GRAMMAR INSTRUCTION IN THE 21st CENTURY
EXPLORING RESEARCH AND PRACTICES
Dawn Easterly Spelke
B.A. University of Colorado Denver, 1997
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
In partial fulfillment
Of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Masters of Arts
Dawn Easterly Spelke
has been approved
Hongguang (Ian) Ying
Nancy F. Ciccone
Spelke, Dawn Easterly (M.A., English/Teaching of Writing)
Grammar Instruction in the 21st Century
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Joanne Addison
For the past several decades, grammar instruction has seen a decline in
acceptance as a useful pedagogy in improving students writing. Yet college students
are still expected to write according to academic standards, so composition teachers
must have some responsibility to help them achieve these skills. Developmental
writers who need extra help in writing before they can even enter the four-year
composition classroom are especially at risk. This paper looks at research, theories
and practices in grammar instruction from 1960 to present (2007) to see what informs
todays views on grammar and to understand what the current research suggests for
teaching grammar effectively. Two major research summaries in 1963 and 1986
concluded that teaching formal grammar did not improve students writing, and so
researchers turned away from the grammar question to research other modalities. In
the past two decades, research criteria have changed, and the way teachers have
presented grammar has changed, yet the attitude against doing further research into
the grammar issue does not appear to have changed: empirical research into the
teaching of grammar is mostly nonexistent for the past decade, leaving teachers with
dated research on dated, ineffective methods of teaching grammar, but very little
current research on contemporary, effective methods for teaching grammar.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
I dedicate this thesis to my children, Caroll, Christopher and Peter, who have been so
loving and supportive all these years. I have learned infinitely more from them than
they from me. I also dedicate it to my co-workers, Paul Kashmann and Eileen
Abbittista, who graciously encouraged me to finish and made space in our workplace
to make it possible; and to my former husband, Peter, and to my sister, Eve, and my
sisters in spirit (Tina, Kelly, Patty, Pat, Jo, Vicky, Marie, Stephanie), who kept me
moving forward even when I wanted to quit. Finally, I want to dedicate this to Rex
Patrick, closer than a brother, may he rest in peace.
My heartfelt thanks to my advisor, Joanne Addison, without whose support, patience,
knowledge and guidance this thesis would not exist. I would also like to thank Ian
Ying for teaching me the nuts and bolts of language, Elaine Beemer for helping me
navigate deadlines and keeping me on track, and Nancy Ciccone for being a part of
my committee. Thanks to Bret Harm and Nancy Story for always keeping a classroom
open for me. Finally, I would like to thank Richard VanDeWeghe for his kind
encouragement and for giving me so many useful tools for helping students learn to
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. INTRODUCTION............................. 1
2. HISTORY OF TEACHING GRAMMAR................7
1950-1960: The Grammar Revolution...... 7
1970-1980: We Said No Grammar!.........18
1990-2007: Grammar, What Grammar?......50
5. WORKS CITED.............................. 92
And most readers cannot keep from assuming, even if unconsciously, that you are
stupid if they find mistakes in your grammar (p 169)
Peter Elbow (1981), Writing with power
I teach writing.
Because writing has always been important to me.
For many of my students, the above two clauses are equally right. I teach
Writing Fundamentals: English 060, a developmental English course at the
Community College of Denver (CCD). It is the middle track of a three-track course
intended to help struggling writers achieve competence and enough basic skills to
succeed in a typical college-level Freshman Composition class. Students are assigned
to a level (ENG 030, 060 or 090) according to their placement test scores.
My classes are a cultural stew. I usually have several African Americans and
Mexican Americans. Many are from other countries: Mexico, Vietnam, Japan, Africa.
At least 75 percent of my students are persons of color. The few white kids I get often
have some form of learning disability.
For the most part, my students are poor. The other day, my student Renato
came up after class to show me pictures of his childhood home: a tin-roofed shanty in
a Puerto Rican slum. His assignment that week was to write a description of a place,
and he had chosen to write about his hometown. Hes in my class because he left the
drug gangs of his youth (after being shot twice) to come build a better life for himself
in Colorado. After working a couple of years at UPS, he realized if he wants a
managerial position, he needs to learn to write effectively.
What I enjoy about teaching these students is that most of them are genuinely
motivated to achieve something better in their lives. My 22-year-old son, an
engineering student at University of Colorado at Boulder, has a T-shirt with the
slogan, College a $50,000 party! The students in my class, for the most part, were
not invited to the party. Instead, they were sent to a low-level English class that wont
even transfer as credit toward a degree. Yet they show up and work hard to pass.
They do not walk in dressed in designer labels, clothed in an air of entitlement. For
many, they are family role models, the first to make it to college. The lucky ones have
a computer at home, a few even have working printers. Most have jobs. They juggle
work, families and financial issues, while entering into an academic arena that has
typically pushed them to the back of the bus or ignored them altogether.
They are here because they believe education is the price of admission to a
better life. If they cant write well, they wont pass through the first gate, and they
know it. Some have very specific goals, and this is their first hurdle. One of my
I came with my children 12 years ago, but I couldnt attended school
because I use to work all day, since 3 years ago I started with my ESL
classes, and I will like to study X Ray Technition, but I know I need to
finish first English 121 and Math 107 to start with X Ray T. classes.
These days, teachers are encouraged to honor our students home languages,
to avoid elevating the language of power so that we become party to supporting the
hierarchies of social classes. I explain to my students that academic writing is just one
form of dialect that its ok to write BTW for by the way if you are writing a text
to your friend, but not so acceptable in a research paper for biology class. We discuss
audience, purpose, genre. But my students are not here to learn the latest text
acronyms (which most know more about than me, anyway). They want to learn how
to write so they can pass my class and move on with their dreams, from taking X-ray
technician courses to being an architect.
Regardless of how I try to be accepting of different dialects within my
classroom, the world without judges much more harshly. As one student writes:
I am Mexican-American, both my parents were bom and raised in
Mexico, which meant that yes my family is an immigrant family. This
means that they are judged by many, especially the U.S. citizens.
American citizens believe that immigrants take any job (even low
paying jobs) so other people judge them and believe that those types of
jobs are the only ones these people are capable of doing. Well I hate
to break it to all of them but that is not always true. I was bom and
raised here in Colorado but yet people judge me and look down upon
me. I feel the need to prove to all those against immigrants that no
just because my parents are from Mexico, Im not going to only work
at fast food places like Taco Bell or work as a housekeeper. Im going
to hopefully make twice as much money as them because I am
bilingual and will go to college, graduate and succeed in life. All those
against immigrants push me to go further in life and this is why I am at
my first day in college.
I want to do my best for these students, help them overcome the difficulties
they will face as academic writers. Even though I know the idea of teaching
grammar has fallen from favor, I have students who need to be able to write a
comprehensible sentence, who want to understand what to do when other teachers
wont accept their papers until they work on their grammar.
Besides teaching English 060, Ive worked in the CCD Writing Center for
about 15 years, tutoring students at all levels of writing abilities. When I ask them
what they want to work on during the session, grammar is almost always at least part
of the answer. As in medieval days, when grammar was considered magical
(McArthur 1992, p. 447), a power to be discerned from symbols and scrolls, I believe
our students regard grammar as a mystery that, once unraveled and understood, will
give them power and access they have been denied.
I know the research says teaching grammar in isolation does not work. What I
have never really understood is what does work. Am I to tell my students I cant teach
you grammar, especially when nobody else will? When students come into the
Writing Center, should I turn them away if they want grammar help?
Noguchi (1991) notes that despite all the research that shows the
ineffectiveness of traditional grammar instruction, teachers often continue using
grammar drills and other traditional practices. He gives three explanations for this:
1. Teachers are unaware of current research.
2. Teachers are aware of current research but dont believe it.
3. Teachers are aware of current research and believe it but have nothing
better to offer in place of formal grammar instruction. (119)
Of these three, Noguchi believes that the third explanation is the strongest
force, that teachers are confused how to fill the black hole (120) in grammar
instruction. I believe there is a fourth issue that should also be addressed: the research
on grammar instruction teachers need has yet to be conducted.
Most authors cite research done 30 to 40 years ago to justify the claim that
teaching traditional grammar does not work. Since then, teachers have been urged to
teach grammar in context, teach rhetorical grammar, teach other dialects besides
academic English, ignore it altogether and simply have students read more, write
more. Yet there is a paucity of empirical research done regarding any kind of
grammar instruction in the past two decades. How do we know that anything weve
done in the past 10 to 15 years works any better than teaching grammar drills? Where
is the proof?
To explore this area further, I will pose an additional question:
4. Teachers are hungry for clear, direct and effective practices to help their
students improve their grammar and their writing, but there is no empirical
research in the last two decades to provide direction and proven practices.
In this paper, I will explore Noguchis three topics in more detail, first by
looking at the history of teaching grammar, especially in the past 40 years, followed
by a review of current research and reasons why some dispute the research. Then, I
will shine light into that black hole Noguchi speaks of to explore current beliefs and
practices in the teaching of grammar. And, finally, I will look at the most recent
decade of empirical research to see which grammar instruction practices are
supported by current research and theory.
HISTORY OF TEACHING GRAMMAR
1950-1960: The Grammar Revolution
Betty Crockers Picture Cook Book and Norman Vincent Peales The Power
of Positive Thinking were top sellers early in the laconic 1950s, when Americans
were basking in peace, possibilities and suburban dreams. But by mid-decade, some
cracks broke through the utopian facade: beat poet Allen Ginsburg //ow/-ed about
addicts, homosexuals and mental patients, while black novelist James Baldwin
torched Uncle Toms Cabin with his 1955 Notes of a Native Son. By the time the
1960s arrived, the country was on a schizophrenic, psychedelic acid trip, with Betty
Crocker values and materialistic prosperity being trampled under relentless Civil
Rights marches and protests against the war. President John F. Kennedy, his brother,
Bobby, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated before our eyes. Elvis and
the Beatles gave way to Woodstock. American-as-apple-pie Andy Griffith was a
prime-time television hit; meanwhile, women burned their bras and Timothy Leary
advised everyone to Turn on, tune in, drop out. This changing political and social
landscape was the backdrop for a revolution in the politics and practices of teaching
language and grammar.
In the Writing Classroom
At the beginning of this era, grammar instruction was flowing along as it had
for many years. Grammar was seen as prescriptive, in that it prescribed correct
usage. Many of the rules were hand-me-downs from the old Latin grammars. This
type of grammar is also called traditional or school grammar, which was mostly
taught through use of grammar handbooks, pre-packaged exercises to practice
grammar usage, sentence diagramming and memorizing the parts of speech.
The image of the grammar teacher as drill sergeant undoubtedly came from
this era of teaching. One such description is found in the introduction to Strunk &
Whites The Elements of Style( 1962), a popular grammar handbook during this time.
The following passage was written by one of Strunks former students:
The book consists of a short introduction, eight rules of usage, ten
principles of composition, a few matters of form, a list of words and
expressions commonly misused, a list of words commonly misspelled.
Thats all there is. The rules and principles are in the form of direct
commands, Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his platoon, (viii)
Pedagogy was based on behaviorist principles: students learned by correct
habit formation and the teacher was the dispenser of correctness (Weaver 1996, p.
148). Rooted in behavioral psychology, behaviorism relied on habit formation, with
teachers dispensing prepackaged curriculum, taking writings out of context for
practice and performance, and students practicing skills, memorizing facts, and being
passive recipients of teachers direct instruction (149).
B. F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist, would become the name most
associated with the behaviorist movement. As Janet Emig (1963) describes in The
Relation of Thought and Language, Skinner and those in his camp preferred to
regard language not as a lens or a conveyor belt but as a major form of behavior, a
significant entity in its own right (pp. 8-9). Language was communication, and
emphasis was on the product of that communication, the final result.
In 1945, the National Council of Teachers of English appointed a Commission
on the English Curriculum to study the best principles and methods for developing a
language arts curriculum for school-age children and youth. As Ross (1995) points
out, the focus is more on teaching literature than teaching grammar. For example,
the 1956 volume of the Language Arts curriculum for the secondary school does little
to give teachers direction in what or how to teach grammar, beyond teaching parts of
speech and sentence structure. There is a reference warning teachers that teaching
systemic grammar doesnt help students write or speak better, yet the same
paragraph also claims that grammar instruction cannot be ignored (Ross, p. 77). Fifty
years ago, the grammar issue was not so different than it is today: dont ignore it, but
we really cant tell you the best way to teach it.
During the 1950s, interest in Linguistics was on the rise, and it brought with it
an interest in structural grammar, a way of describing how language is actually used,
not how it should be used. This was a novel way of looking at language, most
notably because it did not evolve from Latin grammars. As Weaver (1996) notes,
some believed structural grammar might prove more valuable to writers than a study
of traditional grammar, with its inconsistencies and unabashed use of meaning in
determining the functions of grammatical elements (p. 11).
Besides the fact that structural grammar was more suited for scientific
research than classroom pedagogy, it had a couple of other issues that prevented it
from being widely accepted: its rejection of meaning as a criterion for the analysis of
language and the philosophical view that language is what comes out of the mouth
of a speaker (Smith, Cheville & Hillocks, 2006, p. 267). This last aspect does not
allow for understanding how speakers can generate a sentence that has not yet been
spoken. The most significant blow to structural grammar, however, came in the form
of a single man.
In 1959, linguist Noam Chomsky refuted B.F. Skinners behaviorist model
that supported previous educational practices such as practice drills and teaching
grammar as rote memorization of terms. Cognitive psychology found a new home in
language studies. Chomskys Cartesian Linguistics (1966) and Language and Mind
(1968) set the stage for profound implications for fields far beyond linguistics
(Nystrand, 2003, p. 128). The sunlight of favor dimmed on the halcyon days of
stimulus-response grammar skills drills, to be replaced with Chomskys view of
language as rule-governed acts, which he called performance, of an underlying
generative competence, or mind (p. 127).
Pinker (1994) points out two important principles about language that
Chomsky brought to light: 1) that because every sentence is a new, unique utterance
that cant simply be the result of a programmed response, we must possess some
special way of creating an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words,
some type of mental grammar; and 2) because children are able to grasp this aspect of
language without specific instruction, humans must be bom with an innate sense of
how all language works, a Universal Grammar, that tells them how to distill the
syntactic patterns out of the speech of their parents (p. 22).
