Part One: The Research

       The claim that research proves that teaching grammar is ineffective and even harmful has been a major obstacle for many teachers who want to teach it. In some cases, objections come from administrators; in others, from colleagues, but wherever they come from, these claims still often put an end to any discussion of the teaching of grammar. Many teachers are still being told that the case is closed, but the problem is not that simple. Although the general public (and many administrators) look at it as either teach it or don't teach it; the real questions are What should be taught? When? How? And why? To uderstand these questions, we will need to look at the "traditional" grammar that most research studies appeared to condemn. Then we need to look, at least briefly, at the research studies themselves.
       In no other part of the English curriculum does the word "research" appear as frequently as it does in connection with grammar. Rarely do we ask, for example, if there is research to support the idea that teaching free-writing results in better writing from students. Rarely do we ask for research to support the idea that teaching Young Adult Literature results in more life-long readers. The "research" debate seems to focus on grammar. There are at least three reasons for that focus.
       First, grammar is an area in which it is easy to find things to count. It is relatively easy, for example, to design an experimental instructional program, to establish control (traditional) and experimental groups, to have pre- and post-tests, and then to calculate the difference in the number of "errors," subordinate clauses, etc., in the pre- and post-test writing of the control and experimental groups. No other area of the English curriculum is as amenable to such statistical research as is grammar.
       The second reason for the focus is historical and political. Stephen North explains this in The Making of Knowledge in Composition, perhaps the most important book for anyone interested in research in the teaching of English. North addresses, head-on, what most in our profession choose not to see -- the power politics within our field. He shows how, in the 60's and 70's, "composition" became "Composition" -- with its own departments, doctorates, etc. Such changes in academia inevitably involve power struggles, and North shows how the statistical research on grammar was used to help validate "Composition." In discussing these experimental studies, he notes:

The political gain is obviously more substantial: This sort of race-horse design, pitting the "traditional" against the "experimental," generates an appealing dramatic tension; for readers willing to accept the idea that the competing curricula represent two replicable wholes, the emergence of a clearcut winner can be viewed as a mandate for action. (168)
North's book is too rich and too complex to be easily summarized, but the preceding should indicate that he has serious doubts about the validity of much of the research. More important, perhaps, is the fact that he sees much of the research as being done, not primarily to improve instruction, but rather for political gain. That is obvious in the title of his eleventh chapter, "Revolution, Phase II: To the Victors  . . ." It can be seen also in the first sentence of the second paragraph of his final chapter: "The stakes remain much what they have been all along: power, prestige, professional recognition and advancement." (363) One of the reasons for the prominence of "research" in relation to grammar is that such research was heavily involved in professional politics.
       North also suggests the third reason for our professional obsession about "research" primarily as it deals with grammar when he notes that it is "for readers willing to accept the idea that the competing curricula represent two replicable wholes." Many English teachers were (and are still) willing, even eager, to accept any research against the teaching of grammar because grammar is the area that they are least prepared to teach. Their lack of preparation is clearly not their fault. In the course of their education, even most English teachers are required to take only one (if any) course in "grammar." The substance of that course is anyone's guess. Twenty years ago, when I was asked to teach such a course, I asked what it was supposed to cover. I was directed to the state DOE, from which I learned that I could teach "traditional, structural, or transformational grammar, or the history of the English language." It should be obvious that a teacher who has had no training in grammar other than a course in the history of English is not going to be well prepared to teach grammar.
       Less obvious is the fact that traditional, structural, and transformational grammars are fundamentally different, and none of them are well-designed for use in our schools. In addition, the three types of grammar use three different sets of terminology. A teacher who has had one course in transformational grammar thus often finds herself in a school where transformational terminology is not used. When forced to teach "grammar," she has no choice but to fall back on the textbooks, textbooks which themselves are ineffective. Is it any wonder that such teachers would jump at any "research" that "proves" that teaching this grammar is ineffective? Part of the strong connection between "grammar" and "research," in other words, results not from the validity of the research itself, but from the justification that it gives some teachers for arguing against teaching something that they do not understand. We need to keep all three of these reasons in mind when reviewing "research" about "grammar."
