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On Bad Grammar and Advanced English Courses

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

Your March 12 column ["Proper Grammar Is Not a Prerequisite for AP English"], about two students who broke rules of usage while speaking in class, made me spit nails. What is the point of an "advanced" course (for college placement or otherwise) if the students in it aren't required to have previously mastered the basics?

No, it's not strictly necessary to have learned standard English grammar before studying Shakespeare or Morrison. But it is necessary to learn standard English grammar, and that's something a distressing proportion of our high school students -- and even those in college -- have not achieved. They should be required to learn the basics before being allowed to take any advanced courses. It's very simple: You have to learn to walk before you can run.

And if basic (non-AP) classes are classes in which, as you said, "they are not asked to learn very much," then maybe the school systems should concentrate on improving those classes instead of pushing non-gifted, non-advanced students into advanced classes. In the case of English, particularly, they should be "asked to learn" (required to learn would be better) basic grammar first, and only then allowed to study Shakespeare or Morrison or creative writing or business writing or anything else.

Lynda Meyers

Arlington

Many readers shared your frustration, but I wager that very few of them have been teachers. You should talk to educators who work with average students before making up your mind. What is most important in learning, they will tell you, is that each student make significant progress each year. By "mastering the basics," do you mean knowing them all? Few of us ever achieve that level of knowledge. So where do you draw the line? Teachers will tell you that as long as students have the skills to progress -- particularly the ability to listen to, read and understand new material -- you should let them move forward, while working on their weaknesses.

Dear Extra Credit:

I insist that my teenage children use proper grammar at home and complete, properly punctuated sentences when they text me. They dislike my being a "grammar Nazi," but both of them have told me on several occasions that they are better at grammar and spelling than many of their classmates, even those who are in honors or Advanced Placement classes with them, because they've had the practice.

Nicoline Smits

Ellicott City

Exactly right. This is an important part of parenting. But I suspect you won't forbid them from taking AP English if they stumble over syntax.

Dear Extra Credit:

You pointed out that an advanced English class can motivate students to develop stronger mechanics, which is, of course, true. I think it's also worth noting that the goal of reading and writing instruction is not to educate students out of their native dialects but to afford them fluency and confidence in a variety of linguistic codes.

We don't expect white suburban students to work out their ideas during a class discussion in the formal register they'd use to write their essays. Readers who look askance at kids who speak African American vernacular English in class, and who assume they therefore can't code-switch and speak or write standard English when they choose, need to spend more time with high-achieving urban students.

Lelac Almagor

D.C. English teacher

Quite right. People of all ethnicities, even we Irish Americans, enjoy our incorrect and ungrammatical indulgences. They give conversation much of its flavor (just visit Boston). One nice thing about AP is that the students are judged by exams graded by independent experts who have no idea where their ancestors came from and have no incentive to overlook mistakes.

Dear Extra Credit:

English is a very difficult language, and we are all still learning it. In that AP English column you said, "I worry more about us worrying so much about preparation." When I learned English many years ago, I was taught that a gerund requires the possessive case of a pronoun, and I would have used "our" instead of "us." Maybe that rule has been repealed in the past 60 years, but it still bothers me to see what I consider the wrong pronoun.

Ruth P. Doak

Silver Spring

You are so right. I apologize. But it buttresses my point. My editors and I were good English students and have made a living with words. But we still mess up. You told me on the phone you found another mistake of mine more recently. I don't think banning me from AP English will help. In fact, I could really use that course.

Dear Extra Credit:

Cassandra Rosado asserted in the March 12 column that requiring a foreign language in high school is a waste of time and resources. I have been teaching Latin and French in a public high school for nine years. I studied both in high school and continued the languages in college. I then entered the Army and retired after 23 years of service. I have traveled around the world for pleasure and business. I know firsthand how being familiar with the culture, including the language, of the country you are visiting makes the visit more pleasant.

Of course, you can find English speakers around the world. And much of the Internet is translated into English. But if you want to travel or work in politics, international law or business, a second language is extremely useful. Latin and Greek are useful in law and medicine. French, German and Japanese are great for business and science. Learning any foreign language increases a student's knowledge of English.

Elizabeth Cunningham

Manassas

I agree. Well said. Thank goodness they didn't make us learn gerunds in Chinese 101.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail extracredit@washpost.com.

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