This document was originally written in 1985-86, in response to a letter I had received from John Maxwell, who was, if I remember correctly, the Executive Director of NCTE. I had written to several people, stating that NCTE was biased against the teaching of grammar, and Mr. Maxwell objected to my characterization. What follows was my attempt to show that the National Council of Teachers of English was closed to any serious discussion of the teaching of grammar. In the last few years, that situation has changed significantly. NCTE has accepted a new Assembly, the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, and the editors of many NCTE publications are actively seeking articles on what, why, and how to teach grammar. I am posting this document here because many English teachers, including those on the NCTE-Talk listserver, continue to refer to "research" which supposedly shows that the teaching of grammar in ineffective, or even harmful. Most of these teachers have not read the research. This post is thus for their information, and for anyone else who is interested.
This survey, which begins with October, 1982, and thus covers a period of just over three years, was compiled to document a statement I made that "NCTE is biased against the teaching of grammar." Since some members of NCTE were upset by that statement, I would like to explain what I meant and why I made it.
It did not require all the research studies for many teachers to realize that traditional grammar, traditionally taught, does not help students very much. But as Francis Christensen and others have said (See below) that does not mean that grammar instruction in any form can not help students. The research studies, moreover, did not put an end to the teaching of grammar: millions of traditional textbooks are still being used (and written) and educational objectives of most states' Departments of Education still include objectives for mastering grammatical constructions. Thus the beast still lives. It has been wounded by the research and by the generally negative attitude of NCTE periodicals, but there is no indication that it will die. Wounded, the beast probably does more harm to students than it did before. At least before the average teacher may have believed in the effectiveness of teaching grammar and therefore have taught it with some enthusiasm. (A teacher's enthusiasm may be the most important element in the classroom.) Now, however, many of the previously enthusiastic teachers are beginning to doubt, and much more teaching is probably becoming a matter of dull drill and senseless memorization.
Many teachers do believe that the beast can not only be healed, but also tamed and put to work. To do this, we, as a community of English teachers, need to address a variety of questions:
2.) How should these constructions be defined?
3.) How should these constructions be taught?
4.) Should these constructions be taught in a specific order?
5.) Most important, how does knowledge of these constructions help students improve their thinking, reading, and writing, and how do we show students the connections?
1.) I recently reviewed a potential ESL text for Macmillan. The authors want their students to learn about compound, compound/complex, etc. sentences. I agree with Francis Christensen: there is no reason for teaching these categories. (Notes toward a New Rhetoric. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. 18.) In subsequent correspondence, I learned that the writers had not heard of Christensen, and they don't trust him or me. They included these constructions, they said, because they are what teachers expect. It is possible to scrap numerous "categories" in traditional grammar (including, I would suggest, the distinctions among transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs), but this will not happen without a vehicle for dialogue about which constructions are needed. Without such a dialogue, the constructions will continue to be included in grammar textbooks in spite of all the research.
2.) Numerous traditional concepts are poorly defined. Most pedagogical texts still define "clause" as "a group of words with a subject and verb," and a "main clause" as "a clause that can stand alone." If, for example, a clause is defined as "a subject/verb pattern and all the words and constructions that modify it," then all subordinate clauses are part of a main clause. Since 99.99% of all subordinate clauses function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs, students who understand how nouns, adjectives, and adverbs function have no trouble identifying subordinate clauses. A main clause can then be defined as "a clause that is not subordinate." These definitions help students strengthen their concept of subordination, avoid problems with fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons, and also understand stylistic questions such as average length of main clauses (T-units).
3.) Grammar instruction that is not integrated with the students' own writing is supposed to be ineffective. (I have some evidence that it is not, but that is another question.) There are, however, numerous ways of integrating the two. Traditionally, constructions have been taught deductively: students are given a definition, and, if they are lucky, they are asked to find a few examples. Thus Ken Donaldson derides teaching that a noun is "the name of a person, place, or thing." He apparently would do away with teaching students to identify nouns. But the "noun" is a fundamental concept for English syntax: the student who understands simple nouns can then understand noun clauses, gerunds, infinitives functioning as nouns, nouns used as adverbs, and noun absolutes. The definition of a noun as a "person, place, or thing" is a good introduction for students, but instruction should begin, not end there. The definition, which for the student is deductive, should then be expanded by a process of induction.
My students, after a very brief introduction to the eight parts of speech, begin with prepositional phrases. Whatever answers the question "what?" after a preposition is, or functions as, a noun. They do not, moreover, simply learn the concept deductively--they learn to place parentheses around all the prepositional phrases in a paragraph (preferably their own). Next they learn to identify all the subjects and verbs, again in a paragraph; then all the subordinate clauses. By dealing with paragraphs and finding all of each construction, students inductively expand their concepts while learning how the constructions interrelate within context. (For example, their concept of "prepositional phrase" expands to include phrases with infinitives, gerunds, and clauses as objects of the preposition.)
4.) In Syntactic Maturity in Schoolchildren and Adults (1970), Hunt writes that "it seems advisable that a sequential curriculum on syntactic maturity covering many grades, perhaps all, should be undertaken" (60). An exchange of ideas about such a curriculum is vitally needed since states and individual schools already have such curriculi, many of them poorly thought out. Thus the Standards of Learning Objectives for Virginia Public Schools:1 Language Arts (1981) states as a Fourth Grade Objective
Volume 2, No. 3 of "Syntax in the Schools" will include an article by a Virginia high school teacher that argues for a sequential curriculum for the study of English grammar. The article was rejected by EJ: there have been no articles on such a curriculum in any NCTE journal during the last three years. I am sure that I am not the only person working on such a curriculum.
5.) The articles by Charles Beck, Eric Hibbison, and Ed Heckler demonstrate that I am not the only person attempting to integrate the teaching of grammar and thinking, reading, and writing skills. Why have no similar articles appeared in any NCTE journals during the last three years?
