Roger’s Rules

Bulletin! Students learn better when taught

Will wonders never cease? This just in from the left, I mean West, coast: people studying English as a second language learn it more effectively when they are taught grammar.

I too am flabbergasted. But there it is. Under the splendid headline “English as a proficient language,” The Oregonian reports that some 9,000 students passed the state English examination last year, up from 4,000 the year before. Why the dramatic improvement? Because, say “educators” (don’t you love that word?), “a new way of teaching that has swept Oregon” classrooms teaching English as a Second Language. The novelty? “Schools have begun explicitly teaching the grammar, rules and structure of English. And they are doing it in a carefully ordered way, making sure that students don’t miss any of the building blocks of how English verbs are conjugated, words are ordered, conversations are expected to proceed and sentences are constructed.”

What an innovation! Imagine, actually teaching grammar and all that old-hat stuff that your mother (or your grandmother, anyway) used to learn. “For a long time,” said one “educator,” “we just read to them and exposed them to English and figured they would pick it up just like native speakers do.” No doubt it took a large, multi-year government grant to figure out that, if you want to teach most people a language, you actually have to teach them the language. What a revolution in pedagogy. Possibly at the end of another huge tax-payer subsidized study, educators will discover that learning history makes for better-informed citizens–extraordinary!–or that memorizing poems and such is not only good training for a student’s memory but also gives students the gift of possessing those works–their rhythms and emotional weather–at their fingertips. What an idea, that learning “by heart” means expanding and tempering your imaginative response to life’s vicissitudes. Where, I wonder, will it end? Perhaps, in the fullness of time, educators will also discover that the best way to teach math is by teaching math–beginning with such hoary devices as the times tables and fractions and division. Someday, a long way from now, after many more research projects and expensive educational experiments, it may even be discovered that Aristotle, that old Greek, was right when he said that a proper education involves educating the emotions. Only a blockhead, he said in the Nicomachean Ethics, doesn’t believe that character is formed by behavior.

But all that is for an advanced course. For now, we should render thanks for the pioneering discovery that if you wish to teach someone a language, your best bet is to teach them the language. What an insight!