Old School, New School: Teaching English

I often write about our Charlotte Mason-inspired homeschool and how much living books have added to our studies.    We were introduced to this approach long before we began homeschooling, and I believe that was the hand of God.   Yet, there are 1-2 places within our school where I deliberately deviate from Miss Mason’s advice.   One of those places is in how I teach English grammar. 

Early in our journey, we began with a very user-unfriendly online program that modeled parts of Miss Mason’s approach to teaching grammar; that program lasted a semester or less.   We then moved through a couple of other programs before I realized that I simply needed something more traditional to feel comfortable teaching this subject.   After reviewing several grammar programs, we found one that met both my objectives and my budget in Rod and Staff. 

In grade school, I learned parts of speech individually.    I completed more exercises in punctuation and sentence structure than I can remember.    And, I learned to diagram.   I loved diagramming; I actually drew each line with a ruler, laying out my disssected sentences like an architect goes to work on a blueprint.

Though some might rejoice at the demise of “old school” English class, it saddens me.   Feel free to disagree, but looking at the work of many of my college students, I recognize that sentence diagramming has value.   Once I tried to talk to them in general about improving their writing.    I attempted to focus in on run-on sentencing.   I opened my would-be lecture with, “If you diagram your sentence, and it looks like this…” and I proceeded to begin to draw what looked like downtown Philly on the board.   When I turned and saw that over 75% of the class was looking at me as if I’d just landed from Mars, I knew my example had missed its mark.

I believe that diagramming gives you an “eye” for a sentence.   It teaches you how words can interact with one another to create something that is clear and meaningful.     You can assess how the parts of the sentence function together to give each other power and poetry, all at the same time.     Finally, diagramming allows you to fix sentences relatively easily; you can take the pieces apart and reshape them as a Lego master reorganizes parts to create something unique and beautiful.

“New school” English programs teach sentence structure through reading and imitating of styles.    I suppose this approach also has merit.    I’ll admit that, because of the exposure to good books at early ages, none of our kids have struggled with identifying complete sentences versus fragments.   I’m also familiar with the phrase “good readers make good writers;” I use it with our kids all the time.   But my goal is not that they imitate the words of others, but that they develop their own elegance.

Where we do rely on reading versus a traditional method is in our spelling.   Again, we have done different things over the years, but spelling has never worked for us as its own subject.     Even when I attended grade school, I never figured out, besides the pride of attaining a perfect score, what was the point of a spelling list.   In this area, our approach is more Mason-like: we use a portable dry erase board to list words that are unfamiliar in our reading, we look them up and talk about them in the context of what we read.    Spelling then becomes a combination of memorization and repetition in the reading.   

Even Hollywood touches on the value of developing a command of words in context rather than on isolated lists.    In the inspirational Akeelah and the Bee, Laurence Fishburne’s character, Dr. Larabee, has the main character read the works of Martin Luther King and W.E.B. DuBois in teaching Akeelah (played by Keke Palmer) to understand how words can reach people and move them to action.    In one exchange, Dr. Larabee asks her,  “Where do big words come from?”

Akeelah replies “Little words.”

Larabee builds upon her observation.   “…And there are tons more for you to learn. There are Greek ones. There are Latin ones. French ones…” .

No, Hollywood doesn’t determine my teaching methodology, but this scene is one that I replay often mentally as we focus on language studies and quality literature rather than spelling lists and rote memorization. 

A few years back, while teaching for a local homeschool store, I overheard a conversation between a couple of other teachers.    They spoke of how certain skills were outdated, and how certain ways of teaching subjects were no longer necessary.   Diagramming made their list of antiquated methodologies for teaching students good writing skills.   Yet when I read the numerous articles that speak of how poorly today’s children communicate on paper, and when I see the many good-education-going-to-Hades-in-a-handbasket stories on radio and television, I am convinced that my “old school” diagramming is doing more good than harm.

What do you think?   Either way, happy teaching, my friends.

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