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It happens at the start of every school year: Teachers decide that once and for all, they are going to fix the problem of student grammar errors. These kids can’t write, they say. They don’t know their parts of speech. They can’t spell. They write in “text language.” Their writing is full of run-on sentences. They don’t even put capital letters at the beginning of sentences anymore!
I mean, what did they teach them last year, anyway?
And so it is decided. Before getting into any curriculum this year, before having students write a single thing, they are going to get back to basics: One, two, three full weeks of nothing but parts of speech lessons, grammar drills, punctuation exercises. Surely if they teach it hard enough, that ought to take care of it.
Except it doesn’t.
As the school year wears on, despite all those drills, students continue to make the same mistakes. And all across the land, their teachers’ voices rise in chorus: “I taught you this! We went over this! Don’t you remember?”
Teaching Grammar Out of Context Doesn’t Work
First of all, let me quickly mention that when I say “grammar,” I am broadly referring to all the conventions that make writing correct: spelling, punctuation, usage, capitalization, and so on. Rather than list all of those every time, I’ll use the term “grammar” to save time.
Okay, with that out of the way, here’s the most important thing any teacher of English language arts should take away from this post: Grammar taught in isolation, outside the context of meaningful writing, has been found to have no significant impact on the quality of student writing; in fact, excessive drills can have a detrimental impact on it.
These findings have been supported by decades of research.
In his exhaustive 1984 meta-analysis of over 500 published studies on composition, Hillocks found grammar instruction to be so ineffective that his summary sounded more like an admonition: “School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems.”
These findings were corroborated three decades later. In a 2012 meta-analysis of 115 studies or other publications, researchers looked at the impact of six different writing interventions that involved “explicitly teaching writing processes, skills, or knowledge.” The only one of the six that had no statistically significant effect was grammar instruction, and half of those studied actually produced negative results (Graham, McKeown, Kiuhara, & Harris, 2012).
In fact, the evidence is so strong against this kind of teaching that the National Council of Teachers of English put forth a resolution affirming that “the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises…is a deterrent to the improvements of students’ speaking and writing.”
Even without academic research to back it up, the ineffectiveness of piling on grammar drills is evident every time a teacher implements the practice, only to discover that it hasn’t had any significant impact on the quality of student writing.
In her 2014 piece for The Atlantic, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” Michelle Navarre Cleary describes her own experiences teaching in an urban community college, where most students failed to complete a two-year degree in three years. “These students are victims of the mistaken belief that grammar lessons must come before writing, rather than grammar being something that is best learned through writing. A primary culprit: the required developmental writing classes that focused on traditional grammar instruction. Again and again, I witnessed aspiration gave way to discouragement. In this seven-college system, some 80 percent of the students test into such classes where they can spend up to a year before being asked to write more than a paragraph. Nationally, over half of university and college students in developmental classes drop out before going any further. Essentially, they leave before having begun college.”
A More Effective Way to Teach Grammar
So what should teachers do instead?
1. Give Students LOTS of time to read and write.
There is no better way to improve students’ writing than to have them read and write as much as possible. Building your daily classes around some form of Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop is a good place to start.
By the way, “reading” means real books, articles, and other texts that will turn students into people who love to read and read frequently. Regular exposure to lots and lots of good writing will naturally improve the correctness of students’ writing. This is much less likely to happen with scripted reading programs or day after day of reading passages that have no meaningful context. Read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer for inspiration on how to make this happen.
“Writing” means both formal pieces that are taken all the way through the writing process and informal writing, like journal entries and free-writes. If you choose to abandon most or all of your formal grammar instruction, you’ll free up lots of class time for students to do this.
2. Curate a database of quick grammar lessons.
All the reading and writing in the world won’t magically turn students into perfect writers. Because they will continue to make mechanical errors, and because these conventions are best taught within the context of the writing they’ll be doing in your class, set up a system that allows individual students to quickly learn the conventions they need: This could take the form of a file cabinet or even a shared drive with folders that contain one high-quality lesson for each error: a folder for your-you’re errors, a file for then-than errors, and so on.
These lessons can come from almost anywhere—an old textbook, YouTube videos, worksheets you’ve collected over time, or a combination of these. What’s important is that they are (a) effective: Rather than dumping everything you can find into this folder—which will only frustrate and confuse students—curate only the most effective materials, and (b) self-running: Set these up so that students can access and learn from them independently, without requiring your help.
3. Have individual students do individual lessons as needed.
Now, as students do the daily work of writing in a range of genres, for a variety of purposes—which you have just made lots of extra time for by cutting whole-class grammar instruction out of your plans—send individual students to these lessons as needed. Students can go to the lesson they need, refresh themselves on the rule, and then get back to their writing, where they can correct the error and keep an eye out for future uses of that same convention.
Occasionally, you might find that many students are making the same error, in which case it may be appropriate to spend five minutes reviewing a concept as a whole class. At other times, you might want to push students to try more advanced types of sentence structures; so doing craft lessons like a study of mentor sentences could be an effective way to accomplish that.
Eventually, once students become familiar with your database of lessons, they should start to seek them out on their own as they write. This is the ideal: Students who are aware of when they need help, and who can find the resources they need to help themselves.
4. Understand that this is a process.
You will never, ever be able to teach in such a way that all students are error-free, and even students who understand the rules will occasionally mess up. Spend 10 minutes on social media and you’ll see that most adults are still constantly making grammar errors. So rather than try to fix it once and for all, get your students reading and writing as much as possible and help them develop a personalized, proactive approach to producing correct writing.
Want a Fantastic Collection of Short Grammar Lessons Ready to Use?
Grammar Gap Fillers are designed to fit perfectly into a writing workshop environment, where students access only the lessons they need, when they need them. Each Gap Filler contains a short video, a Self-Check quiz the student takes on their own, and a handy Cheat Sheet they can keep in their notebook to remind them of the rule.
Cleary, M.N. (2014, February 25). The wrong way to teach grammar. The Atlantic. Retrieved from theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/the-wrong-way-to-teach-grammar/284014/
Graham, S., McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K. R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879-896.
Hillocks Jr, G. (1984). What works in teaching composition: A meta-analysis of experimental treatment studies. American Journal of Education, 93(1), 133-170.
National Council of Teachers of English. (1985). Resolution on grammar exercises to teach speaking and writing. Retrieved from ncte.org/positions/statements/grammarexercises