Unlike the prescriptive grammars of usage and etiquette, this idea of grammar
is a cognitive structure specific to humans, what Pinker terms the language instinct,
whereby people are as adept at language as spiders are at spinning webs (18). For
Chomsky, being ungrammatical is not about using their for theyre; it is about
saying, write the I well sentence, for I write the sentence well. A sentence, like
his famous Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, can be grammatically
(syntactically) correct, but convey no meaning (Pinker 1994, p. 88).
Chomskys transformational-generative grammar (TGG) quickly swept both
traditional and structural grammar aside in linguistics between 1957 and 1965
(Connors 2000, p. 103). The underlying principle of TGG is that some rules are
transformational: that is, they change one structure into another according to such
prescribed conventions as moving, inserting, deleting and replacing items
(McArthur, p. 1051). With this theoretical base, a new method of teaching grammar
appeared. Sentence combining, joining two or more sentences together to make a
longer sentence, began to take center stage in English classrooms. A study by Kellogg
Hunt in 1964, Grammatical Structures Written at Three Grade Levels, was influential
because it gave researchers the minimal terminable unit (T-unit), a new way to
measure syntactic maturity, a quantitative term that came to be an important goal of
sentence combining (Connors, 2000, p. 103). Length of T-units in writing came to
be relied upon as a more reliable measure of a writers maturity than sentence length.
Numerous studies (Mellon 1969, Hunt & ODonnell 1970, OHare 1973, Cooper
1975, Morenberg et al. 1978, Hillocks 1986) documented the positive effect of
sentence combining on improved stylistic maturity and higher T-unit scores (Hillocks
1986, Hillocks & Smith 2003).
In a similar vein, in 1963 Christensen published A Generative Rhetoric of the
Sentence, in which he aimed the new approaches to grammar at the sentence level
(Connors, 2000, p. 155). He believed that syntactic skill would lead to improved
writing (98), so he devised a pedagogy centered around having students write
increasingly sophisticated systems of initial and final modifying clauses and phrases
- what he called free modifiers (99). By 1968, teachers could purchase workbooks
and overhead transparencies to help facilitate the Christensen Rhetoric Program (99).
Another method that received much attention during the mid-1960s was the
imitation exercise: ... imitation was part of the rediscovered trove of classical
rhetorical theory that was coming to light in English departments (Connors, 2000, p.
100). Imitating models of good rhetoric or writing had a long history, from the days
of Aristotle onward. Its proponents in this decade included Edward P.J. Corbett, who
published The Uses of Classical Rhetoric in 1963 and Classical Rhetoric for the
Modem Student in 1965, along with Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester, who
authored Copy and Compose, an imitation textbook in 1969 (pp. 100-101). Imitation
continued its popularity through the 1970s.
Despite these changes, throughout the 1960s, many classrooms in the U.S.
continued to offer grammar the traditional way, with traditional texts, and traditional
writing/grammar assignments. Some educators voiced their opposition to the old
school ways. For example, in 1965, Janet Emig first argued against a linear model
of composing, and she redoubled her attack in her 1969 dissertation, later published
as an NCTE research monograph (Faigley, 1986, pp. 531-532).
In The Uses of the Unconscious in Composing, Emig (1964) describes how
textbooks and composition guides disregard the unconscious. For example,
Warriners Handbook, one of the best-selling textbook series in American history
(Schuster, 2003, p. 16), gives the impression that a writer sits down, figures out
exactly what he is going to write, and then writes it in a series of discrete locksteps
(Emig 47), from start to finish: There is no wisp or scent anywhere that composing is
anything but a conscious and antiseptically efficient act (48). Emig argues that
writing can be a messy, agonizing, evolutionary process (52), and teachers should
allow students more creativity and flexibility.
In 1968, both Donald Murray's A Writer Teaches Writing and James Moffett's
Teaching the Universe of Discourse were published, reflecting their dissatisfaction
with the teacher centered classroom that had defined composition studies up until
that time, instead embracing the student and his/her process of personal growth.
Moffett questioned the efficacy of parts to whole teaching practices and criticized
workbook drills and exercises as the central definition of old and discredited
pedagogy (Connors, 2000, p. 115).
What the Research Says
Prior to the 1960s, there had been scattered rumblings about the negligible
effects of teaching grammar in isolation, such as NCTEs 1936 stance that grammar
should not be taught because it was not an effective practice (Weaver, 1994, p. 10),
and Fries 1952 criticism of grammars hopeless ambiguity regarding parts of speech
and restrictive categories (Smith, Cheville & Hillocks, 2006, p. 264).
However, the definitive grammar study of this period was the 1963 NCTE
research summary, Research in Written Composition, by Richard Braddock, Richard
Lloyd-Jones and Lowell Schoer. Prior to this study, researchers had not conducted a
large-scale effort of collecting, comparing and analyzing empirical research studies
regarding practices of teaching writing. In Research in Written Composition, the
authors analyzed 485 research studies to review what is known and what is not
known about the teaching and learning of composition and the conditions under
which it is taught (1). After analyzing hundreds of studies, they chose five studies to
report in more detail pertaining to different aspects of writing instruction. They used a
two-year experiment with London middle school students conducted by Roland
Harris in 1962 to exemplify research studies about teaching grammar. Harris found
that students who were taught formal grammar through traditional terminology wrote
significantly worse than students who learned grammatical concepts as they arose
within the context of language use and writing. Braddock, et al. concluded, from this
and other studies, that grammar instruction was not beneficial in improving students
writing, and, in fact, could have a detrimental effect. One of the most quoted
statements regarding the efficacy of teaching grammar comes from Braddock, et al.:
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, (pp. 37-38)
For decades, authors (Petrosky 1977, Hartwell 1985, Noguchi 1991, Weaver
1994, Connors 2000, Williams 2003, Kolln & Hancock 2005) have used and/or
debated against this well-known admonition against teaching formal grammar.
Echoing Braddock, et al., Petrosky (1977) believes the Harris study
represented the best kind of thoroughly designed educational research conducted
during this time which concluded no empirical evidence exists for teaching grammar
for any purpose (p. 86). Harris studied 10 classes of high school students for two
years, comparing the five classes who studied traditional grammar with five classes
who didnt. The conclusion was that students who studied traditional grammar were
able to master the terminology of grammar on tests, but wrote less effectively than the
group who received no formal grammar instruction (p. 87).
While the Harris study focused on traditional grammar, Weaver (1996) states
that Bateman and Zidonis (1966) were perhaps the fist researchers to investigate the
effect that studying transformational grammar might have upon students writing
(11). They concluded that students who studied TG wrote more mature sentence
structures and made fewer errors (11). Weaver also highlights research by John
Mellon in1969, which looked at whether instruction in a combination of
transformational grammar and sentence-combining would improve syntactic fluency
(p. 12). Five experimental classes had TG and sentence combining, five control
classes studied traditional grammar, and two placebo classes did not receive any
grammar instruction, only more literature lessons. After a year, Mellon claimed the
experimental group saw nearly double the syntactic growth than the other groups, but
the overall quality of writing was consistent across all three groups (12).
In his book, Preparing to Teach Writing, Williams (2003) cites several 1960s
studies, beginning with the often-quoted 1963 Braddock et al. summary of research
that claimed in strong and unqualified terms that traditional instruction in grammar
did not translate into improved writing (pp. 174-175). Other studies included
Whiteheads 1966 study that found high school students who studied grammar and
sentence diagramming did not write noticeably better than their counterparts who
received no instruction. R. White (1965) found no appreciable differences in the
writing of three groups of seventh graders: one group studied traditional grammar,
one studied transformational grammar and the final group simply read popular novels
Williams also includes a study by Gale (1968) to see if fifth graders instructed
in a) traditional grammar, b) phrase-structure grammar, or c) transformational-
generative grammar would write better than students who received no grammar
instruction at all. Except for evidence of somewhat more complex sentences by
students who studied phrase-structure and transformational-generative grammar, the
students all wrote at near-equal levels (p. 175).
1970-1980: We Said No Grammar!
At the beginning of this era, 18 year olds were given the right to vote. Yet
colleges were still boiling with protests and student uprisings against the war in
Vietnam and the draft. In 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire in one such
demonstration, killing four students. This same year, City University in New York
unleashed a torrent of criticism when it opened its doors to all comers with an Open
Admissions policy, allowing students from all academic backgrounds access to a
In the summer of 1974, amid allegations of deceit, fraud and espionage
stemming from a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the
Watergate complex, President Nixon resigned from office. His successor, Gerald
Ford, was at the helm when the last American troops left Vietnam a year later. Jimmy
Carter brought southern virtues to the White House in 1977, but lost the presidency to
Ronald Reagan four years later. The U.S. weathered one of its worst oil crises and
recessions in history under Reagans leadership, and ushered in a new president,
former CIA head, George H.W. Bush, in 1988.
With Neil Armstrongs first step on the moon in 1969, Americans were still
infatuated with space and science fiction. Luke Skywalker mastered The Force in
1977s Star Wars, while Spock and Captain Kirk became cult heroes, boldly going
where no men had gone before, in the televised show Star Trek. Our fascination with
space would turn to horror in 1986 as millions watched the Space Shuttle Challenger
burst into flames and disintegrate, killing all aboard.
John Travolta, in his sexy white leisure suit, danced his way into our hearts in
the film Saturday Night Fever, ushering in the disco craze, while Saturday Night Live,
a live TV comedy, rocketed Blues Brothers John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to
stardom. Their buddy, comedian Robin Williams, found fame in the TV sitcom Mork
and Mindy. During the 1980s, ex-Beatle John Lennon was shot and killed outside his
apartment, while The King of Pop Music, Michael Jackson, earned worldwide fame
with his moon-walking dance moves and best-selling album/video, Thriller.
The drug culture went mainstream, no longer confined to the fringes. The TV
prime time show Miami Vice glorified the drug lifestyle, while First Lady Nancy
Reagan urged us to Just Say No! Potheads grooved to the Grateful Dead band,
while musician Neil Young mourned those lost to drugs in The Needle and the
Damage Done. The Betty Ford Center, a drug and alchohol rehab, opened in the
early 80s, when treatment centers became the rage. Twelve step recovery programs
such as Alchoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous gained popularity as
people looked for ways to battle addiction and alcoholism.
During this time, women and minorities began to raise their voices and
establish themselves in the mainstream. Roe v. Wade in 1973 was a landmark
decision by the Supreme Court, rendering many anti-abortion laws unconstitutional.
School children across America were bused to school in an effort to desegregate
classrooms. The Reverend Jesse Jackson campaigned for president. TV talk show
host Oprah Winfrey became a household name and co-starred in the film version of
Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice Walkers The Color Purple. Toni Morrisons
highly-acclaimed novels Sula and Song of Solomon were published in the 1970s. Her
Beloved came out in 1988, and is now required reading in many college literature
The Gay Liberation Movement gave way to the Gay Rights Movement, even
while the AIDS epidemic hit the U.S., named by some the Gay Cancer. Lesbian
feminist authors such as Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich dove into the wreck, raising
strong voices against discrimination and male patriarchy.
Meanwhile, technology was on a roll. The IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh
computer came out in the early- to mid-1980s, the first inkling of the personal
computer revolution coming to homes and classrooms across the country. The U.S.
automobile industry took a dive, but America became the leading high-tech product
manufacturer. By the end of this decade, the Worldwide Web was poised for a new
era in global information sharing.
In the Writing Classroom
An evolving and fragmenting set of theories provided the framework for
teaching writing from 1970-1989. The change the world mentality of the Sixties
gave way to the focus on self in the Seventies. This shift was mirrored in English
classrooms in the new focus on students and their learning process. Teachers turned
from the product to the process, from the inanimate text to living, breathing
authors and readers.
At one end of the spectrum was the Back to the Basics Movement in the
1970s, with a directive to focus on basic reading, writing and math skills. Fueled by a
sense of national security, proponents believed that superiority in math, science and
writing would help keep evil forces of Soviet Russia and other countries from
overtaking the U.S. in technology and weaponry. In 1975, Newsweek ran the now-
famous cover story, Why Johnny Cant Write, an alarmist view of the decline of
educational standards in the U.S. This outcry for a return to teaching the basics was
heard again in 1983 when the National Commission on Exellence in Education
released its report, A Nation at Risk, which portrayed U.S. students as significantly
lacking basic skills compared to their counterparts in developed countries around the
world. This educational disarmament was portrayed as a threat to the future of our
The Back to Basics approach to teaching was influenced by the New Critics
and Formalists, whose major concern was with the end-product of writing, which had
been the guiding force for many composition textbooks up until the 1970s. But the
New Critics absolute focus on form, especially its view of context and historical
situations as irrelevancies (Tarvers 1993, p. 8), was soon viewed as no longer
relevant, something to be tossed aside with Behaviorist ideas and other outdated
perceptions of teaching writing. Standard forms, such as the 5-Paragraph Essay
were reviled as throwbacks to earlier centuries and not reflective of current writing
practices, as Emig (1971) describes:
A species of extensive writing that recurs so frequently in student
accounts that it deserves special mention is the five-paragraph theme,
consisitng of one paragraph of introduction (tell what you are going
to say), three of expansion and example (say it), and one of
conclusion (tell what you have said). This mode is so indigenously
American that it might be called the Fifty-Star Theme. In fact, the
reader might imagine behind this and the next three paragraphs Kate
Smith singing God Bless America or the piccolo obligato from The
Stars and Stripes Forever. (93)
Another theory, Structuralism, was also on the decline, although language
classrooms still use some of the terminology, such as Saussures three concepts of:
langue. the system and convention of language; parole, an individual communicative
act conditioned by langue; and ecriture. the combination of personal and cultural
codes as writing (Tarvers 1993, p.12). Post-Structuralist theory gave rise to
deconstruction of texts, a type of reading which poses a conflict between ideal
structure and actual construct, between competing hierarchies of meaning, between
binary oppositions (p. 13).