The following survey includes three kinds of things:
1.) position statements for or against the teaching of grammar,
2.) articles on students' use of grammar,
3.) articles about how grammar might be taught (the only items being DeBeaugrande's article, published twice, and Anne Herrington's, published in Writing Exercises from Exercise Exchange. Volume II.
Items (2) and (3) are clearly distinct -- a discussion of how students use conjunctions is in no way a suggestion of what they could/should be taught. RTE, for example, frequently publishes articles in the second category. My statement, however, is that NCTE is biased against the teaching of grammar, not against descriptions of how students use it.
[Language Arts is primarily for elementary school teachers]
Twenty-five issues of this journal include only one article specifically about grammar. Since the majority of new teachers find the teaching of grammar their main problem and concern (See the discussion of English Education), this seems somewhat incredible, unless, that is, the editors and readers of LA systematically screen out submissions about grammar. (I might add that experienced teachers likewise inform me that they do not know what to do about grammar.)
The single article specifically about grammar is Hilary Taylor Holbrook's "ERIC/RCS Report: Whither (Wither) Grammar?" (Feb. 83:259-263.) Since Mr. Maxwell complains about the implications of my stating that NCTE is "biased," consider the implications of "wither." Although this article may appear neutral, look at it more closely: Holbrook notes the "research that casts doubt on the notion that the study of grammar results in improved writing" (259), but does not list that research in the bibliography. It is true that the article is not totally negative on grammar, but neither is it about how to teach grammar--it is about other people's comments on grammar. The tone, moreover, is downbeat: the article "offer(s) alternatives for those teachers who choose or are compelled to include grammar activities in their language arts classes." In other words, "if you are forced to teach grammar, here are a few things you can do."
The same issue of LA includes "Essentials of English," with John Maxwell's introductory statement. This position statement, approved by NCTE's Executive Committee, notes that students should "become aware how grammar represents the orderliness of language and makes meaningful communication possible" (245). Some people might claim this as an indication that NCTE not only gives grammar a fair shake, but actually endorses it. A little thought, however, should suggest that such is not the case. Since there are so many different definitions of grammar, the statement, without further development, is meaningless--and no further development appears in LA. The sentence is thus a token.
Grammar is mentioned in another article in LA, Barbara von Bracht Donsky's "Trends in Elementary Writing Instruction, 1900-1959" (Dec. 84:795-803). She states: "those nineteenth-century die-hards, grammar and sentence construction, plodded unerringly along, oblivious to changing times and changing educational currents" (797). Clearly, the implication of this is that anyone who teaches grammar is a nineteenth-century die-hard." Grammar is not discussed in the rest of her article.
The following is given as one of nine resolutions passed at the Annual Business Meeting November 24, 1985 in Philadelphia:
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. (103)
[English Journal is primarily for high school teachers.]
Although grammar instruction begins in grade two or three, most such instruction occurs in grades 8 - 10. One would, therefore, expect EJ to include frequent articles about grammar. Here is what I find:
Adrian B. Sanford's "Four Basic Ways of Working with Sentences" (68-70). This is a neat little article, and I include it even though it is not directly about grammar. The writer simplifies four sentence-manipulation processes from transformational theory (addition, subtraction, substitution, and transposition) and suggests that teachers use them in teaching writing. Since Sanford objects to the "repetitive, grinding teaching of grammar," it would have been nice if she had explained how these manipulations could be combined with the study of grammar. Or is she implying that students should not understand what they are doing and why?
"Essentials of English," (51-53). This is the same statement published in LA.
"Well, I couldn't tell you to this day what a noun was. Or a verb. Any of that."
(He asked me so I told him -- a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. A verb shows action or a state of being. Then I asked him if that helped.)
"Really?" (Then he repeated almost exactly what I'd just said, and he did know them, those stupid, pointless, valueless definitions, he really did.) "Yeah, maybe it does. I'll try to remember."
(I remember saying to myself, don't give me that bullshit.)"
Robert de Beaugrande's "Yes, Teaching Grammar Does Help" (66-69) is the only positive article about teaching grammar in any NCTE journal between 1982 and 85. By "positive" I mean that the article is not only "for" grammar, but actually makes some suggestions about how grammar should be taught. Technically, of course, it is not the only positive article, since an expanded version of this article appears as "Forward to the Basics" in CCC (Oct. 84). Thus, if we judge by what is published in NCTE journals, during the last three years there has been only one person with creative ideas about teaching grammar, and that person's ideas go no further than how to identify subordinate clauses so as to avoid fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons.
Donald Murray, in "Facets," manages to get in the comment:
Carolyn Mamchur's "An Adjective Modifies a Noun" (24-26) reminds me of writing in the Soviet Union, where all texts must include a nod to Stalin, Lenin, or whoever is in power. Her get-the-students-to-do-first,-then-teach-them-the-construction approach to getting students to use modifiers is interesting, but an article on how to get students to use adjectives is hardly an article on grammar. Apparently, she couldn't get it into print without the following:
Russell Tabbert's "Parsing the Question 'Why Teach Grammar?'" (38-42) claims to be a survey and classificaiton of grammar. Near the end of his article, he states:
I am not saying that we shouldn't teach grammar. We should, both grammar-2 and grammar-3. And we should do it more interestingly and effectively so that in fact our students are more knowledgeable about the structure of English and are better editors. But we should not allow the current enthusiasm for grammar to distort the curriculum.
Ronald E. Smith, in "Literacy and the English Teacher: Observations and Suggestions" (22-27), fits NCTE's bias nicely. Having referred to the 1963 Braddock report, he states:
Smith's ability to handle research is suggested by his stating that 595 teachers responded to an EJ poll in favor of a certain point, but he does not tell us how many teachers responded altogether. Was it 595 out of 600, or 595 out of 6000? (24) In discussing whey teachers "fall back on" teaching grammar, he states, "They often fail to realize, however, that they learned to write despite spelling lists and sentence diagrams, not because of them." (25) Would he care to offer any proof of this?
