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.
The National Council of Teachers of English, whose directives shape curriculum decisions nationwide, has quietly reversed its long opposition to grammar drills, which the group had condemned in 1985 as "a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing."
Now, even the sentence diagram, long the symbol of abandoned methodology, is allowed, if not quite endorsed, in the classrooms of Fairfax and Howard and other high-performing school systems throughout the region. To diagram a sentence is to deconstruct it as if it were a math problem, with the main noun, verb and object written on a horizontal line and their various modifiers attached with diagonals.
"Our time has come," said Amy Benjamin, who presides over a council committee that concerns itself with grammar. In 17 years, her Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar has evolved from "kind of a revolutionary cell" into standard-bearers.
The nascent movement to restore overt grammar instruction began subtly. A 2002 council publication reasserted the importance of "knowing about grammar" and encouraged teachers to "experiment with different approaches," including traditional drills and diagrams.
Grammarians are regarded as a rather grumpy lot. They decorate their classrooms with quotation marks rather than quotations, brood for hours over the staff memo that misuses the contraction "it's" and ply students with unpardonable puns. Greiner, in a recent lesson, elicited groans by invoking Santa's workshop while discussing the subordinate clause.
Of the 26 sophomores in his Honors English II class, six had diagrammed sentences before they met him, evidence that his brand of grammar has not reached much of the Washington region. Greiner, it should be noted, does not diagram; he prefers livelier methods.
For a half-hour one recent morning, students repaired broken sentences, one after another, an exercise with all the glamour of a linguistic assembly line. When one young woman read right past the proper noun "southwest" without stopping to capitalize, Greiner politely reminded the class: This very word, or something like it, is bound to show up on Virginia's Standards of Learning exams in spring.
At the beginning of every year, Greiner gives his class a diagnostic test of 10th-grade grammar; most fail. Last year's students raised their class average from 44 on the diagnostic test to 73 on the year-end test -- still only a D+ on the school's grading scale, but an improvement.
"Other teachers in this county say, 'Fix the writing, and the grammar will come along.' Not me," Greiner said.
Lindsay Vernon, a 16-year-old junior, took Greiner's class last year. She rates herself "one of, like, three" kids in her Advanced Placement English course who know high school-level grammar.
Candice Gutierrez, a 17-year-old senior, took Greiner's course and earned 11 out of 12 on the new SAT writing test last year. Her friends got fives and sixes.
"I come across a lot of people, even in AP, who make a lot of dumb mistakes, like with comma placement," said Zach Gulsby, 16, a junior who took Greiner's course last year.
An informal survey of Virginia and Maryland school systems suggests that grammar education is reemerging slowly. The Loudoun County school system offers an annual summer staff development session called Grammar for English Teachers, tailored to teach the basics to teachers who didn't learn them in college. "It usually fills up pretty quickly," said Carrie Perry, supervisor of English language arts in Loudoun.
The Howard County school system "has returned to the importance of teaching grammar" in the past two or three years, said Zeleana Morris, a language arts coordinator.
The revolution might never reach many classrooms. The newest English teachers are products of a grammarless era, unprepared to distinguish an appositive from an infinitive.
"What you have is a generation of teachers from the early to mid-'70s who don't know grammar, who never learned it," said Benjamin, an author of the national council's publication. "We have armies of teachers, elementary teachers and English teachers, who don't have the language to talk about language. It's kind of their dirty little secret."