The Liberal Art of Grammar (pt. 2)

By the parking lot at Clapham School grows a morning glory. Each morning this fall I was welcomed to school by its indigo colored flowers. Each morning they opened toward the sun as if trumpeting praises to God. Then one day I substituted in Class Five and was asked to read this passage about the morning glory: “The [morning glory] had caught [a plant] in its hundred embraces and had squeezed the life out of it… [the morning glory] flaunted its pink and white flowers in the sunshine with a grace and charm that suggested nothing of the oppressor” (Anna Comstock, Handbook of Nature Study, 518). Needless to say, my relationship with the morning glory changed. I observed closer and noticed that the morning glory’s vines had entangled a hasta plant. As many of you know, the hasta is a very difficult plant to kill. Yet the seemingly delicate morning glory was smothering out the life of this plant. Though its flowers still delighted my spirit it now caused my mind to think about ideas such as deception, charm and weak vs. strong.  

Consider with me, however, how you might learn about the morning glory in a typical educational setting. Very likely you would hear a definition loaded with facts from either a web article or a textbook. Wikipedia states the following:

“Convolvulaceae can be recognized by their funnel-shaped, radially symmetrical corolla; the floral formula for the family has five sepals, five fused petals, five epipetalous stamens (stamens fused to the petals), and a two-part syncarpous and superior gynoecium. The stems of these plants are usually winding, hence their Latin name (from convolvere, “to wind”)…¹

In addition to reading facts about the morning glory, you would likely pull apart the flower to identify its parts. You would then take a quiz, ensuring you have memorized the information. But in the end, I dare say with this type of learning, you would not remember much about the morning glory and you would not know this plant. This small example of how learning is approached in many educational settings points to three concerns of modern education and why the art of grammar, reading with comprehension and writing, must be taught to and then used by students.


Why do we need the art of grammar today?

First, modern education tends to be analytical. Textbooks and teachers present many facts to be memorized and information to be conquered. Modern education does not believe in passing down a narrative, the idea that there is a unity of knowledge that helps explain our reality, our relationship to the world, to each other and ultimately to God (see Stratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word, 46).

The second concern we face in today’s society is the inability to read a text with sustained attention in order to understand the author’s intent.  In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brain, Nicholas Carr cites a variety of research showing how our brains are physically changing as a result of internet reading.  This is evidenced even by the rise of graphic novels and the lower reading level of today’s students compared with those of 100 years ago. The internet “environment promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning Technology delivers repetitive, intensive, interactive and addictive sensory and cognitive stimuli that form new neural networks in our brains, networks that look for next quick bit of information” (Carr 116).

In his book Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of EducationStratford Caldecott summarizes this idea:

“The digital age cuts back reading and, as a consequence, young people are losing the ability to think seriously. They get distracted more easily, breaking off to check an email. Speedreading is exactly the wrong thing to do, you need to think about what you are reading…. You have to ponder…” in order to understand (64).

The third concern is that people are outsourcing memory. The depth of our intelligence and our identities hinge on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas. This is partly how children build relationships with ideas and form concepts about words. I can name a morning glory, but my memory helps me form my concepts about the morning glory and my relationship to it. As Carr explains,

“The brain is the seat of understanding. It stores not just facts, but complex concepts, or ‘schemas.’ By organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge, schemas give depth and richness to our thinking…. The building of memories and equally important forming connections between them require strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory” (125, 193). 

Educators in the classical tradition were concerned with helping students discover unifying principles, with helping students develop relationships with knowledge, many different types of knowledge, so that students could learn to love or care about many things (see Karen Glass, Consider This, 35). By gaining wisdom and ordering their affections, classical educators trained students in virtue. The art of grammar was necessary to this goal.  


What did the art of grammar look like in the classical tradition?  

“It was the Greeks who invented Grammar. Kenneth L. Schmitz writes that it was they who, ‘by an effort of mind and imagination, withdrew partially from the immediacy of their spoken language in order to lay it out before themselves and to dissect or analyze its functional elements: eventually into nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, moods, conjugations, and declensions.’ Out of Grammar developed both Dialectic and Rhetoric” (Caldecott 16-17, quoting from The Recovery of Wonder). 

The Greeks and Romans and later the Renaissance Educators understood the term grammar very differently than we do today. We tend to think of grammar in analytical terms, the study of the structure of a language–how various parts of speech are inflected or ordered to create meaningful sentences our of words (Glass 50). Classical educators understood it in a more synthetic manner. Very simply stated, the study of grammar included all things necessary to interpret a text.  

The actual word “grammar” comes from the Greek word gramma meaning ‘letter’ (Caldecott 37). In ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle referred to grammar as reading and writing (Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 38).  In 95 A.D. the Roman rhetorician Quintilian published a work teaching on the education and development of the orator. In this work, Institutes of Oratory, he wrote, “Let us assign to each calling its proper limits, and let ‘grammar’ or ‘literature,’ to give it is Latin name, recognize its boundaries” (as qtd in Glass 50). Quintilian’s recommendation that the Latin word literatura be used as the translation for the Greek word grammatike shows that learning to read was foundational to the art of grammar. But Quintilian did not limit the art of grammar to learning to read, but included reading with comprehension. He believed that the art of grammar consisted of everything necessary for interpreting a text–geography, history, and even what we might call hermeneutics (Clark and Jain 39). So if you were to read about the Egyptian culture, as in Class One, your lesson would include geography teaching about the Nile River. 