Perhaps it's ironic; more likely it's pathetic,
but this issue of EJ includes the NCTE resolution against "the use of isolated
grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research" (102)
and also an article by Sharon J. Taylor, "Grammar Curriculum -- Back
to Square One" (94-98).
What I find ironic (pathetic) is that NCTE can pass a resolution against the teaching of "isolated" grammar, but has not once, during the last three years, offered a single article that proposes an alternative theory or approach toward teaching grammar. As I have already suggested, such approaches do exist.
This new addition to the NCTE family may prove more open to articles on grammar, but that remains to be seen. Since TETYC joined NCTE, we have the following:
Kent Forrester's "Why Nothing Works" (16-22) is not exclusively, or even primarily about the teaching of grammar, but grammar is one of the things that don't work. (See page 18.)
John A.R. Dick's "Basic Writing Workbooks, Sentence Style Books, and Copybooks: A Review" (140-153) is certainly a useful article. But it is not a discussion of grammar: it is a review of texts. Dick implies, however, that students shouldn't study grammar (e.g., "avoiding detailed reviews of traditional grammar"), that, if studied, grammar should be studied only to correct errors ("The better texts in this group offer benefits because of their size: coverage of nearly all common problems of basic writing students . . . . "), and that sentence-combining without instruction in grammar is a good idea ("Frank O'Hare reported in 1973 that students practicing sentence combining developed increased syntactic maturity in the absence of formal grammar instruction, and later research has supported his findings"). I doubt, therefore, that this counts as an article for the teaching of grammar. At best, it is neutral.
With the exception of LA, which has almost nothing about grammar, CCC is the most neutral of the NCTE journals. Unlike English Journal, College English, or English Education, it has not published statements or articles attacking the teaching of grammar, and it has published articles such as Kolln's and DeBeaugrande's defending grammar.
Marion Crowhurst's "Sentence Combining: Maintaining Realistic Expectations" (62-72) is not about grammar, but at least it is a warning about sentence combining, as is Michael Holzman's "Scientism and Sentence-Combining" (73-79).
W. Ross Winterowd's "Prolegomenon to Pedagogical Stylistics" (80-90) is an excellent article that everyone interested in grammar should read, but it is primarily about sentence combining, not about grammar, and it is certainly not concerned with what grammar should be taught and how.
Ian Pringle's "Why Teach Style? A Review-Essay" (91-98) touches on the grammar question only indirectly, but it should be read by anyone interested in grammar.
Gary Sloan's "Transitions: Relationships Among T-Units" (447-53) is not about grammar, but about Winterowd's classificatory system of coherence.
Thomas Farrell's "IQ and Standard English" (470-484) is primarily about teaching black ghetto students. He concludes: "in a nutshell, I am suggesting that the development of abstract thinking depends on learning (1) the full standard deployment of the the verb "to be" and (2) embedded modification and (3) subordination." (481) If this article is about grammar, it is a defense of it, not an exploration of how or what grammar should be taught. It would, for example, be interesting to know if Farrell believes that students should be taught to recognize subordinate clauses and how he would pedagogically define "subordinate clause."
Ronald Shook's "Response to Martha Kolln" and her reply to him and someone else (491-500) simply continue the debate about the research
Robert DeBeaugrande's "Forward to the Basics" is an expanded version of his "Yes, Teaching Grammar Does Help" (EJ. Feb. 84.) It is strange that only two (or is it one) article(s) on a method of teaching grammar have appeared in three years, and that article is by the same author.
The "Responses to Thomas J. Farrell" (455-477) are indirectly related to the teaching of grammar, but Farrell's "IQ and Standard English" does not propose a method of teaching grammar: it is primarily about differences in sentence structure between Black and standard English. Thus the discussion is primarily about language and intelligence tests, not about grammar.
Jaime Hylton's "Counterstatement" (340-343) to De Beaugrande's "Forward to the Basics" repeats NCTE's unofficial motto, "He accepts as a given the value of grammar instruction in improving students' writing, and in so doing, belies over fifty years of research to the contrary." (340). As De Beaugrande notes in his "Reply," there are numerous definitions of grammar, and the research studies, although they suggest that the traditional approach to grammar does not help, can not possibly predict the effect of other approaches to grammar. He states, "Thus, the respondent brings forward no evidence at all that we cannot teach or use 'grammar' in the broad sense for improving writing." (344) De Beaugrande's reply echoes Francis Christensen:
In "Staffroom Interchange," Carroll Viera states:
James F. Stratman's "Teaching Written Argument: The Significance of Toulmin's Layout for Sentence-Combining" (718-733) is an exploration of a pedagogical use of sentence-combining, not of grammar.
Arn Tibbets' and Charlene Tibbets' "Can Composiiton Textbooks Use Composition Research?" (855-858) is an interesting article. Of teachers they state:
Elizabeth S. Sklar's "Sexist Grammar Revisited" (348-358) is about gender and sexism, not about pedagogical grammar.
Thomas Friedmann's "Teaching Error, Nuturing Confusion: Grammar Texts, Tests, and Teachers in the Developmental English Class" (390-399) makes an excellent case for using context, primarily paragraphs, in teaching students to avoid errors. Friedmann does not address the question of whether or not students should be taught "grammar": rather, he is concerned only with their ability to avoid things such as spelling and subject/verb agreement errors. Although, in his final paragraph, he states, "The call here is for experimentation with new methods and for the testing of alternative exercises," Friedmann's article ends with: "And in the meantime, consign to a special pyre the 5th, 6th, or 19th edition of the grammar handbook of our ancestors."
Louis G. Ceci's "The Case for Syntactic Imagery" (431-449), an excellent article, argues for the study of syntactic imagery, but does not suggest either a complete theory of syntax or how/what students should be taught.
Shirley K. Rose's "Down from the Haymow: One Hundred Years of Sentence-Combining" (483-491) reminds readers that combining can be done within a traditional framework, but does not pursue the idea.
