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Was NCTE Biased against the Teaching of Grammar?

     This document was originally written in 1985-86, in response to a letter I had received from John Maxwell, who was, if I remember correctly, the Executive Director of NCTE. I had written to several people, stating that NCTE was biased against the teaching of grammar, and Mr. Maxwell objected to my characterization. What follows was my attempt to show that the National Council of Teachers of English was closed to any serious discussion of the teaching of grammar. In the last few years, that situation has changed significantly. NCTE has accepted a new Assembly, the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, and the editors of many NCTE publications are actively seeking articles on what, why, and how to teach grammar. I am posting this document here because many English teachers, including those on the NCTE-Talk listserver, continue to refer to "research" which supposedly shows that the teaching of grammar in ineffective, or even harmful. Most of these teachers have not read the research. This post is thus for their information, and for anyone else who is interested.

--Ed Vavra, November 21, 1997

NCTE Journals and Books on the Question of Grammar [1982-85]
--Ed Vavra

     This survey, which begins with October, 1982, and thus covers a period of just over three years, was compiled to document a statement I made that "NCTE is biased against the teaching of grammar." Since some members of NCTE were upset by that statement, I would like to explain what I meant and why I made it.

     It did not require all the research studies for many teachers to realize that traditional grammar, traditionally taught, does not help students very much. But as Francis Christensen and others have said (See below) that does not mean that grammar instruction in any form can not help students. The research studies, moreover, did not put an end to the teaching of grammar: millions of traditional textbooks are still being used (and written) and educational objectives of most states' Departments of Education still include objectives for mastering grammatical constructions. Thus the beast still lives. It has been wounded by the research and by the generally negative attitude of NCTE periodicals, but there is no indication that it will die. Wounded, the beast probably does more harm to students than it did before. At least before the average teacher may have believed in the effectiveness of teaching grammar and therefore have taught it with some enthusiasm. (A teacher's enthusiasm may be the most important element in the classroom.) Now, however, many of the previously enthusiastic teachers are beginning to doubt, and much more teaching is probably becoming a matter of dull drill and senseless memorization.

     Many teachers do believe that the beast can not only be healed, but also tamed and put to work. To do this, we, as a community of English teachers, need to address a variety of questions:

    1.) Which grammatical constructions need to be taught, and why?

    2.) How should these constructions be defined?

    3.) How should these constructions be taught?

    4.) Should these constructions be taught in a specific order?

    5.) Most important, how does knowledge of these constructions help students improve their thinking, reading, and writing, and how do we show students the connections?

Since my survey indicates that during the last three years only two articles (one by Robert de Beaugrande, the other by Anne Herrington) relating to these questions has been published by NCTE, let me briefly suggest why each of the preceding questions is important. (You will have to forgive my references to my own work as examples: my argument is precisely that NCTE does not publish work in this area, and I therefore have difficulty knowing what others are doing.)

1.) I recently reviewed a potential ESL text for Macmillan. The authors want their students to learn about compound, compound/complex, etc. sentences. I agree with Francis Christensen: there is no reason for teaching these categories. (Notes toward a New Rhetoric. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. 18.) In subsequent correspondence, I learned that the writers had not heard of Christensen, and they don't trust him or me. They included these constructions, they said, because they are what teachers expect. It is possible to scrap numerous "categories" in traditional grammar (including, I would suggest, the distinctions among transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs), but this will not happen without a vehicle for dialogue about which constructions are needed. Without such a dialogue, the constructions will continue to be included in grammar textbooks in spite of all the research.

2.) Numerous traditional concepts are poorly defined. Most pedagogical texts still define "clause" as "a group of words with a subject and verb," and a "main clause" as "a clause that can stand alone." If, for example, a clause is defined as "a subject/verb pattern and all the words and constructions that modify it," then all subordinate clauses are part of a main clause. Since 99.99% of all subordinate clauses function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs, students who understand how nouns, adjectives, and adverbs function have no trouble identifying subordinate clauses. A main clause can then be defined as "a clause that is not subordinate." These definitions help students strengthen their concept of subordination, avoid problems with fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons, and also understand stylistic questions such as average length of main clauses (T-units).

