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Overview of the Grammar Stage

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This page last revised:
February 2003

Copyright
1997-2003

Overview of the Grammar Stage

Christine Miller

Just the Facts, Ma’am

The grammar stage of the Trivium coincides with the elementary years, 1st - 6th grades. In this stage children have not yet reached maturity in either their physical brain development or their cognitive thinking skills. They are focused on concrete information - just the facts, ma’am. Their minds are tuned in to absorbing simply what is. Even though they may sometimes be interested in why what is, or how what is, these questions are not the focus of the grammar stage of education. By all means, respond to the whys and hows as they come up. But realize that at this stage their minds are primarily thirsty sponges for the building blocks of knowledge, for the concrete.

The whys, hows, and wherefores; the relationships of what is to what isn’t and other philosophical questions require a more mature level of brain development and higher cognitive thinking skills to be understood and appreciated. The day when their minds will be thirsty sponges tuned in to the whys, hows, and wherefores will come, just not yet. In the grammar stage, children do not yet have the capability to reason out the validity of what they have been told, so let us not dwell on reasoning skills. They do not yet have the skills to extrapolate from what they have been told to what they have not known, so let us not dwell on theories. However, they do have the wonderful ability to believe whole-heartedly that what they have been told is the truth, so let us dwell on filling them with the truth to be found in every subject. This is the beauty of the grammar stage!

In fact, children need to be saturated in what is in order to proceed on to the higher levels of thinking skills. It is the necessary first step. We would not expect a baby to begin talking in complete sentences when he hadn’t spent some time on the first step of individual words. We would not expect someone to go on to professional athletics that had not spent some time on the first step of practice and drill. And the grammar stage, even though it is only the facts, is the foundation that all other learning, and all other work in the other stages, depend on. An excellent foundation in the concrete, in the facts, ensures a house of dialectic and rhetoric built on the rock of grammar, of the building blocks of knowledge, of the truth, rather than sand. The grammar stage is therefore designed to accommodate a grade school child's level of thinking - the concrete. Across the board in all the subjects, focus on teaching and drilling the facts of the subject.


The Memorization Debate

Once children have been presented with the facts of a subject, they should commit them to memory. Let us first look at the common sense behind this approach. Children have an enormous capacity for memorizing anything easily at this age. How else could they learn a complete language from scratch in just a few years? One would think that they were intentionally designed to be fact-magnets at this age. Children that have not been trained to dislike memorizing, don't dislike it. Children love to memorize things and are very good at it.

Committing the facts they are learning to memory has important advantages. When something has been memorized, it is owned. It becomes theirs. It can be recalled at will, whenever the need for that information arises. Even most modern educationalists see the value of memorization with math facts (although that is changing). Even most Christians and private schools see the value of memorizing Scripture verses. If memorizing math facts is valuable, then why isn’t memorizing grammar rules valuable? It is just as valuable, for the same reasons. If memorizing Scripture verses is valuable, then why isn’t memorizing historical dates valuable? It is just as valuable, for the same reasons. Memorization is an important tool for this stage. It is how the bedrock of facts is built, upon which the house of dialectic and rhetoric stands.

Memorizing facts is a tried-and-true method of processing information that is currently out of favor with educationalists, and even many Christian private schools and homeschools. One reason, I believe, is that many of us have been trained to dislike it. Memorizing something, after all, does require some effort. However, our dislike (or our children’s occasional dislike) does not make it less valuable. Modern thought is that education should at all times be as much fun as a trip to Disneyland. (I am at a loss to figure out how school, a child’s work, and vacation came to be equated.) A considerable amount of effort has been expended and rewriting of curriculum has taken place to remove as much blood, sweat, and tears from the educational process as possible. The problem is that very few things end up being learned with this approach. To quote Thomas W. Harvey, author of a very successful 19th century text, Harvey’s English Grammar:

“Neither the erudition of the teacher nor the exhaustive completeness of the text-book used, can compensate for the lack of intelligent, systematic drill in the class-room.” (Emphasis his.)


Daily Drill

To make brief periods of daily drill easier for me, the teacher, I used a very simple and systmatic method of reminding myself what to drill. I set up a 3x5 file box with index cards of different colors. Each subject had its own color: pink for Latin, green for geography, blue for history, white for English grammar, including spelling and phonics, and so on. As we encountered facts in our daily studies, I made a card of the appropriate color for those facts. For example, for drilling silent e’s six jobs:


Silent E’s

1) time: The silent e lets the vowel say its name.

2) have: In English we cannot end a word with a “v,” so the silent e follows the “v.”

3) chance, change: The silent e follows the c and g so that they can say “s” and “j.”