Suzanne Jacobs, in "Composing the In-Class Essay: A Case Study of Rudy" (34-42), discusses, at the end of her article, students' problems with syntax. She does not, however, suggest that students can be taught syntax:
Gary Sloan's "The Frequency of Transitional Markers in Discursive Prose" (158-179) analyzes how professional writers use such markers: it does not suggest how, or even if, students should be taught to use them.
Elisabeth McPherson, in "Then, Now, and Maybe Then . . ." (697-701), writes:
Patrick Hartwell's "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar" (105-127) could only be published in NCTEland. He begins by stating, "For me the grammar issue was settled at least twenty years ago with the conclusion offered by Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer in 1963." (105) Having thus told us that his mind has been closed for the last twenty years, he procedes to condemn the teaching of grammar, giving copious footnotes along the way. My response to Hartwell, along with the responses of several others, was published in CE, Oct 85: 641-650, so I will not belabor it here. I am curious, however, to see how our colleagues in the sciences will react to Hartwell's opening statement.
John Rouse's "Scenes from the Writing Workshop" (217-236) drips with antipathy toward instruction in grammar. That students need to write to learn how to write--the thesis of Rouse's essay--cannot be denied, but that does not mean that instruction in grammar cannot help. Rouse has moreover, an extremely narrow concept of grammar. (See pages 235-236.)
"Four Comments on 'Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar'" (641-650) indicate that Patrick Hartwell's conclusion, that we should abandon grammar and go on to other things, is not shared by everyone. Once again, however, the proponents of grammar are put in the position of responding to an attack rather than being able to express their own ideas within the pages of an NCTE journal. Note that Joe Williams states:
We get Martha Kolln's comment on Patrick Hartwell's article, and his response. (875-879) Kolln makes the mistake of trying to be rational, but Hartwell begins his response with "There's little to be accomplished by talking across paradigms, so I'll try to be brief." And noting that he recognized "that teachers and students may perceive the need for something that might be called 'grammar instruction,'" he goes on to note that "otherwise, Professor Kolln is flat out wrong." His penultimate sentence contains the interjection: "but you know I'm right, right?" Hartwell can afford to be so smug because he shares the reigning paradigm of NCTE. And just as Trotsky believed that there would be a final revolution, so Hartwell believes he has found the final paradigm.
There are numerous "grammatical" research studies published in this journal, most of which are not relevant here since they describe the kinds of sentences that people in various groups write, but do not describe what kind of instruction students should (not) be given. An example of this kind of article is Glenn J. Broadhead, James A. Berlin, and Marlis Manley Broadhead's "Sentence Structure in Academic Prose and Its Implications for College Writing Teachers" (October, 82. 225-240), in which the authors "conclude that a common vocabulary and a common approach to instruction in syntax and style are applicable to the entire range of college writing, and that instruction in the uses of free modifiers (whether through sentence- combining, generative rhetoric, or traditional means) would be as appropriate in technical/scientific writing classes as in freshman composition and other courses." (238) Such articles do not propose a method or concept for teaching grammar, but rather draw conclusions about the grammar and syntax of published writers.
William L. Smith and Glynda A. Hull's "Direct and Indirect Measurements of Effects of Specific Instruction: Evidence from Sentence Combining" (285-289) does not indicate whether or not students were informed that they were being taught to use the "Relative Clause, the Appositive, and the Infinitive Nominal." One of the objectives of the study was to discover "whether this instruction . . . lasted beyond the immediate post-test,"(285) and the authors conclude:
Donald D. Neville and Evelyn F. Searls'
"The Effect of Sentence-Combining and Kernel-Identification Training on
the Syntactic Component of Reading Comprehension" (37-61) is an excellent
example of the misinformation that, in NCTE journals, goes by the name
of "research." One has to wonder if NCTE hasn't become so enchanted with
numbers that it has forgotten how to read.
[English Education is the journal for teachers of teachers.]
The articles in English Education are most interesting in that they point out the gap between the "towers and the trenches," the "towers" being the active members of NCTE; the "trenches," the teachers in the classrooms.
William L. Smith's "Prologue" introduces the issue. He observes:
Joe Milner, however, provides a ray of hope. His article affirms our common notion that teachers who are involved in professional activities have quite different perceptions than those who aren't involved. I suspect (that's the nice way of saying "I am convinced") that most teachers fall into the later category; therefore, student teachers and rookies are more apt to encounter them. The "Towers" are seen, quite correctly, as abnormal. Yet through inservice projects such as the National Writing Project, the numbers will shift. (3-4)
The bias against teaching grammar in Janet L. Miller's "A Search for Congruence: Influence of Past and Present in Future Teacher's Concepts about Teaching Writing" (5-16) appears primarily in the selections from the journals of her student teachers that she chooses to quote. Peter writes: "Nothing prepared me for the daily slow routine of teaching parts of speech. I'm worried that I'll never get beyond the gerund with these kids!" And Tina complains:
Bill O'Rourke's "'Lion Tamers and Baby Sitters': First-Year English Teachers' Perceptions of Their Undergraduate Teacher Preparation" (17-24) reflects what might be called the "You listen; I'll talk" attitude of NCTE periodicals on the issue of grammar. He writes:
As for grammar, note that O'Rourke doesn't teach it, he teaches "about grammar." His "we talked about grammar" is charmingly deceptive: his students have not read the research; they have not mastered any of "the different types of grammar." (He is certainly not telling us that within four or six weeks of his course he produces masters of traditional, structural or transformational grammars: if that were the case, his students either shouldn't have complained or should have known enough about grammar to conclude for themselves that it doesn't help students.) O'Rourke's "talked about," in other words, means the instructor talked and the students agreed. Students do have enough sense to know not to contradict the professor who is grading them. Once they didn't have to worry about his grade, they told him what they really thought--but is he listening?