3.) Grammar instruction that is not integrated with the students' own writing is supposed to be ineffective. (I have some evidence that it is not, but that is another question.) There are, however, numerous ways of integrating the two. Traditionally, constructions have been taught deductively: students are given a definition, and, if they are lucky, they are asked to find a few examples. Thus Ken Donaldson derides teaching that a noun is "the name of a person, place, or thing." He apparently would do away with teaching students to identify nouns. But the "noun" is a fundamental concept for English syntax: the student who understands simple nouns can then understand noun clauses, gerunds, infinitives functioning as nouns, nouns used as adverbs, and noun absolutes. The definition of a noun as a "person, place, or thing" is a good introduction for students, but instruction should begin, not end there. The definition, which for the student is deductive, should then be expanded by a process of induction.

     My students, after a very brief introduction to the eight parts of speech, begin with prepositional phrases. Whatever answers the question "what?" after a preposition is, or functions as, a noun. They do not, moreover, simply learn the concept deductively--they learn to place parentheses around all the prepositional phrases in a paragraph (preferably their own). Next they learn to identify all the subjects and verbs, again in a paragraph; then all the subordinate clauses. By dealing with paragraphs and finding all of each construction, students inductively expand their concepts while learning how the constructions interrelate within context. (For example, their concept of "prepositional phrase" expands to include phrases with infinitives, gerunds, and clauses as objects of the preposition.)

4.) In Syntactic Maturity in Schoolchildren and Adults (1970), Hunt writes that "it seems advisable that a sequential curriculum on syntactic maturity covering many grades, perhaps all, should be undertaken" (60). An exchange of ideas about such a curriculum is vitally needed since states and individual schools already have such curriculi, many of them poorly thought out. Thus the Standards of Learning Objectives for Virginia Public Schools:1 Language Arts (1981) states as a Fourth Grade Objective

    "The student will use coordinating conjunctions to connect equal elements. Descriptive Statement: Such words as and, but, or, and yet are used to form compound phrases and sentences. Punctuation and usage should be appropriate for sentence structure." (page 9).
The same document, however, proposes that subjects and verbs should be studied in seventh grade. I would suggest that students who do not have a history of reading cannot punctuate sentences correctly until they can distinguish subjects and verbs.

     Volume 2, No. 3 of "Syntax in the Schools" will include an article by a Virginia high school teacher that argues for a sequential curriculum for the study of English grammar. The article was rejected by EJ: there have been no articles on such a curriculum in any NCTE journal during the last three years. I am sure that I am not the only person working on such a curriculum.

5.) The articles by Charles Beck, Eric Hibbison, and Ed Heckler demonstrate that I am not the only person attempting to integrate the teaching of grammar and thinking, reading, and writing skills. Why have no similar articles appeared in any NCTE journals during the last three years?

     The following survey includes three kinds of things:

1.) position statements for or against the teaching of grammar,

2.) articles on students' use of grammar,

3.) articles about how grammar might be taught (the only items being DeBeaugrande's article, published twice, and Anne Herrington's, published in Writing Exercises from Exercise Exchange. Volume II.

Items (2) and (3) are clearly distinct -- a discussion of how students use conjunctions is in no way a suggestion of what they could/should be taught. RTE, for example, frequently publishes articles in the second category. My statement, however, is that NCTE is biased against the teaching of grammar, not against descriptions of how students use it.

Articles in Language Arts
[Language Arts is primarily for elementary school teachers]

     Twenty-five issues of this journal include only one article specifically about grammar. Since the majority of new teachers find the teaching of grammar their main problem and concern (See the discussion of English Education), this seems somewhat incredible, unless, that is, the editors and readers of LA systematically screen out submissions about grammar. (I might add that experienced teachers likewise inform me that they do not know what to do about grammar.)

Feb. 83:

     The single article specifically about grammar is Hilary Taylor Holbrook's "ERIC/RCS Report: Whither (Wither) Grammar?" (Feb. 83:259-263.) Since Mr. Maxwell complains about the implications of my stating that NCTE is "biased," consider the implications of "wither." Although this article may appear neutral, look at it more closely: Holbrook notes the "research that casts doubt on the notion that the study of grammar results in improved writing" (259), but does not list that research in the bibliography. It is true that the article is not totally negative on grammar, but neither is it about how to teach grammar--it is about other people's comments on grammar. The tone, moreover, is downbeat: the article "offer(s) alternatives for those teachers who choose or are compelled to include grammar activities in their language arts classes." In other words, "if you are forced to teach grammar, here are a few things you can do."

     The same issue of LA includes "Essentials of English," with John Maxwell's introductory statement. This position statement, approved by NCTE's Executive Committee, notes that students should "become aware how grammar represents the orderliness of language and makes meaningful communication possible" (245). Some people might claim this as an indication that NCTE not only gives grammar a fair shake, but actually endorses it. A little thought, however, should suggest that such is not the case. Since there are so many different definitions of grammar, the statement, without further development, is meaningless--and no further development appears in LA. The sentence is thus a token.