4) lit tle: Every syllable in English must contain at least one vowel. The -ble, -cle, -dle, -fle, -gle, -kle, -ple, -sle, -tle, and -zle endings are the only syllables that would not contain a vowel without the silent e.


5) please: The silent e comes after a single s or z at the end of a root which is preceeded by another consonant or vowel team. The silent e shows that the s or z belongs to the root and is not a part of a suffix. Compare “pleas” (more than one plea) to “please,” and “dens” (more than one den) to “dense.”

6) are: The silent e gives length and importance to very short words, so that they can be used as main-idea words, as in come, ewe, awe.




When we began each subject each day, I pulled out half a dozen or so of our most recent fact cards, and drilled the children on those facts. This took about five minutes. The cards they knew well went to back of the stack. The cards they had trouble with stayed in front. In this way the facts they needed to work on were drilled every day, while the whole body of facts for that subject were systematically cycled through a few times each year.


Making Memorization Fun

Having said all that, let us look at the balance of the issue: Memorization is necessary, but that does not mean that it has to be at all times dull. What I believe we want to do in the grammar stage is strike a balance between rote drill, which is what most of us rebel against with memorization, and fun and games. Fun and games do reinforce memorized facts and help motivate students to commit something to memory. It breaks the monotony of the routine. Rote drill is also just as important. A few minutes of drill every day in every subject solidly imbeds the desired information in the mind.

Most of us have an idea of how to do rote drill for a few minutes every day. We need help with making memorization fun for our children. Some ideas that we have used to make memorization more fun in the grammar stage include:

Concentration: Use index cards to make paired information cards: a word and its definition, a math equation and its answer, a historical event and its date, a state and its capital, a painting and its artist, and so on. Play concentration with the cards. The one that has the most matches at the end of the game wins.

Trivial Pursuit: Substitute your own questions for the cards in a Trivial Pursuit-type game, and play.

I Am Thinking: Have something specific in mind, such as a Latin or English word, a local plant or animal, The Battle of Bull Run, or some other “fact.” Say, “I am thinking of something we learned in science this week,” or “something we read about in history yesterday. What is it?” The children then play twenty questions, asking yes or no answer questions until they “get” it.

Around the World: Start at the beginning of some fact that you have been studying. Give the first tidbit of information. “The American Revolution was sparked by the Stamp Act of ...” or “The class of mammals is characterized by...” The next child tells the next bit of information, and so on “around the world.” If a child cannot answer, then he is “out.” The game continues until one child is left.

Bingo: Draw up a Bingo table on paper, with a heading row, and five rows down and across. To play, write down about fifty answers (facts of some subject) on the board. The children choose from that pool and write a different answer in each square of their Bingo sheet. The teacher then randomly asks matching questions, using each answer only once. The children cover their square with a button if they have that answer on their sheets. The first child to get a full row of buttons across, down, or diagonally wins the game. Bible and History answers can be people or dates; Math can be answers to computations; Science can be names of plants, animals, constellations, bones in the body, and other natural history facts; Latin or Greek can be vocabulary.

Bees: Old-fashioned Spelling Bees can also work with other subjects. Have History, Geography, Latin, Science or Math Bees. Make it a big event and give the children time to really bone up. For example, at the beginning of a new month, announce that on the last Friday of that month, such and such classes will be suspended for a ____put in subject here____ Bee. There will be prizes and refreshments, and any information had up until that time is game. For History, the children can answer questions, or match events on a time-line, or tell who it is and why they are famous when shown a picture of an important person. For Science, answer questions or give the common and scientific name of something from the natural world when shown a picture. For Math, answer questions or work problems on the board. For Geography, answer questions, tell place names when pointed to on a map, and match cultural information and pictures to a place and time. For Latin (or Greek,) have the children give definitions to Latin words or phrases, and for the older children, have them give the Latin for English words and phrases.

I believe that a combination of drill and games produce the best results, and keep children excited about school. Have brief drills every day for every class, and games one or two times a week in one or two classes.


A Summary of the Grammar Stage

In the grammar stage, a child’s cognitive thinking skills are focused in on concrete information, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” They are interested in what is, and at this stage specialize in believing that what they have been told is the truth. It is important to not despise the day of small beginnings, and be content with allowing the facts to be the focus of the curriculum at this time. The facts of the grammar stage are the bedrock foundation that all other learning and all other work in the other stages is built upon. A good foundation in the facts is like the rock upon which the house of dialectic and rhetoric firmly stands. The facts, once learned, are best committed to memory. A combination of daily drill and weekly games works well to imbed the facts firmly in the children’s minds and keep them excited about school.


Important Links:

Using Mnemonic Strategies

Amanda’s Mnemonics Page

Discovery School’s Puzzlemaker

Return to The Grammar Stage Index


The Grammar Stage: Grades 1-6 Art in the Grammar Stage


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