Possibly the most defining theory for writing instruction in this era came from
sociolinguistics and sociocultural theory, which encouraged teachers to look at the
social framework that affected language and students. Vygotsky (1978) pioneered
constructivist attitudes toward learning with his belief that interaction with people and
cultural tools drive development of higher mental functions. In this view, children
construct their own meanings within their environment, and language is a vital part of
their mental development. This view of language affecting and being affected by its
social environment changed the way writing was taught and defined. The social-
theoretic model of composition recognizes that people belong to a variety of
discourse communities, each with its own requirements for membership and
participation, its own core body of knowledge, and its own values and ways of
looking at the world (Williams, 2003, p. 81).
To be effective, writing teachers make tacit knowledge perceptible through
think-alouds that make visible the discourse, thoughts, actions, decisions, struggles
and deliberations that are part of the writing process (Englert, Mariage & Dunsmore,
2006, p. 209). Learning can be by imitation, instructed learning or by passing cultural
tools through collaborative, scaffolded learning. In this process, the novice takes on
more and more of the responsibility of writing, with the expert coaching only in areas
beyond the novices ability. From Vygotsky, we get the term Zone of Proximal
Development, the gap between where a student can manage successfully on his/her
own and where expert and novice jointly combine their mental resources to perform
a process of learning (209).
Bakhtin (1986) was another voice closely allied with the social context of
writing. He believed that everything said or written is shaped by previous language
experiences as expectations of anticipated language interactions (Englert, Mariage &
Dunsmore, 2006, p. 216). Writing is a social activity, and the text is negotiated by
writers and readers. As such, all writing is seen as a collaborative effort. Teachers are
described as coauthors (often dominant ones) in students writing (Prior, 2006, p.
58) because they are so involved in much of the writing process: setting deadlines,
creating assignments, deciding topics.
As Applebee (1992) explains:
Instruction becomes less a matter of transmittal of an objective and
culturally sanctioned body of knowledge, and more a matter of helping
individual learners learn to construct and interpret for themselves.
There is a shift in emphasis from content knowledge to processes of
understanding that are themselves shaped by and help students to
become part of the cultural communities in which they participate, (p.
Socioconstructivist theory has as its roots Marxism, pragmatics, and
phenomenology (Prior, 2006, p. 56). The area of convergence for these is their
shared interest in everyday practices in human activity and how those activities and
histories lead to patterns of perception, thought and action (57). Writing moves
beyond simple communication to become a mode of social action (58).
The mid-1980s saw the rise of Postmodern Rhetoric, heavily influenced by
works of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan (Williams, 2003, p.
88). Postmodernism was the antithesis of modernism, which valued Western science
and technology, rationalism and empiricism (89). Post modernists reject Western
dominance, embracing instead the idea that society is oppressive and chaotic, and
change was needed: an important goal of postmodernism is to overturn established
values, principles, and ways of thinking, which are held in contempt (90).
Deconstruction, a philosophical method of inquiry (90) associated with Derridas
works, affected the study of writing inasmuch as Derrida argued that writing was
meaningless because there is no connection between reason and what words
signify (91). Proponents of postmodernism place more importance on political issues
than on teaching writers to adhere to academic standards (such as grammar and
usage), which were seen as restrictive and irrelevant. In fact, some called for
abandoning teaching of composition including grammar altogether (93).
In addition, in 1983, Howard Gardner first published the theory of multiple
intelligence (MI) in Frames of Mind, which claimed that humans learn in a variety of
modes. Though his main audience was psychologists, his theories had an influence on
how teachers should approach teaching, and how we understood the way students
approached learning. His initial list had seven intelligences: linguistic, logical-
mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, and interpersonal. Teachers now
had to take into account that some students (musical) learned better through listening
to directions, while others (bodily-kinesthetic) needed more hands-on approaches.
With this abundance of theoretical approaches, it is not surprising that there
was no single agreed-upon pedagogy that was the norm for language teachers across
the board. In The Background for Reform, Applebee (1992) describes how research
created a fragmenting of teaching approach in the 1970s- 1980s (2). The National
Council of Teachers of English offered three different curriculum models for teaching
in 1980: "... one was student centered, emphasizing personal growth; one was
content centered, emphasizing the preservation of a cultural heritage; and one was
skill centered, emphasizing the development of language competencies (2).
Despite this fragmentation, Constructivist principles process theory,
collaborative learning, expressivist writing dominated much of the discussion and
research about teaching grammar and writing during this era. Writing as a linear
process was shelved in favor of the recursive process. Stages of writing included
Prewriting, Planning, Drafting, Revising, Editing, Publishing. Likewise, learning
writing was no longer conceived of as a strict linear part to whole activity; it was a
complex, sometimes erratic, and ever evolving process best learned through
immersion in whole texts. Students learned by doing; teachers could facilitate, but not
direct, learning. Grammar was learned through osmosis: if given the opportunity to
write more and work with whole texts, students grammar would naturally improve. If
grammar was discussed at all, it was dealt with only during the editing phase, and
even then, students were often urged to find an outside editor or tutor who could help
clean up their grammar mistakes for final drafts of papers.
Teachers were no longer the dispensers of knowledge; instead they became
facilitators, midwives to the birth of students self-awakenings. In some ways, they
were viewed as peripheral to improving students writing. Peter Elbows 1973 book,
Writing Without Teachers, reflects this shift in perspective. Elbow admits there are
good writing teachers (although exceedingly rare); but the student alone, not the
teacher, is crucial to the learning process: If the students function is to learn and the
teachers to teach, then the student can function without a teacher, but the teacher
cannot function without a student (ix). Teachers could share, but not judge, students
writing. Criticizing grammar or usage, therefore, was no longer acceptable.
Muriel Harris (1986) did not dispense with teachers, but instead called for
them to spend more time one-on-one with students in teaching conferences, which
allowed for highly productive dialogues between writers and teacher-readers and as
such should be the prime method for writing instruction (3). The role of teacher in
this setting took on new meaning. Teachers were encouraged to help writers develop
their self-critical powers so they could self-appraise as they worked on papers (22).
Harris outlined roles teachers should take: coach, commentator, counselor, listener,
diagnostician. As coach and commentator, the teacher is outside of the actual writing,
simply giving students encouragment and objective feedback. As counselor, teachers
must consider the student as a whole person, find out more about a students
background and writing history/attitudes. By working one-on-one with a student,
teachers could focus on specific grammatical issues that were tailored to each
students writing and background. Also, grammar instruction was specific to each
student within the context of his/her particular assignment. Still, teachers were
advised to be careful not to control the conference. Passive students would be less
successful in choosing topics and making good writing decisions. In fact, with
reticent students, Harris believed the teacher should take on another role, that of
activator to help students back on the road to self-sufficiency (40).
In 1984, the first edition of Write to Learn by Donald Murray was published.
In the preface to the Third Edition (1990), Murray says he wrote the book to reveal
the writer at work and to celebrate how the writer learns by writing (v). Composing
is seen as a writers internal process of coming to understand more about him/herself
and her/his surroundings: Writing is how we explore our world and discover its
meaning. We write to learn (v). The process and self-exploration take on new
importance in writing classrooms. Murray says the process is the most effective way
I discovered to learn my craft (v), gleaned from studying how thousands of students
and professional writers write.
This idea of studying the internal processes of writers was championed by
several researchers during this period. Janet Emig published The Composing
Processess of Twelfth Graders in 1971, Sondra Perl in 1978 concentrated on The
Composing Process of Unskilled College Writers, and Linda Flower and John Hayes
(1981) introduced their Cognitive Process Theory of Writing based on protocol
analysis of how writers actually write.
Emigs research was innovative for her time; nobody was studying writing
from the view of the student writer: the view of writing at that time was that it was
unanalyzable because it was a skill; that it was not worthy of inquiry (62). From her
observations of the internal processes of twelfth grade writers, Emig found when
students wrote for themselves or their peers, they were more apt to focus on ideas, but
when they wrote for teachers, correctness became their main concern. She
concluded that most composition teaching in the U.S. at that time was essentially a
neurotic activity (94), a useless practice of teachers correcting errors in the false
belief that students would actually learn from it. Peers, not teachers, were the most
significant others in her twelfth grade students writing process (95).
Influenced by writers cognitive processes, Flower and Hayes (1981)
continued this focus on looking into the minds of writers to see how they write. They
studied writers through the use of think-aloud protocols, rather than with after-the-
fact, introspective analysis (368). They placed recorders next to writers during the
writing process and asked their subjects to verbalize whatever went through their
minds (368). From this research, they posited their Cognitive Process Theory of
Writing, based on the ideas that writing is made up of thinking processes which have
a hierarchal, highly embedded organization, and that composing is a goal-directed
thinking process in which the writer creates both high-level and supporting goals
that can change during the act of writing (366). They contrasted their recursive model
against the stage process model that described the writing process as a linear series
of steps that were modeled more upon the growth of the written product, not the
inner process of the person producing it (367).
Sturm (2000) describes the process model as being shaped by:
... three major forces: the writing processes (generating content,
organizing, and setting goals), the task environment (the rhetorical
problem and text at whatever stage of completion produced by the
student), and the writers long-term memory (knowledge of topic,
audience, and writing plans). (77)
They described the process of putting ideas into visible language as
translating, a time when the writer had to effectively balance several competing
demands, from motor tasks of putting letters on the paper to planning their next
sentence (Flower & Hayes, 1981, p. 373). It was during this phase of writing that the
writer must devote conscious attention to demands such as spelling and grammar,
which often hampered writers abilities to plan well (373). In the sense that
knowledge develops during writing, more sophistcated writers, they claim, are able to
override the urge to stop and correct grammatical errors during the writing process:
Behind the most free-wheeling act of discovery is a writer who has
recognized the heuristic value of free exploration or just writing it
out and has chosen to do so. Process goals such as these, or Ill edit
it later, are the earmarks of sophisticated writers with a repertory of
flexible process goals which let them use writing for discovery, (pp.
Those who seemed to be obsessed with perfecting their texts as they wrote
were described as poorer writers who were held back by a mistaken goal of make
everything perfect and correct as you go (381).
Louise Rosenblatt (1978) turned her focus to the internal process of the reader
in The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work,
giving rise to the idea of writing being a transaction between text, author and
reader. The reader evokes the text, bringing to bear all of her/his history up until
that point. Authors must create intended readers, anticipating what views their readers
will bring to the text. Grammatical structures are intuited, by the reader who,
influenced by his/her previous experiences with writing and grammar, pays attention
to sounds, associations, ideas and feelings evoked by the text (80). The actual
meaning is found outside of the text; it is the experience of the reader being in
communication with another mind, another world (86).
Error correction was a main focus of Mina Shaughnessys Errors and
Expectations (1977), which changed the way language teachers viewed writers
mistakes. Shaughnessy taught basic writers at New Yorks City College when Open
Admissions began, which opened the doors to non-traditional student writers. To
get a better idea of how to teach a new and different population of developing writers,
she studied incoming freshman essays to look for patterns of error. Rather than
looking at errors as something to be slathered in red, Shaughnessy saw them as
signposts, a way to see into her students minds. As Patterson (2001) relates:
She discovered that there were often patterns in student error, and
these patterns frequently indicated misconceptions and problems with
logic. Shaughnessys research indicates that teachers can often
determine the problems students have with grammar by looking at a
given students writing and discussing the writing with that student.
Shaughnessy looked beyond the surface of grammar mistakes to see their
underlying meaning; the mistake became a point of learning rather than a way to
alienate students. As students took more risks with their writing, teachers should
expect more errors. Errors can show students willingness to experiment and try new
constructions within their work. Hairston (1982) described Shaughnessys work as
vitally important because it helped effect a paradigm shift in values that moved
away from only looking at what students write:
We must also understand how that product came into being, and why it
assumed the form that it did. We have to try to understand what goes
on during the internal act of writing and we have to intervene during
the act of writing if we want to affect its outcome. (22)
And what exactly constitutes a mistake and what is considered standard usage
came into question as well, especially with the rise of Critical Theory approaches to
literature and teaching. In the mid-1970s, the Conference on College Composition
and Communication adopted the Students Right to Their Own Language, a
proclamation that affirmed students right to their own patterns and varieties of
language the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their
own identity and style. Now language teachers not only had to figure out how to
address academic English expectations and grammatical conventions, they also had to
find ways to honor students home dialects and the grammatical structures found
therein. Linguist William Labov had published a 1969 study that showed the
grammatical complexities of Black English Vernacular (BEV), silencing those who
believed that Black and other culturally diverse dialects were somehow deficient or
less developed than Standard American English.
For example, June Jordan (1985) focuses on Black English and what we
define as English in her essay, Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And the Future
Life of Willie Jordan. She says Black English is not a linguistic buffalo, but likens
it to an endangered species, even though most Afro-American children depend on it
for discovery of the world (59). It is not until they reach school that they find their
language is wrong in the context of what is taught as English. Jordan compares the
American tendency for white standards to control the official language to other
countries policies, such as India, where up to fourteen languages co-exist as
legitimate Indian languages, and Nicaragua, where students are instructed in their
own tribal language (6Q).
The constructivist platform is quite evident in the book, A Community of
Writers (Zemelman & Daniels, 1988), in which secondary school writing teachers are
urged to create integrated, holistic language activities based within a whole
language framework. Using real languagage for real purposes is prized. In the
new/process view (as opposed to the old/traditional view), writing is an
experiential, recursive and varied process that is primarily learned rather than taught
and is learned best through whole texts (18). Rather than a silent and solitary effort,
writing is a social and collaborative act. Teachers should break students writing
into stages (prewriting, drafting, revising) and give them plenty of opportunities to
read and to write, especially to write for actual and significant purposes. Students
should be given models of real writers processes and be engaged in collaborative
writing activities. Mechanics should be taught in context of students work and
through sentence-combining exercises. Teachers should focus on patterns of error, not
belabor multiple surface errors, and teachers remarks should praise students work
more than criticise it. Writing across the curriculum is another important aspect of
writing (pp. 26-29).
