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Grammar: Train the Brain to Retain

While teaching educators how to teach, I’ve realized that we make too light a matter of little things and don’t spend enough time defining the basics.

A Jamaican Example

In 1995, I taught in a Jamaican Christian mission school for two weeks. When I first walked into the classroom, I was appalled at the assignments given to the first graders. It seemed like such busy work when there were so many interesting things to cover with the students. By the end of my two weeks teaching in their school, I began to see they were right and I was wrong.

I’ve spent the time since pondering their methods and trying to imitate their results. What I witnessed was the same method that had been used forever but was foreign to me as a modern. The six-year-olds sat each morning for about an hour copying, in cursive, a long Scripture passage from the board. As they did so, the teacher worked individually with a few remedial students.

All I could think of was, “How boring.” By the end of my stay, I realized the gift these children were being given. All of them could sit quietly for a long time. All of them could read every word. All of them had memorized lots of Scripture. All of them had the fine motor skills required to look up at a board and replicate the words on a piece of paper. All of them had the hand strength to hold their pencil properly and for a long time. All of them had beautiful handwriting.

The self-discipline trained into the Jamaican children gave them the basic skills needed for everything else they would ever study in any situation. Later, as I studied the difference between the successes of an education in the past and the problems with current models, I realized I had seen the answers in that Jamaican classroom.

Our nation’s capital spends over $13,000 per student per year to not educate its graduates. The Jamaican teachers spent pennies on paper and pencils only and were preparing their children well. Their situation was similar to the one-room schoolhouses that were so successful in our nation’s past.

An Early Model

In my study of American education, I discovered teaching techniques from before the 1920s that everyone knew (not just professional teachers), yet which have almost been lost since. I discovered that effective educators and parents of the past taught the art of learning, memorizing, and reciting grammar, the science of vocabulary; hence, earlier schools were collectively called “grammar schools.”

Frontier schools (1647–1860), were un-graded and poorly equipped, having only one teacher. The teacher assigned lessons and heard recitations, but the pupils studied the assignments and learned them on their own. The teacher gave oral exams in reading, spelling, math, and grammar, and regularly checked the students’ copybooks.1

The one-room district school, like the frontier school, had one teacher, forty to sixty students, and met for two or three months of the year. “Sometimes the entire student group would go through a sing-song drill together, spelling a group of words, reciting a multiplication table, or listing the capitals of the states; sometimes groups of three or four students would recite together; and sometimes individual students would take turns going through a question-and-answer drill with the teacher.”2

In New England, the grammar school “was almost always a single unit in a single building during the eighteenth century, frequently enrolling youngsters from two or three to fourteen years of age, and it remained a single unit during much of the nineteenth, at least in the rural districts and small townships that made up most of the United States.”3 Students met six days a week except in summer.

The grammar school taught religion, reading, and writing, as well as some arithmetic. Students began at age six or seven, and their texts were the hornbook, the New England Primer, the Psalter, and the Bible. “Most of the subject matter was memorized by the student and tested in a cue and recitation session before the master.”4

The goal of early American grammar schools was to teach children how to fill their brains with lots of information and practice retrieving it to prove they actually knew something. New students heard older students’ recitations; older students could review previous years’ memory work while listening to younger students’ recitations. The methodology of repetition on paper, orally, and aurally met the needs of everyone’s learning style and allowed one young teacher to instruct a lot of children of different ages and abilities at one time.

Many of the principles behind the early grammar schools are still valid today. All children learn through practice, repetition, and memorization. We need to train the brain to retain. No matter your children’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, gifts and talents, their brains want to gather, sort, and store information; and that is only the beginning.

Organizing Information

The brain stores data very much like a grocer organizes her shelves. The goal of learning is not just to fill the shelves; it is to create useful human beings who can use their talents to feed humanity. The food on the shelves is useless if it is not mixed into a recipe and shared with a hungry person, but you can’t feed the hungry if you can’t find the ingredients in the recipe. You can never discuss ideas or share thoughts with the world unless you take the time to learn the vocabulary—the grammar—of any subject.

It’s been more than ten years since I stumbled upon the teaching tools and philosophy used in American one-room schoolhouses. Today, learning the teaching techniques used in that era has reshaped what home-centered education looks like for our family and helped us reclaim a classical education.

Fortunately, God already instilled a natural love of grammar in young children; we just need to be wise teachers and learn how to work with it effectively.

 

1 Edgar W. Knight, Fifty Years of American Education: A Historical Review and Critical Appraisal (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1952): 31–32.

2 Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The National Experience 1783–1876 (New York: Harper and Row, 1980): 395.

3 Ibid., 389.

4 John D. Pulliam, History of Education in America, 4th ed (Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing, 1968): 35.

CATEGORIES: Articles, Classical Christian Education, Grammar Stage (ages 4 to 11)

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