Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why Learn the Parts of Speech

If someone can tell me or point me to an explanation of why children need to learn the parts of speech I’d appreciate it.

I’m having one of those moments when I’m wondering when learning English and when hoping to teach my children to be good communicators with the written word (in English) what part does knowing the parts of speech play? I’m suspecting it plays no part. Well one part could be to provide a structure for a teacher to discuss writing with the students. For example when correcting a grammatical error the teacher could say “you used too many adjectives”.

I want my children to speak well, but knowing parts of speech I don’t think has contributed to that skill either.

About half way through this upcoming year I am going to need a new curriculum for my sixth grader for English grammar. Right now I am researching the options. I want something that teaches sentence diagramming so we can continue where we left off with the last curriculum. Too bad this curriculum does not go to the next grade level.

A homeschooling mom I know told me she hadn’t planned to teach English grammar, except perhaps as a fast study in about fourth grade because she didn’t think it was useful. She began teaching her child Latin using a homeschooling curriculum. The mother did not know Latin. The mom said that knowing grammar was key in the ability to learn Latin. She then felt grammar was useful and began teaching it to her child.

Back a number of years ago I had the image of my children learning Latin, how it would help them on their SATs and would be useful in their lives. I know that my knowing some Latin which I learned in a medical terminology course has helped me in my private life when dealing with medical stuff, such as hearing a new diagnosis.

Confession: we have never gotten around to starting Latin. Yes, I researched the Latin homeschooling curriculums. Yes, I bought one. We have been too busy to begin using it. I have had no motivation to spend a long time figuring out how to use it. Since I don’t know Latin I am intimidated at the idea of teaching it. There, I admitted it. Note that as yet another imperfection of mine (some people I know have remarked that I only blog ‘the positive’ and some suspect I think I’m perfect and that being perfect qualifies me as a person worthy of sharing my thoughts on a blog).

When I went to public school in the progressive fad years (the 1970s), somehow I escaped a couple of trends. One was that I was taught to read with phonics from first through third grade (I have my completed worksheets to prove it). Second in Language Arts we learned English grammar including sentence diagramming. I recall still learning English Grammar in sixth grade but my memory does not recall if it went beyond sixth grade. I remember enjoying sentence diagramming; it was fun to pick apart a sentence and to organize the parts by following a set outline. I have no clue what parts of the content I learned helped my general knowledge base to contribute to the writing abilities I have today. Could it be that learning a lot of English grammar helped build a foundation which I later built upon?

A friend in my town tells me they are not learning parts of speech in the public schools here. Despite my town getting high Connecticut Mastery Test scores (the standardized test used in Connecticut public schools) and despite my town’s schools ranking very high in the ranking of schools across the state, not much English grammar is taught.

A friend who started homeschooling last year whose children both tested very high on the CMTs and got excellent grades found out when they began homeschooling that the kids were never taught English grammar. (The kids were in sixth and fourth grade.) Both parents were shaken as they had been told for years, and believed what the schools said about their education program being top notch.

Honestly in my own writing, I suspect that knowing the names of the parts of speech is not helping me write. Further evidence is the fact that I have forgotten the names of the more difficult parts of speech. As I homeschool my children using a Language Arts curriculum I am re-learning long-forgotten parts of speech. Sentence diagramming, while fun to have done in public school, leaves me wondering what the purpose was. I also have forgotten how to diagram sentences and the homeschooling curriculum is re-teaching me as I teach my own children.,

This is on my mind as I am making homeschooling plans for this upcoming year. I am including these topics in our family’s scope and sequence but I’m asking myself why I am bothering. I thought this information was somewhere in the book ‘The Well Trained Mind’ but so far I can’t find where it is buried (the book is so comrphensive that sometimes information that I know is in there eludes me). If you can clue me in please do, I’d really appreciate it.

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8 comments:

christinethecurious said...

I've been wondering about that too, being a little agnostic on diagramming.

Susan Wise Bauer posits that a student who can diagram sentences will be able to find her own awkward sentences and fix them. A sentence that is difficult to diagram is a sentence that is difficult to understand; so either the logic is faulty, or the style is clumsy. Hopefully a student will be able to apply this to her own work? (This is in her book "Writing with Ease") My mother to this day will diagram Bible verses to figure out tricky passages, especially in Pauline Epistles.

Since SWB is a writing instructor, and we enjoy her writing, my plan is to diagram sentences next year, taking her word for it that it helps. We'll see if it helps us.

Meanwhile my mom teaches my older boy his Latin. Grammar and parts of speech make much more sense in someone else's language with word endings to figure out than in our own. In fact, linguistics seems much less arbitrary than grammar to me! Especially as it's outsourced to Mom, and not my direct concern.

-Christine in Massachusetts

Sonia said...

I stumbled across your blog and was glad I found it! I am going to be starting my 2 children, 6 and 9, in homeschool this year. I would like to have contact with other moms for support on any questions and you seem very knowledgable! I would like to add your link to my blog if you are alright with that?

Karen said...