Jack Folsom, in "More Information and Perspective on Undergraduate English Teacher Preparation" (25-30) does argue for more instruction in grammar. Summarizing the results of his survey, he states: "Among all respondents, the teaching of grammar was far and away the top-ranked item, i.e., the one needing most strengthening at undergraduate level, even for recent graduates (post-1974)." (26) And:
As editor of Syntax in the Schools, a small, relatively unknown newsletter in its second year of publication, I have received submissions from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, Maryland, Texas, and California. It is true that some of these submissions would not meet the editorial, stylistic standards of NCTE journals, but does NCTE really expect us to believe that during the last three years not a single elementary, middle, or high school teacher has been able to write an article about a method of teaching grammar, an article that would meet the stylistic standards of an NCTE journal?
Joseph O. Milner's "Towers and Trenches:
Polar Perceptions of the English Curriculum" (31-35) is especially
interesting, since John Maxwell, in his letter to me, states: "The National
Council of Teachers of English as an organization has no official position
for or against the teaching of grammar, and your opening sentence suggests
that it does." Perhaps Mr. Maxwell should write to Professor Milner, who
wrote: "In 1976 NCTE developed its 'Statement of the Preparation of Teachers
of English' which served as its basic position paper for enunciating the
most advanced thinking of tower folk." (31) Although I do not read that
statement as a position against grammar, Professor Milner obviously does.
His article reports on his study of the "Measure of Statement Coalescence,"
an instrument designed to test the attitudes of "tower folk" (active participants
in NCTE functions) and the "Trenches" group" (those unenlightened by active
participation in NCTE). The instrument consisted of propositions, some
of which "were lifted directly from the 'Statement' and set alongside a
number of antithetical, 'Bogus' propositions." What does Milner give as
his example of a "Bogus" proposition? "Teachers of English need to help
students recognize the difference between good and bad grammar." (32) (Please
note, Mr. Maxwell, that I did not say that the bogus proposition were "antithetical"
to the NCTE statement; Professor Milner did.)
In "English Education: The Student Teachers' Viewpoint," (110-112), John W. Myers notes that "when asked to indicate what types of courses should be added, more than half of the respondents suggested a need for more grammar courses at basic and advanced levels." (111) Myers then drops the subject of grammar, even though, among his recommendations, he suggests adding a course "in the area of classroom management and discipline." (112)
Joyce K. Killian, in "Preparing English Teachers: The Cooperating Teachers' View" (136-142), asked cooperating teachers about the quality of preparation in grammar, literature, and composition. She states:
Janet Boyle's "A Comparison of Secondary and English Methods Classes" (143-148) indicates that English methods instructors in Indiana colleges and universities rated "teaching grammar" fourth most important of 23 topics as actually covered in English Methods courses, behind 1.) teaching literature, 2.) teaching composition, and 3.) materials. In recommended coverage, it ranked third, behind literature and composition. (The other topics included: spelling, speech, journalism, teaching gifted students, slower students, listening skills, and critical thinking.) There being no reason to believe that the instructors in Indiana differ significantly from their colleagues across the country, it seems fair to assume that at least a few instructors, aware of the general controversy about grammar, would want to explain what grammar they teach and why. But since no such articles have appeared in NCTE journals, and since NCTE is not biased against the teaching of grammar [according to Mr. Maxwell], we must also assume that the instructors who favor teaching grammar are illiterate.
Walter T. Petty's "There Are Gaps and There Are Gaps!" (34-40) is a real winner. He states:
Frederica Davis' "In Defense of Grammar" (151-164) is, as its title indicates, a defense, not an exploration. Ms. Davis' definition of traditional grammar as "the eight parts of speech, mechanics, and usage," is not very clear or comprehensive. Is she too defining grammar as Warriner's? Her suggestion that "traditional grammar should be taught in a systematic, sequential way, using the child's own written work whenever possible" is excellent, but she gives no examples of how this might be done. One has to wonder if her article would have been published if it had not been accompanied by Noam Chomsky's letter (165-66).
Joan L. Oftedahl's "Secondary English Methods Courses in the Midwest" indicates that 25.7% of the teachers surveyed believe that "grammar" should be one of the five topics most emphasized in a methods course, whereas 0% of the Methods Professors included grammar as one of the top five priorities. As Ms. Oftedahl points out, most of the methods professors were associated with college English departments. College English professors are not particularly interested in teaching grammar, especially if they can refer to the "research" that demonstrates its ineffectiveness.
Robert Small's "Why I'll Never Teach Grammar Again" (174-178) again demonstrates the basic preconception of everything that appears in NCTE journals about grammar. For Small, "grammar" is Warriner's. He has a grand time cutting it to pieces, and manages to "throw in diagramming" along the way. Near the end of his article he admits that: "Of course, my attack is not fair to grammar. It is a victim too. Indeed, grammar in the true sense of that word--that is, the study of syntax--has never been a part of the English curriculum." (177) Unfortunately, Professor Small does not suggest what would be included in a pedagogy of syntax--does he realize that concepts such as "subject," "verb," and "clause" are indispensible if students are to study syntax?
Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer. Research in Written Composition.
The often quoted conclusion in this study against
the teaching of grammar (37) need not be quoted here. Professor Kolln has
pointed out many of the problems with it in her article cited above. What
has not been noted, or at least what no one has noted in an NCTE publication,
is that Kellogg Hunt's 1965 study (See below.) effectively invalidates
the conclusion of this one, since Hunt demonstrates that before his work,
there was no satisfactory instrument of measurement. Hunt's T-unit has
been almost universally accepted as the first valid measure of syntactic
growth. How can the earlier studies be accepted as conclusively valid,
when they did not have a valid unit of measurement?
Kellogg Hunt. Grammatical Structures Written at Three Grade Levels.
This descriptive study, although extremely important, is not about teaching grammar--it is the research that established the T-unit as a valid measure of syntactic "maturity."
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)
Roy C. O'Donnell, William J. Griffin, & Raymond C. Norris. Syntax of Kindergarten and Elementary School Children: A Transformational Analysis.
Like Hunt's work, this is a descriptive analysis: it is thus not an argument for or against the teaching of grammar. If this study, (and Hunt's), were translated into traditional terms (which is possible), it might have a tremendous affect on the way grammar is taught.