     Grammar is mentioned in another article in LA, Barbara von Bracht Donsky's "Trends in Elementary Writing Instruction, 1900-1959" (Dec. 84:795-803). She states: "those nineteenth-century die-hards, grammar and sentence construction, plodded unerringly along, oblivious to changing times and changing educational currents" (797). Clearly, the implication of this is that anyone who teaches grammar is a nineteenth-century die-hard." Grammar is not discussed in the rest of her article.

Jan 86:

     The following is given as one of nine resolutions passed at the Annual Business Meeting November 24, 1985 in Philadelphia:

    On Grammar Exercises to Teach Speaking and Writing
    RESOLVED, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and
         that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction. (103)
In his letter to me, Mr. Maxwell stated, "The National Council of Teachers of English as an organization has no official position for or against the teaching of grammar." His letter is dated November 1: either he did not know what the organization would be voting on later in the month, or he chose not to tell me about it. As the rest of this survey will indicate, NCTE does not believe that there is any "theory and research" that supports any exercises in grammar: this statement, therefore, is a statement against teaching grammar, period. For an indication of what NCTE considers valid theory and research, see the discussion of Frank O'Hare's book, below.

Articles in English Journal
[English Journal is primarily for high school teachers.]

     Although grammar instruction begins in grade two or three, most such instruction occurs in grades 8 - 10. One would, therefore, expect EJ to include frequent articles about grammar. Here is what I find:

Nov. 82:

     Adrian B. Sanford's "Four Basic Ways of Working with Sentences" (68-70). This is a neat little article, and I include it even though it is not directly about grammar. The writer simplifies four sentence-manipulation processes from transformational theory (addition, subtraction, substitution, and transposition) and suggests that teachers use them in teaching writing. Since Sanford objects to the "repetitive, grinding teaching of grammar," it would have been nice if she had explained how these manipulations could be combined with the study of grammar. Or is she implying that students should not understand what they are doing and why?

Feb. 83:

     "Essentials of English," (51-53). This is the same statement published in LA.

Mar. 83:

     "Editor's Page: A Sort of Dumb Thing Happened on My Way to San Francisco." Ken Donelson, editor of EJ, obviously derides the teaching of grammar as he relates a conversation on a plane:

        "(What do you wish you'd learned?)
         "Well, I couldn't tell you to this day what a noun was. Or a verb. Any of that."
         (He asked me so I told him -- a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. A verb shows action or a state of being. Then I asked him if that helped.)
         "Really?" (Then he repeated almost exactly what I'd just said, and he did know them, those stupid, pointless, valueless definitions, he really did.) "Yeah, maybe it does. I'll try to remember."
         (I remember saying to myself, don't give me that bullshit.)"
Isn't this just the kind of editorial statement to suggest that submissions favorable to teaching grammar will get a fair reading?

Feb. 84:

     Robert de Beaugrande's "Yes, Teaching Grammar Does Help" (66-69) is the only positive article about teaching grammar in any NCTE journal between 1982 and 85. By "positive" I mean that the article is not only "for" grammar, but actually makes some suggestions about how grammar should be taught. Technically, of course, it is not the only positive article, since an expanded version of this article appears as "Forward to the Basics" in CCC (Oct. 84). Thus, if we judge by what is published in NCTE journals, during the last three years there has been only one person with creative ideas about teaching grammar, and that person's ideas go no further than how to identify subordinate clauses so as to avoid fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons.

Sep. 84:

     Donald Murray, in "Facets," manages to get in the comment:

         The greatest disappointment of the last five years, however, has been the accelerating separation between the study of language -- both linguistics and traditional grammar -- from the study of reading and writing. Most of the specialists in language appear uninterested in research in reading and composition or in the challenge of teaching students to read and write. Their lack of interest is a loss for us, and I would hope for them, but perhaps the reintegration of reading and composition will provide a model for the future reintegration of language study with the study of reading and writing. (21)
Murray doesn't realize that it is almost impossible to get an article on pedagogical grammar published by NCTE.

