Chapter 2 Why the Anti-Grammarians are Wrong:
Research on the Teaching of Grammar

       The anti-grammar "the research proves" argument has become a myth -- justifying the desires of people who don't want to teach it. Its strength lies, not in the research, but in the constant repetition of the conclusion.  I'll never forget lunch at a Delaware Valley Writing Conference, many years ago. I got my lunch and sat down with someone whom I did not know. We started to chat, and he asked if I was presenting a paper. When I said "Yes," he asked what it was about. When I told him "grammar," he asked why I would present a paper about teaching grammar when "all of the research" demonstrates that teaching grammar is useless or even harmful. I asked him to name one of the research studies. He mentioned O'Hare's. I told him what was wrong with O'Hare's study (See below.), and asked him to name another. He did so, and I gave him a critique of that one. If I remember correctly, he was able to name a third, the flaws in which I also pointed out. As he got up to leave, he looked back and said, "Well, somewhere out there, there are studies that prove that teaching grammar is harmful."  His attitude, unfortunately, is still shared by too many members of our profession.
       Fortunately, the majority within our profession is more open-minded. The following discussions, therefore, attempt to explain what makes sense, and what doesn't, in some of the more influential and more interesting research studies. Readers who are interested in these questions can find a longer, more critical version on the KISS web site, in the section on "Essays on Grammar." Here, my purpose is simply to show that a careful reading of these studies often leads to just the opposite conclusion -- that grammar should be taught. The focus of instruction, however, should be on application, and not on the terminology. In effect, these studies all support the KISS Approach to teaching grammar.

1963 The Braddock Report (and Martha Kolln's Response)

       Research in Written Composition, written by Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer, contains the statement that is most often quoted to deride the teaching of grammar:

          In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: 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. (37-38)
In "Closing the Books on Alchemy," Martha Kolln convincingly explores many of the problems with this conclusion, but I think she misses a very important point, a point which may totally reverse the conclusion drawn by Braddock and his colleagues.
       What we have in the Braddock report is research on doing research. The authors were appointed. None of them claim any expertise, either in grammar, or in the teaching of it. They based their "harmful effects" statement primarily on one of the five studies (done by Roland J. Harris), and that study was chosen because of the methods used in it. None of the authors of the report appears to have any qualifications to judge the intrinsic, as opposed to methodological, validity of Harris's work (70 - 83). And if we look at the methodological aspect of Harris's study, we can see why the authors of the Braddock report found it, if not good, at least better than most. Harris's study covered a two-year period, far better than the typical one-year study. Harris conducted a pilot study. He fairly clearly describes the differences between the "Formal Grammar" and "Direct Method" groups. (Kolln is clearly right in noting, as do the authors, that both groups were taught grammar.) He describes his procedures, including the procedures for selecting students, and he gives a fairly comprehensible and complete account of the results. Methodologically, this may, in 1963, have been a model study.
       But what about the intrinsic value of the study? In view of the NCTE resolution against the teaching of grammar not supported by theory and research, we need to note immediately that Harris provides, at least as reported by the authors, absolutely no theory. He has no theory of natural language development, and he has no "theory" regarding the causes of "errors." This omission raises serious questions about all the variables that he counted. He counts, for example, the "omission of a full stop" (apparently comma-splices and run-ons) as an error without seeming to realize that such "errors" are 1) often a sign of growth, and 2) often a sign of poor or incomplete instruction in grammar. They often occur, for example, when writers sense a close relationship between two main clauses, but do not know how to punctuate them. Likewise, he counts the "misuse of object forms of pronouns" as an error, but there are big differences between  "To who did you give it?" and "Who did you want to see?" Without a closer examination of these errors, the results, in other words, are meaningless. What impressed the authors of the Braddock report were the way in which the study was conducted and the way in which the results were presented. They did not look at the validity of the variables that were being counted, even though serious questions can be raised about each of the eleven of them.
       Of more interest here, however, are Harris's conclusions and the differences between his control and experimental groups. The Braddock report tells us that "the Formal Grammar group followed a logically organized program of traditional grammar instruction 'through the parts of speech, with stress on the function of words' and employed the traditional grammatical terminology in classroom teaching and in correcting compositions." Teachers in the "Direct Method" sections were apparently instructed not to use grammatical terms, although there is no way of knowing whether or not they did. What no one seems to have noticed about this study, however, is that the "Formal Grammar" group may have been taught grammatical terminology, but they did not learn it. Both groups were given a test of their knowledge of formal grammar (described as "Test C"). According to Braddock et al., "The investigator also expressed dissatisfaction with the low levels of achievement of the Formal Grammar group on Test C, only one class having more than 50 percent of the answers correct. (83) Only one class, out of five, scored better than 50% on the final grammar test!
       In fairness to Harris, it should be noted that his study was done as a doctoral dissertation -- which, in itself, is something that the Braddock report calls into question. (33) Harris's own conclusion, however, is remarkably similar to, yet significantly different from the Braddock report's "harmful effects" statement:
It seems safe to infer that the study of English grammatical terminology had a negligible or even a relatively harmful effect upon the correctness of children's writing in the early part of the five Secondary Schools. (83)
There is a major difference between "the study of English grammatical terminology" and "the teaching of formal grammar." Indeed, why would anyone assume that the teaching of grammatical terminology, in itself, would improve a person's writing, especially when that terminology is less than half learned and often does not directly apply to writing? Perhaps the only major flaw in the "harmful effects" statement is the failure to include the word "terminology." Its inclusion might have shifted the debate from the fruitless one (Should "formal" grammar be taught?) to a more productive one (Can grammar be taught more effectively with no, or at least less, focus on terms?) Perhaps, in other words, the real conclusion of the Braddock report should have been that grammar should be taught better than it currently has been.

