Is Teaching Grammar Necessary?

This post is written by Joanne Yatvin, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst for Oregon. 

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Many years ago, while visiting a grade 4/5 classroom in the school where I was principal, I listened to a group of children reading aloud the first drafts of essays they had written about various holidays celebrated in America. The children were helping each other to correct errors and make meaning clearer. In reading her essay one girl said, “In the United states we celebrate Christmas by giving and receiving gifts and sing Christmas carols.” Immediately, another girl in the group interrupted her, saying, “That word should be singing.” The interesting thing for me was not that the second girl was absolutely right, but that she was right without knowing why. Neither she nor any other child in the classroom could have stated, “Sentence elements of equal grammatical rank should be expressed in parallel constructions.” Yet, all of them subconsciously knew that principle of English grammar and were able—most of the time—to demonstrate it in their speech and writing.

This story is but one illustration of what happens most of the time in language usage; we construct grammatically correct sentences or correct our mistakes by intuitively applying the rules that govern English syntax. If, instead, we had to apply those rules consciously, they would only get in our way, making it impossible for us to speak or write at all. To construct a simple two-word sentence, such as “He dreams,” requires the application of at least seven grammar rules. Imagine trying to apply them consciously following the rules of English grammar.

To say what I mean, I need a noun phrase and a verb phrase. The noun phrase can be made up of a singular noun plus a determiner, a plural noun, a proper noun, or a nominative case pronoun. If I choose a pronoun, it can be singular or plural, but it must be inflected for first, second, or third person. The verb I choose can be transitive, intransitive, or copulative. But if it is transitive, it needs an object, or if it is copulative, it needs a complement. In any case the verb must also be inflected for first, second, or third person to agree with the pronoun.

With grammar rules so complicated and hard to use, you may wonder why we have them at all. The fact is that such rules were created by linguists in order to explain language phenomena that had already existed for thousands of years. Most of the grammatical explanations were reasonable at the time they were created, but some have been discredited by subsequent discoveries about language. Others were cancelled out by actual changes in spoken language over time. In all cases, though, the rules were merely rough models for incompletely understood mental processes. No grammarian ever asserted that a grammar list exists in the brain from which human beings select and apply rules as they need them.

Although grammar rules are explanations for what exists in language, not prescriptions for what “ought to be,” they have been misused for a long time. Teaching those rules in schools started with instruction in ancient Latin and Greek, where it made sense because those were “dead” languages. But then those rules gradually slipped into other parts of the school curriculum, such as modern foreign language courses and English classes, where they had no business.

Over the years, the teaching of grammar has continued to be prominent in English and foreign language instruction, leaving less class time or student energy for students to speak, read, or write in those languages. Yet, many perceptive teachers, sensing that grammar lessons might not be all that beneficial for their students, have pressed for research to determine its real impact on learning. As early as 1906, studies were undertaken that attempted to show the relationship between knowledge of school-taught grammar and language skills. Since then, hundreds of such studies have produced some clear and unequivocal conclusions: The teaching of formal grammar does not help a student’s ability to speak, to write, to think, or to learn foreign languages.

It is important for educators to know that, among recent research studies, not one justifies teaching grammar to help students write better. * Although we accept the fact that social, economic, and political forces influence education in many areas, we ought not to allow such forces to outweigh knowledge and reason in determining the school curriculum.

*See Elley, W. B., Barham, I. H., Lamb, H., & Wyllie, M. (1976). The role of grammar in a secondary English curriculum. Research in the Teaching of English, 10, 5-21.

Over her 45 year career Joanne Yatvin was a teacher of almost all grades 1-12, an elementary and middle school principal, and a member of The National Reading Panel.  Since retiring she has done independent research in high poverty schools, written three books for teachers, and served as president of NCTE. Joanne Yatvin is a lifetime member of NCTE.

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

31 thoughts on “Is Teaching Grammar Necessary?

  1. Students’ writing does improve when they can understand subjects and verbs, and the relationships between words, phrases, and clauses. And then what about questions of style? You need at least a basic knowledge of grammar to examine style and to write with style. The real reason we’re afraid to teach grammar is because it’s hard. And not every student understands it well. And we’re cowed into submission by all the forces in society telling us that education always has to be fun, and that if it’s not always fun we’re bad teachers. Well, I say learn your grammar and be empowered to join the lawyers and judges and authors and poets and everyone else who does know it well.

  2. “The fact is that such rules were created by linguists in order to explain language phenomena that had already existed for thousands of years.” Absolutely false. Linguists are descriptivists, not prescriptivists…we do not create the “rules” of grammar, but describe them. Rules do not “explain” language.

    1. You’re right. Rules do not “explain”language. The problem is that what is being taught today are not rules; they are merely explanations of existing forms represented in diagrams or technical words that are meaningless to students. Young children learn the structure of language through communication with their parents. The language they bring to school is the language of their parents, sometimes acceptable, sometimes not. But if we want to teach students the structures of acceptable language, we have to let them read, read, rand read; then have them write in the genres and forms of literary language.