       As I implied in the "Introduction," this book argues against both sides in the Great Grammar Debate -- those who favor the teaching of grammar, and those who oppose it. My argument is that most of those teachers who favor the teaching of grammar want to teach isolated grammatical terminology. Chapter One attempts to explain what I mean by that. Chapter Two attempts to show how the research that condemns the teaching of grammar is, in fact, justified. But what it condemns is precisely the teaching of isolated, and sometimes nonsensical, "grammar." The final section of Chapter Two shows that some of the research actually supports KISS grammar.
        Chapter Three, the last in this section, turns to a different kind of research. In the 60's and 70's, Kellogg Hunt initiated a seminal series of studies on the natural development of syntactic fluency in school children. It is important here to emphasize "natural development," because when most teachers think of "the research," they have in mind the "race-horse" studies. Hunt, who was closely followed by Roy O'Donnell and Walter Loban, was interested in measuring the changes in sentence structure that take place between the short sentences of early primary school children and the much longer and more complex sentences of adults. The work of these researchers led to, and thus supports, the KISS Approach to teaching grammar.
        Of necessity, this part of the book concerns the "Official" research. That research is important, but it currently holds a position of reverence that it does not deserve. The KISS Approach advocates lots and lots of primary research by teachers -- and their students -- within the classroom.  As a simple example of that, consider the "rule" about not beginning a sentence with "But."  Almost every semester, between a third and a half of my college Freshmen tell me that they have been taught that rule. I therefore started collecting sentences that begin with "But" on my web site. At first, I quoted sentences from well-known authors who broke the rule, citing source and page number. Soon, however, I stopped quoting, giving instead just source and page number. There are simply too many examples!  Does teaching a "rule" that is ignored by almost every writer make any sense? We haven't been using our own eyes.
       Whereas even second graders could do a "research project" on the rule about "But," my next example requires a little more, but not much, grammatical knowledge. Years ago I was fortunate in getting 31 samples of the writing of seventh graders. I recently analyzed those samples, and put the analyzed texts on the KISS web site. During my years as editor of Syntax in the Schools, most complaints and questions about fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons came from seventh grade teachers. I therefore expected to find a lot of such errors in the 31 samples, and I did. Influenced by the research of Hunt, O'Donnell, and Loban, I expected to find that most of these problems were caused by subordinate clauses.
       I was surprised -- most of the errors involve sentences in which the second clause contrasts with, or amplifies, the first.  One student, for example, wrote:
I was scared and embarrased. I was embarraced because I was wearing a short T-shirt, I was scared because I didn't know what happened.
In the three-main-clause sequence that begins with "I was scared and embarrassed," the second main clause amplifies "embarassed"; the third amplifies "scared." The writer clearly felt the connections among the three clauses and probably wanted to convey it. A ", and" would not do the job. Neither would a period. This case begs for a colon (or dash) and a semicolon.
I was scared and embarrassed -- I was embarrassed because I was wearing a short T-shirt; I was scared because I didn't know what happened.
What these students needed was not instruction about subordinate clauses, but rather instruction in the use of a semicolon, colon, or dash to join main clauses. Of the 126 identified comma-splices and run-ons in the 31 samples, 71, or 56%, fall into this group. (See the "1986 Study of Seventh Grade Writing" on the KISS web site for an analysis of all the samples and a discussion of all the errors.)
        I would suggest that any seventh grade teacher could easily learn to do such research, research on the writing of his or her own students. Such research, of course, would enable the teacher to become his or her own "authority" about what the students need. Isn't there a difference between listening to the "Official" research for new ideas or general guidelines, as opposed to letting that research dominate what we do in the classroom? A KISS Approach to research enables teachers to become their own authorities. The KISS Approach, by the way, enables not only seventh grade teachers, but also seventh grade students to do the research that led to my conclusion about the punctuation marks.