Teach grammar through writing

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.”

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  1. GoogleMaster says:

    Ugh, that Atlantic piece was one of those correlation/causation-confused columns that make me want to throw my iPad out the window.

    I learned parts of speech in the Nixon administration, diagrammed sentences in the Carter administration, and took four years of Latin (two grammar and two literature) in the Carter and Reagan administrations. I love grammar but hate, hate, hate to write, for the reason that I know that I have nothing to say worth saying that hasn’t already been said many times over.

  2. I had almost no grammar instruction in high school (in the early ’90s), so following 9th graders seems kind of strange. It seems like it would be hard for students to learn to edit if they didn’t know grammar already. My 2nd grader has learned nouns, verbs, and adjectives. As he starts writing short stories or reports, we go back and see if the sentences have a subject and verb. Proper nouns need to be capitalized. Punctuation goes at the end. It makes sense that students could practice by working on or editing their own writing instead of correcting random sentences in a grammar book, though. We sometimes correct science, history, or book reports, for instance, as grammar practice. If there aren’t a lot of mistakes, we talk about how we could add adjectives to make it more descriptive or use pronouns to vary the text. I do remember all of the foreign language teachers saying that the biggest barrier to learning a new language was that none of us knew grammar very well. It’s hard to learn the rules about which adjectives go before the noun if you can’t identify a noun or an adjective.

  3. Out in Left Field has an interesting response to the article here:


  4. I would suggest that people who feel that much anxiety about getting their English right have not actually been taught too much grammar. I myself am the poster child for the philosophy of “have them read and write a lot to learn grammar.” I wasn’t taught any grammar beyond nouns and adjectives (I didn’t know what an adverb was until well into adulthood), but I read a lot, and I can produce coherent writing. I also learned two foreign languages (but relating the dative case to anything in English would have been impossible for me). Researchers would see me as a success. But if you had asked me how I felt about my writing skill, I would have said that I didn’t feel confident at all. I made mistakes that I didn’t know existed, and in my mind ‘writing’ was like a big swamp full of pitfalls, but no map.

    Now I put my two children through the best grammar program I can find–about 6 years of it. Both of them are very comfortable in their writing and don’t worry about making grammatical mistakes–they worry about what they’re going to say. My daughter in 8th grade is in her last year of grammar study and will never have to take it again unless she wants a quick refresher. High school is too late–they are older, want meaty material, and are set in their verbal habits. Students should be able to get grammar over with as kids so they can get on to more advanced topics.

    • I forgot to say–it’s all very well to say that kids will learn grammar (and spelling) through osmosis if they read a lot. Well, not that many students read *that* much, though we wish they would. I also think that only some students learn in that osmosis fashion. I know people who read all the time but still can’t spell.

      • I think the only kids who can learn enough grammar to write well, on their own, are very bright kids who are voracious readers of high-quality fiction and non-fiction – and I mean adult books, with a few exceptions in the line of old children’s classics, Rosemary Sutcliff etc. In other words, a vanishingly small number of kids.

        My first-grade teacher, a Normal School grad, taught us how to compose sentences; noun/pronoun, verb, adjectives, adverbs, capitalization and punctuation. Successive teachers continued the process and we diagrammed sentences in JHS. We also had grammar texts in HS and still did spelling words. Kids need explicit instruction, in grammar and everything else; it’s unfair to expect them to figure out things on their own because most don’t do it well Explicit instruction and plenty of practice – with errors corrected.

  5. Everhopeful says:

    No sentence diagramming since the Johnson administration?! I diagrammed sentences in high school and college (English major!) in the eighties. My son diagrammed them in the early 2000s.

    The best way to learn grammar is to learn a foreign language, actually.

  6. I would be happy if just the people who have to speak professionally would learn to use grammar. A few days ago, a local traffic reporter said “Yes, Dan, things are moving much better this morning, simply due to less cars on the road.” Shouldn’t a person paid only to look cute and speak for a living know that it’s “fewer” cars on the road?

    When I watch old movies, I’m always amazed at the fact that all of the characters either speak perfect english (“I wish I were she”) or they carefully speak imperfect english for a plot reason. Writers had some pride, back then.

  7. The excerpts are about high school and above. Grammar education is supposed to begin in elementary school. This sets up a false dichotomy and is based on a silly idea that grammar education should begin with teenagers.

  8. They apparently compared two ineffective teaching approaches with no teaching at all and found–nothing, really. Or, perhaps, with unmotivated and lackadaisical students, there is no discernible difference between one instructional strategy and another.

    I suppose that they could identify students who handle the conventions of language very well, and then find out how they were taught. I suspect they would find, in that case, that both separate grammar lessons and just-in-time grammar instruction both work.

    I don’t think the big issues in American ed today have to do with instructional strategies so much as with the culture of schools and communities.

    I’ve used both methods and find both work fairly well–with some students. Both are somewhat ineffective with students who habitually “zone out.”