1966 The Bateman and Zidonis Study

       The Effect of a Study of Transformational Grammar on the Writing of Ninth and Tenth Graders, by Donald Bateman and Frank Zidonis has been cited as proving the ineffectiveness of teaching grammar, but the study "proves" just the opposite. Bateman and Zidonis note that their results are tentative. "Even so, the persistently higher gain scores for the experimental class in every comparison made strengthens the contention that the study of a systematic grammar which is a theoretical model of the process of sentence production is the logical way to modify the process itself." (37) They further note that "the persistent tendency of researchers to conclude that a knowledge of grammar has no significant effect on language skills (when judgment should have been suspended) should certainly be reexamined." (37)

1969 John Mellon's Experiment

       John C. Mellon's Transformational Sentence-Combining: A Method for Enhancing the Development of Syntactic Fluency in English Composition is, as its title suggests, primarily an argument for sentence-combining exercises. It was not an argument against the teaching of grammar. The 247 students in the experiment were divided into three groups. The experimental group did sentence-combining problems which included grammatical trems; the control group did "traditional parsing exercises"; and the placebo group did no grammar. (31) He reported that "significant growth of syntactic fluency occurred in the writing of the experimental group." (52)  But in reporting on an overall quality comparison of the writing of the three groups in the study, Mellon states, "the writing of the experimental group was inferior to that of the subjects who had studied conventional grammar, but indistinguishable from that of subjects who had studied no grammar but had received extra instruction in composition." (69) Put more simply, this means the traditional grammar group wrote better than either the experimental or the placebo groups. Mellon adds "curious results indeed." The logical conclusion to Mellon's study is that, if we want both increased fluency and quality, conventional instruction should be modified to include more mature sentences. This conclusion, however, was never developed.

1971 The O'Hare Study

       In part it was not developed because of Frank O'Hare's Sentence Combining: Improving Student Writing without Formal Grammar Instruction. What O'Hare advocated is pure exercise in sentence-combining, with no instruction in grammar. Perhaps because of its title, the report was very influential, but it is seriously flawed. (See the longer version of this essay on the KISS web site for details.) Perhaps the most destructive critique of O'Hare's study comes from O'Hare himself. In 1986 he published The Modern Writer's Handbook (NY: Macmillan), the first half of which is a very traditional presentation of grammar. Apparently, O'Hare himself no longer believed in the validity of his anti-grammar study.