    2. You are changing her point to disagree with her. She is saying that the rules were created to explain language phenomena. Or in other words, the rules were created to describe language phenomenon. So she is saying the “grammar rules” are really just explanations of how the language works.

      This is pretty clear that she is on the descriptive side of the fence: “grammar rules are explanations for what exists in language, not prescriptions for what “ought to be,” they have been misused for a long time”

    1. No, being able to speak and write sentences that are grammatically correct is important. Fortunately, students who read a lot and model their writing on good professional writing are the ones most often successful.

      1. Joanne, I couldn’t agree more. However, both access to books and leisure time to read are, to greater or lesser extents, the domains of privileged backgrounds. Sure, it’d be easiest for everyone if we could all intuit the rules of (English and other) grammars through sheer exposure, but that’s not practical from the perspective of policy.

  3. Please don’t take me as a luddite. I’m all about well-founded progressive teaching philosophies. But I teach juniors and seniors, I find myself longing for the ability in student-led conferences and in my personalized lessons to be able to talk to learners at their advanced level with a common vocabulary that allows us to have an exchange about the innerworkings of language. But our district does not teach grammar, so when I say, “These two phrases are not parallel,” students are confused. So then I try: “If you start this phrase with an infinitive, you should also start this phrase with an infinitive.” More confusion. Soon the conversation is reduced to grunts and pointing: “This part begin To; Make other part begin To.” Emergent readers develop phonological awareness, which is essential in becoming fluent readers later on. Why are we afraid to apply a continuum of higher order thinking development, and make grammar–the awareness that language has classifiable parts that function together in predictable patterns–and encourage growth and deeper understanding?

    1. Agree completely with this response. The original post is a bit of reductio ab absurdum. Of course you don’t consciously apply seven grammar rules to write a simple sentence. But when students fail to intuit the proper forms of written language, then it’s beneficial to have a common vocabulary of basic grammar. (I like Kelley Gallgher’s “sentence of the week” approach, as described in “Write Like This.”)

    1. The best one on research is by Elley et al and was listed fully at the bottom of my essay. But you might also look at “The Genesis of Language” by Smith and Miller and “The Language Instinct” by Stephen Pinker. Unfortunately, I no longer have the textbooks I used when studying linguistics.

      1. The first two sources are from the 1970s and the third from the mid 1990s, though it does, at first glance, seem to use brain research in exploring the topic. What else is a more current study of brain-based research on grammar?

        1. Even if we don’t venture off into the area of brain research, we really need to include more recent studies in this discussion if we’re going to point to published research. I find it impossible to accept the closing assertion that “among recent research studies, not one justifies teaching grammar to help students write better,” with its citation of a source from 1976. If that’s the case, why are people still examining the topic?

          What about these sources, just to list a few?

          Shoudong, Feng, and Kathy Powers. “The Short- And Long-Term Effect Of Explicit Grammar Instruction On Fifth Graders’ Writing.” Reading Improvement 42.2 (2005): 67-72. Professional Development Collection. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.

          Williams, Kent. “A Case For Explicit Grammar Instruction In English As Second/Foreign Language Classrooms.” Academic Leadership Journal In Student Research 1.(2013): ERIC. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.

          Cordewener, Kim A. H., Anna M. T. Bosman, and Ludo Verhoeven. “Implicit And Explicit Instruction.” Written Language & Literacy 18.1 (2015): 121-152. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.

  4. Grammar, as a coherent and systematic study of one’s mother tongue, has not been taught in our schools in at least 50 years. So how can a “study” show anything about what happens when it is taught? Where would you go to find the groups of students who are taught it? And why would we want to abandon the study of something so beautiful?

    People now write wretchedly. But when British kids were taught grammar, both the grammar of their own language and the grammar of Latin or Greek, everybody wrote well — everybody except for certain professors and politicians.

  5. “Since then, hundreds of such studies have produced some clear and unequivocal conclusions: The teaching of formal grammar does not help a student’s ability to speak, to write, to think, or to learn foreign languages.”

    Can you point us to some of these studies? I find it truly hard to believe that teaching grammar doesn’t help students learn foreign languages.

      1. The study you cite is about teaching English, not foreign languages.

        I am familiar with the books that you mention, but don’t see where they support the claim in question. Can you name one study that concludes that the teaching of grammar doesn’t help student learn foreign languages?

        1. Since the English grammar we’re talking about does not apply to most commonly taught foreign languages, such as Spanish, it wouldn’t help in teaching those languages. All my under-graduate and graduate work was on English. I do not know of any studies on teaching a foreign language.

          1. I’m not trying to be contrary, but I’m puzzled by many of your assertions in this blog.

            English grammar certainly does apply to most commonly taught foreign languages. Spanish, French, German, and Latin are Indo-European languages, just like English, and they all share profound similarities across the language systems (in how they sound, in how they modify verbs, in how they arrange words across the sentence, etc). Just compare those languages to Mandarin Chinese or to Swahili, and the similarities across the Indo-European languages suddenly become very apparent. I really began to understand English grammar only after studying the declensions and conjugations in German and Latin, and I suspect that part of our students’ lack of grammar knowledge (whether implicit or explicit) is tied to the widespread failure across the US to really teach other languages in our schools.

