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Clauses and Commas Make a Comeback

Westfield High School English teacher and grammar guru Mike Greiner has a particular brand of teaching: the one SAT administrators say they like.
Westfield High School English teacher and grammar guru Mike Greiner has a particular brand of teaching: the one SAT administrators say they like. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006

Mike Greiner teaches grammar to high school sophomores in half-hour lessons, inserted between Shakespeare and Italian sonnets. He is an old-school grammarian, one of a defiant few in the Washington region who believe in spending large blocks of class time teaching how sentences are built.

For this he has earned the alliterative nickname "Grammar Greiner," along with a reputation as one of the tougher draws in the Westfield High School English department.

Or, as one student opined in a sonnet he wrote, "Mr. Greiner, I think you're torturing us."

Greiner, 43, teaches future Advanced Placement students at the Chantilly school. Left on their own to decide where to place a comma, "they'll get it right about half of the time," he said. "But half is an F."

Ten or 20 years ago, Greiner might have been ostracized for his views or at least counseled to keep them to himself. Grammar lessons vanished from public schools in the 1970s, supplanted by a more holistic view of English instruction. A generation of teachers and students learned grammar through the act of writing, not in isolated drills and diagrams.

Today, Greiner is encouraged, even sought out. Direct grammar instruction, long thought to do more harm than good, is welcome once more.

Several factors -- most notably, the addition of a writing section to the SAT college entrance exam in 2005 -- have reawakened interest in Greiner's methods.

Nationwide, the Class of 2006 posted the lowest verbal SAT scores since 1996. That was the year the test was recalibrated to correct for a half-century decline in verbal performance.

Gaston Caperton, the College Board president, has lamented the scarcity of grammar and composition course work in public schools. In surveys, not quite two-thirds of students said they had studied grammar by the time they took the 2005 SAT.

Those concerns, and a growing consensus among scholars that many high school graduates "can't write well enough to get a passing grade from a professor on a paper," drove the addition of a third section to the SAT, upending decades of balance between reading and math, said Ed Hardin, a content specialist at the College Board.

The new section introduced a long-form essay and -- less publicized -- a series of multiple-choice responses that test how well students can assemble and disassemble sentences.

"We're interested in writing at the sentence level, at the phrase level, at the word level," Hardin said.


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