by Nancy Renwick Clendenon, Midlothian
When people hear that my graduate degrees were in English, inevitably the first response I get is, “Oh no! I’d better watch my grammar!” The fact is, I’ve never taken a specific grammar class, I’m certainly no grammar geek, and I’m not one of those people who enjoys parsing other people’s grammar in e-mails or speech or elsewhere and decrying the horrors of lack of knowledge of the “rules.” Still, I do teach grammar in a structured way using a curriculum to my children after they are beyond roughly third-grade age. (This is partly because my children don’t tend to become fluent readers until that time, and it is difficult to use grammar books with people who can’t read them.) While being able to correctly label transitive and intransitive verbs is not something most of us are going to be called upon to do in our daily adult lives, I believe there is still value in learning how our language works, and I believe having a level of comfort with grammar helps create stronger communicators who can write clear, non-confusing prose that readers can easily comprehend.
Another reason I explicitly cover grammar is that, in our yearly testing with the CAT, or with anything else over the years my children have also taken the ITBS, KTEA, and WIAT), grammar is often my oldest children’s weakest point by far. Despite doing fairly well with a grammar program at home in some years, they have not easily carried over those skills to standardized testing or to their own writing.
What I have learned from several years of homeschooling is that time takes care of many challenges—the kids just have this habit of growing and having things get easier for them because they got older and more versatile—and this year was truly a grammar year for us. They got grammar from their grammar book, from a writing program, and from continuing to learn Latin with a class and then from a high school student tutoring them.
Like many “school” things, my goal when choosing a grammar program is to select something that they can reliably do in 10-15 minutes or less a day without a tremendous amount of explicit “teaching” from me, and that we can carry out consistently. If something is too complicated, involves collating with a teacher manual or any other physical objects, or is heavily scripted, we are less likely to get it done regularly, even if we have good intentions. My mantra is “ten minutes isn’t going to kill anyone.”
This year, after being told about the new Saxon Grammar by a friend and then reading about it at the Rainbow Resource Web site (www.rainbowresource. com), I chose this curriculum for my 11-year-olds. We have been mostly pleased, though we have adapted how we use the material to fit our lifestyle and our needs, which I think is how most homeschoolers operate with materials they have purchased. We have been extremely happily using the Institute for Excellence in Writing’s Student Writing Intensive B curriculum this year, so we completely ignored the separate, skinnier book that comes with the Saxon Grammar program that covers composition. This book contains what seem to me like decent writing prompts, but Saxon provides nowhere near the systematic, hand-holding teaching of either style or structure that IEW does, so we stuck with that when it came to writing and used Saxon for nuts and bolts grammar.
Like Saxon Math, which many are familiar with, Saxon Grammar is a spiraling, incremental program. A (usually) small new concept is introduced each day, there is a small amount of specific practice on that concept (often 3-5 lesson practice items), and then there is a thirty-problem mixed review set, just like with the math program. What works so well about this is that the variety keeps students on their toes and helps the concepts to stick. They aren’t just falling into a rhythm of circling the object of the preposition on twelve sentences in a row, and then, three weeks later, after the topic has moved on to transitive verbs, forgetting all about prepositions.
One of my favorite things about Saxon Grammar is that it includes two vocabulary words each day, and they are well-chosen, solid, usable, non-arcane words, and they aren’t insultingly easy, either—personally, I think they are just right. The first four or so problems in each day’s set are multiple choice questions reviewing the vocabulary, and my boys like these quick problems; in under 30 seconds, they’re already on problem 5 or 6, and that feels good! The final three problems in each set involve sentence diagramming. I know that there are a lot of, um, strong opinions either way about sentence diagramming. I’m neither a fervent lover nor a hater, but these sentences are neither overwhelming or positing themselves as the be-all and end-all of grammar instruction. I typically do them with the kids on our big whiteboard because, as I said above, grammar is not my boys’ natural best subject, so they still typically need help when it comes to this level of sorting words. Also, I think that modeling it together makes it feel more like a game (“What words are describing “dog?” “Quick.” “Brown.” “The.”) Other days, I’ll stop by each book and put in all the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines where they belong and let the kids fill in the blanks. One day, and probably not this year, I assume that they will be able to create their own blanks, but again, my goal isn’t to produce fanatical sentence diagrammers, but to help them see how the words work together and functional to create the whole. If scaffolding accomplishes this, we’ll do it.