Sorry, no help here on reasons to diagram.. I think there are people who like like diagramming sentences and then there are the rest of us. I can see the use of it if one is studying linguistics, but not for the general writer.

I did learn to diagram in 7th grade. I used it for the homework and the tests, and then never, ever touched it again. I wondered then why we had to learn it, and still haven't found any useful answer. It certainly wasn't needed for any of my standardized testing.

I don't think learning to diagram a sentence improved my writing. Even at the time, I saw it as a set of directions to be followed to get a grade. No problem to get the grade - the rules were straight forward enough,
but I didn't see any relation to the process of writing. So, I did it, got my A, then stopped.

Learning to listen to my own writing has been a more useful tool for me. People make all sorts of mistakes in written communication that they don't make when they speak. Try having the boys read their writing out loud, or you read it to them. Odds are even at an early age, they'll hear many of the mistakes.

An example of listening: People who get confused by who and whom usually find that they don't make that mistake when speaking using he and him. So when in doubt, substitute for who or whom and read it out loud. Most people find the correct use readily apparent. (I use he and him simply because the forms are so similar to who and whom.) Do this enough times and the check becomes automatic.

Another very useful tool is to learn to have others read or listen to your writing. After all, the goal is communication. Sometimes you know what you want to say so well that you don't see your own lack of clarity. (Or you've been over it so many times that you miss the errors a new set of eyes catches on the first read through!)

Learning to accept someone else constructively questioning you is a great skill to have. So is learning to do so for another person.

Don't worry. If they find they want to learn to diagram later, they'll have the skills and the motivation to do so. :)


I agree that knowing the names of at least the basic parts of speech is useful as a common ground for discussion. I don't know that it needs to be done formally though.

MadLibs are a great tool for nouns (proper and common), verbs, adjectives, adverbs, possesives, plurals, and the occasional other thing. Add in pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections and you've got a good foundation for parts of speech in a way that most people can connect to.


If you don't like the style of the commercially available MadLibs, make your own, using Project Gutenberg or other sources. Doing it this way, you can customize for areas you want to emphasize.

I know you've had suggestions for Bravewriter for other aspects of writing. BW teaches grammar as part of writing rather than separately. Julie uses Nitty Gritty Grammar or More Nitty Gritty Grammar as reference books.

Another fun way to work on sentence building skills is the game "You've Been Sentenced." In the game, each player draws cards and tries to make a grammatically correct, defensible sentence out of the cards in her hand. Each card has 5 words or phrases, worth varying points. There are also wild cards.

The rules give lots of variations for play, which is a good start for coming up with ideas to modify the game for players of varying ability levels. In addition to the basic game, there are supplement packs of word cards, including Readers' Digest Word Power set, sports, and science fiction and fantasy themes.

For any grammar weenies: Any grammatical errors above are totally mine. It's a comment on a blog and I can live with it. So there. :)

Keli said...

I am in total agreement and clueless as well.
I also used The Well Trained Mind just before my older son started high school. It provided a wealth of resources, but I found some of them overwhelming.
I feel that these details, such as diagramming and knowledge of proper parts of sentences, detract from the joy of learning. I went over the parts of speech every year, expanding along the way. We did diagramming too, but I truly believe it did little to progress their knowledge, understanding or love of the written word. Reading did that for them.

christinemm said...

Sonia, Yes you can link to my blog! You usually don't need to get permission to link to any blog, just link away!

Thanks for stopping by.

christinemm said...

Thanks everyone for the comments!

It is so interesting to hear everyone's thoughts!

Margo said...

"Honestly in my own writing, I suspect that knowing the names of the parts of speech is not helping me write."

Just memorizing parts of speech may not help (except on ACT or other exams), but UNDERSTANDING the parts of speech and where they belong in a sentence allows a person to write sentences correctly.

Incorrect sentence structure labels a person as 'less educated'- something I do not want for my own children. I want to give them every tool they may need to go anywhere and everywhere they desire in the future.

That being said, I will go on and tell you that I found your blog while looking up grammar sites for my own use. Like you, I never really saw the need for grammar when I was younger, and made it through college with only basic grammar knowledge (and got straight-A's).

I find it embarrassing that my high school aged exchange students know more about English grammar than I do.

Now, at age 50, I am learning a new language (Russian) and have found that without a thorough knowledge of English grammar, it is VERY difficult to learn grammar in another language. I have had to put my Russian lessons on hold while I learn what I should have learned as a youth- and I have to say it is a lot easier to learn such things when you are young.

So, my viewpoint is that learning grammar is essential to understanding our own language, and if we do not learn our own language well, what if we desire to learn another language in the future?

And what will our writing say about us now?

Not understanding our grammar puts limits on our children- something they cannot afford to have in our changing world.

Sandra said...

I had a pastor that was a missionary in Holland for several years. When he tried to learn Dutch, his teacher finally told him, "Go home and learn your own language (grammar) before you try to learn mine!" He went back and re-learned proper grammar, then became fluent in Dutch as well. That alone inspired me to make sure my kids have a good grounding in grammar, especially as they are learning Latin this year, then plan on picking up a different language apiece next year.