1978 Elley, Barham, and Wyllie

       The last of the most influential studies that have been used to "prove" that instruction in grammar is useless is The Role of Grammar in a Secondary School Curriculum by W.B. Elley, I.H. Barham, H. Lamb and M. Wyllie. What this study proves, however, is that formal study of transformational grammar, as presented in the Oregon Curriculum, is not effective. But the Oregon Curriculum does not teach students how to use transformational grammar to analyze their own writing. The Oregon Curriculum focuses on the complicated rules and definitions of transformational grammar. In such an approach, students are taught a complex, mathematical-like set first of phrase structure rules, and then of transformational rules. They then learn how to apply these rules, in mathematical-like problems which create tree diagrams, to explain how the active voice in John closed the door is transformed into the passive The door was closed by John. To assume that such instruction would improve students' writing is comparable to assuming that a detailed course in human anatomy would improve a student's chances of catching a football.

1986 The Hillocks Report

        The most influential book against the teaching of grammar was probably Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching, by George Hillocks, Jr.  In the "either you're for it or against it" world of the great grammar debates, the Hillocks report was used to hammer advocates of teaching grammar into silence. But the Hillocks report, in this debate at least, is deceptive. The question is not that simple. Aware, of course, of sentence-combining, Hillocks treats it as close to, but separate from, grammar. In the section on grammar, he basically repeats the conclusion of the Braddock report:

 None of the studies reviewed for the present report provides any support for teaching grammar as a means of improving composition skills. If schools insist upon teaching the identification of parts of speech, the parsing or diagramming of sentences, or other concepts of traditional school grammar (as many still do), they cannot defend it as a means of improving the quality of writing. (138)
This is a very unfortunate and inaccurate statement indeed, especially since Hillocks later praises, and praises very highly, a study which did indeed include the identification and study of grammatical constructions. The difference, however, is that Faigley's study employed a KISS-like, rather than a Traditional/Formal approach to teaching grammar.
        In his discussion of Sentence Construction, Hillocks gives high praise to the 1979 study by Lester Faigley: "The most carefully designed and implemented study of sentence construction techniques is Faigley's . . . ." (146) He praises Faigley's study in a number of ways, and Faigley's study is one of the models for "New Directions." Unfortunately, however, Hillocks missed an important part of Faigley's study. Later in the book Hillocks states "Sentence combining activities do not focus on the identification of parts of speech or parts of sentences but on the manipulation of syntactic elements, and, in the case of Faigley (1979c), on the generating of the elements as well." (214) Perhaps the key word here is "focus," but in order to understand what went on, we need to look at Faigley's study.
        Perhaps because of the anti-grammar political pressure, Faigley himself was not very clear about what the experimental group in his study did. In one of his articles on the study, he states that "Neither group was taught formal grammar, and the experimental staff employed ad hoc terminology, such as '-ing phrase,' when referring to a particular construction." (199) But in the preceding paragraph, he stated, "The experimental sections followed the arrangement of Christensen and Christensen's A New Rhetoric, writing in class many of the exercises in the text." To see the problem here, we need to look at the Christensen's A New Rhetoric.
        A New Rhetoric consists of two parts -- "I The Process of Writing," and "II The Larger Units of Composition."  In spite of its title, Part I is filled with  (but with a limited number of) grammatical terms:
