Why teach grammar

There’s a good chance that the New Yorker essayist who wrote this week’s lead piece has no idea what a gerund is. She probably uses the subjunctive form from time to time, but likely couldn’t explain it. But despite lacking explicit awareness of grammatical constructions she composes crisp prose because she understands the architecture of English intuitively. Would studying grammar help her writing?

English teachers from kindergarten to college have debated for over a hundred years how much value explicit formal grammar instruction has. Specifically, does it improve written expression? And beyond that might it have some less tangible value, perhaps developing the linguistic mind in some essential way akin to how studying mathematics supposedly develops core cognitive abilities? Writers who learn grammatical intricacies may be like sprinters who learn biomechanics. It may not be essential to understand how the hamstring flexes to run the 100 meter dash, but having such awareness may sharpen one’s technique.

I’ve met a lot of parents and teachers who think grammar instruction is essential for language skills and who lament the decreasing emphasis in recent decades on direct grammar instruction. There is a deep public mythology that a seeming educational looseness traceable back to the 1970s and our current tech and media saturation have given rise to teaching that eschews rigorous traditional methods and has resulted in declining academic performance and especially writing. Parents commonly cite their own children’s writing as evidence.

On the question of whether grammar instruction improves academic and writing performance the research is inconclusive. Belying common belief, research studies in various English-speaking countries do not consistently show that formal grammar instruction improves writing. In one British review study from 2006, Andrews et. al. concluded that “studies in the twentieth century have suggested that the learning of formal, traditional grammar has no beneficial effect on children’s written work.” While this position remains debatable, what is certainly clear is that decontextualized grammar instruction without any relation to students’ actual writing has little effect and may in some cases even be detrimental if it makes students approach writing as a system of rules rather than expression. This means it’s time to end the practice of giving students a worksheet of 20 bland sentences and asking them to underline all the adverbial phrases. And we would be best to discard sentence diagramming, that notorious rigidified task favored by stodgy prep school traditionalists. There just isn’t any credible evidence that formulaically mapping the structure of component parts of a sentence enhances students’ ability to use language.

One of the worst ways of trying to teach grammar is also the most widely practiced, randomly correcting grammatical errors on student papers. While teachers may feel teacherly crossing out improperly used verb tenses and ambiguous pronouns, students do not internalize these grammatical corrections and instead begin to self-evaluate their writing in terms of its correctness rather than its expressive quality. When asked whether they are good writers, students taught under the correction regime will often say no because they make too many mistakes. This is a shame, because despite the errors, they may be highly expressive and subtle thinkers on paper.

This is not to say that grammatical mistakes should be ignored, but that they should be addressed within the larger framework of teaching effective language expression. The issue is not whether to teach grammar per se, but how to do it strategically. Grammar, like any subject, can be taught poorly with little pedagogical consciousness. When taught creatively and selectively, however, with a sophisticated sense of how instruction integrates into a larger picture, students can gain tools for being able to manipulate language better. Practicing how to identify prepositional phrases will not achieve that goal. A better exercise would be to have students compose an authentic piece of writing such as an autobiographical essay and use a specified grammatical construction the class has studied. For example, students might be asked to tell their story including a sentence with parallel structure, such as “I hung there on the wall of the climbing gym, wondered if my legs would hold, and prayed something vaguely remembered from church.” The key here is that the learning is constructive. Students integrate a grammatical concept into their own expression rather than passively and mechanically correcting some other source’s disembodied sentences. They see the goal is ultimately about communication, not correctness.

What we are really after is keen thinking. Grammar is personally fascinating to me because it encodes the logical substructure of thinking. Grammar instruction should be subsumed under instruction in rhetoric and reason. This forms the basis for good academic writing, the kind of writing we begin to train students for at least by late middle school. Sentence structure study can particularly enhance thinking because a sentence is a miniature piece of logical architecture. For example, by practicing unfamiliar types of subordination one plays with arranging the relationships between independent and dependent ideas. Elementary age students write simple sentences that mirror their similarly simple logic. One exercise that challenges students to make their logic more complex is sentence combining. A high school student might be asked to take four simple sentences and combine them into one.

Starter sentences
1. President Obama is generally a compromiser.
2. He initiated a climate change proposal.
3. He sought a bi-partisan deal.
4. The Republican Congress stymied his proposal.

Combined sentence
When President Obama, generally a compromiser, initiated a climate change proposal he sought a bi-partisan deal, but the Republican Congress stymied the proposal.

This exercise requires several logical constructive tasks including ordering and subordinating, resulting in a sentence with more sophistication than students would likely produce on their own. But the teacher doesn’t need to name terms like subordinate clause and appositive to have students benefit from the exercise.

Correct use of certain grammatical constructions makes thinking more precise and should be taught with that in mind. A common writing mistake is the ambiguous pronoun reference when, for example, a conversation between two males is being described and three sentences into the paragraph one of the men is referred to as “he.” Is it the one figure or the other? Although the writer himself knows the answer, his inability to express it on the page reflects fuzzy thinking on a micro level. It can be helpful to make students more aware of this grammatical pitfall.

It’s also important to acknowledge that the real world expects a certain ability to use grammar correctly. Students take college entrance exams with grammar sub-tests. We fill out applications. We write public documents. I have seen many instances of the school principal or business executive who sends out a memo with grammatical or mechanical errors and loses credibility. If our knowledge of grammar and writing conventions is shaky, it goes without saying that we should use an editor as well as word processing spell checks and grammar checks.

While there are obviously pragmatic reasons for knowing proper grammar, there is also a cultural ethic about correctness we should challenge and not impose on students. This is the belief that correct grammar must be upheld because rules are rules. The teacher treats a misplaced comma as a minute violation of the language order. A split infinitive is criticized. Or, God forbid, someone ends a sentence in a preposition. Those who profess a great respect for grammar may argue that the issue is a question of social norms. Their view is that using a dangling modifier in a master’s thesis is like wearing a skewed tie at a wedding.

Grammar finally offers an opportunity to observe the intricate beauty behind the automatic use of the language system we take for granted every day. Part of why grammar teaching gets such as a bad rap is that it often presented as being more like scraping underlayers of paint rather than creating blends from a palette. Students will be more open to applying the practical lessons of grammar study when they can see there is actually an intriguing aesthetic element to the inner design of syntax. Other elegant systems of study have at times been presented similarly bled of their beauty: architecture as merely concrete and stresses, human anatomy as bones and sinew, geometry as angles and postulates. Let’s not continue to do something like that with grammar, for the power of studying it is greater than the bland stereotypical lesson implies. More than just improve writing and thinking, grammar study opens a window onto how the hidden verbal mechanisms operate of the very way our minds negotiate the world.