A concrete application of the trivium to grammar instruction detailed by Andrew Kern.

Grammar ain’t easy. It is abstract and complex. So, how should we teach it? Philippians 4:8,9 indicate that we learn by meditating and by imitating. Practically, that means grammar must be taught both indirectly (imitation) and directly (meditation).

First, grammar must be taught indirectly through imitation. An atmosphere indifferent to language cripples a child’s vocabulary and syntax, disabling his ability to think effectively and confidently. Everyone in the school must be committed to correct grammar. Otherwise, students will see grammar as merely a school subject, not a serious priority. Our goal should be that the school will be full of powerful vocabulary, sound expression, and complicated syntax. This takes effort, but, if we honor the God who gave us language, we have to give it the time it takes.

Grammar should also be taught indirectly through writing, Latin or Greek, and every text the students read. They learn by imitation.

Second, grammar must be taught directly, through meditation. While the environment provides models to imitate, the classroom provides practical instruction.

We train students to meditate on grammar by applying the three stages of the trivium to any particular lesson. Here’s how it works:

We come to understand ideas when we see them embodied in particular expressions:

Grammar: you see particular examples of something (say, a dog), then another, then another.
Logic: you compare the specifics with each other. Pretty soon, you come to understand what is true of every particular instance – what makes something the kind of thing it is. Rhetoric: You understand and express the idea. Now you can describe a dog and distinguish it from a cat.

It is easy to see this with concrete things, like dogs, cats, and books. It works the same way when we want to know an abstract thing, like justice, freedom, or a verb. We come to know justice or freedom when we see them in particular situations or people. We come to understand what a verb is when we see specific acts in a sentence.

First, be very clear about what you want your students to understand. Get this right and the rest falls nicely into place.

Suppose you want your students to understand that a sentence is a complete thought. That’s the idea.

Now provide examples. “John sits.” “Lauren laughs.” “Noah built an ark.” Tell them that these are sentences. After each, ask: “Does this make sense?”

Next, write some incomplete thoughts: “John…” “Lauren….” “Noah built…” “Mickey hit a home run and then…” Re- mind your students that these are not sentences.

After your students have seen enough examples, ask: “How are the sentences the same as the non-sentences? How are they different?” Get plenty of ideas and be patient while they answer. At this point the students are meditating on grammar. If their first thoughts are inaccurate, that’s just part of thinking.

After they’ve made enough comparisons, ask: “What is a sentence?” If they can tell you that a sentence is a complete thought, you’ve succeeded. If not, back up.

When they tell you what a sentence is, they are ready to apply the idea. Provide practice exercises: “Write five correct sentences.” “Complete these sentences.” “Which of these sentences are complete and which are not?” etc.

You can teach any idea following this model of the trivium: examples (grammar), comparisons (logic), expression and application (rhetoric). For example, every sentence has a subject and a predicate, the predicate is what you are saying about the subject, etc.

Here’s the additional good news: if you can teach this way, you can adapt any curriculum. You may find that the easiest curricula are old ones— prior to the 1950’s. I like Harvey’s Grammar, though it needs to be supplemented. Rod and Staff, Mother Tongue, and First Lessons in Language are used in quite a few classical, Christian schools and seem easy to adapt, especially Mother Tongue.

The bottom line: you can use any program, but your students can only come to understand one way: by meditating on examples of the idea taught.

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