Can Grammar Be Taught?

By Mark Nichol

The BBC recently reported that students in the final year of primary school — equivalent to the fifth grade in the United States — will be required to take a grammar and spelling test (to evaluate teaching effectiveness, not to qualify the students for matriculation). But are grammar and spelling teachable?

Year after year, from early elementary school on, students are subjected to instruction in grammar and spelling. Textbooks and handouts describe and explain the functions of parts of speech and the spelling rules, and students fill out worksheets and take spelling tests. Yet even some highly intelligent, scholastically successful students have difficulty expressing themselves in writing, are unable to identify parts of speech or verb tenses, and can’t spell very well.

I’m a good writer — good, not great — and I can spell just about any word, but I didn’t learn how to write by filling out grammar worksheets, and I didn’t study for spelling tests. I learned to write by writing — and by reading. When I was in school, we had very few extended writing assignments, but these, and my extracurricular efforts (including an abysmal short novel I wrote when I was in junior high school), helped me hone my writing skills. My enthusiasm for reading certainly had a significant impact, too.

When I briefly taught elementary school, I didn’t use an English textbook. My students wrote and read. I gave vocabulary and spelling tests, but mostly, they wrote and read.

Unfortunately, however, it was difficult to help students develop their reading and writing skills. I had about thirty students at a time, and though they read and wrote while studying subjects other than language as well, there was very little opportunity to coach them to be better readers and writers.

And that’s the key. In the learning factories we call schools, educators generally devote time and energy through drills, not development. Many teachers simply follow the playbook and direct students to identify the adverbs in a sentence rather than engage the students in an exploration of the possibilities of adverbs. Most give spelling tests but don’t encourage students to use a new word in each entry in their daily journal. (Daily journal entry? Who has time to assign a daily journal entry?)

I’m not blaming these educators, of course. Although some lazy teachers give the profession a bad name, most teachers try to incorporate creative and truly valuable educational experiences in their classrooms, but given the dispiriting conditions and depressingly misdirected priorities in public education, doing so remains a challenge.

I remember, in college and perhaps later, despite having filled out innumerable grammar worksheets during my K–12 education, not knowing the difference between an adjective and an adverb. It didn’t get in the way of my ability to write. The worksheets, however, were an obstacle; how much more writing I could have done if I hadn’t had to fill them out!

The tragedy of the factory educational system is that many of the students who are not enthusiastic writers or who have had the enthusiasm drained from them by rote, irrelevant lessons will populate remedial writing courses at junior colleges and at Ivy League schools alike. They will be the ones who, because HR managers were dismayed by grammatical errors and spelling mistakes in cover letters and on résumés, won’t get contacted for a job interview.

This argument does not mean to suggest that skill drills are useless; children and adults alike benefit from writing guides and grammar handbooks. But writing should be the foundation for developing written-language skills, not the other way around.

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40 Responses to “Can Grammar Be Taught?”

  • James T.

    That was a wonderful article. If my understanding of it is correct, the writer feels teaching grammar in any form other than through reading and writing is a waste of time. Then I completely disagree.

    I think many posts here describing their experiences in learning grammar exemplifies my disagreement. I also found that many of the posts reveal the writer’s lack of knowledge of grammar to make their intended meaning to be accurately perceived by the writer. Which is the reason for grammar in the first place.

    I don’t think anyone would argue that ‘learning’ and or modestly understanding grammar is necessary. It seems that the only issue is how best to teach it. There was a pretty wide opinion voiced here of what worked best for that individual through their experience. What worked for one student is boring to the next.

    In my opinion what all of these excellent posts reveal is the need for English teachers to recognize their classroom as a group of “individuals” each with different learning styles, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. Quite obviously it is impossible to match every single student’s learning ability, style, etc., However it is possible to match the majority. How? Through multiple and variable methodology. To me it seems quite obvious that any one pedagogy used solely in the classroom just isn’t effective.
    Teachers need to stop doing the same thing for hour upon hour with these students. Even the student who is very receptive and enjoys something such as sentence diagramming will become quite bored with it in time.
    It has been my experience in the classroom that when I employ any type of exercise for a short period of time such as 15 to 20 minutes before moving on to another type of exercise my students’ engagement in the lesson as a whole is greatly enhanced. However the teacher needs to be extremely observant of the students’. If your lesson plan as an example is to have them diagram for 20 minutes followed by 15 minutes of gap fill exercises, but at the time notice the students attention/interest level starts waning after the first ten minutes…. STOP !!! Move on!!! You must keep your students engaged or even the very best methodology just won’t be effective. A good teacher will come to a one hour class armed with 2 hours worth of lesson plan. If possible be sure throughout the entire lesson you are at least aware of different learning styles and use a component of each throughout. It’s actually a very easy thing to do but requires a bit of forethought to provide. (And sometimes some equipment not available sadly).