            I agree with you in principle that we should not spend extensive time in English language arts courses reviewing grammar charts and learning artificial and prescriptive rules, but I also know that there is recently published support for the strategy of micro-lessons using explicit grammar instruction, targeted interventions that address the mistakes that many students in a class are making in their writing.

            For me, it’s not a question of whether or not to teach grammar. It’s a question of how to teach it.

  6. It is very difficult to explain to a student what is wrong with their sentence structure if they do not have the vocabulary to carry on that discussion. It becomes the teacher just telling them how to make the correction instead of students learning to remediate their own writing. I literally just finished working with my eighth-grade students on a book review where I struggled to explain how students needed to change their sentence structure for the sentence to make sense. It was almost impossible to tell them where they went wrong, why, and how to change it because they have no understanding of the rules of grammar.

    We must speak the same academic language to have these discussions and see our students make progress. Try telling a Special Ed. or ELL student that their sentence doesn’t “sound right” or that if they read it out loud they will hear the error. They won’t. Even second or third generation immigrants will not “hear” the error most of the time. Our schools are teaming with these students.

    My junior high school devoted two years to grammar instruction. We had a whole class just on grammar. In college, I was a writing tutor and I could tell the difference between the students who had a knowledge of grammar and those who did not. I was able to excel in writing while my peers struggled to make coherent sentences at the college level. I think many teachers would agree that student writing has become less coherent. It coincides with the removal of grammar from the English classroom. It’s a sad day when you can’t even play mad libs with your students because they don’t know what an adjective is or how to use it in a sentence.

  7. Absolutely, we need grammar. It’s obviously not the only thing we should be teaching, but grammar, like vocabulary, needs to be taught in context. And curriculum needs to be multifaceted and diverse. Otherwise, grammar and vocabulary will continue to be the coded veil that our society and institutional mechanisms use to passively judge and unjustly classify the ability and upbringing of students whose only weakness is lack of access.

  8. While I concede that my opinion is experiential, not scientific, I completely disagree with Joanne’s sentiment as well as the article. Many of us intuitively learn proper grammar from adults, but what happens when the adults in a child’s circle don’t speak or write correctly? How else would one acquire that knowledge? In my own experience, knowledge of grammar DID inform my speaking voice, and facilitated my grasp of foreign languages.

    Most significantly, poor grammar sends a very loud signal to readers that one is not well educated, thereby undermining one’s authority as a speaker or writer.

  9. I am in my first year of Grad School and am teaching/grading Freshman English. Through this, I am coming to agree with our need to downplay the rules and of grammar more and more – as you state here. In the assignments that I grade I am noticing simple mistakes, i.e. wrong verb tenses, missing words, etc., mistakes that could be easily fixed by simply reading the work aloud before submitting. However, i also notice that students WANT a grammar rubric. Now, I’m not sure if they would actually use it but I think this stems from grammar rules being so fiercely taught in grade school. However, like I said, I’m not sure they would use (clearly they aren’t if they are turning in an assignment with mistakes). But even with these mistakes, they back them up by saying, oh yes I have poor grammar, it is my biggest weakness. It even seems to get them down. I am a strong believer in clarity. If you can clearly convey your ideas to me through your writing you have a successful paper. With that being said, I do still mark off on grammar mistakes within an assignment. But I have noticed, that since (mass) grading Freshman English I have begun to restrict how many grammar errors I call out. It is all the students will focus on if I do and really I want them to focus on their ideas. I have not yet found the right balance of grammar structure, however I do believe that a lighter emphasis is needed.

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      I’m not at all well versed in Rhetoric and Composition theory, but I know that there are extensive analyses of what is effective and what is not effective when commenting on first-year Composition essays.

      Here’s what I do know: Students will tend to ignore the big issues (“their ideas,” which you are quite right to want to focus on) if their work is full of local grammar corrections. If asked to revise, students will tend to make the local corrections and do little to nothing to improve their overall argument (thesis, support, organization, etc.). Students are generally not able to process more than three comments on grammar per page of writing. Good commenting will focus on significant, clear, and recurring errors.

      In my very brief review of that literature, I see a consistent statement that students benefit from working with examples from their own writing. The instructor marks several sentences with the same error (not marking the actually error, just the sentence) and presents those sentences to the student or the class. Based on lots of evaluation of student writing, these researchers seem pretty consistently to find that reviewing and rewriting their own sentences is far more effective than learning abstract rules of grammar.

  10. I teach grammar once a week and I start with a review of parts of speech. This serves as a foundation for discussions of mechanical issues that arise in students’ writing. I am not sure how much it transfers when it really matters, like when students write essays, but I love teaching it.
    That said, I purchased a book called Image Grammar, by Harry R. Noden, over the summer, and I am ready to loosen up on the grammar exercises and transition to a more writing based approach to grammar. The exercises in the book are fun and interesting and all tied to writing. I also like that it has examples from famous authors and excerpts from classic novels.

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