If I asked you to name something controversial, grammar probably wouldn’t be the first thing to pop into your mind. Among English teachers, however, few topics can provoke more vehement disagreement than the question of how grammar should be taught.
Today, schools in the United States are relatively light in their approach to grammar. Students often learn grammatical concepts on an as-needed basis, mainly by having their writing corrected.
The History of Grammar in the U.S.
The marginal role grammar now plays in U.S. English language classes wasn’t always the norm, though. Through the 1960s, in-depth grammar instruction was par for the course in both public and private schools.
During this period, many educators not only didn’t foresee the imminent demise of grammar as a core academic subject but in fact thought they were on the cusp of bright future with revolutionary new methods for teaching grammar. This was a time when linguists were doing groundbreaking research on how language is put together, and educators thought some of these advances would trickle down into fresh approaches to teaching grammar.
At the same time, though, people working on another branch of education research were asking a question that didn’t bode well for the future of grammar instruction at all: “what’s the point of teaching grammar?”
It’s the question every teacher hates to hear: “why are we learning this?” But at a time when students were spending hours diagramming sentences and drilling parts of speech, it’s one that was begging to be answered.
Unfortunately, this answer was not forthcoming. The more researchers conducted studies looking for good reasons teach grammar, the more they started to wonder whether any such reasons actually existed.
This growing current of skepticism culminated in 1963 with a report titled Research in Written Comprehension. Looking at studies that had been done up to that point, the report concluded that “the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.”
In other words, the report passed a harsh verdict: teaching grammar is at best a waste of time and at worst something that actually hurts students.
The Downfall of Grammar
This conclusion set off a gradual dismantling of grammar instruction in the U.S. In the decades that followed, educators gleefully took hatchets to grammar curricula. It turned out a lot of people were fed up with grammar!
By 1985, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) had adopted a resolution explicitly discouraging “the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research,” instead urging that “class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading and writing.” The resolution also called on teachers to stop giving tests focused on grammar rather than the more general “language arts.”
This resolution is still on the NCTE website. And it more or less summarizes the view of grammar instruction that continues to dominate the U.S. education system.
But that doesn’t mean everyone considers the question of whether to teach grammar closed. Many English teachers hold one of two sharply contrasting views:
- Teaching grammar doesn’t help students. It distracts from more important material, uses time that could be spend actually reading and writing, and gives students an artificial, overly technical view of the writing process.
- Teaching grammar is necessary. It prepares students to write well, express themselves clearly, and think logically.
The 1963 report that started the trend toward paring back grammar instruction in U.S. schools falls solidly inline with the first perspective. Although critics (like Martha Kolln) have since questioned whether the studies used in the report were methodologically sound, there has been more recent research supporting the idea that teaching grammar doesn’t help students become better writers.
For example, a meta-analysis published in 2007 looked at research into 11 different methods of teaching writing. The conclusion was that all but one of the methods seemed to be effective. The one that wasn’t? Well, you probably guessed it – grammar instruction!
If there’s no hard evidence that learning grammar separately helps students write, there is reason to believe that the tedium of grammar instruction actually turns students off from English classes. A 1979 study tracked students enrolled in three different English programs – two of which included formal grammar instruction, one of which didn’t. While there weren’t any differences between the three groups as far as writing skills, the group that didn’t learn grammar had a more positive attitude than the two groups that did, suggesting that time used for grammar instruction can be spent on things more engaging for students.
Besides the lack of evidence that teaching grammar serves any real purpose, there are a few other reasons grammar remains such a low priority in U.S. schools.
First, at around the same time as educators were starting to raise serious questions about why students were doing so many grammar drills, there was also a growing movement to make schools more inclusive and less culturally biased. In English, part of this was a shift away from a single, correct, “standard” dialect of English toward the understanding that different dialects of English are spoken with different grammars.
Second, formal grammar instruction has now been out of style so long that many teachers today couldn’t teach grammar in isolation even if they wanted to. The last time students received thorough grammar instruction in U.S. public schools was the 1960s, so many teachers who themselves went to school in the 1970s or later have the attitude of “I didn’t learn it, so why should my students?”
Where Does Grammar Stand Today?
However, with all that said, there are still many people who see the lack of rigorous grammar instruction in U.S. schools as a disservice to students that puts the U.S. at an international disadvantage.
These critics counter the studies showing a lack of correlation between grammar instruction and writing skills by saying that the problem isn’t grammar instruction itself, but the kind of grammar of instruction – that the solution isn’t to stop teaching grammar altogether, but to teach it better. Some add that even if it doesn’t improve students’ writing, learning about grammar still has value in its own right.
These advocates of grammar instruction also point out that there is a lot of work to be done on literacy in the U.S. – the way English is currently taught doesn’t seem to be doing the job. For example, recent reports by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) both suggest that relative to other developed countries, the U.S. scores relatively low on reading tests.
Although these arguments in favor of teaching more grammar have yet to catch hold in the U.S., they have started to gain traction across the pond in the United Kingdom. Like the U.S., the U.K. deemphasized grammar instruction over the final decades of the twentieth century.
Unlike the U.S., the U.K. has recently started to reverse direction, putting grammar back on top of the agenda. Recently, the country put into place a new national grammar test for 11-year-olds. To implement the updated, grammar-intensive curriculum, many teachers had to sign up for a special grammar crash course since they were not familiar with the material they were expected to present to their young students.
It’s too early to tell whether the U.K.’s renewed commitment to teaching grammar will lead to real gains in literacy. There’s no enough data yet – plus, the Department for Education had to cancel this year’s version of the test after accidentally posting it online.
In the meantime, U.S. students and parents find it odd that although grammar is a relatively low priority in the classroom, it still has a sizable portion on high-stakes tests like the SAT & ACT. Many international students report to score higher on grammar questions due to the fact that they are require to take classes that drill U.S. grammar rules.
Because it’s hard to provide definitive proof one way or another, it’s hard to see this debate ending soon. Advocates for grammar instruction will point to the country’s uninspiring performance on international literacy tests; critics will bring up the studies showing that grammar exercises don’t help students learn to write.
What do you think? Is in-depth grammar work a necessity or a waste of time? Share your thoughts in the comments!
By Niels V.