The opening words of Richard Braddock's introduction
to this study reflect the bias of NCTE: "Recognizing the long-established
truth that the study of traditional classroom grammar has a negligible
effect on the "correctness" of student writing, . . ." (v). This is, of
course, Braddock's (or should we say NCTE's) truth: otherwise thousands
of teachers would not still be teaching grammar. Braddock is, apparently,
referring to previous research. If Braddock really wants to convince us
that grammar has no effect, let him not refer to research studies that
covered a span of one, at best two years. Let him--or anyone else--conduct
a study in which the experimental group is taught no grammar from grades
one to nine. Perhaps Braddock hasn't read Hunt's statements that syntactic
development is an extremely slow process? And, as Hunt also suggests, the
naturally increasing complexity of students' syntax results in more problems
Although John Maxwell rebukes me for my supposedly implying that NCTE has an official policy against the teaching of grammar, here is what the reader finds in the preface to O'Hare's study:
Advocates of the research against grammar often do not indicate which research they mean, thereby making it difficult to determine which studies they consider conclusive. Since O'Hare's is frequently cited, I will examine it in some detail. This is one emperor who definitely needs some new clothes.
What O'Hare advocates is pure exercise in sentence-combining, with no instruction in grammar. Students, in other words, are not to be told what constructions they are manipulating. As for why they are manipulating them, they must rely on the instructor's assertion that it will help them write "better." O'Hare's approach to sentence combining is thus pure operant conditioning. Few people would argue that operant conditioning can not be effective, but there are some serious questions about its long-term effects. If I am not mistaken, a general principle of operant conditioning is that once the stimulus-response treatment has ended, the bond between the stimulus and response is gradually, if not quickly, worn down by competing stimuli. O'Hare's experiment lasted eight months, and his results are based on pre- and post-treatment writing samples. If we are to be convinced that the treatment has long-term effects, should there not have been another post-test, perhaps even six months later? (As noted above, Smith and Hull (RTE, Oct 83) noted a significant decrease in the effect of sentence combining one week after instruction ended!) O'Hare, however, never addresses this question. Since O'Hare bases his conclusions on both an assessment of syntactic maturity and on an assessment of writing quality, let me briefly examine each.
The Assessment of Syntactic Maturity
What was O'Hare measuring? In effect, he measured
two things: words per main clause (T-unit), and subordinate clauses per
main clause. These two things were divided into six categories: "words
per T-unit," "clauses per T-unit," "words per clause," "Noun Clauses per
100 T-units," "adverb clauses per 100 T-units," and "adjective clauses
per 100 T-units." He justifies these measures by referring to the work
of Hunt and O'Donnell. Discussing Hunt's 1970 study, Syntactic Maturity
in Schoolchildren and Adults, O'Hare writes: "Although Hunt used a
number of new measures, and got especially interesting results with what
he called structures less than a predicate and less than a clause, his
findings relating to the number of embedding transformations and to clause
and T-unit length were of particular interest to the present study." (24)
O'Hare intentionally downplays, in other words, Hunt's statement that "the
great majority of the syntactic changes that increase with maturity are
those that reduce a clause to less than a clause." (43) In his study, Hunt
examines things such as verbals and appositives, constructions that reduce
not only the length of a T-unit but also the number of subordinate clauses
per T-unit. Such constructions, says Hunt, are most indicative of syntactic
maturity. Did O'Hare ignore this so that he could concentrate on length
and get impressive statistics, or did he not understand it?
Still another quesitonable aspect of O'Hare's statistics involves his comparison to Mellon. He claims to be studying seventh grade students because Mellon did and he intends to compare his results to Mellon's. Likewise, he adapts Mellon's exercises in an attempt to keep the studies comparable. Yet, when he comes to his method of counting constructions, he writes:
but on the post-test:
The pre-test sentence would receive the same rating from each researcher: 5.5 words/T-unit, 3.7/clause, and 50 subordinate clauses per 100 T-units. On the post-test sentence, however, the ratings would be significantly different: Mellon would arrive at 6 words/T-unit, 4/clause, and 50 subordinate clauses per 100 T-units, essentially the same as on the pre-test. But O'Hare's post-test results would be 12 words/T-unit, 4/clause, and 200 subordinate clauses per 100 T-units, i.e., twice the words per T-unit, and four times as many subordinate clauses! Yet, when he comes to comparing his results with Mellon's, he simply states: "The experimental group's mean pre-post change score of 6.12 words per T-unit was approximately five times the statistically significant increase reported for Mellon's experimental group." (55) He makes a similar statement two pages later, but does he even suggest that his way of counting may have influenced his results? No.
Having noted the "notorious unreliability of composition ratings," O'Hare goes on to tell us that his raters were "eight experienced English teachers who were attending Florida State University during the summer of 1970." (50) Although he states that "these evaluators had no knowledge of the nature of the present experiment," I would like to know what courses they were taking. Just as O'Hare assumed that their would be a "rubb-off" effect from the sentence combining exercises to the students' writing, so there could be a "rubb-off" effect from a course in transformational grammar, advanced stylistics, or language development, should one or more of these teachers have been taking it. This possibility is not that far-fetched, since we are told that the teachers:
O'Hare goes to great length, defending his choice of the single judgment over a rating scale (i.e., 1 to 5). Did he not think of, or did he intentionally avoid, another possibility: having the raters make a single judgment about each pair for each criterion. We then would have been able o tell whether the essays were being rated for ideas, organization, style, etc. As the system stands, however, some of the "winners" may have been chosen for ideas, others for organization, etc. This problem is particularly bad since only post-test essays were evaluated! The papers were paired for sex and IQ, but these factors do not account for creativity, use of detail, etc. Thus O'Hare later notes that the experimental group's essays "had much more detail, more 'meat' to them." (72). How do we know that the pre-test essays of this group were not also superior in detail? Finally, we should note that only narrative and descriptive esays were evaluated. As most English teachers agree, when students write expository essays, their organization, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. often falls apart. It would be nice to know what the judgment would have been on expository writing.