But by the end of the 1980s, not everything was rosy and compatible in the
writing as process world., as evidenced in Lester Faigleys (1986) Competing
Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal, in which he examines process theory
against the backdrop of a critique of writing programs leveled by Stanley Aronowitz
and Henry Giroux, who see such programs as part of a trend toward an atheoretical
and skills-oriented curriculum that regards teachers as civil servants who dispense
pre-packaged lessons (528). Faigley attempts to describe process theory as having
three separate foundations and camps of believers. The first is an expressive view
including the work of authentic voice proponents such as William Coles, Peter
Elbow, Ken Macrorie, and Donald Stewart, (527) and a cognitive view including
the research of those who ananlyze composing processes such as Linda Flower, Barry
Kroll, and Andrea Lunsford (pp. 527-528), and a third perspective, the social view,
which contends processes of writing are social in character instead of originating
within individual writers (p. 528), whose proponents include Patricia Bizzell,
Kenneth Bruffee, Marilyn Cooper, Shirley Brice Heath, James Reither and others (p.
The Expressive view has roots in Romantic ideas that value integrity,
spontaneity, and originality (529), that writing is not judged by rules and adherence
to grammatical conventions, but by how well it reflects the processes of the creative
imagination (530). As Faigley notes, there is the sense that writing development
can aid personal development (531), but he makes the point that case histories of
many professional writers might not prove that better writers are better
psychologically integrated people (531). In the Cognitive view, the science approach
helped provide not only a new methodology but an agenda for subsequent research
(532), setting composition studies on the path to legitimacy as a discipline worthy of
study. Borrowing from cognitive-development psychology, James Britton applied
the developing sense of audience among young writers (532), while Barry Kroll
adaped Jean Piagets concept of egocentrism the inability to take any perspective
but ones own to explain young childrens lack of a sense of audience (532).
Andrea Lunsford applied Piagets stages of cognitive development to college basic
writers (533) to explain their tendencies to use personal narrative in abstract
Flower and Hayes borrowed from computer flowcharts and scientific models
of information processing to derive their writing processes diagram published in
1980. They helped promote a science consciousness (534) that reflected the belief
that cognitive research would show the underlying processes of writing and point to
ways to best teach writers to improve their competencies within those processes. For
example, if we could determine at what point during the process writers address
issues of grammar, teachers could better intervene at that juncture to help students
develop grammatical tools to improve their writing.
The Social view subscribes to the idea that human language (including
writing) can be understood only from the perspective of a society rather than a single
individual, and pertinent research emerges from poststructuralist theories of
language, the sociology of science, ethnography, and Marxism (535). Discourse
communities, meaning that resides in the text, and the idea that words carry with
them the places they have been (535) are all tenets of this view. In contrast to the
expressive view of using language to construct the self and the cognitive view of
developing reality through language, the social tradition sees writing in relation to
previous texts (536) that were influenced by history, social constraints and personal
experiences. In this realm, grammar is seen as a societal and historical construct, a set
of expectations decided upon and enforced by the dominant culture.
Faigleys contention is that all three of these theories have issues that are not
being addressed. The expressive view is set within the paradox of writing for self-
expression without rules versus the ability to communicate with others using
standard, mutually understandable grammatical conventions and language. Cognitive
views fail to take into account how writers must interact with and react to different
writing activities within various frameworks, each with its own distinct set of
grammatical and social language expectations, such as writing in the workplace in a
capitalistic society. And social views often see community as a positive force, but it
can also be considered oppressive and may leave out certain discourses altogether if
they dont conform to the grammar and language conventions of a particular
community. Faigley warns that academic ivory-tower debates of theory keep
teachers from looking at basic and more important questions regarding the status of
the discipline of teaching writing, such as why college writing courses are endemic to
the U.S., but are rare in the rest of the world (539).
These differing theories not only affect teachers attitudes toward teaching
grammar, but they also have bearing on how grammar is defined, an issue that Patrick
Hartwell (1985) addresses in Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.
By reviewing the research and redefining grammar, Hartwell makes a case against
conventional grammar instruction and concludes with an admonishment for educators
to move on to other topics of research and study. He begins with Braddock et al.s
1963 study that determined teaching formal grammar has no positive, and possibly a
negative, effect on writing improvement. Some educators are still not convinced,
notably Kolln and Neuleib, who attack such studies for a variety of reasons. Hartwell
concludes that more educational research is not the answer: either side will continue
to see what it wants to see, regardless of the results.
One problem, he suggests, is that educators have different visions of teaching.
One is rigidly skills centered and sequential, whereby the teacher who controls the
learning process leads the student through a specific set of skills that will build
sequentially into writing fluency. Grammar is the foundation, the first step in mastery.
Another vision, more aligned with the expressive and constructivist views, is the
teacher simply provides a rich learning environment in which the student gains
understanding by a complex interaction with reading, writing and analyzing texts.
Grammar is much more important and inflexible to the first mode, and much less
interesting to the second.
Hartwell goes on to create five meanings of grammar that will help to prove
his point. To define Grammar 1, he borrows from Kolln: the internalized system of
rules that speakers of a language share or what he calls the grammar in our heads
(p. 111). Grammar 2 is the linguistic, scientific model of Grammar 1, the explicit
description of models of language, and, in Hartwells terms, of little practical use in
the classroom (p. 114). Even Chomsky himself, says Hartwell, has said that
linguistic research and modeling are not useful for improving writing skills. For
example, Hartwell says if it were helpful, our best writers would be linguists because
they have the best insight into language forms, a claim that is not evidenced by
reality. Hartwell defines Grammar 3 as usage and skips over this form, saying only
that this issue shows up in other discussions. Grammar 4, the common school
grammars, are inadequate and are COIK: clear only if known (p. 119). This type
of grammar relies heavily on rote memorization and is confusing, especially to
beginning writers. He cites case studies that show example of errors that occur
because o/instruction this way (p. 121).
What is most important, Hartwell argues, is the metalinguistic awareness that
writers only develop through interaction with increasingly complex writing. As this
awareness develops naturally through literacy, it negates the issues of non-standard
dialects because advancement is through reading and writing, regardless of dialect.
Hartwell says we master these codes from the top down, from pragmatic questions
of voice, tone, audience, register, and rhetorical strategy, not from the bottom up,
from grammar to usage to fixed forms of organization (p. 123).
Grammar 5, stylistic grammar, Hartwell believes, is beside the point (p.
124). Once again, Hartwell reiterates:
... one learns to control the language of print by manipulating
language in meaningful contexts, not by learning about language in
isolation, as by the study of formal grammar. Thus, even classic
theorists, who choose to present a vocabulary of style to students, do
so only as a vehicle for encouraging productive control of
communicative structures, (p. 125)
Writers must learn two skills: how to communicate meaningfully in different
contexts, and how to manipulate language with regard to surface form. While specific
stylistic exercises can help hone this second skill, it is better learned through a holistic
interaction with language.
What the Research Says
While Hartwell believed more educational research was not the answer, others
looked to the research to find their answers. The definitive grammar research of this
era was the meta-analysis by George Hillocks, Research on Written Composition,
published in 1986. Hillocks, influenced by the Braddock, Lloyd-James, and Schoer
(1963) report, decided to make an exhaustive attempt to search published works
and dissertations from 1936 to 1982 (xvii). From the 6,000+ titles originally found,
Hillocks chose studies that had a data set concerned with some aspect of written
composition in a systematic way (xvii), although studies dealing with vocabulary,
alphabet, ESL, or oral language issues were excluded, as were works that were
essentially anecdotal, hortatory, historical, curricular, or literary (xviii). From the
2,000 remaining works, Hillocks developed categories for studies, such as composing
processes, writers repertoire, modes of instruction and a meta-analysis of
Hillocks began his chapter on Grammar and the Manipulation of Syntax with
the oft-quoted passage from the 1963 Braddock, Lloyd-Jones and Schoer study that
concluded that teaching formal grammar was not helpful, and possibly harmful, to
improving student writing. He then defined formal grammar as:
the traditional school grammar which identifies a noun as the
name of a person, place, or thing and which requires the
identification of several (usually eight) parts of speech, their
functions in sentences, certain types of phrases and clauses,
three kinds of sentences (simple, compound, and complex), and
so forth. (133)
This chapter explored studies into whether teaching formal grammar or other
grammatical aspects such as sentence combining helped improve student writing.
Many of the studies examined are said to have several flaws: insufficient controls for
teacher bias, lack of pre/post writing samples, no quality ratings.
The first set of studies [White (1965), Whitehead (1966), Bowden (1979),
Sullivan (1969) and Elley, et al. (1976)] compared students from sixth grade through
college age who were not taught grammar at all, with those who were taught formal
grammar; there was no evidence of significant improvement with grammar
instruction. Two other studies looked at using more sophisticated linguistic
grammars. Both reported improvement, but the controls were not considered
A 1969 study by Kennedy and Larson studied two classes of students from
sixth grade through end of seventh grade to see the effects of structural and traditional
grammar. The synopsis of this study concludes that studying grammar did not
improve students writing or testing, but it seems a bit unclear and contradictory. For
example, it states that the grammar groups had a large mean loss on the essay test,
but then it says that on essay pretest scores, the traditional grammar groups scored
one full point higher (Hillocks, 1984, 135).
Teaching transformational grammar did not show statistically improved
results versus teaching traditional grammar. With generative grammar, however,
Bateman and Zidonis (1966) found improvements in well-formed sentences. Yet in
a three-year study comparing effects of grammar instruction in three different arenas:
by teaching transformational grammar, teaching traditional grammar, or through no
overt grammar instruction, but with extra reading and creative writing, Elley, et al.
(1976) find no significant differences in overall quality (Hillocks, 1984, p. 137)
between students with and students without grammar instruction.
Hillocks considers the Elley study the most ambitious study of the effects of
grammar (136), and it is often quoted in arguments against grammar instruction
because it used a large sample of students, used careful controls, and was conducted
over a three-year period. In addition to quality, the study found students writing,
even with grammar instruction, was not better even on the mechanics of writing
(138). This begs the question of what constitutes adequate or inadequate
performance in mechanics (138), as well as the best ways to help students reduce
error in usage and mechanics. Studies [Elley, et al. (1976), Bennet (1976), Adams
(1971)] showed that red-marking errors and grammar instruction had no beneficial
effects on reducing errors (p. 139).
Studies of sentence combining and sentence construction exercises showed
more promise, with improved T-unit length and increased quality. However, studies
also found that students with no sentence combining eventually caught up to those
who did, raising the question of whether it is effective to use class time to teach what
will come naturally in time.
Hillocks concluded that one of the strongest findings of this study was that:
... grammar study has little or no effect on the improvement of
writing. The same is true for emphasis on mechanics and correctness
in writing. In fact, some studies indicated that when correctness is
heavily emphasized in marking papers, the quality of student writing
diminishes significantly. (225)
In addition, Hillocks claimed that studying grammar did not have any
substantial effect on the quality of written products or to help during the process of
composing. However, sentence combining did show a significantly greater effect
size for SC [sentence combining] studies than for a focus on grammar or free writing
(229). One of the aspects attributed to this gain is that with sentence combining
students generate sentences, rather than parse them, which helps young writers to
consider alternative structures more readily (229).
This interest in sentence combining was fueled by research such as Frank
OHares Sentence-combining: Improving Student Writing without Formal Grammar
Instruction, first published in 1973, which Connors (2000) describes as the spark
that ignited the sentence-combining boom of the late 1970s (105). This study was
important because it showed beyond a doubt that sentence-combining exercises,
without any grammar instruction at all, could achieve important gains in syntactic
maturity for students who used them (105). OHare (1974) tested seventh graders
over an eight-month period who used sentence combining exercises, with no
instruction in formal grammar, comparing them to students who received a regular
English curriculum (also without formal grammar instruction). Post-test scores on six
areas designed to test syntactic maturity, such as words and clauses per T-unit; nouns,
adverbs and adjectives per T-unit; and words per clause, showed that students in the
sentence-combining groups made highly significant growth on all six factors (55).
In fact, students were writing in most areas comparable to twelfth grade levels (57).
The beauty of sentence combining exercises lies in their simplicity, their
consistency, their flexibility, and their practicality (OHare, 1974, p. 76). When
developing writers arent faced with the threat of grammatical failure, they are
more able to get on with solving sentence-structure problems and confidently face
the real issue that of blending form and idea in any given rhetorical situation (76).
OHare also casts doubts on viewing writing development as a slow and difficult
process, when such significant qualitative and syntactic gains can be achieved
fairly rapidly and with relative ease (68) using sentence combining exercises.
Sentence combining was a popular means of teaching grammatical structures,
spawning a flood of textbooks such as The Writers Options, by Daiker, Kerek and
Morenberg (1982), which offered a series of combining exercises centered around
grammatical concerns such as relative clauses, subordination/coordination,
appositives, participles, absolutes, prepositional phrases and infinitives. In the
introduction to the second edition, the authors reference their 1976 study with nearly
300 college freshmen. Half the students received conventional instruction analyzing
essays and working with a standard college rhetoric (x); the other half studied
writing through sentence combining. The essays from the sentence combining group
were judged to be superior in quality compared to essays by the students in the
traditional group (x). Their follow up study two years later showed less dramatic
differences between the two groups, but evidenced the retention of skills by the
sentence combining group.They claim that any significant element of composition
can be taught through combining exercises, particularly if student versions are
compared in class (xi).
In 1977, Rosemary Hake and Joseph Williams compared sentence combining
with imitation pedagogy and found that students who studied imitation learned to
write better expository prose with fewer flaw and errors than students using sentence
combining pedagogies (Connors, 2000, p. 102). Supporters such as Frank DAngelo,
William Gruber, Michael Halloran and Corbett believed that through imitation,
students could internalize the structures of the piece being imitated and free up their
creativity. In the late 1960s to early 1970s, controlled composition exercises, a mix
of imitation with sentence combining, found favor (p. 101).
