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How to Teach Grammar

Today we want to discuss how Charlotte Mason taught English grammar.

Grammar analyzes the system and the structure of a language. That’s a heavy concept that requires abstract thinking, so Charlotte did not start formal grammar lessons until the student was about 10 years old. 

When we talk about grammar lessons, we’re basically talking about five components: English usage, which includes concepts such as possessives, plurals, contractions, things like that; punctuation; capitalization; parts of speech; and sentence analysis.

Of course, your student has been seeing and hearing those elements for several years in conversations, in the good living books used for schoolwork, and in his copywork and transcription passages. So he has become familiar with the cadence and consistency in how the language works. In grammar lessons, he will begin to analyze each component, as well as see how it relates to the rest.

Let’s talk about how to do that in a Charlotte Mason way.

What You Will Need

You will need two things: (1) a straightforward explanation of the grammar concepts you’re studying and (2) passages from living books or some good poetry for practice.

How To

For each grammar concept that you want to cover, you will walk through three steps.

Step 1: Whenever possible, guide your student to observe the concept for himself in passages from living books. Spotlight it wherever you can and encourage your student to look for patterns, similarities, and differences. Help him compare and contrast that concept to what he already knows or has observed elsewhere, and encourage him to come up with his own wording for rules or guidelines based on his personal discoveries.

Step 2: Present a straightforward and succinct explanation of the concept to confirm or clarify your student’s observations and possibly expand on what he noticed.

Step 3: Assign your student some passages from living books or good poetry to practice working with that concept.

Here’s an example from Using Language Well, Book 2. Lesson 8 references a Shakespeare quote from Spelling Wisdom, Book 2 (The two books work together for spelling and grammar.):

A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain.

The student already learned about nouns in previous lessons, so in this lesson he is asked to find two nouns in the first line of that quote. He is practicing and he is being primed for the next discovery. So he identifies soul and adversity as nouns in that first line. 

Now, we highlight a new concept and encourage him to discover what he can for himself. “The second line contains the little word it. To what word in the first line does it refer?” The student identifies soul as the word it refers to.

Time for a straightforward explanation: “It is a pronoun. A pronoun is a word that is used in place of a noun.”

That’s enough for now. We let that concept sit and practice it in the next lesson. In Lesson 9 we work with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson (from the Spelling Wisdom book):

“These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today.”

Then we highlight six words in that passage and ask whether each is a noun or a pronoun; and for each pronoun, please tell which noun it takes the place of.

So, roses. Is that word a noun or a pronoun? Yes, it’s a noun.
They—noun or pronoun? It’s a pronoun. What noun does they refer to? Right, roses.
And so on, practicing that same concept with a few more words.

We spotlight a new concept and try to help the student make a discovery for himself if possible, then we present the straightforward explanation, and we give the student opportunity to practice it with living passages.

Now, just as in copywork and transcription you want your child to see the correct spelling as much as possible, so in grammar you want your student to see the grammar concept presented correctly as much as possible. Try to avoid resources that present a wrong model and tell your student to correct it. Instead, have him practice working with the concept in the correct way. The more he sees it presented correctly, the more that correct pattern will become set up and reinforced in his mind. Then when he does happen to see it incorrectly, perhaps in his own written narration at some point, that incorrect pattern will stand out as “That doesn’t look right; something’s off here.” But if you repeatedly show him incorrect models, that could easily set up a mental debate in his mind: “I’ve seen it both ways; which one is correct?” So try to avoid resources that purposely show your child an incorrect model—both in spelling and in grammar.

Level Up or Down

In English grammar, as in math, you want to be careful to progress at your child’s pace, securing the ground under your feet before you take the next step. So let’s think about some ideas for leveling your grammar studies up or down to best fit your student.

First, let me reiterate that Charlotte did not begin formal grammar lessons until the student was about 10 years old. If your student is younger than that, wait. There’s no reason to try to level grammar lessons down for young children. Their minds are not ready to do in-depth analytical abstract thinking yet. So just continue to lay the foundation with good conversations, reading good quality living books together, and doing copywork or transcription with worthy passages.

But if your child is close to 10 years old, or older, here are some ways to level up or level down his grammar studies. And all of these ideas have to do with the third step in the study process: practicing with passages from living books.

An easy way to dip your toe into the water in this practicing process is to go ahead and present a complete sentence or two from a living book or several lines from a good poem, but highlight only a few of the words or marks of punctuation or capitalization in that passage for practice. You could start with pointing out only one punctuation mark for the student to identify and tell why it is there. Or you might focus on two capitalized letters in the passage and ask the student to tell why they are capitalized. Or you could highlight three or four words in the passage and ask the student to identify what part of speech each one is. You can adapt this assignment, depending on which grammar concept your student is studying at the time; but focusing on only a few instances in the living passage is a good place to level down and begin.

From there you can gradually increase the number of capitalized words, punctuation, or parts of speech that you want the student to identify in the passage. Eventually (and gradually), you will be able to assign the student to point out each capitalized word and explain why it is capitalized; or identify each punctuation mark in the passage and tell why it is there; or parse an entire sentence, identifying each word’s part of speech.

That level pretty much covers the capitalization, punctuation, and parts of speech aspects, but you can level up again with sentence analysis. Once the student knows the parts of speech and can identify each word, or parse, a sentence, you can guide him to analyze how those words are relating to each other within the sentence. So he can begin to look for subjects, verbs, modifiers, phrases, and clauses.

Level down by using shorter, simpler sentences as your student is learning and gaining experience. Then gradually work your way up to longer, more difficult sentences to be analyzed.

It’s up to you how you want to approach the analyzing. Some parents like to use a diagramming system, but there are other ways to mark a sentence as it is analyzed. Using Language Well employs a different system that encourages the student to make marks within the sentence itself as he analyzes it. It’s up to you what system you want to use; the important thing is to help your student understand how the words and phrases within a sentence relate to each other, so that he can continue to grow in his own communication skills. For that is the goal of grammar study: applying what you discover to your own communication so you can be sure you are getting your ideas across accurately, clearly, and effectively.

And that’s how the Charlotte Mason approach teaches grammar.

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