     Carolyn Mamchur's "An Adjective Modifies a Noun" (24-26) reminds me of writing in the Soviet Union, where all texts must include a nod to Stalin, Lenin, or whoever is in power. Her get-the-students-to-do-first,-then-teach-them-the-construction approach to getting students to use modifiers is interesting, but an article on how to get students to use adjectives is hardly an article on grammar. Apparently, she couldn't get it into print without the following:

         It took me three years of university training and a couple years of teaching to discover the uselessness of grammar for its own sake, and the usefulness of reading, of being read to, of prose models, and of journal writing.
         My students no longer parse sentences or memorize definitions of grammatical terms. Their awareness of sentence structure grows out of their need as they use the language.
Trevor J. Gambell's "What High School Teachers Have to Say about Student Writing and Language across the Curriculum" indirectly concerns grammar, if one can consider the following as teaching grammar:
    Cause and effect relationships employ language that makes heavy use of subordinate clauses and conjunctions such as "if," "because," "whether," "although," "when," "whenever," "wherever," and so on. Discussion of these syntactic devices for expressing cause-effect relationships would assuage many students' fears and apprehensions. (43)
What he has in mind, however, is discussing the meanings of these words, i.e., vocabulary, not syntax, since he also states:
    Teachers also found problems with texts which employed multiple choice questions with subordinate clauses. Students had difficulty determining the main idea of the sentence and thus the question; the subordinate clause led to ambiguity and confusion. Obviously, if students have problems reading questions with subordinate clauses, they will be reluctant to use such constructions in their own writing. (43)
Does he suggest that we teach students about subordinate clauses? No: "This problem also warns us that multiple choice questions need to be worded as simple sentences so that content is being tested rather than language." We should not, in other words, teach students how to understand complex sentences; rather, we should go down to their level. It is no wonder that college Freshmen have trouble reading college-level texts.

Dec. 84:

     Russell Tabbert's "Parsing the Question 'Why Teach Grammar?'" (38-42) claims to be a survey and classificaiton of grammar. Near the end of his article, he states:

    I have tried to show through my close specification of answers to "Why teach grammar?" that the benefits which can possibly be claimed are few and modest, even when accepted collectively. But especially when we consider the benefit which overwhelmingly justifies grammar instruction -- error avoidance -- we see how narrow is the base on which such great expectations are founded.
         I am not saying that we shouldn't teach grammar. We should, both grammar-2 and grammar-3. And we should do it more interestingly and effectively so that in fact our students are more knowledgeable about the structure of English and are better editors. But we should not allow the current enthusiasm for grammar to distort the curriculum.
One has to wonder where all this "current enthusiasm for grammar" is being expressed. Certainly not in the pages of EJ. Note also that Tabbert offers no suggestions about how we should teach grammar "more interestingly and effectively" and that he sees the primary goal of such instruction to be nothing more than "error avoidance." The thrust of his article is thus that instruction in grammar should be deemphasized.

Dec 85:

     Ronald E. Smith, in "Literacy and the English Teacher: Observations and Suggestions" (22-27), fits NCTE's bias nicely. Having referred to the 1963 Braddock report, he states:

    It is clear that a return to the teaching of grammar will not provide a solution to the literacy crisis. Indeed, it could be argued that a number of teachers are still using formal grammar instruction as an ineffective pedagogical tool (Burhans; Stewart). (23)
Why Smith needs to cite Burhans and Stewart is anyone's guess. All one has to do is question the teachers in almost any school in the country and one will learn that teachers are teaching formal grammar and that they are frustrated with it. But that may mean that they are using it ineffectively, not that it is "an ineffective pedagogical tool."
     Smith's ability to handle research is suggested by his stating that 595 teachers responded to an EJ poll in favor of a certain point, but he does not tell us how many teachers responded altogether. Was it 595 out of 600, or 595 out of 6000? (24) In discussing whey teachers "fall back on" teaching grammar, he states, "They often fail to realize, however, that they learned to write despite spelling lists and sentence diagrams, not because of them." (25) Would he care to offer any proof of this?