Despite positive results shown in these and other studies, the fervor over
sentence combining and imitation began to die out in the mid-1980s, victim to many
divergent forces. Connors (2000) charted the number of books and composition
journal articles about sentence rhetorics from 1960-1998, derived from searching
ERIC and using his own research. Although not a comprehensive study, Connors
draws attention to the trend rather than definitive numerical accounts. From a high of
31 published works between 1976-1980, sentence combining saw a steady decline
through 1991-1998, when there were only two published (108). Connors attributes
this devaluation to an anti-formalism stance that distrusted any pedagogy based in
form rather than in content (110) and a part to whole approach. Another reason is
that sentence-combining and imitation exercises were too reminiscent of Behaviorist
skills drills: simple exercises divorced from meaningful writing tasks that were seen
as a-rhetorical, uncreative, and in some senses destructive of individuality (114).
Other reasons for its demise, says Connors, are that it never fit neatly into a specific
theory and that it got swept away with the wholesale reaction against cognitive
approaches and empiricism in general that marked the beginning of the Social-
Construction Era (119).
Other studies focused more grammar and usage. In Grammar and the
Teaching of Writing, Noguchi (1991) describes two studies that highlight errors in
writing. Robert J. Connors and Angela Lunsford (1988) studied the frequency of
errors in student compositions, noting which errors were marked most frequently by
teachers, while Maxine Hairston (1981) studied which errors were considered most
serious by professional workers.
Connors and Lunsford studied 3,000 graded college essays to determine
which errors were committed most often by students and which ones were most
corrected by teachers. Half of the top ten most occurring errors had to do with
punctuation, from no comma after introductory element to missing apostrophes; and
sentence or clause boundary errors were seen in four of the top ten (Noguchi, 1991, p.
21). Of interest is the disparity between most committed errors and most corrected
errors by teachers. The top three errors marked by teachers are wrong word, no
comma after introductory element, and possessive apostrophe error. The researchers
concluded that some errors may be easier to mark without explanation, and so were
marked most often. They also found that teachers only mark an average of 43 percent
of the most serious errors (22). Noguchi believes the upside to this research is the
finding that the most common writing errors, such as misspellings, can be addressed
without recourse to formal grammar (22). Still, he admits, that frequency of errors
does not equate to seriousness of error.
Hairstons study, however, does address this idea of seriousness of errors. By
surveying professional people (not including English teachers), many of them high
managers in their fields, she was able to rate which errors were found most egregious.
The most strongly reacted to were status marking errors, such as using brung or
double negatives, followed by very serious errors such as fragments, run-ons, lack
of capitalization on proper nouns, and subject-verb agreement (26). The least
offensive errors included misuse of apostrophe in its/its, using different than instead
of different from, and using a colon after the verb to indicate a list (25). Noguchi
points out that while teachers may consider some errors as superficial, the surface
apparently has considerable importance to those who often hold the power to affect
other peoples lives (29). Therefore, as teachers, we put our students at risk if we
dont prepare them to succeed in these professional communities.
1990-2007: Grammar, What Grammar?
Early in this era, Democrats found new favor. Bill Clinton was elected
President in 1992, along with his Vice President, A1 Gore. Despite some rocky
patches an all-too-public liaison with intern Monica Lewinsky and charges of
impeachment for the controversial Whitewater land deal Clinton weathered two
presidential terms during one of Americas longest stretches of peace time and left
office with one of the highest approval ratings of any American president. First lady,
Hilary Clinton, was no slouch, either. She won a New York senate seat, and even
though her ambitious health care plan did not pass Congress, she is currently
campaigning for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president.
A1 Gore stayed busy, too, pushing a 1991 bill that provided funds for making
the Internet within reach of many Americans and positioning the U.S. at the forefront
of the international technological revolution that would explode in the 1990s. Since
the World Wide Web became available to the public in 1991, it has grown to millions
of users and has added a host of new words and terms to the American (and
worldwide) lexicon: Google (both noun and verb), email, website, web page, blog,
search engine, online discussion group, web host, hyperlink, DSL, and more.
Later, Gore would gain fame (and a Nobel prize) for An Inconvenient Truth,
the 2006 documentary that helped make the issue of global warming a recognized
problem worldwide. Environmental issues dominated headlines for a number of
reasons. Weather patterns seemed to be changing. The southeastern comer of the U.S.
bore the onslaught of some of the worst hurricanes in our history: the devastating
category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and the infamous and debilitating Hurricane
Katrina in 2005, whose storm surge left most of New Orleans underwater. The west
endured one of its worst droughts in centuries. In 2002, Colorado put the Hayman fire
on the books as the largest wildfire in state history, and all told, nearly 400,000 acres
went up in smoke that year. Fires raging in southern California, fanned by the Santa
Ana winds, in 2007 burned hundreds and hundreds of homes, prompting the biggest
mass evacuation in the states recent history and fueling debate that California may be
the next dust bowl if global warming continues.
Energy was part of that dialogue as well. In 1990, you could buy a gallon of
gasoline for less than $1.50. By 2007, that price had doubled. American consumers
see-sawed on automotive choices big SUVs (sports utility vehicles) became status
symbols, with gargantuan Hummers patrolling residential streets, while Toyotas
Prius, a hybrid electric car that gets 46 miles to the gallon, sold so well that
consumers had to wait months to buy one.
Energy saving became the new catch-phrase, and it was in to be green.
Folks traded in regular light bulbs for compact fluorescent ones, recycled everything
from toilet paper rolls to beer bottles, and calculated their carbon footprints in an
effort to be more earth friendly.
On a less friendly note, violence took a toll and shifted Americans sense of
well-being. David Koresh led about 75 of his faithful followers to a fiery death by
inferno in 1993 in a horrific end to the 51-day siege on his complex near Waco, Texas
by federal officers. In a warped response toward the governments handling of that
case and other grievances, in 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up a
federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. One person was killed when a
bomb detonated at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. One April morning in
1999, two Littleton students showed up at Columbine High School with an armory of
guns. By noon, they had killed themselves and 13 others. In 2000, George W. Bush
narrowly won the presidency by just over 500 votes in a highly contested election.
Within a year of taking office, he guided the nation through one of its darkest days:
September 11, 2001 the day the World Trade Center Towers were demolished and
the Pentagon was heavily damaged by suicide pilots who had hijacked commercial
airliners and flown them into the buildings. All told, nearly 3000 lives were lost that
day, along with many Americans sense of security. The names al-Qaeda and Osama
bin Laden are forever linked with terrorism and anti-American sentiment. In 2003,
Americans went to war with another archrival, Saddam Hussein, in the Iraq War.
Saddam was hanged for his crimes, but U.S. troops are still in Iraq, fighting to quell
terrorist attacks and to establish peace in a country some believe we attacked for its
oil reserves. In 2007, a student at the University of Virginia went on a shooting
rampage at the campus, killing 32 people.
No wonder, then, that youth growing up in this era were referred to as
Generation X, known for their apathy and negative attitudes. Tattoo parlors went
mainstream; body art became the new rite of passage. And X-ers pierced pretty much
everything: nose, tongue, eyebrow, ear, belly button, and other places best left to the
imagination. They competed in X Games, short for Extreme Games, with
competitions in alternative sports such as skateboarding, snowboarding and BMX
bike stunts. Bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana personified this generation. Nirvana
lead man, Kurt Cobain, earned eternal fame with his suicide in 1994. The pendulum
swung from grunge to bubble gum with the rise of sappy boy bands like Back Street
Boys and *N Sync, as well as sultry girl acts like Destinys Child, Britney Spears and
Christina Aguilera. Bands like Sister Hazel and Hootie & the Blowfish lightened up
the scene with happy rock.
Younger audiences enjoyed the antics of Harry Potter and friends at Hogwarts
School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in the series of fantasy books by J.K Rowling,
which spawned a host of popular movies with the same cast of characters. This
fantasy theme was also a draw in the ambitious Lord of the Rings film trilogy that was
first released in 2001, based on J.R.R. Tolkiens famous novel of the same name,
which traced the affable Hobbit Frodo Baggins quest to recover a magic ring from
the clutches of the Dark Lord Sauron.
Science provided its own fantasies. Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal,
took her first breath in 1996, creating quite the woolly scene with questions of
morality and ethics, especially with the possibility of cloning humans. And morals
also put the quash on stem cell research, at least at the national level, because they are
retrieved from a human fetus, even though such research holds great promise for
battling disease and replacing human organs.
This era also saw breakthroughs in space. The long-awaited Hubble Space
Telescope was launched in 1990, and has given us new eyes with its incredible photos
from the outer reaches of space. The Mars Pathfinder landed on the Red Planet in
1997. The International Space Station, a joint project between the U.S., Russia, Japan
and several other countries, is a research facility now orbiting the earth. In 2003,
Americans relived the horror of the Challenger disaster when the space shuttle
Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, killing all aboard.
The development of technology, and our new dependency on it, gave rise to
end-of-the-world scenarios as the new century dawned. The media stirred up fears
that a catastrophe could bring our culture to its knees if computer clocks could not
reset at the midnight hour of Y2K. As the year 2000 made its way across the time
zones, people raised their toasts to the New Year, and life went on as we knew it. And
the technology just kept on coming.
With new digital technology, cell phones became more popular and affordable
during the 1990s. Today, even elementary children carry them to school. In addition
to standard phone capabilities, cell phone users can now use their cell phones for a
host of uses: to broadcast text to a group of friends at the same time, to take pictures,
to surf the internet. Colleges have begun to use this technology to alert students in
case of campus emergencies. Cell phones have become indispensable to daily life.
Some even camped out overnight to be the first to buy their very own I-Phone, no
doubt to take home and set next to their I-Pods.
New technological advances reshaped our understanding of literacy. Electric
typewriters were cutting edge when many older teachers were attending school. By
1997, half of all school-age children had access to a computer at home, and nine out
of ten schools were linked to the Internet (Kinzer & Leander, 2003, pp. 546 & 548).
While it took the personal computer 36 years to achieve a worldwide base of 50
million users, the Internet, the fastest growing communication tool ever, reached that
number in only four years from its inception (550). Literacy came to be thought of as
a moving target, its meaning evolving and morphing to fit new parameters brought
on by rapidly changing literacy demands of society and technology. Paper-based texts
have been increasingly replaced with multimedia forms of texts: audio books, web
sites, emails, hypertexts, online chat rooms, blogs, threaded discussions, and online
newspapers and magazines. With these new texts come different strategies for
literacy: students must learn to decode strategic use of color, clues to linked text and
information, meaning-bearing icons, pop-ups and interactive messages that can
change throughout the reading act (549).
In addition, the year 1990 ushered in the Decade of the Brain. Steve Pinkers
The Language Instinct (1994) was selected as One of the Best Books of the Year by
the New York Times Book Review. In it, Pinker draws on brain research such as PET
(Positron Emission Tomography) and CAT (Computerized Axial Tomography) scans,
EEGs (electroencephalograms), Functional MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
and Magneto-Encephalography to give readers insights into how synapses fire and
which parts of the brain light up in response to certain language functions. Left
brain and right brain are seen as having separate roles in language function. Studies
with stroke patients give insight into how damage to either Brocas area (p. 309) and
Wernickes area (310) result in differing types of aphasia. There is discussion of the
language organ and grammar genes (297).
In the Writing Classroom
One important aspect that affected public K-12 schools throughout the U.S.
was the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal mandate in 2002 that required states to
administer assessment tests in order to qualify for federal funds. Informed by
standards based theories that depend on clear goal setting for student achievement,
NCLB sought to improve student scores in basic skills such as reading and math by
requiring that teachers must be highly qualified according to national guidelines
and should use "scientifically based research" strategies in the classroom. Proponents
point to improved scores across the board by students since the legislation went into
effect. Others criticize this approach for a variety of reasons, especially because it
requires teachers to teach to the test instead of focusing on critical thinking skills
and more creative approaches to problem solving. Also, not all students are created
equal, so having a one-size-fits-all outcome is not realistic or beneficial. Teachers
often bear the brunt of high-stakes testing, as Hillocks (2005) describes:
The pressure on pushing scores up, even in affluent communities, has
become paramount. In impoverished communities, the problems are
enormous. Scores for individual schools are published in local papers
along with rankings in the state. Individual teachers have told me that
they knew they would be identified as the teacher responsible for poor
results especially in small schools where they may be the only teacher
of writing at the grade level tested. (244)
In addition, some people believe this heavy emphasis on reading and math
pushes aside other types of learning, such as art and physical education. With an
emphasis on basic skills for all students, many schools no longer offer programs for
gifted and talented students, which some see as a waste of potential. As NCLB comes
up for Congressional review, opposition forces have renewed efforts to redefine or
repel the act altogether.
This era saw a carry over of many earlier theoretical principles, such as
cognitive and constructivist approaches, while some like expressivism were no
longer esteemed. As Peter Elbow (2000), whom some call the poster professor for
this vision of mine began to be labeled expressivist, romantic, and
individualist, and characterized not just as passe, but as deeply
flawed from an intellectual and political point of view. Its probably
fair to say that by the late 80s, I was seen as a prime exemplar of a
theory and philosophy of writing judged to be suspect or even wrong-
headed by most of the dominant scholars in the important scholarly
Elbow goes on to describe the various and often-conflicting discourses in
English studies: the bulldozer tradition of high Germanic scholarship that values
consolidation and citation of others ideas; the slightly talky British tradition, which
is unfavorably seen as a tradition of privilege; the dark and deconstructive
discourse of poststructuralists; the unashamedly quantitative social science fields of
thought; and the German Critical or Marxist that is heavy on abstraction and very
consciously ideological (pp. 238-239). Academic discourse, especially in the sense
of one academic writing to another, is differentiated from school discourse, what
our students write to us. As academics writing to other academics, there is a need for
authority and the sense that what we write is not just a neat idea we had that we send
out to be judged on its own merits; it builds on Aristotle and echoes Foucault (249).
While deconstructionists make a frontal attack on straight, organized prose
that purports to mean what it says, Elbow claims academic discourse is changing and
that genres are becoming blurred (254). Many say they want a more varied set of
voices within the academy, but they wont let themselves or their students write in
the language tainted with the ordinary or with the presence and feelings of the writer
(254). Elbow calls for a balance: give students practices for academic discourse while
also inviting them to work on nonacademic tasks that will allow them experience with
a variety of audiences and styles. In the writing classroom, the act of writing
overrides the prescriptive, critical aspect of teaching. Mr. Strunk has left the building.
