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Christine Miller

The Subject of Grammar

This page last revised:
February 2003


The Subject of Grammar

Christine Miller

Introduction to Grammar

Grammar is the science of language usage, and English grammar as a subject teaches how to speak and write the English language correctly. I feel it is important that grammar be covered as a subject in the grammar stage, finished by the end of sixth grade, so that in the dialectic stage logic can replace grammar as a subject in the curriculum (with rhetoric replacing logic as a subject in the curriculum in the rhetoric stage.) The formal study of grammar is broken into these branches: orthography, the study of letters; etymology, the study of words; and syntax, the study of sentences. There is one other part to the study of English grammar: prosody, which is the study of the quantity of syllables, of accent, and the laws of versification. This branch deals with the writing of poetry, and I prefer to save that branch for formal poetry study in writing in the rhetoric stage. We can see already that the subject of grammar is very closely tied to the subject of writing. However, while there is some overlap, I feel the best results are had when these two subjects are studied separately in the curriculum. Each does contain material unique to it, and studying them separately ensures that each receives the thorough coverage of its principles so necessary for a solid foundation in the grammar stage. Let us look at each of the three branches of English grammar studied in the grammar stage individually.

Orthography & Phonics: 1st & 2nd Grades

Orthography is the study of the elementary sounds, letters, and syllables of our language. Therefore phonics is a branch of orthography, as is penmanship. Spelling is also considered a part of orthography. The teaching of penmanship is considered in the article, Writing in the Grammar Stage, therefore for our purposes we will discuss phonics and spelling here. In our homeschool, we teach orthography in 1st and 2nd grades. We teach spelling throughout the grammar stage, from 1st through 6th grades.

It is imperative that children learn to read through phonics instruction. There are several reasons for this. The first is the most obvious: the English language is a phonetic language. In other words, unlike the Chinese, whose language is a pictoral one, with every word taken in its totality to mean something unique, our language is based on a set of characters, called letters, each with specific sounds associated with them. It is only common sense that phonetic languages are learned phonetically, and that pictoral languages like Chinese are learned by a look-say or some other method.

The second reason has to do with the importance of training a child’s mind in expecting something to progress according to its rules. English has for a long time had the reputation of being one of the least regular of the phonetic languages; however this reputation is undeserved. The problem arises in that English is a Germanic language with Latin and other influences. Therefore English displays both Germanic phonetic rules when dealing with Germanic words, roots, and suffixes; and Latin phonetic rules when dealing with Latin words, roots, and suffixes. When Germanic rules are applied to English words of Latin origin, the phonics of English seems to break down. But when Latin rules are applied to those same English words of Latin origin, the phonics remains as regular as in any other phonetic language. So English can be expected to operate according to its phonics, and our job in the first two years of grammar instruction is to instill that phonics knowledge in our children, through drill and lots of reading practice.

Because of the love affair our educational system has had with teaching children to read using as little phonics as possible, there are many phonics programs out there that are actually quite diluted with look-say influences and “rules” that are not true phonics rules. One example is the “in a single syllable word containing two vowels, the first vowel is long and the second vowel is silent” rule. This bogus phonics rule is only accurate about 50% of the time. If you find this rule espoused in a phonics or spelling program that you are using, my opinion is to keep looking. Our search must be for the most unadulterated, scientific approach to phonics as possible to use in teaching our children. They are out there. The best that I am familiar with are listed in the Grammar Curriculum page.

Etymology: 3rd & 4th Grades

Etymology is the study of the classification, derivation, and properties of words. The study of the classification of words entails the parts of speech. The derivation of words is where we learn of roots and affixes (suffixes and prefixes), their meanings and how they are combined. The properties of words returns to primarily nouns and verbs, which have the properties of case, gender, person, number, and so on. In our homeschool, we teach etymology in the 3rd and 4th grades.