    As Tony Moore said above what to teach is often the question heavily debated and seems to be ever changing. “Oh my! You mean educators are still learning and have yet more to learn!!!???”
    As educators we are often constrained and restricted with what we must teach and with no recourse to change it other than much in-house griping. But I have found that we have a reasonable amount of flexibility in how we teach what we are ordered to teach. USE IT! Be flexible as a teacher. Grammar can be taught without it being boring as hell, which by the very nature of the beast, it IS to most. Infants and toddlers learning curve is amazing compared to the older student and how did they learn? By playing. Make your class fun even if it is a subject that is boring. If your students are bored it is because YOU are boring not necessarily the subject.

    Thanks for hearing me out 😛

  • John O’Shaughnessy

    A great article and discussion here!
    Grammar: yes, it does help, it can be taught and it really contributes to a clear understanding of the structure of any language. I speak several European languages and teach English.

  • Sheila Skillingstead

    I gave a writing assignment to my fourth grade students and they put dialogue in their pieces and didn’t know the rules. I hadn’t expected them to try and write dialogue.

    During a break I photocopied a piece of a novel with a variety of dialogue examples. I gave them to my students and had them match what they were writing with the novel. By looking at the piece they could figure out the patterns (call them rules) and use those patterns to finish their stories.

    I believe there needs to be a combination of rules and experience. In today schools are more restrictive, more curriculum driven, most test oriented.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Stan

    I’m about to be a teacher to teach English as second language in my country, however from the experiences I’ve had all my life, people really want to learn English yet they find all the English lessons and courses boring here. I guess it was the thing that made them -as well as me when I was a student- bored to death during English lessons. Our native language is not any near English, no one can associate a thing from ours to English grammar and syntax. Even so, they keep teaching students English grammar through worksheets and such. I think I should try this way to teach. Of course, when they don’t know a word they can’t read or write a thing, however it can be done after some basic grammar and structure teaching. Only thing concerns me, I don’t know the most useful and not-so-boring way to teach new words. Writing them in English and their meaning in our language a few times does not seem interesting, like many do. Any suggestion on this is appreciated!

  • Tony Moore

    The answer is yes, grammar can be taught. You are not born with a grammar. You learn it. You learn it through modeling provided by your family. You learn it by experiencing the consequences of your attempts to communicate as a small child–repeated trial and error until you get what you want.

    By the time you enter formal education, you’ve learned a great deal of grammar–and you’ve learned most of it to the point of habitual responding. How “correct” your grammar is depends a lot on the “quality” of the language that was modeled at home and on the effectiveness of your family’s coaching.

    And, to some degree, your learning is constrained or enhanced by your mental ability.

    A large part of the problem is that it is very difficult to break or change habits. It takes an extended period of time and involves closely coordinated action by all teachers to have any hope of breaking old habits and replacing them with new, more acceptable habits.

    Every teacher must prevent or immediately correct each instance of old habit. Every teacher must positively reinforce each initial attempt at applying the new habit and positively reinforce each incremental improvement in the application of the desired habit. The goal is to make the student fluent in the new habit.

    Another big problem is that many schools of education have failed to adequately prepare their students to be exemplary teachers. HOW to teach is known. There are a handful of schools in the USA that have, for three decades, consistently outperformed all the other schools in the country by a factor of two to seven times (as measured on standardized tests like the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and The California Basic Educational Skills Tests).

    In spite of over 30 years of data, schools of education, teachers, textbook publishers, and school administrators continue to treat education as an art rather than as a science (more accurately, as a technology–the application of science to education). Sadly, educators think of audio-visual devices and computers when they hear the word educational technology.

    Teachers are swept up in every new fad, and believe firmly in myths, that have plagued our schools for decades–all without the slightest inclination to challenge the pseudo-science being fed to them by vendors of textbooks, programs, and “technology.”