Other approaches, such as constructivism, grew deeper roots in this era of
composition studies. The tenets are familiar ones. For example, the book, In Search of
Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (Brooks & Brooks, 1999),
gives teachers practical advice on how to seek and value the students points of view,
on adapting curriculum to address students suppositions (69), and on creating
assessment practices that are tools in service to the learner, rather than as an
accountability device and not as a teacher effectiveness measure (88). Teachers are
asked to question a pedagogy that favors rightness over wrongness because then
education becomes a closed ended exercise in guessing what the teacher wants,
preventing students from taking a risk to find and defend their own answers. In the
sense that children learn whole to part, it is more beneficial to allow children to
invent their own spelling and publish their material for others to read and for
themselves to re-read than to teach the rules of grammar and conventional spelling
and then ask students to put the skills together in an original piece of writing (49). In
other words, grammatical concepts are not taught in a linear method; they evolve
within the context of the larger, socially meaningful application.
Constance Weavers (1996) Teaching Grammar in Context, and the its
companion book, Lessons to Share: On Teaching Grammar in Context (1998), both
celebrate the constructivist ideals: using grammar mini-lessons, showing students
ways of approaching writing through sharing personal writings, giving students
options of various genuine learning experiences, encouraging collaborative and
cooperative work, providing scaffolding, and honoring where students are in the
learning process (Weaver, 1996, pp. 159-160). In Teaching Grammar in Context,
Weaver begins with four definitions of grammar that guide her book:
Grammar as a description of syntactic structure
Grammar as prescriptions for how to use structures and words
Grammar as rhetorically effective use of syntactic structures
Grammar as the functional command of sentence structure that enables
us to comprehend and produce language (2)
She then delves into a historical context of teaching grammar, from its early
Alexandrian goals of disciplining and training the mind and then teaching grammar
for social prestige (3) to its current incarnation as a means to improve writing. Using
decades of writing research as proof, Weaver makes a case against teaching formal
grammar in isolation. Rather than spend hours trying to get students to name parts of
speech, we should focus our efforts on aspects of grammar that are particularly
helpful in creating, rearranging, and revising sentences for greater stylistic
effectiveness (181). Using motivating methods based within the constructivist
concept (rather than the behavioral), select important grammatical concepts can be
taught as students are revising and editing their work. Instead of testing students on
their command of grammar, we should help them learn how they can best incorporate
the most critical concepts of grammar into their own writing. Weaver cautions that
research can be used to prove almost anything (182), so educators must not expect
miracles with teaching grammar through constructivist principles, but should continue
exploring better ways to teach grammar to improve students writing.
Another theme carried over from the 1980s was the respect for students home
dialects. The BEV of the 1980s gained new notice and definition in the 1990s as
Ebonics, created from the words ebony and phonics, a term meant to
encompass both the stylistic and the linguistic patterns of the language, adopted by
Black scholars who rejected white researchers view of Black language and culture
as deficient (Weaver, 1998, p. 232). Ebonics generated controversy when, in 1996,
the Board of Education in Oakland, California passed a resolution that many believed
directed teachers to teach Ebonics to students and to model it in their own speech (p.
234-236). A public debate ensued, and the resolution was soon watered down by the
incoming Board and forgotten. However, the intent of teaching Standard English
alongside and in comparison to home dialects is still seen as a positive pedagogy
in modem composition classrooms. While most parents want their children to learn
and use the grammar and conventions of mainstream English, as Weaver suggests,
students can leam more about the society we live in by asking questions such as,
Who benefits when we set up one dialect as standard? (239). Furthermore, as
teachers and students, we need to explore the roles we ourselves play in perpetuating
this inhumanity; and to consider what actions we might want to take as moral and
socially responsible human beings (239).
This moral theme is the current that flows through critical theory, which is
based on a conviction that social and self-empowerment is the larger aim of
education. It informs pedagogies that see teaching as a political act. In Real
Teaching for Real Diversity: Preparing English Language Arts Teachers for 21st-
Century Classrooms, Boyd, et al. (2006) sound the call for educators to work harder
to make educational and social opportunities available to all, regardless of culture.
They see the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 as a political smokescreen,
more about indoctrination than education: Only totalitarian societies erase the
individual in service to some mythical standard citizen (346). By indoctrinating
students for standardized tests, educators are promoting the status quo, and further
marginalizing students from diverse backgrounds. There is an urgent need for
teachers to provide environments for these students who need to be empowered the
most learn to resist a hidden curriculum that promotes economic, social, and
political oppression (331).
To promote this pedagogy, the authors provide a list of belief statements for
teachers: because teaching is a political act, educators must be willing to cross
traditional personal and professional boundaries in pursuit of social justice and
equity (332). In addition, students knowledge should be part of classroom practice,
and they are entitled to a variety of educational experiences that help them make
informed decisions about their role and participation in language, literacy, and life.
Finally, we must teach students to understand, recognize and use power
codes/discourses while still honoring their home dialects (332). Grammar, then, is no
longer seen as being a single prescriptive form it is diverse and changing, dependent
upon the power code of a specific group.
While reaching toward more diverse classrooms, the authors note teachers
cultural background has not deviated much: the percentage of white women teachers
- estimated at about 85-90% in U.S. classrooms has remained constant (333).
Teachers are encouraged to use a variety of cultural models such as rap or
multicultural literature to engage students in accessible learning. The complexities of
teaching all English speakers regardless of dialect and all second language learners
regardless of native language often in the same classroom and at the same time can
be overwhelming, but teachers have an absolute responsibility to help all students
become truly critical users (and creators) of language, as opposed to being passive
consumers of language that belongs to others (344).
In this ideal classroom, teachers must also foster ongoing and critical
examinations with their students of how particular codes came into power, why
linguistic apartheid exists, and how even their own dialectical and slang patters are
often appropriated by the dominant culture (pp. 344-345), so grammar studies
become more about learning the dominant cultures way of using grammar to elevate
and set themselves apart. Moreover, surface mechanics are not as important as
giving students ample chances to practice their language use in a maximally risk-free
environment where they can explore and play with language in multiple dialects
and various audiences/purposes (345). How we educate students today will have
long-term effects for these learners, their future opportunities, their future careers,
their future (and existing) children, and their childrens children (346).
With the growing interplay of world markets, educators must move beyond
critical theory that is disconnected from any actual educational practices and that
appeals primarily just to other theorists(Hytten, 2006, p. 230). Critical theory should
be reconsidered, so that it should emerge out of actual practices and lived struggles,
described in a broadly recognized language, accessible to wide audiences, and
constructed collaboratively with schools and communities (230). Grammar, in this
sense, should be reconsidered and redefined according to the collaborative results of
educators and community working together.
This idea of educations social consciousness expanded to a wider scale in the
late 1990s, with the rise of antiglobalization, a reaction against globalization, which
in its positive force is described as the kind of sharing of ideas and resources that
could lead to more global harmony (232). Unfortunately, many also view it in the
negative, as the epidemic spread of capitalism, where peoples needs are sacrificed
to promote profits (232). Globalization is a force that some believe adds to students
feelings of alienation. As our classrooms become more inclusive of world cultures, in
addition to our already diverse student bodies, some educators call for a broadened
conception of the meaning of education, one that is premised not on standardized
information recall but on problem solving, reflective thinking, and thoughtful action
(233). Rote memorization of grammatical terms holds less value in this global
community. Rather, students now face a wider universe of discourse: English is the
new global language with a worldwide range of cultural forces affecting grammar and
usage expectations. This enlarged scope of students lives and future interactions will
require educators to think outside previous boundaries to prepare students to write
effectively in a globalized society.
One reason for this global interaction is the growth in technology. Students
today can easily carry on real-time written interactions with students in a number of
countries around the globe. Swenson, et al. (2006) describe how new technologies
arent just affecting our lives, they are affecting how we think. Our conceptions of
ourselves and how we belong to the world are changing drastically, and with it, our
ideas of literacy. For English teachers, the Internet becomes more a literacy issue than
a technology issue. Digital texts, while sharing some characteristics of printed forms,
have created their own peculiar issues; they are often dynamic, fluid, and allow
access to many different texts, authors and purposes:
New digital genres, such as Web pages, Web logs (blogs), multi-user
virtual environments (MOOs and MUDs), and collaborative writing
platforms (wikis and threaded discussions) are evolving and new
digital grammars emerge with each new form. (354)
Swenson, et al. (2006) point to various scholars Pope and Golub (2000),
Young and Bush (2004), and Jonassen, Howland, Moore, & Marra (2003) who
offer direction on how to integrate new technologies into pedagogy. In addition, many
digital texts offer a variety of new elements, such as sound, video, and images, which
change the way we make meaning of a text and also what writers must now also
consider when creating a text. Educators must also wrestle with the idea of how best
to prepare students to write for the world (359). Does the essay with thesis
statement, topic sentences and supporting details serve students better than learning
how to effectively blog within a computer discourse community? Research shows
that todays youth spend an average of 6.5 hours per day with media (360), so
teachers are often less fluent in technological literacies than their students. And with
these digital texts often come new language and usage expectations, as well as issues
around equal accessibility. MacArthur (2006) examines The Effects of New
Technologies on Writing and Writing Processes by culling through recent research in
two basic areas: how technology can be used in traditional writing aspects and how
technology is giving rise to new forms and arenas for writing. Research into new
forms of writing, such as hypermedia, and new social contexts for writing, such as
CMC [computer-mediated communication], have been more difficult to define and to
answer, and the research is quite limited (p. 260). And research into technology as a
tool for traditional writing programs has had mixed results. While studies show little
change in written products using word processors, some students, especially
developmental writers, gain better writing skills by using tools such as spell checkers.
This gain is corroborated by Hansman and Wilson (1998) in Teaching Writing
in Community Colleges: A Situated View of How Adults Learn to Write in Computer-
based Writing Classrooms, a study of adult learners in developmental writing classes
held in computer classrooms. The authors position their research in theories of
situated learning, which means that learning must be investigated within the
situations in which it occurs, and that knowing is seen not as an individual mental
process so much as a product of a specific activity within a particular culture (27).
Writing is a thinking process, but it is not confined to the internal act, rather it is
situated by the tools, activities, and the culture in which thinking occurs (38). The
culture and tools of the computer classroom changed the way students viewed their
writing. Computers gave writers more power over their writing process, enabling
them to construct their own writing process and make changes more efficiently.
Viewing work on the screen helped students be more objective about their work, so
they were better able to revise. Word processing functions such as spell check helped
students during their writing, although the grammar checker got mixed reviews. The
social culture of the computer classroom allowed for increased discussion about
writing, which set up a context to develop more conversations about writing and
shared knowledge. The authors believe teachers should view computers as a
constructive nexus, rather than simply an instrumental tool, for creating a social
culture conducive to improving students attitudes, skills and knowledge of writing.
In addition, technology continues to alter the workplace and future writing
demands for our students. E-mail has been described as a new genre: a hybrid
between oral and written communications and has been developing a set of
regularized textual features unique enough to warrant considering it a genre in its own
right (Beaufort, 2008, p. 225). Businesses call for forms of collaborative writing that
cant be addressed in previous writing models. Studies into the social affects of
writing in the workplace show that writers who could not produce writing efficiently
were viewed as costing the company money, and writers who were seen as average
used more nominalizations in their writings than better writers (223). Document
design is another aspect of writing that has gained importance due to having to write
for technological formats as well as traditional paper formats. Business writers write
differently on computers than on paper making five times more changes to the text
on the computer than with paper and pencil and more changes at the whole-sentence
level (224). Some believe new technology has changed not only the way we write,
but also the way we think.
What the research says
This era saw several interesting approaches to teaching grammar: from
Noguchis (1991) Grammar and the Teaching of Writing and Weavers 1996
Teaching Grammar in Context, to Nodins (1993) Image Grammar and Schusters
(2003) Breaking the Rules. Many of these popular books, while not offering empirical
studies to prove the methods proposed within their covers, back up and validate their
practices based on previous research.
In Grammar and the Teaching of Writing, Noguchi (1991) aims to give
educators a way to make less grammar do more (viii) by focusing more on where
he believes grammar and writing overlap, decreasing classroom time spent on
grammar instruction and providing a basic writers grammar that can augment
style, content and organization. Noguchi provides a list of studies against the teaching
of grammar, many of which have already been discussed in this paper. He
acknowledges Kollns charge against the Braddock study, but believes Hillockss
comprehensive and careful meta-analysis adds more validation to the claim against
teaching grammar. Noguchis issue is not so much with the research, as it is with the
research questions. If such studies are true, he asks, why does formal instruction in
grammar fail to produce any significant improvement in writing quality? (3).
Answers to this could help us understand whether, for example, we should make
changes in our teaching approach or in the type of grammar that has been taught.
Rather than teach more grammar, Noguchi believes we can focus efforts to teach less
grammar, especially in the areas of most frequent errors and most stigmatized errors,
outlined in studies by Connors & Lunsford (1988) and Hairston (1981), respectively.
Comparing and analyzing these studies allows Noguchi to create a minimal set of
categories for teaching grammar: sentence, subject, verb, and modifier (33). In
addition, teachers need to integrate teaching grammar with what students already
know, and find ways to combine grammar instruction with content and organization
to enhance students writing. Less time on formal grammar instruction will provide
more time for teachers and students to work on writing in all its contexts, from minor
stylistic problems to larger social issues.
In Teaching Grammar in Context, Weaver draws on research studies to
validate her constructivist model for teaching grammar. The most recent research she
includes, a 1984 study by DiStefano and Killion, compared the effectiveness of
direct but decontextualized teaching of skills with a writing process approach (178)
for students in grades four through six from six different elementary schools. Writing
skills such as capitalization, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, format, usage
and organization were assessed, as well as proficiency levels for each, according to
grade level. While punctuation, capitalization and format proficiency was consistent
across all groups, the experimental decontextualized group did significantly better
on organization, as well as showed higher improvements in spelling and usage (178).
