Teaching Grammar

Subject: Teaching Grammar
From: John Gear <catalyst -at- PACIFIER -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 5 Dec 1995 13:18:00 PST

Someone writes:

>The excuse often given for not teaching grammar is that research shows that
>teaching grammar doesn't work. Interestingly, most of the research studies
>on the effectiveness of teaching grammar test rote memorization of rules,
>not sentence analysis.

In my opinion the reason (not "excuse") for the decline of grammar as a
primary school subject is that there is no research that connects a
knowledge of grammar with the ability to write well.

I think it incorrect to say that "research shows that teaching grammar
doesn't work." Of course it does, if by "work" we mean "student learns to
perform the activities that we agree demonstrate a knowledge of grammar."
The thing is, the widely-held general idea is that what matters is the
ability to write well, not the ability to parse a sentence.

What *doesn't* work is teaching grammar to obtain improvements in writing.
I once had a rather long list of studies that showed just the opposite (or,
more precisely, studies that were unable to establish even a correlation
between knowledge of grammmar and writing skill, much less any causal
relationship). One of the writing instructors on this list might have the
citations for such studies.

However, I imagine (without having looked into it very deeply) that it might
be possible to show that a knowledge of grammar is useful for those who edit
the work of others. If (and that's still an if) I'm right then a program of
instruction in technical communication might justify including grammar in
the curriculum if the expectation is that the graduates can not only write
but also edit the work of others.

This should not be taken to mean that a knowledge of grammar is harmful to
writing skill. That also has not been shown. So everyone's anecdote is
probably true--this one's son who wrote well from day one with no grammar
class *and* that one's daughter who struggled with writing until finally
getting some instruction in grammar and suddenly loving to write.

The difficulty with these questions is that there is no suitable control
group. Until cloning is perfected we cannot draw any useful conclusions
from the story of the two sisters (one taught using 'traditional' methods,
the other taught using more 'modern' techniques) related on this list. They
are *not* the same persons, no matter how much they might outwardly seem

John Gear (catalyst -at- pacifier -dot- com)

The Bill of Rights--The Original Contract with America
Accept no substitutes. Beware of imitations. Insist on the genuine articles.

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