We are using Saxon Grammar 5 because this was as “low” as they go, so to speak, and we needed to start at whatever the beginning was. I have been pleased with what has been covered—direct and indirect objects, prepositions and their objects, coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, appositives, differences between phrases and clauses, comparative versus superlative, all that dreadful “less” or “fewer” and “lie” or “lay” stuff, and a strong array of general grammar concepts. With the cycling format, they get practice over time and must remember what each term means. While Saxon intends for students to write their answers and recopy some sentences or words into a notebook or a word processor, and while this was also originally what I would have liked to see, in reality, requiring this from my boys meant that grammar was taking a long time, especially when you figured in time for bad typing, groaning, miscopying and erasing holes through the paper. This, then, translated to us only getting to about 23 of the 120 lessons by the end of November. It was a no-brainer to lighten my standards and just have them write into the textbook.
Once we made this change, we got the timing down to our magical ten minutes that aren’t going to kill anyone, and suddenly we were getting to this subject nearly every day that we do schoolwork involving books, which means we’ll cover the whole thing this year. Finally, though this isn’t something that many people associate with Saxon products, I find many of the sentences used in the grammar book and the word problems in their math books to be witty and goofy, which can add a little bit of fun to what is, admittedly, not many students’ favorite subject.
Last year we used Easy Grammar Systems books, and though I thought they looked really good when I bought them at a used curriculum sale, I found that though my children could easily do the work in the workbook, it wasn’t translating into their life beyond that. They also found the concentration on one topic (verbs or nouns, etc.) to start feeling redundant and not very exciting. Easy Grammar Systems’ distinguishing quirk as a program is its huge emphasis on having students memorize a list of 43 prepositions right at the beginning of the book; it insists that this is essential and that the memorization should be a requirement. On one level, this makes a lot of sense to me—if you can automatically identify all of the prepositional phrases in a sentence right away, then it is much easier to classify and determine what everything that is left is doing. Nonetheless, I just couldn’t pull off this memorization task with my real-life children without the accountability of a group or niftier memory devices than I possessed at that time, so I never felt like we were really getting the most we could from the curriculum and my own morale plummeted.
Daily Grams are a separate butrelated part of the Easy Grammar program. Prior to using the big pink Easy Grammar books, we had just used Daily Grams, though we had not used them daily. Daily Grams is, in my opinion, a nice supplement to any grammar program and is fine as a stand-alone as well. I also let my boys write right in the book to make it faster and easier for them, again on the theory that work done consistently but in a less-thanwhat- I-imagined way is better than no work done at all. Each day has five questions, and they follow a predictable format—one on capitalization, one on punctuation, one on identifying something requested, and one where they are asked to combine two or three sentences into one more-concise or better-organized one. This was always my boys’ least favorite because it actually involved using a pencil to write an entire sentence, and they used to hate writing anything by hand.
The first year that we used a grammar program, I used Growing With Grammar Grade 3. Again, it was about a year “behind” where my boys would have been if they were in school, but it also felt like a rather complete program that would be appropriate for any of the middle elementary grades. Like Easy Grammar Systems books, practice in any given section is going to be on that one concept being currently covered. It was not a painful curriculum from the point of view of my boys (it easily met our under-ten-minute rule), but it definitely did not improve their standardized test scores at all, nor did it it mean that they were using capital letters or punctuation if they happened to be writing something in any other context in their lives. Some of this had to do with their age and stage of development— I believe they simply were not developmentally ready for drawing the many skills together that are required for composition, so blaming a particular grammar program for not bringing about something that may not have happened anyway is probably not fair. Still, I found myself continuing to look for something that would be comparatively painless, effective, and the right product at the right time. Ultimately, I think that so many things in life become the “right” thing because of a synergy of timing and a good resource.
Saxon Grammar was a nice complement to Institute for Excellence in Writing this year, and I guess that despite my claims that I’m not a grammar geek, I do get a certain pleasure hearing my children calmly and consistently identifying adverbs and infinitives and objects of prepositions. The writing program gave the opportunity to put the grammar they were learning into practical action, so again, there was a synergy of products and children’s development helping to create the big leap in skills that I saw this year. Writing became much less of a daunting task, and the grammar focus coming from several directions in their life at once—from IEW, from Saxon, and from their Latin tutor—has helped them become more confident communicators who have a wide variety of tools at their disposal. I love when I get to witness these moments happening and see change happening right before my eyes.
About the Reviewer
Nancy Renwick Clendenon homeschools her four children—twins Walter and Ollie (11), Frances (8), and Rutledge (5)—in Midlothian. She is a bit of a curriculum junkie. So far, her two youngest children have not had to serve at all as grammar program guinea pigs, something for which they should probably be thankful.
This review appeared in the July-August 2010 VaHomeschoolers Voice.
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