Brenda Shurley, veteran teacher of 20 years, received her bachelor’s
and master’s degrees in education from Arkansas State
additional coursework toward her specialist’s degree. She is the creator and
author of the successful textbook series Shurley
English: English Made Easy (K to 8). Ms. Shurley lives in Arkansas, where she continues writing and
enjoys being with her family.
CBD: In 1971 when you were teaching 8th-grade
English in the public schools, you developed your own curriculum. What caused
you to become dissatisfied with the way English was being taught in the school
system? How does your method differ from traditional curriculums?
BS: I became
frustrated when my eighth graders, though having had language instruction since
their early elementary years, needed help remembering and applying the
conventions of written and spoken English. It occurred to me that remediation
and interventions would be less necessary if I could strengthen students’
understanding of basic English concepts throughout their formative school
years. As the adage goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
This holds true in my experience as an educator; consequently, I sought to
apply this philosophy to my curriculum. That’s what makes Shurley English so different from traditional programs. I developed
and refined several different teaching models in my classroom, utilizing
feedback from my students. Now, my curriculum features a good balance of what I
consider to be the most effective teaching models, some of which didn’t even
have a “tag” back in the ‘70s.
One of these teaching models is
Direct Instruction, which simply means that I don’t leave any information or
prerequisite teaching to chance. Each and every lesson has enough scripted instruction
so that, eventually, the instructional vocabulary becomes natural for every
teacher who uses the Shurley English
In addition to Direct Instruction,
I rely on the Memory model heavily. We know that memory is the mother of all
learning. We also know that memory systems can be nurtured through the use of
innovation, repetition, rhythm, music, and all the senses. For this reason, my
curriculum uses Grammar Jingles and the Question and Answer Flow to group
information in understandable segments, which facilitates mastery.
Probably the most significant
teaching model evident in Shurley English
is Brain-Compatible Instruction. In the ‘70s, I didn’t call what I was doing “brain-compatible.”
I just knew it was effective teaching that really worked! It worked because I
refused to teach grammar, skills, and writing as separate concepts.
Understanding the parts of speech, definitions, and functions is absolutely a
prerequisite for learners who wish to become fluent writers.
Without the language of instruction
that knowing grammar provides, teachers are hard-pressed to converse with
students about their writing. In Shurley
English, once a grammatical concept is taught, the teacher never abandons
it because it is the steppingstone to the next level of instruction. Our
language is actually quite well-organized and can be manipulated easily by
students who understand not only the semantics, or vocabulary, of English, but
who can also apply the rules and conventions of English to writing.
CBD: The research cited on your website states
that frequency, intensity, cross-training, adaptivity, motivation, and
attention are important elements in learning. How does the Shurley approach incorporate these elements to
improve learning? In your opinion, what are some of the most difficult
obstacles for students to overcome when they are learning English?
BS: It’s quite
obvious that most students don’t adequately practice standard English enough to
truly master it. Mastery involves an awareness of semantics and syntax on
several levels. The way I accomplish this in Shurley English is by presenting information in a logical,
manageable order and frequency. Practice makes perfect, so it has been said,
but I think that perfect practice makes perfect. So, in my opinion, the correct
way to teach English is to use innovation so that the brain wants to attend to
it. The Grammar Jingles are one of the primary ways this is accomplished. They’re
musical, they’re rhythmic, and they’re fun! Students actually begin to
subconsciously rehearse them. The program picks up momentum when the Question
and Answer Flow is introduced, practiced, and mastered.
Cross-training and adaptivity are
by-products of the program because students begin to demonstrate a real sense
of “knowingness.” You can see it in their eyes when they truly understand your
language of instruction. Eventually, the skills the students learn through this
method begin to generalize or cross over into other areas of their learning.
This is especially important for students today because one of the obstacles
for learning English, in my opinion, is the overemphasis on high-stakes
Learning English is a process—a
very long process—and we, as educators, are tempted to skip through some of the
most crucial building blocks for learning English, namely grammar, conventions,
and overall comprehension. Another obstacle, as I see it, is inadequate
modeling of correctly written and spoken English. This can be seen with the
onslaught of communication technology, which doesn’t require or even promote
the use of standard English in order to communicate. With such obstacles before
us, it is more important than ever to train teachers how to instruct the
language in such a way that its standards for correct usage can be retained for
a lifetime. Shurley English is one of
the ways to combat these barriers to learning and using standard English.
note “the teacher is the key that unlocks the full potential of Shurley
English.” Other homeschool curriculums sometimes place more of the responsibility
on the students. Why is the teacher’s role so important? How can parents make
learning grammar fun for their children?