It is hardly necessary to insist again that the meaning, or perhaps here the interest, is in the modifiers. We need now a language for discussing them. The next few paragraphs are the foundation of our treatment of the sentence. You should master them so well that you can apply the principles creatively, in writing, and analytically, in the discussion of writing. The language we need is of two sorts--grammatical and what we will call rhetorical." (22, my emphasis)
The paragraphs that follow this statement assume knowledge of "subject,"  "verb," and "subordinate" and "main" clauses. They explain, among others, adverbs, prepositional phrases, verbals, verb phrases, absolutes, relative clauses, adverbial phrases, adjectival phrases, "free noun phrases" (which turn out to be, and be called, appositives), and "the noun with an adverbial function. . . ." Students who used the Christensen's book did not study formal grammar in the traditional way, but they very clearly studied grammar systematically, including the ability to name and identify specific grammatical constructions.
       Because the book is for college students, the Christensens are able to start early with the concept of the "Two-Level Narrative Sentence." In a "two-level" sentence, the first level is the base, or main clause. The second level is subordinated modification, in the form of various grammatical constructions. The bulk of Part I of the book consists of examples of sentence levels, with the grammatical constructions used to create the subordinated levels indicated in bold. For example (from page 47):
1. And the eyes were calm,
       2. aware but not interested. (Adjective Plus Adjective)
Page after page, a dozen or so of such examples is preceded by a short explanation of the stylistic effects of different variations. Then a new construction or variation in levels is explained and more examples are given. Having studied the examples, the students are expected to do exercises in which they identify the levels and constructions. Once these have been discussed, the students are expected to start with a base sentence and generate such sentences themselves. If the students in Faigley's study used the text, as he said they did, they could not possibly have avoided the instruction in grammatical terms and concepts.  The approach differs from the traditional, however, in that constructions are introduced and learned for the specific purpose of adding subordinate, supporting information to a sentence.
        Hillocks later quotes Faigley's suggestion that the approach works "by stressing the addition of specific details to abstract statements as a means of generating content." (147) Most writing teachers would love to be able to get more of their students to include more relevant details in their writing. "Details," however, is a very abstract word, and the suggestion "Give more details" usually doesn't work. In the Christensen's approach, however, the students start by learning how to identify several grammatical constructions, and they are given numerous examples of how those constructions add details to the writing. Then the students are trained in adding these constructions to a base sentence. From the students' perspective, I would suggest, those directions are much more concrete. "Add details," if understood in the first place, could mean to add additional sentences. "Add a prepositional phrase," or "Add an appositive," are not only much more specific (if the student understands what these are), but they also result in the details being added within an already written sentence.
        One has to wonder why, in light of the praise given to Faigley's study by Hillocks, the Christensens approach has not been pursued. Part of the problem may be Faigley's downplaying, for whatever reason, of the role of grammar. Part of the reason is Hillocks' interpretation of the study. Instead of showing how the Christensens take a different approach to teaching grammar, Hillocks, in effect, turned Faigley's study into an argument against teaching any grammar at all! As a result, anyone who looked at the Christensens' book would have been prejudiced against its heavy emphasis on grammar. Add to that the fact that many teachers have themselves not been taught how to identify appositives and absolutes. For them, to use the book would mean that they themselves would have to work their way through it (without the help of an instructor), just to be able to understand it. Why should they do that when "all the research shows ."?