She also cites a 1980 Calkins study that focused on punctuation instruction for
third graders, a study that she admits shows a lack of scientific rigor, but still merits
consideration because it shows that children learn punctuation better not by studying
it in isolation but by trying to use it effectively in writing for purposes of their own
(pp. 177-178). These studies were both at least a decade old by the time Teaching
Grammar in Context was published, a fact Weaver seems to be aware of as she
sounds the need for informal as well as formal research (180), especially in the
realm of teaching grammatical skills in context.
Harry Noden (1999) gets creative with teaching grammar in his book, Image
Grammar. While he mentions some research, such as the Braddocks study, he
depends more on his 30 years of experience teaching grammar to 4000+ students.
And from the beginning, he warns readers that theyll not find prescriptive lessons on
how to differentiate between lie and lay instead, he explores only those
concepts that help students feel what Joan Didion calls the infinite power of
grammar, a power derived from images (ix). The book is a testament to his evolution
from grammar traffic cop to artists coach. Rather than confine grammar to the
limited notions of words and sentences, Noden expands the idea of grammar to
encompass the artists brushstroke, the creative coloring of ideas that contribute to the
writers art. Throughout the book, Noden borrows from successful authors and other
educators to provide classroom strategies that approach grammatical structures as
artists tools, encouraging student artists/writers to paint with appositives and
participles, create image palettes, or listen to the beat of punctuation. Grammar, to
Noden, should be nurtured and allowed to flourish in student writers. It is the soul of
humankind because it allows us to feel the touch of a lovers hand on a bridge in
Madison County and gives poets the syntax to paint brainteasers that will delight
readers for centuries (202). As teachers, we have a chance to instill this vision with
Edgar Schuster (2003) also focused on how real writers write, and his
research into their writings provided a framework for his 'Breaking the Rules:
Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction. After a whirlwind trip
through the grammar time machine, starting with the very first English grammar -
published in 1586 by William Bullokar (7), Schuster explains that traditional school
grammar (TSG) definitions do not define, they do not offer meaningful help to
students (19), and, besides that, the rules are always changing. For example, he
points out that the glossary in the 1941 Harbrace Handbook of English lists 280
usage errors; yet in the 1998 version of the same handbook, the glossary lists only
156 usage errors. Of these, just 65 errors are carry-overs from the 1941 edition (67).
For the most part, the other 115 errors from 1941 have been absorbed into
mainstream English in just a few decades.
Not only has usage, especially punctuation, changed dramatically in the past
40 years, there are degrees of correctness, from status-marking errors to minor errors
deemed incorrect by those who get their authority from celestial spheres (55). In
fact, what he describes as WEAP (Well-Edited American Prose) is fraught with an
abundance of mythrules, which are rules that someone believes should be
followed by educated speakers of the language, but, in truth, are not generally
followed (55). He takes aim at fragments, using first-person pronouns, free use of I
and You, passive voice and topic sentences, providing a plethora of examples from
professional writers who often and successfully use these devices that deviate from
the rules of WEAP. He provides lessons in grammar from the perspective that
grammar is a fickle beast, and students should leam grammar as it is actually used,
not only how some educators believe it should be used. Schuster does not claim to
have found the perfect way to teach grammar, but does his best to prove that teaching
traditional grammar mythrules is counter-productive.
As is seen in most of these books, much of the grammar research drawn upon
is from prior years. In fact, since 1990, the news in grammar research comes not so
much from what is available as from what is missing. Most grammar research has
fallen to the wayside. Gone are the meta-analyses that combed through piles of
research to summarize best practices in teaching grammar. Only a scattering of case
studies, empirical research and personal narratives can be found, along with scores of
opinions and prescriptions. Most opinions against teaching grammar still draw on
studies from decades ago, studies that some educators believe were flawed and would
not be taken seriously by todays standards. One of the consistent voices in this arena
is Martha Kolln, whose 2003 book, Rhetorical Grammar, urges readers to consider
grammar choices as tools in your writers toolkit (3), situated within a rhetorical
context, so that grammatical conventions such as sentence structure and types of
punctuation are determined by audience, purpose, and topic (2).
In The Story of English Grammar in United States Schools, Kolln and co-
author Craig Hancock (2005) trace the history of and describe the forces that have
allied against grammar, while raising the point that ignoring grammar has been a
failure and suggesting a remedy (11). During the past half-century, educators and
researchers attitudes toward grammar have changed dramatically. From a treasure
trove of research material on grammar in the 1950s, todays writings on grammar are
presented not as a topic for discussion but rather as an issue to be debated (12).
Even though teaching formal grammar had been questioned as early as 1906 in a
study by Hoyt, the practice remained a staple in most American classrooms. The
1950s were a watershed period for the emerging field of structural grammar,
beginning with The Structure of English by C.C. Fries that established categories of
English based on English rather than Latin, and with Chomskys work in the field of
linguistics, most notably with generative-transformational grammar. By 1963, the
NCTE convention hosted twenty sessions on language, including Semantics, Some
Creative Approaches to Grammar, and Grammar in Prose Composition (pp.14-15).
Meanwhile, interest in transformational grammar began to wane, at least partly due to
its complex explanations that seemed more mathematical than language based. In
addition, the NCTE, published an anti-grammar statement that turned into a storm
surge of hurricane strength in 1963 (15), the same year the widely regarded
Braddock, Lloyd-Jones and Schoer meta-analysis was published with its negative
report on grammar instruction.
Kolln argues that the Harris study, so highly regarded by Braddock et al., was
seriously flawed and would never pass muster today, and is not even mentioned in
a well-known British grammar paper, yet it set in motion the anti-grammar policy
that has dominated American English curriculum for forty years (16). In addition,
during this period, Dixon (1967) published Growth Through English, as a result of
the 1966 English teaching seminar at Dartmouth, attended by leaders in the field,
which promoted learner-centered writing process pedagogy such as free writing and
journaling, while dismissing correctness and skills-based, product focused teaching.
These fed the growing anti-prescriptivist grammar tradition. By 1980, NCTE
conferences no longer offered a category for language, and in 1985 NCTE formally
refuted the teaching of grammar through drills and exercises, stating that teaching
grammar in isolation does not lead to improvement in students speaking and
writing, and that, in fact, it hinders the development of students oral and written
language (pp. 17-18), a finding that was corroborated by Hillocks 1986 Research on
Written Composition. By the 1993 NCTE national convention, only one of its 1,000+
individual presentations mentioned grammar, and it focused on Getting beyond
The cost of the disappearance of grammar as teachable subject is, according to
Kolln, impossible to calculate (19), especially in teacher education, where many
English teachers are certified without ever having to take a single grammar course.
The backlash has created the formation of a small interest group, The Assembly for
the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG), under the auspices of NCTE, which in
1993 published Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers, written by ATEG members.
In the second half of the article, Hancock follows up with a brief history of
writing instruction in America, revisiting New Critical and Critical Theory
approaches, as well as process and progressive views, while also looking to England
and Australia (Halliday) for experience with alternative grammar practices. With the
array of the highly factionalized nature of the forces against grammar instruction,
Hancock concedes we cannot come to terms with teaching grammar until we establish
clear and productive reasons for doing so, such as seeing grammar as a meaning-
making system that will include advocacy for thoughtfully selected technical
terminology (28), a direction that already has its followers, who hope to offer an
alternative to the harsh anti-grammar position taken currently by NCTE.
This declining focus on language is echoed by Susan Peck MacDonald (2007)
in The Erasure of Language, who documents the same dramatic tapering off in
language topics in CCCC sessions for the last few decades. Examining professional
conferences provides one way to probe assumptions and values in a profession
(588). A chart showing the number of CCCC sessions on language (whose titles
include ESL, grammar, style, language linguistics, discourse analysis or semantics)
from 1955 to 2005 shows a steady and remarkable decline in language topics (589).
While social and theory topics have grown to dominate the discourse, studies in
language topics do not receive much professional esteem. One contributing factor was
the 1974 adoption of Students Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL), which
polarized debate and added to a binary framing of English instruction, with factions
weighing in on either side of the issue. Debate swirled around whether or not teaching
students Edited American English (EAE) was hurtful and demeaning to students own
home language. Another factor to consider is the demographic profde of U.S. schools,
which today differs strikingly from the Black and White binary discussion in the
1970s, with an influx of a diverse Asian population from various countries (such as
Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Korea), and a spike in Spanish-speaking immigrants
With this new cohort of learners, there has been a rejection of formal grammar
instruction dating back to the 1963 Braddock et al. report and their frequently quoted
admonition against teaching grammar. Yet, as Kolln and David Mulroy (2003) have
pointed out, the study has serious flaws. First, the grammar that was researched may
have been the wrong kind of grammar, the wrong kind of instruction, or the wrong
metalanguage for describing English, and second, the students taking part in the
research during the 1950s and 1960s probably would not resemble the students in
todays classrooms, especially the normative speakers who have arrived more recently
(610). The Braddock report set up another binary: to teach or not to teach grammar.
Instead of learning more functional or appropriate ways to teach grammar, many
latched on to the or not choice and closed the door on the grammar question, which
now carried its own stigma: it was far more prestigious to cite Foucault than to cite
Martha Kolln (612).
Continuing the debate, David Tomlinson (1994) argues that the scientifically
rigorous studies that claim teaching grammar does not improve writing do not stand
up to critical examination (20). In Errors in the Research into the Effectiveness of
Grammar Teaching, Tomlinson says that as long as the conclusions match their own
beliefs, most educators take research at face value without examining the study and
its validity. Yet in his opinion, he has not seen a study that is not so flawed in design
as to make its conclusions worthless (20), and he then examines two studies to prove
his point. The first, a 1959 study by Nora Robinson, which was highlighted in a more
prominent paper by Wilkinson in 1971, sought to determine if knowledge of grammar
improved student writing. While Tomlinson gives Robinson credit for her statistical
analysis, he says the negative correlations are entirely misleading because she
compared two scores that were never relatable in the first place because there were
so many variables in the way various readers evaluated the essays (22). In addition,
he finds fault in the assumption that teaching parts of speech improves writing: No
one believes that teaching the names of the letters of the alphabet improves spelling -
although spelling cannot be learned without it. Similarly with parts of speech (23).
Yet this study, used as evidence in Wilkinsons The Foundations of Language,
helped to influence the end of grammar instruction in London. Another study, also
influential, both in London and in the U.S., was the 1962 study by R. J. Harris (lauded
by Braddock et al. and described as flawed by Kolln), which compared results from
students who were taught formal, taxonomic grammar with results from students who
simply wrote with no grammar instruction. Tomlinson cites two flaws in Harriss
research. First, the students who did not receive formal grammar instruction did
receive help in revising their work according to grammatical concepts; they just did
not have to name the parts of speech. This research is more about a comparison
between two ways of teaching grammar: a formal, rigidly structured way and an
informal, practical way, with students in the latter group showing more benefit (25).
Secondly, Tomlinson says the taxonomic grammar that was offered to 12- and 13-
year-old students was the most arid kind that would not be expected to carry over
into written work (26).
Other British writers have weighed in on the subject of grammar instruction
recently, especially since England introduced a National Literacy Strategy in 1997
and has implemented a Grammar for Writing Initiative. In The English Patient,
Richard Hudson and John Walmsley (2005) trace grammars path through the
curriculum in England, from 1892 to present. They describe the death of grammar
teaching in England and look at reasons for a reversal in attitude toward grammar,
beginning around 1980. The attack on grammar came from many fronts, but most
ironically from literature teachers themselves, who claimed that no empirical
evidence proved that grammar instruction improved writing. As the authors note, the
lack of empirical evidence to prove the study of literatures positive effect on writing
progress did not seem an issue (604). Standard usage of language was studied by
Randolph Quirk, who set up Londons University College Survey of English Usage in
1959 (600). Quirk also had a hand in publishing the first two blockbuster
grammars of modem English in 1972 and 1985, which required large financial
backing, furnished by publishers taking advantage of the EFL markets (607). The
English grammar market is still on an upswing, with a variety of mini-grammars
targeted to certain markets. The death of grammar left in its wake:
a significant number of school leavers with hardly any reading and
writing skills at all; in 1999 it was calculated that seven million UK
adults were functionally illiterate to the extent that they could not, for
example, find a plumber in the Yellow Pages, (pp. 609-610)
Hallidays Schools Council project from 1964-1971 had a huge affect on how
grammar was viewed (more descriptive than prescriptive), along with basic literacy
(610). The National Curriculum now honors other dialects, but offers a Literacy
Strategy that calls for explicit teaching about language structure at the word, sentence
and text levels (614). The lack of grammar knowledge was especially a problem for
new teacher recruits, so the government created training opportunities and pre-
packaged lessons for teachers to use, as well as books, such as Grammar for Writing,
developed for and sent to each primary teacher (617).
Another group of Brits, Andrews et al. (2006), studied The Effect of Grammar
Teaching on Writing Development using research reviews to see how teaching
grammar affects accuracy and quality of written composition for students ages 5 to 16
years. They screened research from 1900 to 2004, settling on 11 studies for an in-
depth review on syntax (of which only the 1976 Elley et al. study was rated as high to
medium) and on 18 studies for an in-depth review on sentence-combining (of which
the 1973 OHare study was rated the best). They concluded that while studies showed
grammar instruction had negligible effects on writing and that sentence-combining,
had a more positive effect, there is insufficient quality of research to prove the case
with either approach (39). They also point out the lack of recent research, with only
two of the 18 studies on sentence combining published since 1990.
Another British writer, Dominic Wyse (2001) argues that the research does
not support formal grammar instruction in Grammar. For Writing? A Critical Review
of Empirical Evidence. Wyse revisits empirical evidence for teaching Traditional
School Grammar (TSG), transformational grammar and sentence combining. In
addition to research offered by (but not performed by) Weaver (1996), Elley et al.
(1976) and the 1986 Hillocks meta-analysis, Wyse looks at individual UK studies,
such as McCauley (1947), McQuade (1980), Mason el al. (1992), and Mason and
Mason (1997) the latter two are criticized for not adequately controlling several
variables within the study. Wyse also takes aim at Tomlinsons criticisms of the
Harris study, saying that the grammar groups were not as rigid and taxonomic as
Tomlinson suggests (418). Wyse concludes that research findings clearly indicate
that the teaching of grammar (using a range of models) has negligible positive effects
on improving secondary pupils writing. Of further concern is the negative impact on
pupils motivation (422).
