Last revised 3/15/03
NCTE and the Problem of Teaching Grammar:
A Call for a Public Investigation

       Most Americans are unaware of the fact that the National Council of Teachers of English passed a resolution against the teaching of grammar. At its Annual Meeting on November 24, 1985, NCTE passed the following resolution: 

On Grammar Exercises to Teach Speaking and Writing 

     RESOLVED, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and 
     that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.
This resolution was the culmination of almost twenty years of attacks within the English profession, and especially within NCTE, on the teaching of grammar. The attacks and the resolution have resulted in millions of students (and thousands of their teachers) being taught little or nothing about grammar. Unfortunately, all the attacks (and the resolution) are based on extremely faulty research.
     If grammar were merely a matter of correct usage, the problem would be severe, but it is actually much worse than that. Grammar is also a matter of sentence structure and sentence logic. Students who cannot control these aspects of grammar write simplistic, often confusing sentences. And, unable to control the meaning within a sentence, they have even worse problems in combining sentences into a convincing essay. Although NCTE is assumed to promote literacy within our schools, it could be argued that NCTE's mistaken stance toward the teaching of grammar has been a primary cause of the decline in test scores over the last four decades.
     The two most influential studies behind the NCTE position against the teaching of grammar are the Braddock Report (1963) and the Hillocks Report (1986). Both of these were published by NCTE as status reports on the state of research in the teaching of English. But when they discuss the teaching of grammar, both are seriously flawed. The Braddock report, officially titled Research in Written Composition, was written by Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer. It 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)
A careful reading of this report, however, reveals that this "harmful effect" statement is primarily based on a single study done by Roland J. Harris. In fact, the Braddock report cites, echoes, and then critically distorts, Harris's conclusion. Harris wrote:
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? Isn't there a major difference between teaching a student the names of a carpenter's tools and teaching him how those tools are used? Much more could be said about the Harris study (See "Why the Anti-Grammarians are Wrong: The Problems with Previous Research" ). The most important point, however, is that by omitting the word "terminology," the Braddock report led to massive scorning of anyone in the profession who advocated teaching any grammar at all! 
      In 1986, NCTE published Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching, by George Hillocks, Jr. Like the Braddock report, Hillocks' was an overview of research in all areas of teaching English. But in his discussion of grammar, Hillocks not only repeats, but also unjustifiably extends 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, we might note, an excellent example of an Argument from Ignorance fallacy. Since Hillocks claims that none of the studies he reviewed supports the teaching of grammar (i.e., he is ignorant of such studies), then we are to conclude that the teaching of grammar does not improve writing. 
     The real problem, however, is that one of the studies that Hillocks reviews definitely, almost definitively, supports the systematic teaching of grammar. Not only that, it is a study which Hillocks himself considers as one of the best! 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 few 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 ..., 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 within NCTE, 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 the ability to identify "subjects,"  "verbs," 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.
     There are a number of smaller studies that support Faigley's results, but the important point here is that Hillocks did not study his own research very carefully. Instead of correcting the error of the Braddock report by shifting focus away from the teaching of grammatical terminology and toward a limited number of useful grammatical terms, Hillocks simply reinforced the ban on all teaching of grammar. The influence on these reports, and of NCTE's influence in general, was tremendous. It became almost impossible to publish articles about the teaching of grammar. As a result, in 1984 I started a small newsletter called Syntax in the Schools. As the editor of Syntax, I received letters from teachers informing me that their administrators were prohibiting them from teaching grammar because of the research.
     National pressure for the teaching of grammar has pushed NCTE to be more open to articles and other discussions of the teaching of grammar, but as a result of Braddock's and Hillocks' failures, instruction in grammar is returning right back to the approaches that failed -- the emphasis on terminology.  The situation has, however, changed in another way. The development of different types of grammar (structural, transformational, systemic, etc.) has resulted in the introduction of different terms for the same grammatical constructions. For the classroom teacher, confusion reigns. (See the article by Edgar H. Schuster.)
      Perhaps because of my comments on NCTE-Talk, and because of his visit to my KISS Grammar web site, in the Fall of 2000, Peter Feely, then the NCTE K-12 Acquisitions Editor, invited me to submit a manuscript on grammar for an NCTE TRIP book -- Theory and Research Into Practice. I told him that NCTE would not publish such a book -- I had submitted one twenty years previously. Mr. Feely assured me, however, that he would work with me to get a book published. Unfortunately, he probably did not know what he was getting himself into, and I finally agreed. A contract was signed on January 18, 2001. Pete and I worked together for about a year, when there was a shake-up in the NCTE editorial staff. Zarina Hock took over the work on my manuscript.
      Although she was polite, I soon sensed her unwillingness to publish anything that challenged NCTE. She regularly expressed dissatisfaction with the "tone" of parts of the work, particularly the chapter that included the information about the NCTE research. I tried to follow her suggestions, but it was fairly clear that the project was doomed. That became fact when I received the official rejection of the project in October of 2002. 
      Some people may consider this public call for an investigation a case of sour grapes. In 1986, however, I  sent a similar call (a version of  "Was NCTE Biased against the Teaching of Grammar?") to prominent members of NCTE and to about thirty other editorialists, educators, etc. Still frustrated with NCTE's unwillingness to address the problem, in the Fall of 2000 I was considering this call for a public investigation. This time, however, I already had a lot more supporting material available on the web. But when I was invited to submit a book manuscript, I decided to try, one more time, to improve the system from the inside. 
     That attempt having failed, I have put the manuscript on the web along with the rejection letter and the editorial readers' comments. [] Those comments themselves illustrate the serious problem within NCTE. Three of the readers appear to be middle or high school teachers, and they strongly suggest a slower, more detailed explanation of the grammatical constructions because, they say, currently most teachers cannot identify them. The other two reviewers appear to be teachers of teachers, both of whom scorn any emphasis on helping students (or teachers) learn to identify grammatical constructions.
     When asked about this call, NCTE may respond that they are now publishing a lot about the teaching of grammar. This may be true, but it does not address the problem. Over the last two decades, several issues of English Journal, for example, have had a focus on grammar. Although this is not the place to review all of the English Journal issues devoted to grammar, a brief review of the most recent (January, 2003) can suggest the problems. 
     For me, the most striking things in this issue are the frequent references to the "research" that shows that teaching grammar is useless or even harmful. (See, for example, pages 15, 39, 44, 57, 97, and 101.) The article by Johansen and Shaw is particularly interesting:
As teachers who grew up in another age of traditional grammar instruction consisting of memorizing rules, completing pages of practice exercises, and diagramming sentences, we increasingly felt guilty parting with that aspect of English instruction, but we did part with it. We parted with it because educational research was claiming that teaching grammar in isolation was an ineffective teacher practice. We were told that teaching grammar through student writing was the better way. Unfortunately, no one showed us how to do this successfully. Hence, some of us stopped teaching grammar altogether. (97)
I have quoted this particular passage because it probably reflects a common experience in our schools. The "research," in all probability, was that bogus research from NCTE discussed above. Note that "no one showed us how to do this successfully," primarily because the Hillocks report misrepresented Faigley's study. 
     The articles overwhelmingly note the lack of grammatical knowledge -- of both students and their teachers. Some articles explain how a teacher attempts to deal with a specific grammatical problem, and these articles often note how the teacher has to "start from the beginning" -- parts of speech and prepositional phrases, because the students have no formal knowledge of grammar. The articles often have interesting ideas, but they present what one teacher might do, within the context of one year (or semester). Most of these articles do not address the fact that students will be passed on to other teachers who may, if they try to teach grammar at all, use a different set of terminology and thus confuse students. 
      The only article that does (besides mine) is an interesting one by Lynn Sams, "How to Teach Grammar, Analytical Thinking, and Writing: A Method That Works" (57-65). Unfortunately, the limited scope of an article does not enable her to develop her ideas in much detail. (Perhaps NCTE will publish a book by her on this topic? Dr. Hock informed me, for example, that NCTE has several books about grammar in the pipeline. The question, however, is Will they honestly deal with theory and research, or will they simply add to the current confusion with grammatical terminology?)
       Perhaps the most depressing articles in English Journal are those that call for bringing linguistics into the K-12 classrooms. As Johansen and Shaw noted, NCTE's (misrepresentation of) the research left a vacuum in our classrooms. Linguists are attempting to step into the vacuum by advocating a more modern, "scientific" approach to teaching grammar. What the linguists fail to point out, however, is that what they really want to teach (to provide jobs for linguists?) is the equivalent of graduate school level physics. They imply, but never clearly discuss the implications of, the fact that there are numerous different, constantly changing, theories of grammar, each with its own set of terminology. What, specifically, do they want to teach to third, seventh, or ninth grade students? [When you look at their responses to this question, I think you will agree that they are nonsensical. See my response to one of the readers, apparently a linguist, of the TRIP manuscript.] I can't help but think here of Reed and Kellogg' "scholastic rubbish" (4). [For more on this, see "The Crime."]
     In addition to the articles in English Journal and the books that are "in the pipeline," NCTE may refer to its Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar and its recently approved position statement, "Some Questions and Answers about Grammar." If you take the time to read it, you will find that it is basically an attempt to justify the teaching of grammar and linguistics -- any grammar and linguistics. There is no discussion of the terminological confusion, or of scope and sequence, because the members of ATEG cannot agree on these questions. 