In effect, all O'Hare has proven is that sentence combining increases clause length and the use of subordinate clauses during the course of instruction. But as I suggested above, this may be an aggravation of an abnormality rather than an "improvement." As Hunt wrote in 1965: "In this study the word 'maturity' is intended to designate nothing more than 'the observed characteristics of writers in an older grade.' It has nothing to do with whether older students write 'better' in any general stylistic sense." (5) Having looked at O'Hare's study in some detail, might we not ask how he can possibly state that he is "Improving Student Writing"?
Arthur N. Applebee. Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English: a History.
Constance Weaver. Grammar for Teachers: Perspectives and Definitions.
The title of this book is incomplete: it should be Grammar for Teachers, Not for Students. She states:
Although the work of both Hunt and Mellon is listed in her bibliography, there is no indication that she has though about what either said. She says nothing about natural syntactic development, and never suggests that a third grade teacher and a tenth grade teacher might be working with different syntactic problems. Particularly interesting are the examples she uses in her own exposition of grammar--their average T-unit length is about seven words, or around fourth grade level. Did she read Mellon's comments about traditional grammar books:
Having prepared a smorgasbord of traditional, structural and transformational grammars in Chapters 6, 7, and 8, it would have been nice if Professor Weaver had digested her meal before putting it on the table in Chapter Nine. In presenting her readers with grammar that they can "use," she uses one term to refer to two concepts, and labels one concept with two different terms. Thus, "sentence" has two defintions:
[b] In grammatical terms, a sentence consists of an independent clause plus any dependent clauses that may be attached to it or embedded within it. Thus defined, a sentence is sometimes called a "minimum terminable unit," or T-unit for short. (145)
The problem arises because Professor Weaver hasn't thought about many of the grammatical concepts she offers. For example, she simply accepts a poor, and traditional, definition of "independent" clause: "The independent clause is a subject-plus-predicate construction which can stand alone as a sentence." (144) The problem with this definition can be demonstrated through one of the sentences she uses to exemplify a dependent clause:
Again, this is a traditional example, typical of those used by all the grammarians who write textbooks based os previous grammar books. But students are likely to write this sentence as:
From the students' point of view, "the elephant eats peanuts" can stand
alone: it therefore fulfills Professor Weaver's definition of independent
clause. To this, Professor Weaver would probably respond that there is
an ellipsed "that" after "knows," which is easy for her to say, but how
is the student supposed to know when there is and when there is not an
ellipsed "that"? Professor Weaver could have avoided this whole problem
by recognizing that the T-unit is not a "sentence," but rather the equivalent
of an independent clause.
Janice N. Hays, et al. The Writer's Mind.
In "Written Products and the Writing Process," Lee Odell uses grammatical terms to describe writing, but he does not suggest using them in teaching.
Myers, Miles & James Gray. Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Composition: Processing, Distancing, and Modeling.
This collection is not as biased as many published
by NCTE, but it still does not include any articles on approaches to teaching
grammar. In his introductory essay, Miles Myers quotes Elley, Barham,
Lamb, and Wylie on the conclusions of their research: "The results presented
show that the effects of such grammar study are negligible. . . It is difficult
to escape the conclusion that English grammar, whether traditional or transformational,
has virtually no influence on the language growth of typical secondary
school students." (8) Apparently sensing the inductive leap in their conclusion,
Myers adds: "one might argue that the study suggests the limited value
of drill in language learning." (9) A little later, Myers approvingly refers
to O'Hare: "Frank O'Hare . . . modified Mellon's exercises and found that
both the essay scores and syntactic maturity improved as a result of direct
instruction in sentence combining." (11) One has to wonder about how carefully
Myers read O'Hare--if he read him at all. (See the discussion of O'Hare,
Charles R. Duke, Editor. Writing Exercises from Exercise Exchange. Vol II.
R. Baird Shuman, in "An Action-Learning Approach to Reading, Grammar, and Punctuation," states, "Although I had never mentioned the word subordination or the term subordinate conjunction, every student in the class had imbibed the essence of this concept which many English teachers find very difficult to teach." (274) That an English teacher can coach students into combining simple sentences into a complex one hardly demonstrates that the students have mastered the concept of subordination.
Anne J. Herrington's "Grammar Recharted:
Sentence Analysis for Writing" (276-287) is by far the best piece on grammar
that NCTE has published in the last three years. (But then, its only competition
is DeBeaugrande's essay.) Herrington's system involves a five column chart--"(1)
Preceding Subject," "(2) Subject," "(3) Between Subject and Verb," "(4)
Verb," and "(5) Following Verb"--with which she helps college students
analyze the style of sentences. Why can't NCTE publish more articles like
this one? Of the 79 articles in this collection, Herrington's is the only
one that even suggests that knowledge of grammar can be helpful, and it
was probably included because of its emphasis on style, not grammar.
Christopher J. Thaiss and Charles Suhor. Speaking and Writing, K-12: Classroom Strategies and the New Research.
Ann Jeffries-Thaiss and Christopher
J. Thaiss's suggestion that children "think of adjectives we could
use to describe the spirit, or mind, of the Renaissance" (9) is hardly
an argument for teaching grammar, even though the idea itself is excellent.
It is, moreover, the only statement in this book that even suggests using
grammatical concepts in the context of the students' writing.
Charles Suhor, in "Thinking Visually about Writing" (74-103), places grammar in his "Content Area Model" and ridicules it regularly. Not satisfied with references to the research and a students' (collective) poem against grammar, Suhor decides to bring Piaget into the attack:
That he considers these concepts "dense" reflects his own problems with grammar--"dense" is, after all, a subjective word, and his problems with grammar are intricately related to his misapplication of Piaget's theory. Indeed, all three of the concepts to which Suhor refers (absolute phrase, gerund, and participle) are easily comprehended by students if they are taught through a process based on Piaget's theories. Although Piaget likes the visual model of the graph, and frequently speaks of "plateaus," periods of suspended upward movement, for our purpose, Vygotsky's model of concentric circles provides a clearer, briefer, and more forceful model.
