As an Essentials tutor, mothers often ask me, “Why do we have to teach so much grammar?” Many of us graduated from college without being able to define “object complement,” so why would we expect our fourth graders to do so?
First and foremost, we’re preparing our children to read and understand complicated literature like the Declaration of Independence, Shakespeare’s plays, and the many forms of poetry. Without an understanding of grammar, it can be difficult to pick out the subject and verb and find the main idea of a long or unusual sentence. The American founding documents were written during a time when grammar was taught just as we teach it in Essentials, and most Americans could comfortably read and understand those important papers. However, today, we find that most people can’t accurately summarize the Preamble to the United States Constitution. If we can’t understand our Constitution, how can we defend our liberties? If we can’t understand the depth of pathos and heroism in the Iliad, how can we raise our sons to be heroic men?
Another benefit of grammar is the ability to write eloquently. The modernists really convinced us that decoration is of no value and only the things that “do work” are of value. In architecture, the modernists stripped off front porches and peaked roofs because they served no “function” in the sense of a place to store cabbages. They removed anything that seemed decorative. In writing, we also saw a shift to “function” becoming more highly valued than “form.” A modern writing text covers: “eliminating unnecessary words,” “avoiding the use of qualifiers,” and “preferring the standard to the offbeat.” In contrast, an 1889 text covers: “the finer principles of literary taste, fancy, allusion, and the subtle music of rhythm.”* Of course, you only need that kind of language if you have something important to communicate-something more than writing a manual explaining how to work the DVD player. Will your children have something important to communicate? I sure hope so. I’m counting on their generation knowing and communicating freedom, responsibility, and honor in politics, government and education.
The third benefit of grammar studies is the brain workout. The grammar stage can be represented by flashcards which are separate items we input into memory. This is the focus of CC’s Foundations classes, and of course, we love using the CC Foundations flash cards. The dialectic stage can be represented by charts which show the relationships between items and help us understand how they work together. This will develop the skill of sorting, relating, and understanding those individual items they are memorizing. In Essentials, students learn to parse a sentence- identifying the relationships of words and all the tenses, moods and other defining details of each word. They also learn to diagram each sentence, which is a way to visually show the relationships of words to each other. Students have to recall definitions and apply them to new situations. That is problem solving, and they’ll apply that skill to math, debate, and logic and it will equip them for the higher level thinking that we’ll expect from them in Challenge classes and later when they become the leaders of our country.
Classical Conversations now offers a quick reference guide to the Essentials charts which will give you an overview of all these relationships between words. It is called “Trivium Tables: English Grammar.” A companion piece, called, “Trivium Tables: Quid et Quo” provides structure, space, and more quick reference details for students to use as they learn to parse a sentence. The name “Trivium Tables” comes from the idea of “Multiplication Tables.” If you memorize and understand the multiplication tables you will be well-prepared to do advanced math. If you memorize and understand the Trivium Tables you will be well-prepared for the Trivium. By “Trivium,” in this case, I’m talking about the ability to: 1)Take in complex information, 2) Understand and use the information, and 3)Out-put the information (either in writing, speech, or debate.) So, there are more “Trivium Tables” that need to be made-we’ve only just begun!
This summer at Classical Conversations’ three day conferences (Parent Practicums) we’ll practice using grammar in the study of a great American work of poetry that you will recognize, but probably won’t have studied grammatically. We’ll also talk more about how education affects freedom. So, sharpen your pencil and register for a Practicum near you.
As we come to the end of the CC school year, I am reminded of the words of Beatrix Potter in Peter Rabbit. When Peter was tired of running and was about to give up, the sparrows flew down and “implored him to exert himself.” (This was written for children in 1893, by the way.) We may find ourselves imploring our children to exert themselves, and I hope that you will. You may find that if you do not grow weary in doing grammar, in due time, ye shall reap.
*Excerpts are from The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, published in 2000, as compared to Elements of Composition and Rhetoric by Virginia Waddy, published in 1889.