"Grammar is the skunk at the garden party of the language arts," declare members of the NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG) in the introduction to Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers.
This provocative statement reveals that teaching grammar is a complex issue. The call for a "writing revolution" by the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges has pushed the issues of writing and grammar into the spotlight. They also are center stage because of decisions by SAT to test writing as part of future exams and by ACT to offer an optional writing test.
Against this background it seems a good time to ask, "What is the most effective way to teach grammar and writing so that students learn to communicate well and are successful on required tests?"
The topic sparked lively responses from authors of NCTE books on grammar.
Brock Haussamen, ATEG president and an author of Grammar Alive! (NCTE, 2003), says emphasizing reading and encouraging language play should be high priorities in teaching grammar and writing.
"In my experience," he says, "poor writers either cannot or do not read their own writing accurately or perceptively. They may simply be resisting the work involved in reading for revision or they may very likely have real difficulties in reading. In either case, the result is that they lack the reader's perspective that goes with the writing process at any age. Those students who can and do read their own writing well, whether aloud or silently, have the foundation for developing a sentence sense which is the basis of grammatical awareness, as well as for developing a sense of effective organization, argument, and other writing skills."
He also believes that manipulating and experimenting with language help writers see alternatives and build understanding. This work can even be fun, he says, when it includes finding the subject-predicate core, diagramming sentences, searching texts for various constructions, comparing language varieties, expanding or imitating sentences, unscrambling sentences in a paragraph, and experimenting with the parts of essays and stories. "All this is play in the sense that it is free of the burden of the reader's final judgment, but it helps students gain fluency, flexibility, and precision."
Another author of Grammar Alive!, Martha Kolln, has long held that students who understand the tools of writing--the knowledge of language structure--and who possess the confidence that accompanies this understanding will write more effectively than students who lack a vocabulary for thinking about language in a conscious way. "For years, of course," she says, "we have heard just the opposite: that studying grammar is harmful because it takes time away from actual writing. That view is simply untrue."
Kolln, who is a founding member of ATEG and served as the group's president until 2000, stresses that grammar should be taught in a systematic way. She also wants to see grammar used and discussed within the reading and writing in classrooms.
"Our students need to learn the structure of their language in a conscious and systematic way, starting with basic sentences. One effective way is with sentence patterns that are based on the requirements of the various verb classes: transitive, intransitive, linking. Students should understand the form and function of the various elements, those that are required and those that are optional. They should understand the movable elements; they should discover the way that punctuation works to combine and separate the elements; they should understand modification and subordination.
"This kind of conscious knowledge gives writers the confidence to experiment, to try new stylistic devices, and to appreciate their own linguistic expertise. And this description of grammar should be grounded in that linguistic expertise, whether they are native speakers of English or second-language learners."
Grammar in Use
Constance Weaver is author of Grammar for Teachers: Perspectives and Definitions (NCTE, 1979). She believes that students need only command a minimal number of grammatical concepts and terms to improve writing. "Research suggests that we not return to emphasizing the parts of speech and the analysis of grammatical constructions and sentence types in order to improve writing," she says, adding, "This is a waste of valuable class time.
"Instead, I recommend teaching select aspects of grammar in conjunction with writing: while helping students include detail, style, and voice through grammatical options and while guiding students in revising sentences and editing their drafts. Students' writing becomes much more interesting--even exciting and powerful--when they use certain kinds of modifying constructions, experiment with parallelism, and choose effective vocabulary." From her many years of teaching, she's concluded that focusing on "creative" sentence construction can enhance a wide range of prose.
Getting students to edit their writing appropriately is more difficult, Weaver admits, but she approaches that through minilessons and direct assistance. "It's a gradual process, not instant perfection."
As for standardized tests of grammar, Weaver says it's important to know what kinds of items are on the test. "Scoring well may depend upon wide reading and the ability to revise and edit, not the ability to analyze and label sentences and their parts." She further recommends that teachers not let the teaching of grammar take over the curriculum, but instead provide brief but intensive guidance with practice tests right before students take a standardized test. Above all, she suggests urging students "to read, read, read, which helps them absorb grammatical patterns from context."
Rei R. Noguchi, author of Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities (NCTE, 1991), says that teaching grammar doesn't always improve writing.
"The crux of the problem lies largely in the focus. If grammar is to make a real difference in improving writing, our approach to teaching grammar will have to expand into something different. . . . If grammar is to make a more visible and viable contribution to writing improvement, we need to teach not so much 'rules of grammar' but 'principles of writing.'"
Noguchi makes these comments in "Rethinking the Teaching of Grammar," published in The English Record (New York State English Council, Winter 2002). By "principles," he means "a broad generalization that holds true in many situations," such as the emphasis principle of placing the most important element last, or in another prominent place, for effect.
He adds, "Good grammar can contribute to good writing, but grammar is only one part of writing, not the whole. As it is traditionally viewed and taught, grammar can contribute most in the area of style but very little in the areas of content and organization, areas that have far more influence in improving overall writing quality. . . .
"Grammar has a place in writing instruction, but, at the same time, we need to rethink our teaching of grammar. We need language instruction that connects more directly and significantly with writing improvement or, as I have been arguing, principles rather than just rules."
Dennis Baron is author of Guide to Home Language Repair (NCTE, 1994) and Declining Grammar and Other Essays on the English Vocabulary (NCTE, 1989). He says he helps future teachers separate grammar from writing because he believes there isn't a simple connection between understanding gerunds or compound/complex sentences and good writing.
"When I teach grammar, I teach the complexities of it rather than the certainties of it." He thinks it's important for people to develop an explicit knowledge of the language and teaches grammar for linguistic reasons (looking at how language works in different contexts), but he doesn't specifically teach it as a way to better writing because, he says, "that's a magic bullet that's just not there."
Instead, he suggests focusing on questions such as "Why does a piece of writing work? Why does it not work?" He believes this delves deeper than "picking on grammar" to address tougher issues of rhetorical effectiveness, argument structure, appropriate examples, adequate detail, and proper tone for the subject and audience.
When Baron gives students two short essays containing grammar and usage errors to grade, he finds they focus on the obvious grammar mistakes. After requesting that students fix the errors, he asks if the essays are any more effective. This leads into discussing, "What's really going on here?"
His answer is: "You can fix the grammar and you can still have an unsatisfying essay. So what does that tell you? It tells you that there's other stuff that readers use to judge the worthiness of a piece. If you want to get at effectiveness in writing, you have to attack that other stuff. You can't stop with the grammar and the spelling; you can't stop with the surface."
His advice for learning grammar is to talk about how language works. And his advice for learning to write is to take the same approach you would if learning an instrument or sport: "Do the activity you are learning." In this case, he says, that means reading and writing widely.
Did reading this article's range of perspectives make you want to read more? You can order the grammar titles in this article and other titles from the NCTE Bookstore by visiting http://www.ncte.org/store/, calling (toll free) 877-369-6283, or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The January 2003 issue of English Journal has a focus on "Revitalizing Grammar," and the December 2003 Voices from the Middle spotlights "Of Writers and Writing." You also can visit http://www.ncte.org/profdev/online/ideas for more on writing and grammar.