Jan. 86:

     Perhaps it's ironic; more likely it's pathetic, but this issue of EJ includes the NCTE resolution against "the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research" (102) and also an article by Sharon J. Taylor, "Grammar Curriculum -- Back to Square One" (94-98).
     Ms. Taylor explains her work "with the language arts teachers of the junior and senior high schools . . . to develop a curriculum for teaching English grammar and usage." Having studied most of the research, the group

    came to several conclusions. The first was that although they seriously doubted the usefulness of continuing to teach grammar and usage in the traditional way, they would probably continue to do so because they did not possess the materials or the methodology for other approaches (95).
Having explained that the teachers were open to new approaches but did not feel competent to develop them themselves, she repeats herself:
    They continued to use techniques about which they had doubts because they did not have access to other strategies and the materials for employing them. . . . . At this point, it is likely that they would welcome educators who would address the needs teachers perceive themselves to have instead of the needs the educators perceive them to have. (96)
The repetition empahsizes the point that teachers want to teach grammar, that they want to find new approaches to doing so, but that such approaches and materials are not available.
     What I find ironic (pathetic) is that NCTE can pass a resolution against the teaching of "isolated" grammar, but has not once, during the last three years, offered a single article that proposes an alternative theory or approach toward teaching grammar. As I have already suggested, such approaches do exist.

Articles in Teaching English in the Two-Year College

     This new addition to the NCTE family may prove more open to articles on grammar, but that remains to be seen. Since TETYC joined NCTE, we have the following:

Oct. 84:

     Kent Forrester's "Why Nothing Works" (16-22) is not exclusively, or even primarily about the teaching of grammar, but grammar is one of the things that don't work. (See page 18.)

May 85:

     John A.R. Dick's "Basic Writing Workbooks, Sentence Style Books, and Copybooks: A Review" (140-153) is certainly a useful article. But it is not a discussion of grammar: it is a review of texts. Dick implies, however, that students shouldn't study grammar (e.g., "avoiding detailed reviews of traditional grammar"), that, if studied, grammar should be studied only to correct errors ("The better texts in this group offer benefits because of their size: coverage of nearly all common problems of basic writing students . . . . "), and that sentence-combining without instruction in grammar is a good idea ("Frank O'Hare reported in 1973 that students practicing sentence combining developed increased syntactic maturity in the absence of formal grammar instruction, and later research has supported his findings"). I doubt, therefore, that this counts as an article for the teaching of grammar. At best, it is neutral.

Articles in College Composition and Communication

     With the exception of LA, which has almost nothing about grammar, CCC is the most neutral of the NCTE journals. Unlike English Journal, College English, or English Education, it has not published statements or articles attacking the teaching of grammar, and it has published articles such as Kolln's and DeBeaugrande's defending grammar.

Feb 83:

     Marion Crowhurst's "Sentence Combining: Maintaining Realistic Expectations" (62-72) is not about grammar, but at least it is a warning about sentence combining, as is Michael Holzman's "Scientism and Sentence-Combining" (73-79).

     W. Ross Winterowd's "Prolegomenon to Pedagogical Stylistics" (80-90) is an excellent article that everyone interested in grammar should read, but it is primarily about sentence combining, not about grammar, and it is certainly not concerned with what grammar should be taught and how.

     Ian Pringle's "Why Teach Style? A Review-Essay" (91-98) touches on the grammar question only indirectly, but it should be read by anyone interested in grammar.

Dec 83:

     Gary Sloan's "Transitions: Relationships Among T-Units" (447-53) is not about grammar, but about Winterowd's classificatory system of coherence.

     Thomas Farrell's "IQ and Standard English" (470-484) is primarily about teaching black ghetto students. He concludes: "in a nutshell, I am suggesting that the development of abstract thinking depends on learning (1) the full standard deployment of the the verb "to be" and (2) embedded modification and (3) subordination." (481) If this article is about grammar, it is a defense of it, not an exploration of how or what grammar should be taught. It would, for example, be interesting to know if Farrell believes that students should be taught to recognize subordinate clauses and how he would pedagogically define "subordinate clause."

     Ronald Shook's "Response to Martha Kolln" and her reply to him and someone else (491-500) simply continue the debate about the research

Oct 84:

     Robert DeBeaugrande's "Forward to the Basics" is an expanded version of his "Yes, Teaching Grammar Does Help" (EJ. Feb. 84.) It is strange that only two (or is it one) article(s) on a method of teaching grammar have appeared in three years, and that article is by the same author.

Dec 84:

     The "Responses to Thomas J. Farrell" (455-477) are indirectly related to the teaching of grammar, but Farrell's "IQ and Standard English" does not propose a method of teaching grammar: it is primarily about differences in sentence structure between Black and standard English. Thus the discussion is primarily about language and intelligence tests, not about grammar.