It is interesting to note, however, that Wyse simply rehashes previous studies
that are decades old. The research offered by Weaver (1996) is based on studies prior
to 1990, and the Mason studies were not adequately controlled to be of empirical use.
The McQuade study (1980), which Weaver called a landmark study that proves the
inefficacy of teaching formal grammar, is attacked as lacking external and internal
validity by Donald Hardy (2001) in Traditional Grammar: How Research Summaries
Ruined a Pretty Good Thing. McQuade did not use statistical data in his study, and as
such, Hardy finds it ironic that many experts refer to it as a landmark study:
Without providing means tests or even reporting exact numbers,
McQuade concludes that students gained as much grammar knowledge
in years that they didnt take his grammar course as they did in the
year that they took his class. (38)
Hardy believes McQuade should have used multiple raters and more detailed
procedures (instead of eyeballing the results), before claiming the destructive
effect of grammar instruction on students writing efforts (39). Yet he sees this study
as evidence of a wider problem: many educators rely on research summaries without
ever questioning the studies and procedures that provided information for their
conclusions. He points out how Kolln (1981) discloses serious flaws in eight studies
that informed the Braddock et al. statement against grammar instruction. Newkirk
(1978) exposes weaknesses in research by Elley et al. and Harris. We should always
question research summaries and read as much of the primary research ourselves to
get a true idea of what is being studied because conclusions of summaries are often
less persuasive than it is represented (48). Informal research in his classes
demonstrates that there is much that is interesting about how students learn grammar
and that it is possible to teach formal grammar to college students.
The one area where current research about teaching grammar is being
conducted is within the field of teaching English as a Second Language. Much of the
debate sounds familiar: should formal grammar forms be taught through drills and
practice to students whose first language is not English? Deborah Fitch (1995)
addresses that issue in Teaching Grammar to Adults and Second Language Learning
Research. She acknowledges that teaching grammar through rules and drills may not
be effective for children and adolescents, but that adults are better suited to this type
of learning, and that second language learners especially benefit. Fitch points to
research by linguists that show similarities in how people acquire their first and their
second language. And age makes a difference biologically: older learners tend to use
the analytical left hemisphere more when learning language, which is more conducive
to grammar drills and practice. Fitch points to research by Stephen Krashen (1981)
that shows how adults are better suited to learning form and self monitoring
processes. Furthermore, adults are more interested in finding out the nature of their
errors, and are more open to learning grammar the old-fashioned way (33). Because
adults are more cognitively advanced, they are more able to remember grammar rules
and can transfer that knowledge to their writing. And learning the rules can help
prevent ESL students from forming the wrong hypotheses about language. While
Fitch believes teaching grammar in context is a viable method, it is not the only
method. Adding formal grammar instruction to other types of language instruction
can be especially beneficial to adult and ESL learners.
Nassaji and Fotos (2004) note that grammar instruction is making a
resurgence in second language acquisition (SLA) studies in Current Developments in
Research on the Teaching of Grammar. Although Krashen (1981) used research to
argue that people acquire language through natural exposure rather than formal
teaching, and other researchers claimed the same about Universal Grammar research,
new studies call for a reexamination of those theories. Schmidt (1990, 1993, 2001)
states that people must be aware of form, a noticing of structure, in order to learn
language. Other researchers, Skehan (1998) and Tomasello (1998) have shown that
learners process input for meaning and form separately, and so both must be
addressed (128). Evidence from Pienemann (1984, 1988, 1999) suggests that L2
learners go through sequences of learning, and grammar instruction can help
influence those sequences in a beneficial way. Many studies point out the deficiencies
in teaching language without addressing grammar; communicative teaching alone did
not help learners master certain grammatical forms. Finally, researchers, such as R.
Ellis (1985, 1990, 1994, 2001, 2002) have shown proof that grammar teaching for
specific target forms for L2 learners has a significant effect on the attainment of
accuracy (129). The authors then offer a review of research into various types of
grammar instruction found in the L2 classrooms, from explicit to implicit. The great
grammar debate continues on, but in a new realm. It will be interesting to see if the
final outcome of this debate will re-open the door to research on types of grammar
instruction in the native language English classroom.
At some point, the teaching of writing morphed into the teaching of social
conscience, a focus that is not seen in many other disciplines, except philosophy and
the social sciences that deal specifically with social injustice and cultural issues. I
dont recall questioning the efficacies of globalization while solving algebra problems
or having discussions in my zoology class on whether or not using classical Greek to
differentiate phyla was demeaning to other dialects. Even the undergraduate
psychology class I took dealt more with describing, naming and classifying different
social groups than with elements of social change, other than in a historical context.
As a teacher of Developmental Writing, I stand confused at the crossroads: the
intersection of teaching writing as a tool for critical thinking and response,
perpendicular to teaching writing as a language, the dialect of academia. While Im
not convinced the two are mutually exclusive, there is a sense that teaching writing as
a language is devalued. There is a sense, even, that as a teacher, as a class, as a
discipline, I, we, it are devalued.
We are not encouraged to teach the English language as a subject worthy of
study in itself teaching grammar to improve writing is one step away from using
leeches to cure ills, as far as some would have us believe. As one colleague laments,
Other disciplines expect their students to learn the language of their field, why cant
we? And one main reason, of course, is that the research does not show that teaching
the language of language helps students become better writers. Which could beg the
question: Does learning the language of math make better mathematicians? It
makes sense that mathematicians must have a common language so they can
communicate their findings with each other. Is the same true for students of writing?
If, as Pinker and Chomsky suggest, our students are already grammatical experts by
the time they hit our classes, do we need a common language about the language?
And, if we look closely, it is truly usage that riles up the masses, from Pinkers
disdain of the Language Mavens to scores of composition researchers who write
eloquently about how teaching Standard American English promotes the language of
power, and as such, by teaching it we become agents of the oppressors.
The most striking feature for me is that all these writers who eschew the rules
seem most steadfast about following them. Ive read Pinkers book and his
sentences, punctuation, subject/verb agreement, all seem to follow prescriptive
rules of grammar. Schusters breaking the rules seems not to break many, except to
show examples of how other authors have broken them. I have yet to see a journal
article written in African American English Vernacular and taken at face value.
It seems odd as well to me that the people who are most adamant about not
teaching grammar usage are those who already have a good command of it. The
students who come into the writing center asking for help with grammar are hungry
for this knowledge. They come to the writing center because their composition
teachers refuse to teach it.
I agree that students can improve their grammar by reading and writing more.
But practice alone does not always make perfect. If I throw paint on a canvas every
day, there is no reason to think I will be a better artist in a year; I will simply be more
adept at throwing paint on a canvas. To think our students will simply divine a
competency in writing for academic purposes because they wrote some essays in our
class is misguided and unproven.
One of the definitions of composition in the Oxford Companion to the
English Language (McArthur, 1992) describes it as the process of putting words and
sentences together according to the traditional rules of grammar, style, and rhetoric
(243). As long as we are teaching composition, we must either change its definition,
or learn productive ways to give our students some applicable knowledge of the
traditional rules of grammar, so they can be taken seriously in a world that, as
Elbow says, cant help but think theyre stupid if they break those rules.
There is still an expectation that students in college composition classes must
learn to write for an academic forum that continues to value the rules and usage
conventions that many in our field decry. Many teachers heard teaching formal
grammar does not improve students writing, but what they understood is that
teaching grammar in all forms is a waste of time and effort. This is simply not true,
and is not what the research says. Yes, there are studies that show that teaching
grammar out of context and formal drills do not improve students writing. But
sentence combining, which has slipped through the cracks these past few decades, has
shown positive results, yet is hardly ever discussed.
And grammar has become passe in the minds of many, especially researchers.
When I couldnt find much recent research about grammar, I thought I was missing
something, so I emailed Candace Weaver, author of Teaching Grammar in Context
(1996), who was gracious enough to reply. Rather than point me to research already
conducted, she asked if I could set up an experiment using a constructivist approach
to teaching grammar compared with another control group in which another teacher
used a traditional method. We desperately need such research, she wrote. Like
you, I have not been able to find any new studies using the research tools now
available to us (Weaver, C., personal email, October 8, 2007).
Until there are more current empirically-based studies conducted on teaching
grammar in context, through reading, through mini-lessons, or any of the other
innovative ways still to come down the pike, we have no proof whether these types of
grammar instruction help or hinder writing. We are still teaching in the dark,
throwing pedagogical darts that we hope will at least hit some area of the target.
When I first began this thesis, my original idea was to do a meta-analysis of
empirical grammar research in the last 10 to 15 years. What I finally came to realize
was there wasnt enough research out there to warrant such an analysis. Apparently,
with the strong declaration against the efficacy of teaching grammar in both the 1963
Braddock, Lloyd-Jones and Schoer report and in Hillocks 1986 meta-analysis,
grammar research closed its doors and went home.
Many in the field considered grammar a dead subject. The old ways of
teaching grammar through drill and testing may be dead, but the use of grammar is
still very much alive. Academia and the U.S. workplace value the adherence to
certain grammatical mores and usage. Even though we may have much evidence of
what types of grammar instruction do not translate into better writing, we have yet to
find which types do. If Edison had stopped somewhere in his testing of the light bulb
because he found so many ways it didnt work, wed still be in the dark. It is time to
shine a light onto which practices and pedagogies help students achieve a mastery
over grammatical expectations in both school and society so they can claim equal
access to the written dialogue.
Andrews, R., Torgerson, C., Beverton, S., Freeman, A., Locke T., Low G., et al.
(2006). The effect of grammar teaching on writing development. British
Educational Research Journal, 32 (1), 39-55.
Applebee, Arthur N. (1992). The background for reform. In Langer, J., Literature
instruction: A focus on student response (pp. 1-18). Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Beaufort, Anne. (2008). Writing in the professions. In C. Bazerman (Ed.), Handbook
of research on writing: History, society, school, individual, text, (pp. 221-
235), New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Boyd, F.B., Ariail, M., Williams, R., Jocson, K., Tinker Sachs, G. & McNeal, K., et
al. (2006). Real teaching for real diversity: Preparing English language arts
teachers for 21st-century classrooms. English Education, 38 (4), 329-350.
Chomsky, Noam. (1966). Cartesian linguistics: A chapter in the history of rationalist
thought. New York: Harper & Row.
Chomsky, Noam. (1968). Language and mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Connors, R. and Lunsford, A. (1988). Frequency of formal errors in current college
writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle do research. College Composition and
Communication, 39, 395-409.
Connors, Robert J. (2000). The erasure of the sentence. College Composition and
Communication, 52 (1), 96-128.
Daiker, D.A., Kerek, A., & Morenberg, M. (1982). The writers options: Combining
to composing. New York: Harper & Row.
Edlund, John R. (1995). The rainbow and the stream: Grammar as system versus
language in use. In S. Hunter & R. Wallace (Eds.), The place of grammar in
writing instruction: Past, present, future, (pp. 89-102), Portsmouth, NH:
Elbow, Peter (1973). Writing without teachers. London: Oxford University Press.
Elbow, Peter (1981). Writing with power. New York: Oxford University Press.
Elbow, Peter (1981). Everyone can write: Essays toward a hopeful theory of writing
and teaching writing. New York: Oxford University Press.
Elley, W. B., Barham, I. H., Lamb, H., & Wyllie, M. (1976). The role of grammar in
a secondary school English curriculum. Research in the Teaching of English,
Emig, Janet (1963). The relation of thought and language implicit in some early
American rhetoric and composition texts. In J. Emig (1983), The web of
meaning: Essays on writing, teaching, learning and thinking. Upper
Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.
Emig, Janet (1971). The Composing Processess of Twelfth Graders. In J. Emig
(1983), The web of meaning: Essays on writing, teaching, learning and
thinking. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.
Englert, C.S., Mariage, T.V. & Dunsmore, K. (2006). Tenets of sociocultural theory
in writing instruction research. In C.A. MacArthur, S. Graham & J. Fitzgerald
(Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 208-221). New York: Guilford
Faigley, Lester. (1986). Competing theories of process: A critique and a proposal.
College English, 48, (6), 527-541.
Fitch, Deborah. (1995). Teaching grammar to adults and second language learning
research. Education, 116 (1), 32-34.
Flower, L. & Hayes, J.R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College
Composition and Communication, 32 (4), pp. 365-387.
Gardner, Howard (1983). Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligence. New
York: Basic Books.
Good, C. Edward. (2002). Whos (...oops!) Whose Grammar Book Is This Anyway?
New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
Hairston, Maxine (1981). Not all errors are created equal: Nonacademic readers in the
professions respond to lapses in usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
Hairston, Maxine (1982). The winds of change: Thomas Kuhn and the revolution in
the teaching of writing. In R. Graves (1984), Rhetoric and composition: A
sourcebook for teachers and writers, (pp. 14-26). Upper Montclair, NJ:
Hansman, C. A. and Wilson, A. L. (1998) Teaching Writing in Community Colleges:
A Situated View of How Adults Learn to Write in Computer-based Writing
Classrooms. Community College Review, 26 (1), 21-42
Hardy, Donald E. (2001). Traditional grammar: How research summaries ruined a
pretty good thing. Journal of Teaching Writing, 19 (1&2), 30-51.
Harris, Muriel (1986). Teaching one-to-one: The writing conference. Urbana, IL:
Hartwell, Patrick. (1985). Grammar, grammars and the teaching of grammar. College
English, 47 (2), 105-127.
Hillocks, George, Jr. (1986). Research on written composition: New directions for
teaching. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Hillocks, G. and Smith, M. (2003). Grammars and literacy learning. In J. Flood, D.
Lapp, J. Squire, & J.M. Jensen (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the
English language arts, 2nd Edition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Hillocks, George, Jr. (2005). The focus on form vs. content in teaching writing.
Research in the teaching of English, 40 (2), 238-248.
Hudson, R., and Walmsley, J. (2005). The English patient: English grammar and
teaching in the twentieth century, Journal of Linguistics, 41 (3), 593-622.
Hunt, Kellogg W. (1965). Grammatical structures written at three grade levels.
Urbana, IL: NCTE.