the etiquette lessons were strange, and pretty useless. As far as high school goes, the most useful class I took was typing 😉

  29. I’m a teen, and from what I’ve seen from my English teacher so far, she has a large focus to grammar. She marked up all of our papers in pens for grammar, and grammar lessons take a large part of the class.

    But I guess it’s different for every teacher.

    • Beth MacKinney says:

      That may be, but there are several mistakes in your comment. I’m wondering if your teacher addressed these issues or not. (The problem is, if she does not address them, as a student you’re not likely to know without a separate point of reference. My advice is that you study language on your own as well. It will help.)

    • That is good to hear!

  30. I suppose i will be dating myself with this post, but I remember diagramming sentences. I attended a very small rural school and grammar was taught and every paper was graded, every mistake corrected. I was never good at diagramming. To be honest, even now if you ask me what a certain grammar part is or to diagram a sentence, I would have to look it up. The interesting thing is, I would usually get the sentence right. I just couldn’t say how. I don’t remember learning to read. My earliest age of recollection is 4 years old and at that time I was reading my 13 year old brother’s textbooks. I was a member of the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club and a very frequent visitor to the local library. I have always loved to read and I was a tutor in high school in the reading classes. In college I loved to write and majored in English Literature and Creative Writing. I loved it. My funding ran out and I always said I would go back and never did. I kept up with the reading, but back then, it was hard to get published and almost impossible to make a living at it. I listened to the well meaning folks that told me to quit living a pipe dream and get a real job. I worked in customer service for over 30 years and when I was forced into an early retirement, I felt like I’d just been released from prison. I could live my dream, to write full-time. I read up on the publishing industry, especially now for the digital age. One of the first things mentioned was to get involved in social media early. That is when I began my blog. I decided to write a review blog. Books were my passion. I wanted a niche among all the other review blogs, so I concentrated on reviews for debut authors. I am now expanding to include some of my experiences as a novice writer and hopefully to inspire the aspiring authors. I have seen firsthand the lack of grammar training. Many of them not only are not aware of proper grammar, but they have uploaded a first draft, with obviously no editing attempted. It is frightening to think that is what is getting published. I have run into some great stories too. I hope that the discerning reader doesn’t turn too cynical to give the indie author a chance. They aren’t all bad. I do suggest looking through the samples or the “look inside” option at Amazon to get a good idea of the writing style however, prior to buying.

  31. Beth MacKinney says:

    Here’s a quote from the article “The War Against Grammar” by Dr. David Mulroy, Professor Emeritus (Classics) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee:

    “At a public hearing, I recommended that high school seniors be required to identify the eight parts of speech in a selection of normal prose, expecting that such a modest and reasonable suggestion would be immediately embraced by all concerned…I found myself embroiled in controversy. I discovered that my suggestion ran directly counter to conventional wisdom among experts in K-12 education. As I went on to discover, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the nation’s leading professional group of English teachers opposed formal instruction in grammar. That the professional association of English teachers should issue a warning against the rigorous teaching of English grammar struck me as both ironic and symptomatic of a serious problem.”

    My husband and I chose to homeschool for many reasons, but I’ve never regretted it for the sake of English, science, math, and history. Today I taught objective complements to my daughter, who is in eighth grade. She asked why she has to diagram sentences. I explained that a diagram is like a picture of grammar. The better she understands how all the parts of the sentence work together, the better a communicator she will be. A diagram will help her do that.

    We graduated our first two daughters two years ago after going K-12 with them in homeschool. One is in the Air Force studying to be a nurse. The other has finished Bible school and is apprenticing in ministry. Although they’ve chosen different directions, they have both expressed thanks that we provided a rigorous English education for them. While I know that wherever they go and whatever they do, they’ll be well-equipped when it comes to language and writing, I’m concerned than many children going through schools today may not be able to say the same when they graduate.

  32. Manoj Juyal says:

    Hello Mellisa,

    I can relate to the statement – “Looking back, I realized that I hadn’t had a decent grammar lesson past fourth grade. My spelling and punctuation skills were largely inherited from the massive amounts of reading I did, so I didn’t need grammar lessons necessarily, but it sure would have been nice to have graduated high school knowing the difference between farther and further.”

    I would have been a far better writer than I’m now if only our English teachers had been more particular about teaching us the basics. I also used to read a lot, which helped enhance my writing skills.

  33. Heather Sanders says:

    I teach 3 writing classes in a local homeschool cooperative, and yes, I still use a red pen to “mark up” papers. One of them is for 3rd and 4th graders. It is highly energetic and “light”, with a sprinkling of grammar principles in each class. The other is for 5th and 6th graders. It is heavy on correct grammar and building strong sentences that we slowly move into paragraphs (Intro, supporting sentences, conclusion). Finally, a Paragraph Writing course, which teaches how to expand ideas into multiple paragraph papers, complete with solid Intros, transition sentences, and conclusions.

    This is the hardest I have worked in years. Kids fight against writing with as much passion as they embrace the things they love. I think good grammar is absent from education because it is hard work, and teachers’ minds are on job security. Today’s teachers are working diligently to keep their jobs by following all the ridiculous rules and regulations imposed on them, studying for the graduate courses they feel forced to take, and making sure their students score high on standardized tests. There is little to no time to tackle the construct of grammar and writing in the midst of all that mess.

  34. layta says:

    English is not my native language but as I moved to the US when I was 17, I had to take several ESOL courses before I could even think of going to College in a foreign country that spoke a language that I didn’t. After 6 months of intense ESOL courses both morning and evenings, I finally made it to College. My GMAT score in the math part was over 670 as maths are still the same everywhere, but unfortunately my verbal skills didn’t go past the 320 so I wasn’t able to start straight into a University.

    During my first year of college I was still required to take more ESOL courses that definitely allowed me to become a decent writer in this language and taught me all the grammar I needed to write fairly decent papers. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA from college and later on went to a public university to get my Bachelor’s degree for which I obtained a 3.93 GPA. I have an average IQ so it was not a matter of being intelligent. It was just a matter of enjoying what I was learning and really paying attention. I am so thankful for those English classes!

    As I went from one English course to another, my teachers would always use my papers as examples to the class because they were very well written. But this was obviously not very well taken by native classmates as they actually alienated me. They felt like it was not possible that a foreigner could write better papers than they did or have better grammar or just get better grades.

    Now, I am not talking about something I heard; this actually happened to me and instead of feeling proud for my work at the time, I actually felt embarrassed that people would hate me because a “hispanic” like me could write proper English. But they didn’t bother to try harder or ask themselves how to improve on their writing skills. Much less could they even think of asking somebody like me for help.

    My point is that I did get all the English instruction I needed and it was absolutely great to have the support from my teachers who gave me everything I needed to know from idioms to slang. I think if they have time to teach foreign college students these courses throughout their college education, they also should be able to keep teaching native students their own language as well. My education was not less complete or anything because of these courses. I took those English credits as part of my program and they counted towards my degrees, so I really think these should be endorsed more for native students.

    I find English a very structured language and it is pretty simple when you compare it to other languages so it really should not be that difficult for native speakers to learn it properly. I also speak Spanish (native language) and German and the grammar is a lot more complicated. The rules are not so simple to follow, but in English if you can remember the rule, it will pretty much always apply and it is very simple.

    • I’ve met many people for whom English is a second language and there are many elements of the language that they understand far better than native speakers because they didn’t absorb the language through families (who often do not use correct English). On the flip side, a lot of non-native speakers are unfamiliar with slang and colloquial words and phrases. I’ve seen that lead to some funny expressions!