Envision contextualized, meaningful grammar instruction that links to authentic reading and writing.
When I began my first year of teaching English Language Arts, I was expected to teach my students skills that fell under three large umbrellas: reading, writing, and language. I quickly learned that “language” encompassed the teaching of vocabulary, punctuation & capitalization rules, and, you guessed it, the “teaching of grammar.”
In my teacher education program, I took no classes on the teaching of grammar. I felt somewhat confident about teaching reading and writing, but completely lost when it came to the teaching of grammar. I didn’t even have my own experiences of learning grammar as a student to fall back on; my only formal grammar instruction was a series of SchoolHouse Rock videos and long-gone worksheets from elementary school.
In an effort to increase my confidence and improve my own practice, I began to read about the history of grammar instruction. I discovered that I was not the only one who felt an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about the teaching of grammar. The question of grammar’s importance has vexed people for centuries and continues to vex people today: what to teach, how to teach it, why to teach it. So, where did the practice of teaching grammar come from? And what could grammar instruction look like in the 21st century classroom?
A very brief history of teaching grammar
In the eighteenth century, the study of grammar was perceived as an exercise in mental discipline, intended to train the mental faculties of memory and reason (Applebee, 1974; Scholes, 1998). Grammar study focused on the learning of rules and their application.
By the early nineteenth century, studies in specifically English grammar became a prerequisite for higher studies, not to be continued in college. Lindley Murray, often referred to as the father of English grammar, published Murray’s Grammar in 1795 and established many rules of “proper” use of the English language. Grammarians like Adam Smith, David Hume, Lord Kames, and Hugh Blair advocated for grammar instruction connected with the expressions of rhetoric: diction, style, figurative language, and so on. By the end of the nineteenth century, grammar continued to have a place alongside rhetoric, literary history, oratory, and spelling in schools and in colleges.
In the early twentieth century, many scholars at colleges and universities abandoned grammar instruction because they did not believe in its “scientific value.” Simultaneously, grammar underwent a revival in school classrooms because teachers thought it would be a useful technique for studying literature and for acquiring foreign languages.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, grammar instruction transformed. Rather than teach grammar skills in isolation from grammar books, scholars argued that the teaching of grammar does not serve any practical purpose for most students, and that it does not improve reading, speaking, writing, or even editing for the majority of students (Applebee).
The research: spotlight on a grammar case study
In “Examining A Grammar Course: The Rationale and the Result” (1980), Finlay McQuade conducted a qualitative research study of his own course entitled “Editorial Skills.” McQuade humbly admitted that he had read research papers that argued against the discrete instruction of grammar skills, but that he continued to teach an elective course for high school juniors wholly devoted to the practice. In the study, McQuade discovered that his students' scores on a grammar post-test were actually lower than their scores on a grammar pre-test for the course. He concluded, after this first-hand experience, that formal, discrete grammar instruction is ineffective and should be abandoned as a classroom practice.
Citing McQuade, Constance Weaver, the author of Teaching Grammar in Context (1996), argued that we should teach aspects of grammar that are most relevant to writing, such as subject-verb agreement, sentence combining, and punctuation. Significantly, Weaver asserted that the most effective grammar instruction must arise organically from students' own writing: “teaching grammar in the context of writing works far better than teaching grammar as a formal system.”
The main takeaway from McQuade and Weaver’s research is that grammar instruction must be contextualized and meaningful within students’ reading and writing. Grammar instruction should not be the discrete learning of grammatical “rules” because these rules do not translate into a superior command of language or communication.
Recommendations for 21st century learning
These recommendations derive originally from Constance Weaver’s writings (1996) that were then expanded upon recently by Jeff Anderson, a disciple of Weaver’s work (2017; 2021). They strive to make grammar instruction both contextualized and meaningful.
In the early 21st century, the question of how best to teach a standard English grammar shifted away from methods. Instead, scholars began to question whether a notion of “proper grammar” should exist at all. In “Why Revitalize Grammar?” (2003), Patricia Dunn and Kenneth Lindbloom argued that the teaching of a standardized grammar reflects a discriminatory power system that excludes other dialects and cultures. They believe our classrooms should be spaces of multiple literacies, celebrating a diversity of dialects.
With that said, the reality is that many teachers are expected to teach — or want to teach — their students “grammar.” Perhaps their rationale for doing so is similar to reasons from the past: it builds “mental discipline” because students have to learn and apply linguistic rules; it shows that one comes from a certain educational background, one that encompassed the learning of Standard English Grammar; it helps students to acquire new languages and to closely study literature.
I think it’s important to note this tension between research and practice when it comes to the teaching of grammar. Since the 20th century, scholars like McQuade and Weaver have argued against the discrete teaching of grammar rules in the classroom, arguing that they are entirely ineffective and possibly detrimental to students’ learning. Yet, in practice, many teachers, including myself, are expected to teach grammatical skills.
Without dismissing or diminishing this tension, I hope that these recommendations will aid in-service teachers as they continue to envision what grammar instruction can look like in the 21st century classroom.
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