When my oldest son was in elementary school, I was told by several of his teachers not to correct his homework sentences for punctuation or grammar because that would “disrupt his creative flow.”
Creative flow? He was 6.
I didn’t listen. I taught him about noun and verb agreement and how to use a semicolon — both of which he remembers now as a college sophomore.
I did the same with my daughter, a senior in high school, but she still gets tripped up on when to use a comma. I sat her down the other day and reviewed some of the basic rules. It’s pretty straightforward, I told her. I asked whether she had been taught it in school.
“No,” she said, with that look she often gives that says, It’s not my fault.
I see writing errors and confusion all the time as a freelance editor and an instructor in Hofstra University’s continuing education program, where I teach, among other subjects, grammar. I see comma splices, dangling participles, wrong word usage. Somehow, the teaching of spelling, grammar and punctuation — once hallmarks of a proper education — has been deemphasized.
Years ago, when I was in school — the Stone Age, as far as my kids are concerned — we spent weeks, years, learning this stuff, etching it into our brains until we could spit out parts of speech like a gumball machine.
Yes, it was tedious, and I didn’t love it, but I learned it. We spent so much time diagramming sentences — boxing words until they looked like hotels on a Monopoly property — that to this day, I still figure out meanings of complex passages by drilling sentences down to their parts.
Over the years, however, the diagramming in schools stopped, and the focus turned to creative writing and expression of thought. They are important, of course, but why must we choose one over the other? Why not teach both?
Here’s the thing: Not every child is going to become a creative writer, but all of them will become adults who probably will need to write a cover letter, a memo, an essay, a love note or a legal argument. They will need to know how to express their thoughts in understandable ways, and to do that, they’ll need to know where to place commas. Comma core needs to be a part of Common Core.
I’ve heard the reasoning that kids will pick up the rules through the practice of writing essays or term papers. However, I’m not sure that that’s enough. My kids have probably seen me use the vacuum cleaner thousands — OK, maybe hundreds — of times, but they didn’t know how to turn the thing on until I actually showed them.
I’d love to see educators make the parts of speech an integral part of education again. I’d love to see them bring back spelling, grammar and vocabulary tests to all grade levels. Let’s push back a little against the increasingly lazy language of digital communications. (I’ve seen more than enough “woahs,” instead of “whoas,” on Facebook.) Let’s teach these kids the rules of writing. Although they might not use them when they text their friends, at least they’ll know the rules when they need them — perhaps when it comes time to email a prospective employer.
Reader Dina Santorelli of Massapequa Park is an author and a journalist.