Probably almost everyone reading this belongs to the "I hate grammar" crowd. A few people say they love grammar. I remember meeting an engineer who said he loved diagramming sentences. The logic challenged him, but I do not know what it did for his writing. According to research, diagramming has no effect on improving children's writing.

Native speakers of English automatically learn its grammar. By age five, children know considerable grammar without us ever teaching it to them. Through subsequent years they refine their knowledge. For instance, you correct them if they say "I knowed," and they learn to say "I knew." Their first use—I knowed—follows the grammar rule of forming past tense by adding the d sound, so even the mistake shows what grammar young children learn on their own.

Not only does diagramming fail to improve children's writing, but all other grammar teaching suffers similarly. We have had about one hundred years of research on teaching the old Latin grammar. We also researched the newer generative and transactional grammars, with this method and that method, with this content and that content, and all the research was disappointing. Teaching grammar does not improve children's writing. That gives the happy message that you can skip the grammar drudgery, at least through the elementary years. After children write well, sometime in their teen years, they can learn some grammar so they will be educated about it. They will not have been burned out on it, and they may actually enjoy it at that time.

In the meantime, children should focus on 1) what they want to say, and on 2) organizing it well. Letters and other writings from homeschoolers show that they do quite well on these two characteristics of writing. Help your children continue working on these two important skills.

In this article we will move on to easier aspects of English teaching—usage and the mechanics of writing. Usage items are not technically called grammar. They are just items like teaching the difference between to and too. When you need to know something like this, you can often find the answer in your dictionary, or possibly in a usage or writing-style book, or, as a last resort, a grammar book. Books like these belong on your reference shelf. They are not textbooks or workbooks for your children to work through; they definitely are more useful as reference books.

Here we will list a few common items for your children to know. It will work best if you can teach an item at a time when a child needs it rather than lumping a group of these into one lesson. You could try reading through these to familiarize yourself with them, then display them on a bulletin board or in a handy notebook. Then you and your children can refer to the list at appropriate times.

Another procedure is for you and the child to check over the list or part of it after he has finished a paper and needs to polish it. For instance, you could read item 1 about exclamation points and then look at the child's writing to see if he overused them. Continue with some of the other usage items on the list below.

  1. Use exclamation points only after true exclamations. Do not decorate ordinary statements or commands or questions with exclamation points. Show excitement with words, not with graphics. One usage expert wrote that this is sometimes called the "mark of admiration" because a writer misusing it is "lost in admiration of his own wit or impressiveness."
  2. Learn the computer way to make an em dash. The old typewriter way was to use two hyphens or to use one hyphen with a space on each side. But your computer has a symbol like this: —. In a sentence, no space goes before or after it. Even in the typewriter days, books and magazines were typeset with proper dashes. Now we can all do it in our homes.
  3. So has many uses, but it should not substitute for very or extremely: so expensive, so happy, so hot. These examples are informal, conversational English; it is better not to use them in writing. But combined with that, the examples would work: so expensive that we could not afford it.
  4. The wordsvery and really should be used sparingly. If something is easy, does it help to say it is really easy? How cold is very cold? Will it do just as well to simply say cold?
  5. A lot and in depth are not single words. Write both as shown here.
  6. Hyphenate in 5-year-old children. Also hyphenate 5-year-olds. An extension of the form is: 5- and 6-year-olds These are the usual forms in publications about children. Other publications often spell out the age: five-year-old or five years old.

Add items to the list as you and your child run into questions about English usage. Often a dictionary, especially a large one, will answer your questions. An excellent habit to acquire is to notice the writing in good books or newspapers. (See the sidebar.) While you read, you can mark examples to show to your children and discuss with them. Sometimes you are going to think, "Is this right? Why did the author do it this way?" Figure out why he did it that way. If you were taught that grammar somehow has set down "laws" that restrict our writing, you will find it mind-expanding to teach English usage instead of English grammar. This system also will improve your children's writing as grammar study never did.

All this does not mean that we throw out grammar; we just throw out the teaching of it in elementary grades. Actually, most usage is based on good grammar (some on idioms). Children already know plenty of grammar in their native language. We can take advantage of that knowledge and teach children to use English as experienced writers use it.

Dr. Ruth Beechick has taught English and has written many books on education. Now retired, she writes on homeschooling and other topics.  She admires homeschoolers and thinks their movement is the healthiest education movement of our day.

This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb '4 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more information, visit www.HomeSchoolEnrichment.com