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The Teaching of Grammar and why English Proficiency among Filipinos seems to have Declined

Yesterday, my former boss forwarded to me a string of e-mails from one of his e-groups. The discussion was spicy enough to grace the opinion section of any of the national circulation newspapers. However, I was equally interested in how each contributor to the string wrote in flawless grammar.

The gentlemen contributors, I would surmise, were all in their sixties. That would mean they were in elementary school in the fifties and then high school and college in the sixties.

Perhaps, I would be guilty of taking liberties with my presumptions if I claim that the teaching of English was so much better back then and before. Yet, the string of messages I refer to is living evidence.

My Dad and Mom – and I know this from having seen their works – both wrote in equally flawless English. I should know! When they were both out, as a young kid, I used to snoop in their room for their secret boxes, inside which they kept the love letters they unsuspectingly hoarded. The contents used to make me cringe – but I had to admire the grammar.

Even in my time, i.e. when I was in elementary school, the teaching of English grammar used to be very thorough. We were kept sharp by this language teaching technique called Diagramming. We were all required to come to school with this ship-shaped piece of cardboard. This we would then use to draw lines on the board when we were asked by the teacher to come to the front and break sentences up into their components.

It was ridiculously simple; and to this day, I regard it as the single most influential tool I ever encountered to help me organize my sentences. A pity – and this I learned three decades later from the Brother Lolo who himself used to teach English – that the technique was subsequently found to be ineffective by educators. I completely disagree!

In all fairness, I do not believe teachers and students became bad overnight after my time. Students of the eighties, for instance – when I was already teaching, by the way – had to learn substantially more than I had to in my generation. These days, of course, there is simply too great an information overload for an average student to have to cope with.

Increased class sizes, I believe, is the singular most undeniable reason why the teaching of English – along with other subjects – subsequently became less effective. When I graduated from high school, I do not think we were even thirty in my class!

If we had quizzes, our teachers not only wrote our scores at the top of our papers. They would also make sure our mistakes were dutifully encircled with red ink. Then, during breaks, we would always make sure we would approach our teachers to ask them to explain the red circles. They were always happy to oblige; that way, we even learned from our mistakes.

When I was already teaching, even though my subject was History, I tried when I was not too tired to do the same thing to the essays submitted to me by my students. The assumption, of course, was that I would be approached for explanations on the mistakes. I do not remember that many did; and not that I ever blamed any of my students. There were the Maths and the Sciences to worry about.

Not that I was also ever consistent in encircling mistakes when I was given loads of six classes; with students numbering as many as 58 or 59 in each class. When one was pressed to meet deadlines, how zealous could one really be? Physically, it was next to impossible. There were also reports to make, meetings to attend and a whole lot of other things to do that simply fell under the job description “germane to the position.”

There also was, in my teaching years, this terrible tragedy that was government’s bilingualism policy. In the classroom, I continued to teach in English in defiance of the policy. My stand was that Social Science – with the possible exception of Philippine History and Community Life – was the best support subject for the learning of English.

Proponents, naturally, argued that the eventual goal of the experiment was proficiency in both English and Filipino. Fair enough; but my reaction to that line of thinking continues to be, to this day, ha-ha! Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20; and it affords me the luxury of being able to say that all that the policy ever succeeded in doing was to promote the non-virtue of Taglish.

With these things in mind, I am alarmed by government’s aim to increase the number of Basic Education years from ten to twelve – well-meaning, though, the intentions may be. Adding two more years may put us at par with what the standard is in other countries; but it does not remove the problem of large class sizes, tired teachers and – ultimately – unmotivated students burdened with too much to learn.

There used to be an American teacher in my school – I used to call him behind his back as Mr. Magoo because he looked exactly like him – who taught English; he was more interested in form rather than substance. Once, during a recitation, a student gave this sentence, “The carabaos are flying.” Mr. Magoo said, “Very good!”

His argument was that the subject-verb agreement was, at least, correct. To my mind, this was the perfect example of what is called “missing the point.” Government may be well-advised that carabaos just do not fly; and two years will not make a world of a difference when there are so many other problems needing to be fixed first.

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