The best way to teach grammar is to teach writing, argues Michelle Navarre Cleary in The Atlantic. Teaching the rules of grammar, parts of speech and diagramming sentences alienates students from elementary school through college, she writes.
For example, one well-regarded study followed three groups of students from 9th to 11th grade where one group had traditional rule-bound lessons, a second received an alternative approach to grammar instruction, and a third received no grammar lessons at all, just more literature and creative writing. The result: No significant differences among the three groups—except that both grammar groups emerged with a strong antipathy to English.
Cleary taught writing for eight years at an urban community college where 80 percent of students tested into remedial writing classes. Grammar came first. Students could spend a year in developmental writing “before being asked to write more than a paragraph.”
Just as we teach children how to ride bikes by putting them on a bicycle, we need to teach students how to write grammatically by letting them write. Once students get ideas they care about onto the page, they are ready for instruction—including grammar instruction—that will help communicate those ideas. We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones. Often, surprisingly little formal grammar instruction is needed. Researcher Marcia Hurlow has shown that many errors “disappear” from student writing when students focus on their ideas and stop “trying to ‘sound correct.’”
Colleges such as Arizona State and Community College of Baltimore are raising pass rates in freshman composition by having remedial students tackle writing college essays immediately, Cleary writes.
English teachers, does just-in-time grammar instruction work?
Robert Pondiscio isn’t impressed, pointing out that “kids haven’t diagrammed sentences since the Johnson Administration.” I diagrammed sentences in seventh grade! Which was . . . the Johnson administration.
Here are the opening sentence of classic novels diagrammed.
“Traditional grammar” is superficial, writes linguist Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. What works are “exercises in sentence construction” requiring “a much deeper and more interactive engagement with grammar and syntax.”