Whatever Happened to Teaching Grammar?

Like cursive writing, the formal teaching of grammar was a mainstay in elementary school language arts and secondary school English programs since the founding of tax-supported public schools in the early 19th century. The history of teaching grammar rules and how students should talk and write go back to ancient Greece and Rome and subsequent centuries in Europe and, of course, the 13 colonies under British rule in the 17th and 18th centuries.

No more.

While many school districts in the U.S. have teachers who continue to teach grammar and syntax in connection with writing, especially in those districts committed to following Common Core curriculum standards, grammar instruction, especially memorizing rules and diagramming sentences, has faded from classroom lessons over the past half-century. How come?

This post provides a partial answer to that question.

When did grammar instruction in public schools begin?

Even before the colonies shed British rule, grammar instruction was a staple of private academies and the earliest “public” schools in the 17th and 18th centuries. After the Revolutionary War, schools relied upon grammar instruction as a key part of the school curriculum. One survey, for example, of texts used in New York state schools in 1804 showed:

13 spelling, 28 reading, 16 grammar, and one composition textbook were being used in the state’s schools. By 1832, there were 45 spelling, 102 reading, 48 grammar, and five composition textbooks in use. Of these, five spellers, ten readers, and three grammars were thought to be in general use by significant numbers of teachers

What problems does grammar instruction seek to solve?

For centuries there have been rules for how children and adults should speak and write. Speaking and writing incorrectly, that is, breaking the formal rules, were signs of poor child rearing and inadequate education. Acquiring the knowledge and skills of appropriate speaking and writing became a mark of both a superior education and social class standing. It was the job of public school teachers to teach the young standard ways of speaking and writing as solutions to inexorable changes in the labor market, culture, and society. Language was always a social marker and getting labeled as speaking and writing improperly was for many Americans in the late-19th through the 20th century, a stigma. Knowing and using mainstream grammar rules helped many move up the socioeconomic ladder.

What does grammar instruction in elementary and secondary schools look like?

One teacher uses a pizza design to get at parts of speech for seventh and eighth graders:

For those schools implementing Common Core curriculum standards, there is emphasis on writing, say, narrative, argumentative, and information essays. Then there is familiar kinds of grammar rules lodged within these standards. Here is a sampling of ninth grade standards for grammar instruction:

Conventions of Standard English:

Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Use parallel structure.*

Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.

Spell correctly.

Knowledge of Language:

Write and edit work so that it conforms to the guidelines in a style manual (e.g., MLA Handbook, Turabian’s Manual for Writers) appropriate for the discipline and writing type….

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9-10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.

Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., analyze, analysis, analytical; advocate, advocacy).

Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, or its etymology….

Interpret figures of speech (e.g., euphemism, oxymoron) in context and analyze their role in the text.

Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

A brief look at the elementary school worksheets teachers used to teach grammar suggest the thrust of grammar instruction during these decades.

Does grammar instruction work?

While grammar continued to be taught formally in elementary and secondary schools, scholars and professional organizations often published studies and statements that made clear how teaching grammar in of itself had little to no effect on students’ use of language and writing.

See, for example, the 1963 statement of the National Councilof English Teachers:

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 (p. 37).

In 1984, George Hillocks published a meta-analsis of studies on the teaching of grammar. He concluded:

The study of traditional school grammar (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing.

Nonetheless, with the inclusion of grammar in the English Core Curriculum standards since 2010, instruction in the rule driven content, downsized and harnessed to improved writing, continues.

To what extent does grammar instruction continue in U.S. schools?

The isolated teaching of grammar rules for writing and speaking has declined greatly (e.g., diagramming sentences).

But the integrating of grammar into writing in elementary school lessons in language arts and secondary school English classes continues, spurred by the Common Core curriculum standards and the huge amount of research findings on the futility of teaching grammar rules divorced from writing.

I wanted to close this post with a survey of teachers who continue to incorporate grammar into their lessons but I have yet to find any recent poll of U.S. teachers and the degree to which they teach grammar.

If any readers know of such surveys of teaching practices in elementary and secondary classrooms, please contact me.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

6 responses to “Whatever Happened to Teaching Grammar?

  1. As someone who was a teacher for 23 years, teaching grammar ASIDE from the rest of writing is EFFICIENT. Trying to integrate grammar into a more holistic writing instruction approach ONLY leads to writers who have no idea what proper English grammar should be. I am very much not a proponent of holistic teaching due to the loss of underpinning skills.

  2. Those Who Squirm!

    It does seem to me that the command of traditional standard grammar in the general population has taken a major nosedive since late last century. It used to be the case that obviously middle class or higher people who were native speakers all spoke in much the same way as far as grammar went. There were never any double negatives, at least unless they were used for ironic or comic effect. Similarly everyone this categorization applied used all of the strong preterites and participles correctly. You would NEVER hear anyone in broadcasting say “have ate”, as I heard from an NPR host a few years ago.

    From a linguistic perspective, I’m puzzled as to why this aspect English grammar has become so fragile. I note that in German, in which the standard rules of grammar likewise prohibit the double negative, this seems to be followed by all native speakers from manual laborers to university professors. Similarly, a command of most of German’s considerably more complex system of inflection seems to be universal as well. There is some merging of the genitive and dative case in more casual discourse, but that’s fairly minor, in the same way that most English speakers eschew “whom” except in very formal contexts.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment. Whether or not standard grammar has “taken a major nosedive since late last century,” I cannot say. All of us have anecdotes of broken standard grammar in conversation, writing, and within the media. Such concerns, of course, historically, are familiar. A half-century, nay, a century ago, grammarians were upset over the deterioration of rules in writing, speaking, and the emerging media of the day. While formal teaching of grammar has surely declined as the post suggests, some states and districts still require its teaching in elementary school. However, I do not know of any experimental studies, surveys, case studies of U.S. students that support your observation and similar ones about grammar then and now. Do you?

  3. Carolee Botts

    When one attends to the speech of television and radio personnel it becomes very clear that grammar has been a neglected part of language arts instruction in K through college for at least the past thirty years! It was around that time that research indicated that a more holistic approach would be more meaningful and effective. Now we are left with the results of that approach!

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