Research that Supports the Teaching of Grammar

        I have often been asked if there is any research that supports the teaching of grammar. The problem, however, is that the question itself is too broad. Almost all of the studies we have just looked at condemn the teaching of grammar as terminology. Faigley's study, on the other hand, clearly supports a KISS-like approach. There are also at least three, possibly four additional studies, all published in a relatively little-known book.
        The book, edited by, Donald A Daiker., Andrew Kerek, & Max Morenberg, is called Sentence Combining and the Teaching of Writing: Selected Papers from the Miami University Conference, Oxford, Ohio, October 27 & 28, 1978. As its title suggests, it consists of selected papers from a conference. What the title does not suggest is that the conference was, in effect, a victory celebration for advocates of sentence combining. What's interesting, however, is the "pro-grammar" undercurrent in several of the papers, if not in the conference as a whole.
        Teachers who need to have "research" to justify the teaching of grammar really should read this book -- it is impossible to summarize the nuances, statements, counterstatements, etc. expressed in its 228 pages. Hunt's presentation was basically a personal reminiscence, but among other things he noted:

I remember the promise that transformational grammar had for language education fifteen years ago. Then extravagant promises were made. Its rise was meteoric, and the shower of sparks from its tail was golden. But when that sun exploded, it left a black hole where grammar used to be. And just as there are black holes out in space where no matter can enter, so no grammar-like study will be tolerated in the schools again for many years to come. (153)
"For many years to come" is not "forever." Reading Hunt's statement, we might even say that he prophesied, and even looked forward to, the return to the curriculum that grammar has been making in the last several years. Hunt's presentation was not about a research study. His major work never concerned the "horse-race" experiments that pitted one instructional approach against another.
       Of the four research reports I want to look at, the first, surprisingly for this conference, presents a problem with sentence combining. As noted previously, all of the major studies basically ignored errors.  In "Words Enough and Time: Syntax and Error One Year After" (101-108), Elaine P. Maimon and Barbara F. Nodine explored the possible increases in errors as a result of sentence-combining practice. Although their presentation, necessarily short, does not make it clear, they apparently followed O'Hare and Strong (See page 102) and used exercises without grammatical terms. They looked at faulty subject-verb agreement, dangling verbals, misplaced modifiers, fragments, vague pronoun reference, faulty parallelism, and comma-splice/run-on sentences. They reported that in the writing of the students who did the combining exercises, the rate of errors almost tripled! Earlier in the conference, Mellon had stated "Sentence combining produces no negative effects . . . ." (35) It would have been interesting to know his response to the paper by Maimon and Nodine.
       The preceding study is the one that I consider "possible" support for the KISS Approach. It suggests that pure sentence combining exercises may result in more harm than help. The next study is by Rosemary Hake and Joseph M. Williams. Their " Sentence Expanding: Not Can, or How, but When" (134-146) suggests that attaining writing competency may be related to reducing [not increasing] sentence length and complexity. This is exactly the opposite of the assumption of most of the studies that came to the conclusion that teaching grammar is ineffective or harmful.  Mellon and O'Hare, for example, basically equated "better writing" with longer, more complex, and more varied sentence structure. In comparing pre- and post-test writing samples for the groups that studied sentence-combining vs. grammar, they simply counted length, number of clauses, etc. and then looked at the difference in the changes in the two groups.
       Hake and Williams took a fundamentally different approach. They took pre- and post instruction writing samples and evaluated them in terms of overall quality as either "competent" or "incompetent." The instruction for all the students (high school sophomores) consisted of combining and imitation exercises. They discovered that 99 students whose pre- and posttest essays were judged competent significantly increased the length and complexity of their main clauses. On the other end, the 37 students whose pre- and posttest essays were judged incompetent did not significantly change the complexity of their main clauses, even though their main clauses were initially longer than those of the students whose essays were judged competent. What Hake and Williams considered "most important," however, is the fact that the 76 students who "became" competent used fewer subordinate clauses and decreased the length of their main clauses. (139) As Hake and Williams note:
It was at this point that the issues became more fundamental than simply the relative effectiveness of combining and imitation exercises. The different responses to these expansion exercises by students at different levels of competency suggest that the exercises' usefulness may vary according to the abilities of a student. We therefore began to ask a different question: not just how sentence combining should be taught, but when. One answer suggested by the above data seems to be only when a student is ready for it, only when he is already a competent writer or ready to become one." (139)
If I am reading this correctly, it confirms something I have long expected. Sentence-combining exercises, basically divorced from instruction in grammar, may help the better students to become still better, but they just waste the time of the weaker students in the class. Is this what we are supposed to be doing?
       The idea that sentence-combining exercises help students only when they are ready for them actually supports the ideal KISS Curriculum. The sentence-combining texts that I have seen have been developed with no sense or theory of natural syntactic development. Students at all grade levels, and at all levels of proficiency, are expected to create combinations using all of the possible grammatical constructions.  When my son was in second grade, one of his sentence-combining exercises involved combining "Mary is a biologist" and "Mary studies fish." He would not, however, accept "Mary, a biologist, studies fish" as an acceptable sentence, even after I did the exercise for him. As will be discussed in the next chapter, Hunt suggested the appositive (needed here) is a "late-blooming" construction, possibly blooming as late as ninth or tenth grade. What I am suggesting, of course, is not that sentence-combining should not be used with younger students, but that the exercises should be based on a theory of natural syntactic development.