For both Piaget and Vygotsky, "learning" is a process of assimilating new knowledge into what the learner already knows. For Vygotsky, two expanding concentric circles symbolize this process. The inner circle represents assimilated knowledge; the area between the two circles is the "zone of proximal development," and the area outside the outer circle represents knowledge that is beyond the grasp of the learner. As the concepts within the zone of proximal development are assimilated, the circles expand, new concepts continually coming within the grasp of the learner. Quite simply, high school students can assimilate geometry and algebra because they have earlier assimilated addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They can't assimilate "noun absolute, gerund, and participle," not because they are incapable of handling abstractions, but because they have never assimilated subject, verb, and clause.
Assimilating a concept is not the same as memorizing a definition and being able to recognize ten (or a thousand) simple examples of it, which is the way that grammar has traditionally been taught. Instruction might well begin in this manner, but if we wish the student to assimilate the knowledge, then instruction has to go beyond this so that the student can, for example, underline all the subjects and finite verbs in anything that s/he writes or reads. The student who can do the latter has consciously assimilated subjects and finite verbs and is ready to move on to the next circle, the one with gerunds and gerundives: any verb that is not finite has to be a verbal (gerund, gerundive, or infinitive), and gerunds and gerundives are recognizable by their participial ("-ing," "-ed") form. Students can easily master gerunds and gerundives by analyzing writing--their own and that of others, eliminating all the finite verbs from consideration. Of course, if they cannot eliminate all the finite verbs, then they have a confusing mess which they cannot systematize. This system works--I use it regularly in a course I teach for future teachers; I've tried to publish about it in NCTE journals, but I've been told that I don't know anything about the "research." Suhor, of course, can misinterpret Piaget, ridicule grammar, and still get published, but then, he shares NCTE's beliefs.
Olson, Gary A. ed. Writing Centers: Theory and Administration
Once again we find Patrick Hartwell attacking grammar, this time in "The Writing Center and the Paradoxes of Written-Down Speech" (48-61). Although he condemns grammar, he never defines it. Thus, "seventeen of the eighteen CETA adult students corrected essentially all of their errors of grammar, spelling, and, by intonation, punctuation--but none of their errors in usage--when they read their work aloud." (54-55) If usage is not a part of grammar, what is? Hartwell's main argument in this article is, moreover, fundamentally flawed. Comparing the comments of weak and strong writers about what they do when writing, and finding that weak writers focus more on grammar and mechanical errors, Hartwell concludes:
In "Promoting Cognitive Development in the Writing Center," Karen I. Spear tells us that:
Bene Scanlon Cox, in "Priorities and Guidelines for the Development of Writing Centers: A Delphi Study," does manage to tell us that "the writing center should assume responsibility for teaching all grammar skills." (81) This is one of nine "primary considerations" for "establishing the writing center's philosophy of service to students." How the center should do this is not discussed.
In "Developing a Peer Tutor Program" (132-143), Linda Bannister-Wills informs us that a "practicum is also a forum for tutors to debate the virtues of grammar instruction" (139). Led by Professor Bannister-Wills, however, practicums are probably like Bill O'Rourke's You-listen;-I'll-talk grammar courses for future teachers (See above, EE, Feb 83.), since she also states, "directors can institute an optional series of grammar seminars that teach tutors how to convey grammatical information (minus terminology) to students who must pass an error recognition competency test." (138) Students can debate, in other words, as long as they come to the conclusion that grammatical terminology should not be used.
The belief that we can "convey grammatical information (minus terminology)" is fascinating because it is true, just as a person can learn to work on a car's engine without knowing what a carburetor, distributor, or alternator is. I once owned a two-cylinder Fiat 500, and a friend taught me how to work on it. I never learned the names of the various parts--I recognized them by their shape and position in the engine, and I managed fairly well. Of course, when we got an eight-cylinder Malibu with all the pollution control equipment on it, I stopped looking under the hood. My Fiat is comparable to the average fourth grade student's sentence. It is easy enough to see what is wrong with "They went to the store, they were late," but what does a student do with the following?
Rodney Simard, in "Assessing a New Professional Role: The Writing Center Tutor" (197-205), tells us that:
Although the articles in English Education indicate that teachers in the trenches feel a great need for better instruction in grammar, their feeling goes unheeded not only in that journal, but in the others as well. Only two articles, of the thousands published over three years, have concerned a method of using grammar in instruction, and those articles are limited in scope, DeBeaugrande's being concerned only with avoiding errors, Herrington's primarily with sentence style. In the numerous attacks against the teaching of grammar, however, Ken Donelson, editor of English Journal, tells us that it is "bullshit," Elisabeth McPherson calls for a formal policy against teaching grammar, Peter Rosenbaum tells us that the Committee on Research considers the question closed, Walter Petty implies that anyone who teaches grammar is incompetent, and Patrick Hartwell insinuates that they are "little English teachers." Advocates of grammar are allowed to "Comment," but the anti-grammar author gets the last word. All of this is based on the "research," which is probably read less often than it is put in footnotes. And the research itself, as my brief critique of O'Hare's suggests, simply does not support the conclusions drawn from it.
In his letter to me, John Maxwell writes, "I think it would be fairer and better for your purposes if, in the future, you state that 'many researchers and others who write for NCTE journals are biased against the teaching of grammar.'" But as Robert J. Connors notes in discussing the power of journals to "filter" ideas:
I leave it to my readers to decide if I am wrong when I state that NCTE is biased against the teaching of grammar.
P.S. I want to emphasize that the position of NCTE has changed significantly in the decade since this piece was written. In October, 1987, Ben Nelms, then editor of English Journal, published a focus issue on grammar. As he noted:
Unfortunately, many English teachers are still referring to the "research" to justify their dislike of teaching (or inability to teach?) grammar. This post is for them.