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Beyond Grammar Drills: How Language Works in Learning to Write

When members of the National Council of Teachers of English gather for meetings in cities around the country, cab drivers who have asked why English teachers are in town always retort, "Oh, I'd better watch my grammar."

"The truth is, however, most English teachers do not see themselves as grammar police, on the lookout for mistakes and intolerant of diverse ways of speaking. Rather, they want students to see grammar as an important resource for writing and for understanding the language around them in everyday life," says Randy Bomer, NCTE Past President.

Skilled teachers of writing know how to teach grammar to their students as they write, when they have a particular need to know the information. Students need to be able to compose complex, varied sentences, and they need to be able to proofread their writing for mistakes that might distract their audiences or distort their intended meaning. The evidence is clear that to learn to write well, students need time living in and making decisions among a forest of sentences, manipulating syntactic parts and grouping thoughts, while they also juggle their ideas about content and organization.

Many tests, such as the new SAT test in writing and many state tests, include sections that require students to proofread and correct problems in sentences. Editing writing so that it conforms to what readers expect is, of course, an important skill beyond its uses in tests, since many readers make judgments about writers on the basis of their grammatical structures and punctuation. When teachers spend more time on writing, students have more opportunities to proofread and correct errors, and teachers have more opportunity to see students' problems and address them accurately.

For English teachers, the study of language does not stop with improving the quality of written sentences. It involves tuning students in to the language of their daily lives. NCTE President Kyoko Sato notes, "Teaching how language works is the basis for good grammar instruction. The dialects and languages that students bring to school are important resources for their learning, thinking, and expression." Savvy teachers build on students' knowledge of language to teach them how language varies in a range of social and cultural settings. This knowledge becomes the bridge for students' learning to use Academic English when it is most appropriate and to use dialects and languages when they are most appropriate.

NCTE advocates that the study of language in school should include descriptive investigations of the diverse dialects spoken by members of a community, the differences among them, and the contexts in which they are used. It should also include investigations of the differences between oral and written language, and between acquiring a first and second language. These sorts of investigations build students' understandings of grammar, as well as their ability to use those understandings in the real world.

Many people think that direct instruction and drill in grammar -- the exercises remembered from their own schooling -- provide the shortest, most logical route. About a century of research, however, indicates otherwise. In classrooms where much of the time is spent on grammar exercises, student writing may even get worse. That's because, in those classes, students are spending more time underlining parts of speech or diagramming sentences than actually composing.

NCTE believes that, in a time when the education profession sees constant calls for teaching to be research-based, it is important to keep in mind the body of evidence about the teaching of grammar.

Some research reviews about the teaching of grammar:

  • Braddock, Richard; Richard Lloyd-Jones; and Lowell Schoerr. Research in Written Composition. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1963.
  • Graham, Steve, and Delores Perin. Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools. New York: Carnegie Corporation, 2006.
  • Hillocks, George Jr. Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching. Urbana, Illinois: National Conference on Research in English and ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, 1986.
  • Hillocks, George Jr., and Michael W. Smith, "Grammars and Literacy Learning," in Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts. 2nd. ed. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2003.

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