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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 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.

 


References

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 Education93(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


 

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9 Comments

  1. Kate says:

    Good information. Seems like basic math facts should be approached the same way. I’ve seen teachers spend weeks reviewing basic skills, but by the time the student needs to apply the skill, they have already forgotten their basic facts again.

  2. Tracy Enos says:

    I love this post and these resources! Perfect for individualized lessons and for giving students control over their learning! Thank you!!!

  3. Doreen Tyler says:

    I am in the process of revamping a Comm Arts class into a Grammar/Writing class. Just teaching grammar itself during the past two years has been a little piece of hell on earth! I knew I needed to teach grammar in the context of writing, and that is what my goal is for this year. Jennifer, what is your opinion of such grammar-type programs as IXL for Language Arts? I have used it to a great extent for grammar practice. Is something like IXL as effective a tool as we are told it has potential to be? I’m not so sure anymore after doing my own research on teaching grammar and in reading your blog post. What do you think? Thanks for this post and for the resources that will assist with my planning and, with great hope, teach my students to be better writers. Now, I need to get to work on this…

    • Hey Doreen!

      At first glance, it seemed as if IXL only offered practice exercises, but no actual lessons on any of the concepts. After I deliberately got some questions wrong, I realized they do corrective re-teaching only after the student gets an answer wrong. I’m not crazy about this approach, because students have to sort of fall into the instruction, rather than being able to proactively access it.

      A program like No Red Ink has a similar objective–to teach these kind of targeted lessons and measure student understanding–but they at least offer the lesson up front. As a teacher and a student, I would prefer this. Of course, the lesson is simply delivered in written form, kind of like reading a PDF or a piece of paper that explains the rule, so some students may still not get it (which is why I created videos for mine), but I could definitely see a platform like this providing good on-demand lessons when students need them. What I wouldn’t do is force all of my students to go through all of the lessons one by one. Mind-numbing torture!

      I’m curious about the impetus for the revamping of your course. What was it originally (in other words, what was covered in the Comm Arts class?) and what are the goals for the new course? You’re calling it Grammar/Writing, but I’m wondering which of those two gets more emphasis. Is the revamping your idea or did it come from above you? Just wondering how these decisions are made.

      I would also look into the work of Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Everything I have heard from both of them tells me they are right in line with what works best in writing instruction.

      Stay in touch and let me know how it goes!

  4. Hetty G says:

    For a lot of years now, I have been using the Canadian Spelling Program textbook in my classroom. I have also given the Morrison McCall spelling test at the beginning of September and the end of June. When I use this program, my students consistently demonstrate growth in their spelling skills as a whole group (not every single student, but as a whole). Moreover, in years when I have not used this textbook, or used another program instead, growth in spelling skills is quite flat across the class from September to June. Perhaps a well rounded program (which I think this is) is what matters. In addition, the students learn other skills such as following written directions independently and organizing their work. This is not a large part of my language program, but I do think it fills a valuable gap.

    • Hetty, I’m glad you brought this up.

      My understanding is that the research strictly on spelling is a bit different from what I more broadly refer to here as “grammar.” I did a Periscope broadcast in 2016 about this in response to a reader question (fast forward to about 6:35…let’s just say I was new to live broadcasting). What I found is summarized in this document. To sum it up, the research suggests that direct instruction in spelling does have a positive impact on students’ spelling skills, especially if the program is well-designed, if students are given lists that match their readiness, and if students are taught self-correction strategies. The results you’ve seen sound consistent with this research.

      The authors of one study did make a point of noting that spelling instruction did NOT impact students’ overall writing skill, which makes sense. But it sounds like your point was specifically about spelling. Also, it sounds like you are employing a lot of other strategies in your class, so if the spelling portion is only part of that larger whole, and it’s working the way you described, I’d say keep doing what you’re doing!

  5. Thanks for writing this post. I agree the debate has been going on for 100’s of years. One other item I would like to add to your list is to respect the spaces that students write in on a daily basis. Trying to tell students that they shouldn’t write a certain way will only compound the problem. Today, I fee students need to learn how to code switch and learn when it is okay to write formally and informally. Please check out the book Troy Hicks and I wrote that was jus released in May, From Texting to Teaching. We cover the history of grammar there too. Again, thanks for the post.

  6. Steve Jennette says:

    Ms. Gonzalez,

    Great podcast, but I’m left with a question.

    It makes sense that general reading trumps rote exercises for improving grammar. Where does Quizlet, a site you recommend in your tech course (which is amazing), fit into this discussion?

    Are the Quizlet activities (flash cards, etc) susceptible to the same criticisms raised against stand-alone grammar drills?

    I teach in a Native Alaskan village, and my dual-language students struggle with English vocabulary. They enjoy Quizlet, which we used in most every class last year.

    Their MAP scores improved, and until I listened to this podcast I attributed some of that success to the regular use of Quizlet.

    Any thoughts on this issue?

    Thank you,

    Steve Jennette

  7. Alec Wyeth says:

    Jennifer, this is great information. I sincerely hope that only a few still approach teaching grammar in isolation from writing itself! I was hoping you might also say something about the use of Grammarly which is a fantastic free Chrome extension tool for correcting all types of grammar errors! Such technology is changing what we need to teach, not don’t. I imagine a day when we really do not need to spend much time teaching the “mechanics” of writing but focusing our valuable and limited time almost exclusively on developing the unique aspects of writing: voice, diction, sentence structure, point of view, content, etc.
    Also, you may want to try to keep your podcasts (of this sort) under 15 minutes.

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