By the third and fourth grades our classically educated children should be reading well on their own. The emphasis shifts a bit in grammar class to studying words for their own sake, rather than to be able to read them. Here again a systematic line upon line, precept upon precept approach to teaching is desired. Parts of speech and roots and affixes can be learned concurrently over the two years. I believe the best results are obtained by committing the parts of speech and their characteristics to memory, and then continuing to review throughout the two year period. Use increasingly complex sentences from their reading to practice identifying parts of speech. And drill, drill, drill the classifications of words.

In teaching roots and affixes, present the concept of roots first, then suffixes and their meanings. Many suffixes change the part of speech a word occupies in a sentence. For example, the suffix -able changes a noun, such as peace, to an adjective, such as peaceable. Give plenty of practice in manipulating words by adding all manner of suffixes to roots. Also do the reverse: take words and divide them into their roots and suffixes. The rules governing spelling of words when adding suffixes can be thoroughly covered in these two years.

Then proceed to the adding of prefixes, all the while continuing to review the suffixes. Prefixes do not change the part of speech of a word, but the meaning of a word. Most English prefixes come from Latin prepositions, and most change a word in a definite, predetermined way. For example, the prefix “sub-” is from a Latin preposition meaning “below.” Therefore “subzero” means “below zero,” and “submarine” means “below the sea.” If children are also learning Latin vocabulary (which we advocate,) they can run across a word such as “subjugate” for the first time in their reading and have the idea that it means “below or under the yoke,” as “sub” means “below” and “jugum” is Latin for “yoke.” The meanings of the prefixes should be memorized. Memorizing the meanings of common roots, prefixes, and the changes that suffixes cause a word to undergo, gives our children a huge advantage in being able to decipher the meaning of previously unknown words that they come across in their reading.

One last note about etymology: this is the proper place to learn the rules of capitalization. These rules should be committed to memory. It will not be difficult for the child that has been copying in writing class, as the proper use of capitals will have already been encountered and somewhat ingrained through writing. The difference between common and proper nouns is covered in parts of speech, and other capitalization rules can systematically be introduced and then reviewed throughout the two years that etymology is studied in grammar class.

To review etymology: the concepts to be taught in the 3rd and 4th grades, or after phonics and penmanship are mastered, are:

• Alphabetizing, Syllabication, basic Dictionary and Library use;
• Homophones, Homographs, Heteronyms; Synonyms and Antonyms;
• Clipped, Portmanteau, and Compound Words; Contractions;
• Parts of Speech: Nouns (including spelling rules for making nouns plural), Pronouns, Adjectives, Verbs (including spelling rules for making verb forms), Adverbs, Prepositions, Conjunctions, Interjections;
• The same word as different parts of speech;
• Greek and Latin Roots, Suffixes (including spelling rules for adding suffixes), Prefixes;
• Capitalization rules.

Syntax: 5th & 6th Grades

Syntax is the study of the proper construction of sentences. Students should formally learn the elements of a sentence (subject, predicate, clause and so on,) and the analysis of sentences, which is diagramming. In our homeschool, we study syntax in the 5th and 6th grades. Theoretically, analysis of anything should be left for the dialectic stage. But we have had no trouble teaching diagramming in 5th and 6th grades, as many students are beginning the transition to dialectic at this age, and sentence analysis has not proven to be too much for them.

Why diagram in this day and age? I feel there is no more concrete way to make a child thoroughly familiar with proper sentence construction. If a child knows how to diagram, he can find the problem and correct ill-constructed sentences, if he has been given plenty of practice in diagramming.

Diagramming also develops the underlying understanding of the way our language works, and why the rules function as they do. To quote a famous 19th-century grammar text author:

It has been said that there is no royal road to geometry. The same may be said of grammar and composition. The meaning and application of terms must be learned, sentences must be analyzed, and words must be parsed, before the student can comprehend the philosophy that underlies the correct use of any language. The labor necessary to secure facility and accuracy in the use of one’s mother tongue may be made attractive, but it cannot be dispensed with; neither can it be materially lessened.

Thomas Harvey, author of Harvey’s Elementary Grammar and Composition, 1880 (emphasis added).

Sentences must be analyzed in order to be diagrammed; through the exercise of diagramming, analyzation takes place, and the understanding of English developed.

