Letter: Does teaching grammar help students write better?


Dear Editor,

I, Dr Kumar Mahabir, teach Academic Reading and Writing as well as Anthropology to freshmen at a university in the Caribbean. At one of our departmental meetings, I was astonished to hear one of my colleagues say that research has shown that teaching grammar does NOT help students write better.

Finding her claim hard to believe, I and my research assistant Judith Raghunanan decided to explore the veracity of her statement. Here are our findings:

Grammar is important for good writing. According to Misty Adoniou (2014), it isn’t about “linguistic straightjackets and rules”; it is “how creativity manifests itself in language…. How we organise our words and sentences to communicate with others and to express ourselves”. Both children and adults “deserve to be able to use language with intention and effect, for any purpose and in all circumstances.”

Many students – even at university level – have a poor grasp of grammar. This hampers their ability to communicate effectively through their writing. Hence, these statements raise obvious questions: How can we help them to improve? Should we provide remedial classes to take them to a higher standard? And which pedagogy (teaching method) will have the most positive impact?

The teaching of formal grammar became largely unpopular in the 1970s, after a number of studies had demonstrated its ineffectiveness (Adoniou, 2014). For example, the British Educational Research Journal (Andrews et al., 2006) reported on a respected study conducted over three years in Auckland, New Zealand, in the 1970s. The controlled trial-study of 13-16-year-olds demonstrated no appreciable difference between three groups of children who had been taught either a transformational or traditional grammar course or a reading-writing course (Elley et al, 1975, P 29).

Elley et al concluded that “English grammar…has virtually no influence on the language growth of typical secondary school students” (1975, P. 38). “Virtually no influence” could perhaps better be described as a negative influence, as children in the transformational grammar group, in particular, described the teaching of grammar they had experienced as “repetitive” and “useless”. Is there no hope, then?

Earlier in their article, Andrews et al. had cited a study conducted by Perera (1984), who “noted that decontextualized grammar teaching that was unrelated to pupils’ other language work was likely to do more harm than good” (2006, P. 41). The key phrase here is “decontextualized grammar”.

It is HOW grammar is taught that is the problem.

In another study, Fogel and Ehri (2000) focused on examining “how to structure dialect instruction so that it is effective in teaching Standard English (SE) forms to students who use Black English Vernacular (BEV) in their writing” (P. 215). This is especially relevant to us here in the Caribbean, where our students have a distinct vernacular that can impact their written work. The study showed that of three groups of children exposed to specific syntactic forms, the group that practised these forms by translating BEV to SE while receiving feedback from their teachers had better outcomes than those who had less hands-on engagement with those syntactic forms.

This finding suggests that it is not the teaching of grammar that is the problem, but how it is taught.

The same British Educational Research Journal article also looks at the effectiveness of sentence-combining – a range of practical techniques for moving from existing sentences and elements of sentences to compound and complex sentences, and it analyses several studies that showed positive results from using these techniques.

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” (Cleary, 2014) is an approach to grammar instruction that has met with success.

“At the Community College of Baltimore, a program in which developmental writing students get additional support while taking college-level writing classes has reduced the time these students spend in developmental courses, while more than doubling the number who pass freshman composition. More than 60 colleges and universities are now experimenting with programs modelled on this approach” (Cleary, 2014).

We do not have to throw up our hands in despair at our students’ – or even our own – grammatical shortcomings, for there are effective strategies that can be put in place to improve them. We should follow the pedagogy that has been practised in places such as the Community College of Baltimore or Arizona State University, whose methods help students who tested below college-level in their writing ability to begin writing college essays, with the result that 88 percent of students passed freshman English. Surely it would be better to devise a way to help our students than to do nothing at all.

Dr Kumar Mahabir