BS: While it is
true that Shurley English starts with
Direct Instruction, which is primarily teacher-centered, it simply builds the
foundation for students to navigate independently. Shurley English requires a certain amount of “front-loading” of
information, which the teacher provides throughout the curriculum.
Homeschooling parents are probably quite familiar with this strategy. Once the
teacher has demonstrated the jingles, orchestrated the practice schedule, and
taught the Question and Answer Flow, grammar instruction is largely an
independent endeavor for the students until a new concept or definition is
Let me reiterate that the teacher
truly is the key that unlocks the full potential of Shurley English. The teacher is charged with keeping the learning
environment emotionally safe, a place where students can take risks, make
mistakes, learn from the mistakes, and know that all of their efforts to learn
are important. These are fundamental ways to make all learning enjoyable. Of
course, if the homeschooling parent or any other teacher is bored,
disinterested, or unenthusiastic, the learning experience will reflect this. On
the other hand, Shurley English
teachers, who are involved in the process, who actively participate in the
movement and rhythm of the jingles, generate a positive learning experience for
today’s era of instant messaging, many teachers complain that their students’
language skills are declining—especially in the areas of grammar and spelling.
Can you comment on this trend and suggest ways parents can offset this cultural
BS: I briefly
touched on this issue earlier, and I am concerned that there is no real way to
control the incorrect use of standard English with such innovations as texting
and instant messaging. However, that being said, people who don’t know they’re
using incorrect English are powerless to improve it. This is the onramp for
learning correct English. There are a lot of components to Shurley English, but the total value of learning English with Shurley is greater than the sum of its
parts—the skills readily cross over into all types of communication, when the “code”
has been properly taught and practiced over time. The “code” is the vocabulary
of our language, which is grammar.
For some practical suggestions for
parents who want to counteract the influence of the above-mentioned
technologies, I think it’s essential to rigorously model and require correct
grammar in both written and spoken responses, depending upon the audience. The
reason I say “audience” is because sometimes colloquial language is entirely
appropriate. The goal should be to train students to recognize their audience
and to tailor their responses accordingly. You will be engaging in an all-out
battle if you incessantly complain about your students’ or children’s incorrect
language usage. With calculated parental responses, however, corrections can be
suggested in an unabrasive way.
The best advice I can give is to
start modeling correct usage when your children are still in the cradle. If you
don’t feel secure in your own knowledge of correct grammar and usage, just
teach Shurley English for a year, and
you will begin to become an expert in your own right. For older students, use
well-placed questions like, “Did you know that the number one job skill for the
21st century is communication?”
You can further support standard
English in your home by establishing it as a “house rules” type of approach. It
must be agreed upon within your family that since communication skills command
such a high premium in this world, then it stands to reason that standard
English will be encouraged in the home.
Try not to get caught up in the “corrector”
trap. It’s upsetting to those who are being corrected, and it doesn’t really
help. Instead, have open-ended conversations about the way certain ideas are
expressed. Analyze how information is being communicated within the family and
bring it to a conscious level so that it can be discussed. Keeping the threat
low will increase the odds that a more correct standard will be used the next
It helps to know where the major
errors in correct grammar usage occur. For instance, mastering grammar demons
such as subjective pronouns versus objective pronouns, subject-verb agreement,
and certain irregular verbs, can really raise the correctness ratio in daily
oral language. A practical way that may help is to make a list of common
mistakes made in the spoken language. Practice saying the corrections aloud as
often as possible until they become your new standard. Using oral language
correctly will transfer into writing.
CBD: What encouragement or tips can you share
with parents who may not feel confident in teaching their children the
intricacies of the English language?
BS: As I
mentioned above, parents or teachers who commit to at least a year of teaching Shurley English can begin to repave the
foundation of standard English that might not have “stuck” during their own
schooling. You will learn along with your students. Learning is innately a
social engagement. Students love knowing that we, as parents and teachers, are
far from perfect, but we are still willing to learn new things. Modeling an
eagerness to learn is a gift that you can give your children.