An article some months ago in The Atlantic Monthly revealed how a certain high school turned around its dismal record in student writing simply by going back to basics. The school had tried a number of reforms recommended by both conservatives and liberals — firing bad teachers, using technology, and offering after-school programs — but nothing worked until they went to ground zero: day by day instruction in grammar, parts of speech, and complex sentences with dependent clauses.
The light went on when one teacher assigned the class to write a sentence beginning with “Although George.” The class must have been reading Of Mice and Men, a high-school favorite. Many wrote something like “Although George and Lenny were friends.” Period. The teacher realized that her students didn’t know how to construct a dependent clause and how to use coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. Many of the teachers had thought the students were just not smart enough for high school, because even when they talked they couldn’t seem to go beyond simple sentences. The truth was, they couldn’t write or even construct their thoughts because they didn’t understand how language works. All the teachers wondered how their students could possibly have arrived in high school without knowing the parts of speech. If they weren’t being disingenuous, not only did the teaching profession lose contact with the basics, it forgot how it lost contact and where it put them in the first place.