Dear Homeroom:

Your discussion (Oct. 21) of grammar instruction (or, more precisely, the lack of such instruction) struck a nerve.

I grew up in a small town in South Dakota where public school was the only option. I had two wonderful English teachers, one in junior high school (as it was then called) and one in high school, who were strict grammarians. We regularly diagramed sentences and studied the parts of speech--it was simply part of the curriculum. In their combined 23 years of schooling in Montgomery County, my children have diagramed sentences only once each, to the best of my recollection. Much of their knowledge of the parts of speech has come from discussions here at home, around the dinner table.

I firmly believe that by learning grammar, students learn discipline, logical thinking, proper speaking, more creative ways of writing and have an advantage in learning a foreign language. A weak grammatical foundation leads not only to sloppy speech and writing, but probably contributes to a poor perception of our society by other nations. In my experience, those who have learned English in other countries (both English and non-English speaking) are often appalled at the poor speech and writing they encounter here.

Sarah Fleischer

Bethesda

Dear Homeroom:

I've long felt that grammar instruction has been sadly neglected in middle and secondary schools over the last decade or two. This suspicion is fueled by what I see in the classroom at the University of Maryland, where I've been teaching an editing course (mostly to sophomores and juniors) for the last 10 years as an adjunct professor. These otherwise bright collegians seem constantly baffled by the demands of grammar, and that's a pity. I can't afford to spend lots of time teaching noun-pronoun agreement and the difference between "its" and "it's."

I always begin the semester by asking for a show of hands to this query: How many of you learned to diagram sentences in middle school or junior high? The response is minimal--perhaps three or four (in a class of 18) most semesters.

Jay P. Goldman

Silver Spring

Dear Homeroom:

During the period that my children have been attending Montgomery County elementary and middle schools (since 1990), grammar studies have not been emphasized. I believe that this is related to their exposure to the "whole language" approach, where students were encouraged to express themselves using "magic spelling" and to not worry about sentence construction, paragraphs, punctuation etc. I believe that this has created a group of children who, although they may be in honors classes, still cannot spell or write a decent paragraph without a tremendous amount of assistance from their parents.

Geoffrey Lilja

Bethesda

The lack of focused, systematic grammar instruction that you have all noticed is because teachers are told not to teach grammar--at least, not too much grammar.

In Montgomery County's curriculum statement of Reading/Language Arts, available at www.mcps.k12.md.us/ curriculum/english/, I saw only one cursory mention of grammar. It says that students are expected to use "conventions (e.g., grammar, usage, capitalization)" in their writing. But it does not spell out how students are to reach that goal. In a separate grammar document sent to county teachers, the main admonition is to make sure teachers don't teach too much grammar. "Sometimes, when direct instruction in grammar concepts seems appropriate, 'less is more' should be the rule," the document says.

The grammar document summarizes its instructions to teachers as follows:

"Grammar instruction should avoid the following: long periods of repetitive grammar drills; extensive diagraming of sentences."

No definition of "long periods" or "extensive" is given.

This question of grammar instruction is just one in a series of issues that get played out in a larger conflict. That conflict, which exists throughout the field of education, is between those who advocate teaching kids the underlying structure of a subject in a systematic, explicit way vs. those who believe in immersing children in the content so that the children figure out the underlying structure.

In English, or, as it is now called, reading/language arts, this phenomenon plays out in the younger grades in the argument over phonics vs. whole language. Phonics is a code word for clear, explicit, systematic instruction in sounds and spellings--in other words, the underlying structure of words. Whole language refers to a philosophy that holds that surrounding children with interesting literature will lead them to a natural mastery of the written word. Part of the whole language philosophy is to encourage children to read and write without worrying about the "mechanics" such as spelling, sentence structure and so on, out of the belief that such strictures kill children's interest and creativity.

After brouhahas over falling reading scores prompted huge amounts of research, reading scientists and leading educators have come to a consensus. They say that if our aim is to make sure every child knows how to read, then the best instruction combines both systematic, explicit phonics as well as exposure to and immersion in the best children's literature. In other words, whole language advocates brought something important to the debate, but explicit instruction in the underlying structure of words is demonstrably essential for some and probably most children.

The same issue of structure vs. meaningful content gets played out later in children's schooling over the issue of whether to teach grammar, but because the issue hasn't had the attention that phonics instruction has, little good research has been done. The question is whether children need to learn the component parts and underlying structure of language in an explicit, systematic way or whether such instruction is unnecessary because children will acquire that knowledge naturally as part of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

In Montgomery County, the official curriculum leans toward the latter view.

To help think through this issue, I spoke with one of the leading experts on how people learn language, Marilyn Jager Adams, a cognitive and developmental psychologist who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University.

One of the confusions that surrounds this issue, she said, is the lack of distinction between oral and written language. Oral syntax, she said, is something we are "innately wired to learn," and thus needs little explicit instruction. "However," she added, "the syntax of written text is different from oral language." Adams's example of this is: "I say, 'I want a hot dog and a Coke with mustard.' But no one puts mustard on a Coke."

Most children, Adams said, need explicit instruction in written syntax--or grammar--in order to understand how words are put together to convey meaning, particularly if that meaning is subtle or nuanced. As Adams said, "Kids who enjoy school learn lots" carries a different meaning--because of the sentence's grammar--than "Kids who learn lots enjoy school." In fact, she argued, it is impossible to learn logic, and thus begin real study in the mathematics and sciences, without a deep understanding of grammar.

The funny thing is that when a subject is really important, we in this country know exactly how to teach in order to produce the best practitioners in the world, and we don't get mired in these kinds of arguments over structure vs. content. Take, for example, basketball.

Just about all basketball coaches can produce passable players--along with a few stars--out of just about any group of kids they are given. Everyone knows that you need to work very carefully on the underlying structure of basketball by teaching individual skills such as passing, dribbling and shooting, while encouraging kids to use those skills in scrimmages and games. Those first games are a bit wild and uncontrolled, but as the players hone individual skills and smoothly integrate them into their play, their skills and passions merge, and sooner or later you have real basketball players.

No one would ever argue that kids should only do skills drill. And anyone who argued that ballplayers shouldn't work on fundamentals because such practice destroys their passion and creativity would be laughed off the court. Of course, there are some very talented kids who don't need much in the way of skills drills, but even Michael Jordan spent enormous amounts of time working on each individual skill that he put together so masterfully.

If we took English instruction as seriously as we take basketball instruction, I bet we'd figure all this out pretty quickly.

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St. Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com