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CBD: Tell us a little bit about your background as an educator. What led to your interest in grammar and writing?

FJ: As an educator, I have served in public and private schools. For six years I taught my children at home along with some others in my own Christian school and oversaw the teaching of a number of other homeschooling families. Later I taught in a vocational college. Most of my experience has been in grades 7 through 12. I’ve also taught high school and adult Sunday school classes for years and have led numerous Bible studies.

My interest in grammar and writing probably arose from my early experiences and love of words. I grew up among many non-native speakers and heard all kinds of expressions in Danish and Spanish. In the eighth grade, I had a Latin class. In high school, three of my friends and I made up our own language of maybe 75 to 100 words or expressions. In college, I majored in math for three years before switching to English. My approach to the language was and is somewhat more analytical than regular English majors. In graduate school, I had two influential teachers who prompted me to do some real thinking along the lines of grammar. Also at that time, Paul Roberts was producing his transformational grammar texts, and Francis Christensen was writing about the theory of sentence construction. I wrote my first grammar back in the late 1960s while taking a special studies course. My instructor was a linguist. I used my eighth grade class at the time as a living laboratory. I’d write lessons and explanations for them and go over the results with my professor. I listened to my students; they helped me derive better explanations for some concepts. Jensen’s Grammar had its beginnings back then, and over time I just kept perfecting it. My grammar book combines traditional, transformational, and structural grammars.

As far as writing, I had a marvelous English teacher in the twelfth grade. Mr. Muradian taught me most of my grammar and writing skills. Of course, having to write constantly in college prompted me to generate some defensive techniques, some of which are in my writing book. I stumbled onto the seven basic formats while teaching a sophomore English class and began to adapt them for my students. It worked out well, so I spent some time writing explanations and exercises, and today much of that early material forms the core of my writing book.

CBD: There are various theories concerning how children should be taught grammar. Some educators claim that too much emphasis is put on learning the rules, while others believe that rules are not stressed enough. What is your opinion concerning this issue? How does Jensen’s Grammar reflect your educational philosophy?

FJ: My opinion is just that—an opinion. Experts and teachers disagree. Certain rules do need to be known. Even grammarians don’t know all the rules, but they do know where to look them up. In math, a person needs to know the ordinal numbers and how to add and subtract before moving on. It’s the same in English, although not as obvious. There are some basics that a student needs to know in order to progress. For instance, I believe if a student knows the 12 linking verbs and can apply a couple of simple rules, that student will have few problems with predicates. I believe that if a student can master 90 percent of what is in my grammar book, the student will be right at least 95 percent of the time and probably better off than 99 percent of his or her peers when it comes to grammar.

Jensen’s Grammar explains the rules and makes sure to show which rules are iron clad and which ones aren’t quite as reliable. My theory is to know the rule and apply it. If it works 90 percent of the time, then it’s a good rule. The language is changing, and the rules change with it.

Grammarians, like lexicographers, have a problem. Do they describe what is going on in the language, or do they set a standard? It’s the old descriptive vs. prescriptive tension. I’ve tried to give the students something practical, a grammar that works for them, a grammar they can apply to their own writing to make their expression more cogent and definitive. To that end, most of the exercises in Jensen’s Grammar require the student to apply the grammar being learned. This is done in the formula writing generally found at the end of most exercises. Grammar for grammar’s sake is only for grammarians. Jensen’s Grammar can be done in 90 sittings. Once done, the formal grammar course is over. Then it’s time to apply it by writing reports, essays, stories, and whatever else the teacher requires. Ninety days to get it, and four or five years to apply it; that’s my formula. Yes, a little review might be necessary in two or three years, but who needs grammar every year after the seventh grade?

CBD: In your experience, what aspects of grammar are the most difficult for children to grasp? What guidance can you give to home educators to help their students learn difficult grammatical concepts?

FJ: In my experience, the students have generally had the toughest time with creating relative clauses correctly. I suspect it is because of the multiple steps involved. The student needs to follow all the directions carefully since a misstep at any one point will yield an incorrect answer. I also think the difficulty arises partially due to the inexperience or immaturity with the language of the typical seventh or eighth grader. The relative clause represents a more sophisticated expression than a prepositional phrase or a compound sentence. The idea of inserting one thought into another requires a different skill than just tacking one thought on to another in tandem fashion.

To help their students learn, teachers should give them clear explanations, good examples, some practice, and certainly some practical application. One thing I have found helpful is to have the student explain the process or concept back to me. At times, I have even had them write it out in their own words along with an example. If the student gets off track, the point of departure is generally evident. Then the teacher knows right where to focus.

CBD: Creative and expository writing teachers often tell their students not to pay attention to grammar as they write their first drafts. As the author of Format Writing, a book on expository writing, do you agree that grammar should be de-emphasized during this stage of the writing process?

FJ: That depends on what we decide constitutes a first draft. The theory espoused in your statement is to get the ideas flowing freely. Some people think that means just writing the paper as ideas come to mind. My approach in Format Writing has the student doing a number of things before writing the paper. Ideas need to be put down and arranged. This is not formal writing; in fact, much of what is put down at this time is not in the form of sentences; it’s just words and phrases representing ideas. Once the student begins to write sentences, then the student should write correctly. In fact, great care must be taken in writing the thesis statement since it is the core of the paper. From that one sentence, six other sentences will be generated, and the resulting seven sentences form the framework for the rest of a five-paragraph essay. The grammar and punctuation of those seven sentences should be perfect when they are completed. Then it’s time to fill in the paragraphs with more sentences, most of which are generated from the idea list. I would call this the first draft. With the advent of the computer and on-screen editing, writing and rewriting has become vastly easier. This means the student can always tweak a sentence to make it better by changing the words or phrasing a bit without having to rewrite the whole piece. I think, in this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Take time writing the first draft, and the changes in the final draft will be more or less cosmetic instead of radical surgery.

CBD: Some homeschoolers may find teaching grammar to be a little dry. What advice can you offer to make lessons fun for both teachers and students?

FJ: Dry? Impossible? Well, for me anyway. After the first day in one of my sophomore English classes, a student came up to me and said, “I never thought I’d see anyone get so excited about nouns.” I had a sign in my room that read, “If you aren’t doing what you like, try liking what you’re doing.”

Seriously, both the student and the teacher need to see the rationale for doing whatever it is they are doing. Grammar has a bad rap. It seems to have no purpose other than to inflict pain on most students and take up time in the classroom and at home. Some teachers have the idea that if finding 10 nouns in sentences is good, finding 100 nouns is 10 times as good. Endless drill becomes mindless drill. I’ve seen lots of students who could find every noun in 10 sentences but couldn’t use nouns correctly in their own writing. The bottom line is good communication. Grammar is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I haven’t much advice about making grammar fun. Being enthusiastic and seeing practical value is most of the battle. When a student gets good at what he or she does, the lessons become more enjoyable. Calling them fun is a bit of a stretch. We all dislike what we can’t do; failure produces antipathy while success is just the opposite. I did a number of things in class as supplementary exercises, many of which appear in my English Fun Stuff book. We had some fun with those. I’ve made the exercises in Jensen’s Grammar more interesting in that all the sentences in an exercise go together and show little scenes or events. In my classes, many times the students would add to those stories when they wrote their own sentences at the end of the exercise. Challenging? Yes! Fun? You’d have to talk to the students about that.

 

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Jensen's Grammar (Textbook, Tests & Answers)
Jensen's Grammar (Textbook, Tests & Answers)
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Jensen's Punctuation
Jensen's Punctuation


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Jensen's Vocabulary
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Jensen's Format Writing, Revised
Jensen's Format Writing, Revised



 

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