As a matter of fact, correction is a useful exercise in 6th grade, after a year of diagramming correctly constructed sentences. Common syntax errors abound in magazines and newspapers, and children can do corrections of sentences that you have collected once a week. There are also rules that govern syntax which should be learned by heart the first year, in 5th grade, and reviewed periodically after that.

Punctuation is a branch of syntax. The rules governing proper punctuation should be memorized and practiced in these two years. Much of their writing in writing class has been copying up till this point, and they will have an instinct for correct punctuation after having copied correct punctuation for so many years. However, the rules governing punctuation should still be memorized, just in time for more original writing in writing class in the form of journals and narrations.

To review syntax: the concepts to be taught in the 5th and 6th grades, or after phonics, penmanship, and etymology are mastered, are:

• Parts of a Sentence: Subject, Predicate, Objects, and Complements;
• Phrases: Prepositional, Adjectival, and Adverbial phrases;
• Clauses: Main and Subordinate clauses; Adjectival, Adverbial, and Noun clauses;
• Sentence Diagramming;
• Punctuation rules.

Spelling: 1st through 6th Grades

Spelling is technically a subset of orthography. We learn and practice spelling all throughout the grammar stage, 1st through 6th grades. We do not carry spelling instruction into the dialectic stage and junior high, in our homeschool, except by way of review. The most effective spelling approach that we have found is learning to spell by syllables. Spelling by syllables is the method that was popularized by Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller, and was used throughout this country until the past few generations. Spelling by syllables entails learning how individual syllables are spelled, and then breaking a word into its syllables, its manageable parts, and spelling the whole word by spelling each syllable in turn. For example, the word “individual” can be broken into syllables thusly: in di vid u al. Each syllable is easily spelled by a child that has been taught the rules of phonics as it applies to spelling. The rules of syllabication (breaking words into syllables) are simple, and a child that has them memorized can take difficult words and break them into manageable parts, and so have one more tool in hand to help in becoming an excellent speller.

We have regular spelling lists every week of school throughout the grammar stage. The words progress in length, complexity and difficulty of syllable sound, adding more and more complex and irregular syllables as the children advance in their abilities. Syllables such as “ti” distortions (in words such as “distortion”) and “ough” are some of our more difficult syllables. Every day of the week they do drill exercises with their words, finishing the week with a test. There is no reason that children who have learned to spell by syllables cannot have words such as “mediocre”, “physique”, “penitentiary”, and “silhouette” in 6th grade.

Our approach to spelling by syllables can be summarized this way: for most of the grammar stage, children are given practice with words containing syllables using the same phonetic spelling rules: match, patch, catch, witch, stitch, kitchen, butcher, and so on for the “tch”. Along with the list of words, they are reminded again of the phonetic spelling rule that applies: A root word having a short vowel that is immediately followed by a “ch” sound is spelled using “tch”. The phonetic spelling rules are ingrained by drill and exposure to them over and over again, year after year. We also break every word into its syllables every week. This embeds the syllabication rules which are necessary for later evaluation of heretofore unknown words. It often happens that by the time a child is doing more original writing in the late grammar or dialectic stage, a word that has not been previously encountered on a list will more than likely naturally be spelled correctly by the child, through the analysis of its syllables.

My children’s weekly spelling work was scheduled this way:

Monday: copy new list and phonetic spelling rule that governs the proper spelling of the words on the list;
Tuesday: alphabetize the list, break the words in the list into syllables;
Wednesday: copy sentences from literature containing each spelling word. My favorite resources were Bible verses (look up the spelling words using a concordance) and Webster’s 1828 Dictionary;
Thursday: finish copying sentences from literature; oral drill. Older grammar stage children can copy sentences on Wednesday, and write the same sentences from dictation on Thursday;
Friday: spelling test.

Important Links:

Grammar Curriculum for the Grammar Stage

Preparing Younger Children: Reading

CE Loop: Reading and Literature

CE Loop: 1000 Good Books List

Why Good Grammar?

Phonic Spelling Rules

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

CE Grammar Links

The Grammar Stage Subject Index

Geography in the Grammar Stage History in the Grammar Stage

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