A Case for More Grammar Instruction in Schools (And Less Standardized Testing)

“It really don’t matter how i put my words together, as long as you know what I am sayin’. If it can be read allowed in the same way that i would say it. No big deal. Its sorta like talking on a piece of paper right? Too think I should be graded on how I put my real thoughts on paper shouldnt matter to you and I.”

It’s a big deal.

Grammar matters. So do mechanics, punctuation, and usage. Yes, those are all different things.

Grammar encompasses the use of clauses and phrases and how the parts of speech should interact.

Mechanics involves the rules of capitalization, numerals, spelling, and other “rule-related” items.

Punctuation involves all of those marks we use to denote sound, pace, pauses, etc.

Usage refers to obeying the current rules for all of the aforementioned because rules change. Think about using an apostrophe + “s” after a singular noun that ended with “s” already in the old days. We do not really do that anymore.

Imagine you are writing a college admission essay for your top choice and when the admissions board reads your application the errors stand out more than your character.

It matters.

Imagine how many human resource managers look at resumes and automatically trash the ones submitted by candidates who commit too many errors.

It matters.

Imagine sending out wedding invitations and something is misspelled.

It matters, and it costs money.

Please do not misunderstand that I truly believe the written word and the spoken word are actually two different mediums that use similar vocabulary. However, communicating effectively on paper and through verbiage requires a firm understanding of audience and voice. Both of those are rooted in knowing the basic rules of the language we know as American English.

To be honest, it is hard to place blame on a student’s lack of control over the conventions of standard American English when it is not emphasized as much as it used to be. I still have thoughts of diagramming sentences in middle school for hours on end through exhaustive repetition. I loathed every minute of it then.

I am grateful for it every minute now.


When I talk to my students (who will be writing those college admission essays within the next calendar year), I tell them that learning grammar, usage, mechanics, and punctuation (GUMP) is like learning what’s “under the hood of the car.” If you are going to drive a car, it might help to know how the car actually runs in case something happens.

Yet something has happened when it pertains to teaching GUMP in schools, and it has become an uncomfortable situation. When students graduate from high school and enter college or the workforce, their use of language both verbally and on paper becomes an instant gauge by which others measure them.

If I asked my students “What are the parts of speech?” most would not know them. There are eight. I could ask them, “How many tenses of verbs are there?” They might be surprised that there are more than three – many more.

It becomes easy to pass judgement on schools based on those observations, and I am going to make a claim that it is not the fault of teachers and schools. Rather it is the fault of too much standardized testing that measures how many circles were correctly filled.

When the current age of standardized testing started with the No Child Left Behind mandate from President George W. Bush, the amount of tests that students faced in schools increased dramatically. The school year was not extended. Students did not take fewer classes, but the amount of “assessments” given to amass quantifiable data began to take more of teachers and students’ time.

The result was more of “teaching to the test” and preparing for evaluations. What is not on the test, therefore, should not be taught because how a student or teacher is measured came from test results.

When I taught exclusively freshmen in high school, I went through a period of time where I would be aghast that my students had such little control over grammar, usage, mechanics, and punctuation in their very short essays.

I then learned that it was not the fault of their middle school teachers; it was the fault of the system they were forced to teach under, one that was stipulated by standardized tests. Try dealing with the End-of-Course testing that encompass grades 6-8 and you will get a quick understanding.

Since my time in the days of less standardized testing, exercises like those long, repetitive adventures in sentence diagramming have become a thing of the past. Writing longer compositions have become less frequent because standardized writing tests really are simple short answer questions that tend to be assessed by formulaic analysis and simplistic rubrics. In some cases, those “essays” are actually graded by computers.

Not humans. (That is an effective fragment -at least I hope so).

A student’s experiences in how others use language have become a series of short quick interactions that take shallow roots in students’ minds as more and more schools play with the idea of reading select passages from novels rather than exploring entire texts.

All to save time to allow for test preparations and make sure boxes are checked when “covering” the curriculum.

Too many tests in a little amount of time creates the culture where we focus only on bits and pieces of language rather than letting students explore it from the inside out.

One learns to swim by being in the water. One learns to play a sport by practicing. One learns a craft by immersing himself in it.

Language is the same. We as a standardized-test crazed culture do not allow students to have those deep, time-consuming experiences in the fundamentals of language. If they did, then they would have more confidence in not only what they said, but how they said it.

They would understand how to manipulate diction, imagery, details, and syntax for specific audiences. They would know how to differentiate the spoken word from the written word.

They would have more voice.

Human resource managers pick up on voice as do college admissions counselors.

Even people like you and me. Not you and I.

3 thoughts on “A Case for More Grammar Instruction in Schools (And Less Standardized Testing)

  1. I loved loved loved diagramming sentences! I remember really complex sentences taking up a whole page in my composition notebook – and I would feel such a sense of accomplishment when I completed it. 🙂 It distresses me that there seems to be no time to develop these skills in the classroom. In my professional life, I’ve participated in resume reviews … and I’ll tell you that if you can’t string a few coherent sentences together, you’re automatically out. You have to be able to communicate in written word. Sadly, I believe I’m a dying breed.


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