Renaissance educators agreed with Quintilian that grammar should be associated with literature rather than simply rules of usage and syntax. Erasmus in Upon the Right Method of Instruction states, 

“The content of the term Grammar has varied in the history of scholarship. To Quintilian it implies not only accidence and syntax, and the art of reading aloud, but also the study of the poets, historians, philosophers and orators. It is a pursuit which demands the highest intelligence; it corresponds in fact to our concept of the study of Literature” (as qtd in Glass 51). 

During the Renaissance Period, students began their education learning Latin and in medieval Europe, Greek. Learning Latin was not an end in itself, nor was it to increase logic or learn vocabulary. Its purpose was to become literate, to read the great books and by doing so to gain wisdom. There was a sense of humility and a desire to learn from the great thinkers of the past. At that time, there was neither a desire for nor access to translations. Writings of Virgil and Cicero, and for more than a millennium, the Bible, were all written in Latin. The works of Homer, Aristotle, and Plato were written in Greek (Clark and Jain 39-41). Today, we have access to many good translations. However, Clark and Ravi in The Liberal Arts Tradition argue that “the foundational ideas of Western civilization are originally Greek and Roman, these ideas arise from texts written in Greek and Latin; translations of these texts offer access to the original meaning, but with diminished access to original associations, beauty and context; therefore to engage fully with this tradition, which is our tradition one must return to Greek and Latin” (49). 

The art of grammar then is not just a stage of life between the ages of five and ten; it is not learning the facts of all subjects by rote memory. The art of grammar is equipping students to attend and comprehend a well-written text, making it part of their memory.  Of course, we do not “deny the importance of careful instruction in syntax, vocabulary, or the other aspects of classical and medieval grammar, but these are taught using the great written works of our tradition. Without close attention to the evolving structure of language, our reading of texts will fail to reach what the author was trying to say; and our ability to communicate our own thoughts will suffer just as much. Without the training to handle words with precision and accuracy we will fail to express our own thoughts or communication them to others” (Caldecott 57).  


How do we train our students in the art of grammar at Clapham School?

First of all, we read many books on many subjects—all containing literary language, universal themes, and ideas that reach out to grasp the hearts and the minds of students. Children in Explorers I and II listen to poems, fairy tales, fables, and other works of literature before they can read on their own. They delight in language and ponder metaphors that lend understanding to concepts such as kindness, courage and loyalty. For example, as a child listens to Pinocchio, she ponders a story which will inform her understanding of obedience and truth for years to come.

Second, children are taught to read. In Explorers I students’ attention are drawn to sound. Where does this sound come from? Is it high pitched or low? The teacher then introduces students to phonemes such as /a/, /A/, /ah/. Drawing out the sound-symbol connection, the teacher illustrates that a circle can mean the sound of /o/, /O/ or /OO/.  As another school has explained it,

“By learning the foundational phonograms as well as corresponding spelling rules children are able to identify these phonograms in writing and are shown how to decode.   They naturally begin to read well beyond the words taught them. Each student learns that language is a code and that he can master the steps to decode and encode his language.”3 

Alongside reading, children begin to write, at first engaging large motor skills. They then write in sand and with chalk to strengthen their finger muscles. They are taught to correctly hold their pencil and to correctly form their letters in regard to formation, spacing and slant.  

In Class Two, children learn cursive and prepare to write pages of written narrations and compositions which start in Class Three. At this time, children have learned the rules of spelling and basic grammar, making writing narrations a natural progression. As children take time to write with pencil on paper, they process the information and concepts introduced through text. They have time to think about the formation of three types of rocks or the injustice of slavery. They form relationships with a breadth of knowledge from science to history to Composer Study. Delight is felt as they make connections with this knowledge and between this knowledge. Children begin learning Latin in Class Three, already working to translate texts. By Class Nine students are reading and translating great works of literature, whether selections from the Latin Vulgate or Livy’s history of early Rome.  

But as I have said, grammar is not limited to a time in a child’s life between the ages of five and ten. Grammar is an art always creating. Charlotte Mason designed a lesson plan format that starts with the art of grammar, incorporating this skill into every subject throughout the students’ learning at Clapham. First, a teacher draws students’ attention, reminding them to sit up, look at the speaker, gather their supplies, or bring their eyes to the text. As mentioned earlier, humility and focused-attention are necessary for learning. Second, the teacher presents students with a well-chosen text: a text that contains ideas which grab hold of the heart and mind. Charlotte Mason stated that the mind feeds on ideas; it gathers what it can from the feast (Glass 97). Third, the teacher will set up the lesson introducing vocabulary that might not be understood, showing a country’s location on a map, or raising a question about a character’s motivation. Expectation is built for the reading, and students are primed to read the text with comprehension. 

The teacher or a student then reads the text. He reads fluently with proper expression and phrasing, in a clear, loud voice thus assisting the comprehension of his classmates.   

Fourth, students narrate the text. Narration is when a child tells back the passage exactly as he remembers it trying to use the author’s language, sequence and details.  Other children are attentive, narrating in their minds, ready to make a correction or add a detail. They are practicing the art of grammar. This type of careful reading and narration builds in the repetition and intellectual engagement necessary to help information go to long-term memory—a necessary process for making connections and building relationships with knowledge that will be used in the arts of dialectic and rhetoric. In fact, Charlotte Mason’s lesson plans then end with a response to knowledge in which children use these arts of dialectic and rhetoric (see later articles). 

On a recent camping trip a local pastor noticed a Clapham Upper School student reading Boethius. Though he commented on the difficulty of the text, he was more surprised that this student not only understood the thesis, but delighted in sharing it. That is the art of grammar: the humility to look for wisdom in a text, the ability to read the text and comprehend its meaning, and the owning of the text at a level in which it now becomes part of a student’s thought life.


By Christine Escareño,
Lower School Principal


¹ Convolvulaceae