     What is at stake here is huge -- NCTE's "research" and resolution against the teaching of grammar has resulted in extremely poor preparation of teachers  for the last four decades. And NCTE is not doing much to solve the problem. Thus teachers will continue to be poorly prepared. How many millions of our students are being "taught" by these teachers? The education of millions of students is at stake here. If you are interested in a better approach to teaching grammar, visit the KISS Grammar Home Page, and especially the KISS Grammar Workbooks. They offer all the instructional materials needed to teach KISS Grammar, detailed discussions of the theory and research that support it, and an ever-growing number of practical exercises. And everything is free!

Braddock, Richard, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer. Research in Written Composition. Urbana, Ill.: NCTE, 1963.
Hillocks, G. Research on written composition: New directions for teaching. Urbana: NCTE/ERIC, 1986.
Reed, Alonzo, and Brainerd Kellogg. Graded Lessons in English. N.Y.: Effingham Maynard & Co., 1890. 
Revitalizing Grammar. English Journal. January, 2003 (Vol. 92, No. 3).
Schuster, Edgar H. "Reforming English Language Arts: Let's Trash the Tradition." Phi Delta Kappan.  March 99, 518-524.
Dr. Ed Vavra
DIF 112, Pennsylvania College of Technology
One College Ave.
Williamsport, PA 17701
(570) 326-3761 x 7736
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