       Whereas the Hakes and Williams presentation supports only the sequential nature of the KISS Approach, Jeannette Harris and Lil Brannon argue that, at least at the advanced level, sentence combining is more effective if it is combined with instruction in grammatical terms. The combination enables the students to understand and discuss what they are doing and why: ("Sentence Analysis and Combining as a Means of Improving the Expository Style of Advanced College Students," 170 - 177)
Working with ... students in the Writing Center at East Texas State University, we discovered that an approach which combined sentence analysis with sentence-combining practice yielded rapid and satisfying results in increased maturity and improved style of writing. While most proponents of sentence combining deplore the inclusion of any type of grammatical analysis, we found that with advanced students the addition of this component increased both the rate and quality of improvement. "  (170)
The grammatical terms that Harris and Brannon mention in this article are very close to the terms/concepts of the KISS Approach -- "subject," "adverb," "prepositional phrase," "participial phrase" (the KISS "gerundive"), "dependent adverbial clause," "noun clause," "infinitive phrase," "gerund," "nominative absolute," "direct object," "predicate adjective," "postponed subject," "coordinating conjunction." The students, using these terms, analyzed the syntax of their own writing and that of specialists in their field. When they did this, they saw for themselves the differences in syntactic style.
       According to Harris and Brannon, "Sentence analysis gives the students an objective means of looking at their own writing, and sentence combining gives them the means of improving it." (174) It is interesting to note that Harris and Brannon consider right-branching less mature than left-branching constructions. Chirstensen and Faigley both pushed students toward right-branching. ["Left-branching" means that the subordinate construction comes before the main subject and verb.] If teachers themselves disagree, do we have the right to push students in either direction? By teaching their students how to analyze sentences, Harris and Brannon respect their students' intelligence and give them the ability to decide questions such as this for themselves.
        I have saved Anne Obenchain's study for last because it deals directly with middle and high school students.  In " Developing Paragraph Power through Sentence Combining," (123- 133) she explains a statistical study of sentence combining within the LINKS TO FORCEFUL WRITING program. Unlike most of the researchers, however, she clearly focuses on the relationship between meaning and syntax. Although she is mainly concerned with subordinate clauses, she argues for the main idea in the main clause, and also presents some compelling ideas for left-branching modification. (The latter is again delightful in view of the Christensens' push for right-branching.)  Perhaps because of the nature of the conference, she, like Faigley, downplays instruction in grammar in her approach: " we do not need to talk about any kind of clauses -- or about compound or complex sentences . . . . We need to talk only about supporting ideas and non-supporting ideas and the four kinds of connectives which are the LINKS TO FORCEFUL WRITING. " (126)
       Part One (Sentence Power) of Links to Forceful Writing, is, in many ways, comparable to the Christensens' A New Rhetoric. Students are given numerous texts, usually short stories or essays, and are asked to identify the coordinating and subordinating conjunctions (and adverbs) in them. They are then asked to respond to the text using specified grammatical constructions: "In this answer, use a CONJUNCTIVE ADVERB that shows RESULT to link the reason and the punishment, placing the conjunctive adverb wherever you find it most effective" (116). Note that the text explains both the grammatical constructions and the logical reasoning behind them. As with the Christensens' text, the 179 pages of Obenchain's are filled with examples, explanations of stylistic and logical implications, and mature, rather than childish, exercises. Her statistical results demonstrated both increases in "maturity" (as defined, not by Hunt, but by the horse-racing researchers), and also a reduction in errors. (132) In effect, Obenchain may have some excellent materials for use with seventh, eighth, and ninth graders.
        It is possible to search for -- and find -- more studies that support the basic KISS Approach. But perhaps it is time to stop the nonsense. Perhaps the most interesting paper presented at the sentence combining conference was by Lester Faigley. His title reflects his thesis -- "Problems in Analyzing Maturity in College and Adult Writing" (94 - 100). A clearer presentation of his ideas, perhaps a development of them, appeared in College Composition and Communication -- "Names in Search of a Concept: Maturity, Fluency, Complexity, and Growth in Written Syntax." (Vol. 31, 291-299)  In his review of the four "concepts" named in his title, he shows problems with all of them. He also demonstrates that there are innumerable aspects of good writing that these concepts cannot measure. He therefore concludes, "Until researchers can devise measurements sensitive to these kinds of relationships, the notion of maturity in writing will remain a very elusive concept." (299)
        When looked at in detail, all of the research is open to very serious questions.  Meanwhile, of course, grammar is back. We may agree or disagree with standardized testing, and we may agree or disagree about state and national standards. But the tests and the standards are being imposed. We will be teaching grammar, whether we want to or not. As a profession, however, we can affect what grammar will be taught, when it will be taught, and how. We have several options. We can continue the useless debates about "research" and the teaching of grammar. Or we can sit back and simply let the grammarians and publishers reimpose the traditional formal approach. Or we can reexamine our approach to teaching grammar, starting with our objective(s). If we want research to support us, we need better research that is embedded in a theory of natural syntactic development (the topic of the next chapter). And we need to better prepare future teachers to recognize basic grammatical constructions. Doing so will enable the teachers not only to understand and participate in the research, but also to be more effective in their classrooms.