    Yes, grammar can be taught, and taught well. But, first, we have to quit reinventing the wheel, we have to give up theoretical approaches that do not work, we have to stop looking for silver bullets, we have to stop equating “popular” with “good,” in short, we have to quit our magical thinking.

    We have to quit blaming:
    * The kids (“they aren’t motivated, they lack maturity, they aren’t trying hard enough, they don’t pay attention, they… they… they…)
    * The class size (you’d be surprised at how much large groups of kids can learn when the lessons are well designed)
    * Teacher pay (it has little to do with pay, unless they are deliberately diminishing the quality of their teaching to force more pay–remember, most teachers WANT to do a good job–it has more to do with the abysmal quality of their teacher preparation courses, and with the broken school system within which they are forced to work)
    * Parents (they are doing the best they can–they are NOT the ones with the degree in education)

    HOW to teach is known–just not by most teachers. What to teach is open to question. Even our basic assumptions about the purpose of school is open to question.

    But, given a capable teacher who is equipped with well designed and properly sequenced lessons/materials, grammar is a teachable skill.

  • venqax

    Interesting question and one I’ve asked myself. I always questioned the purpose or value of the sentence diagrams etc. and never was very adept at them. I can remember eventually getting them “right” and really having no idea why, or what was wrong the first time around. I guess that means, by defenition, you haven’t “learned” anything. Still today spell 99% of the time because it “looks right”, and write what “sounds right”. Bad grammar in most cases is gut-level obvious. But why is that? I think it is just a product of reading and writing, not of anything that was “taught” in school. Do you really have to be taught that a sentence requires a subject and a verb? Or that all the tenses you are using in a single sentence or a paragraph should agree or be consistent? Those are the very basics and those seem to come naturally to people who simply read with any frequency. Certainly there are rules and guidelines which can be taught, even by wrote, and help with “higher order” issues, for lack of a better term. Like most of those dealt with on this site. But those fundamentals seem almost ingrained or gained through osmosis, as opposed to being taught. I don’t know anyone who writes decently that does not read a LOT.
    As for all the typos I’m sure are in the above, proofreading is another skill I never learned.

  • Nancy

    This article presents an interesting perspective that should be considered in school teaching. The bottom line truly is how the knowledge taught will play out in a real-world experience as writers craft stories for their professions and in other areas of daily life.

    I also agree that drills are not useless. I am both a writer and an editor/proofreader at my workplace. I learned more about grammar and editing in my elementary and junior-high years (1970s) than I did in high school or college. My guess is that what is taught today is minimal. To be able to do the job I do today, I had to study grammar on my own, which included a lot of information that would be considered rote by many, but I don’t know if there’s any other way around it for learning the details of editing.

    Sadly, when I edit material from people in their 20s, their grammar is often embarrassingly bad and is getting worse every year. Somehow schools still need to find a balance in teaching grammar or to begin teaching it again so we’ll be able to keep producing good writers and editors.

  • Sheila Allee

    A few years ago, I taught a college undergraduate course in copy editing. To my surprise (and horror), I learned that most of the students had never been taught any grammar. One student event admitted it to me. I didn’t see how I could teach students to edit content if they didn’t know the basics of the language. So I set about trying to teach them a few rudimentary principles. It was a hopeless endeavor. I wish I had been able to come up with a better way to handle the course. I think Mark Nichol is right. The best way to learn grammar is by doing a lot of reading and a lot of writing (with an editor to go over your work.

  • Bea

    We did sentence diagramming up through 5th grade. People dismiss it, but it’s really quite helpful–I frequently find myself using to explain *why* the choice they’ve made is, in fact, incorrect usage.

    Such as “I should of” instead of “I should have.”

    Such phraseology passes the “it sounds right” test…but is certainly not correct because it uses the wrong type of word.

  • Margaret Annen

    This article is very interesting. At our school this year a movement was put into practice to learn a new word a day. It was given over the announcements during which they gave the definition, offered syn. and ant. plus used it in a sentence. Every day I wrote the word on the board, and began asking my students, ESL populations, to define it and use it in a sentence; a task which they could not perform. I then would go over the definition, introduce syn. and ant., then proceeding to put it into a sentence. Then, I asked them to do so and they tried, battled, and eventually did it. Students should not only hear the word, its’ definition, and used in a sentence, they should have to use it that day in their classroom, hear it from the teacher, and prove they have learned it through using it in a sentence they create. In this way, they internalize the spelling, definition, and grow their confidence in learning a new word a day.

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