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
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.
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
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
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