Oct 85:

     Jaime Hylton's "Counterstatement" (340-343) to De Beaugrande's "Forward to the Basics" repeats NCTE's unofficial motto, "He accepts as a given the value of grammar instruction in improving students' writing, and in so doing, belies over fifty years of research to the contrary." (340). As De Beaugrande notes in his "Reply," there are numerous definitions of grammar, and the research studies, although they suggest that the traditional approach to grammar does not help, can not possibly predict the effect of other approaches to grammar. He states, "Thus, the respondent brings forward no evidence at all that we cannot teach or use 'grammar' in the broad sense for improving writing." (344) De Beaugrande's reply echoes Francis Christensen:

    What the early testers tested is the success of efforts, as James Sledd has put it, to purify the dialect of the tribe. One must grant that the study of grammar has been of no avail here. Our business, as Mr. Sledd has said, is not to purify the dialect of the tribe but to facilitate the students' use of it. What we must be concerned with is improving their control of the lexical and syntactic resources of the language, with expanding their range and enhancing their power. Whatever experiments may have tested this and found no correlation still have not disproved the utility of grammar but the futility of a particular application of it." (Notes toward a New Rhetoric. 2nd ed. New York:Harper & Row, 1978. 163.)
Numerous teachers agree that a grammar such as Warriner's is not very effective, but we have difficulty in developing alternatives when we lack a means of communicating.

Dec 85:

     In "Staffroom Interchange," Carroll Viera states:

    For more than two decades, authorities in composition have de-emphasized the study of traditional grammar as an appropriate pedagogy. My survey underscores a pragmatic reason for this de-emphasis: even employers and academicians outside of English departments who profess a stringent concern for correctness seem oblivious to some types of error within a writing sample. (483)
The logic here is impeccable--since some employers and some academicians are oblivious to some errors, we shouldn't teach grammar. Whether or not the grammar taught was intended to correct such errors is, apparently, beside the point. As usual, Ms. Viera sees instruction in grammar as having only one purpose--the correction of errors.

Articles in College English

Nov 82:

     James F. Stratman's "Teaching Written Argument: The Significance of Toulmin's Layout for Sentence-Combining" (718-733) is an exploration of a pedagogical use of sentence-combining, not of grammar.

Dec 82:

     Arn Tibbets' and Charlene Tibbets' "Can Composiiton Textbooks Use Composition Research?" (855-858) is an interesting article. Of teachers they state:

    for all most of them care about research in composition, it might just as well be written in Russian. What they want is grammar. Of course they want other things as well, but grammar is at or near the top of the list. Try taking the grammar sections out of your textbook in its second or third edition--and listen to the salespeople scream. (856)
They have tried, and the implication of their article is that they prefer grammar were out. They do not seem to realize that there might be different approaches to grammar. Nor does it cross their mind that the teachers might be better readers of the research than they are.

Apr 83:

     Elizabeth S. Sklar's "Sexist Grammar Revisited" (348-358) is about gender and sexism, not about pedagogical grammar.

     Thomas Friedmann's "Teaching Error, Nuturing Confusion: Grammar Texts, Tests, and Teachers in the Developmental English Class" (390-399) makes an excellent case for using context, primarily paragraphs, in teaching students to avoid errors. Friedmann does not address the question of whether or not students should be taught "grammar": rather, he is concerned only with their ability to avoid things such as spelling and subject/verb agreement errors. Although, in his final paragraph, he states, "The call here is for experimentation with new methods and for the testing of alternative exercises," Friedmann's article ends with: "And in the meantime, consign to a special pyre the 5th, 6th, or 19th edition of the grammar handbook of our ancestors."

Sep 83:

     Louis G. Ceci's "The Case for Syntactic Imagery" (431-449), an excellent article, argues for the study of syntactic imagery, but does not suggest either a complete theory of syntax or how/what students should be taught.

     Shirley K. Rose's "Down from the Haymow: One Hundred Years of Sentence-Combining" (483-491) reminds readers that combining can be done within a traditional framework, but does not pursue the idea.

Jan 84:

     Suzanne Jacobs, in "Composing the In-Class Essay: A Case Study of Rudy" (34-42), discusses, at the end of her article, students' problems with syntax. She does not, however, suggest that students can be taught syntax:

    And if the propositions need to be explicitly relational, then the writers will have to find syntax to accomodate the additional propositions. Since finding this syntax is a problem on which several minds can work simultaneously, the work can become a classroom exercise. (42)
Since Ms. Jacobs never suggests that students should be taught how to use such terms as "clause," or "prepositional phrase," the image she evokes is of a classroom in which a student reads a paper aloud. When he reads a troublesome sentence, members of the class propose alternative phrasings until a satisfactory version is found. Put another way, a bunch of rats in a Skinner box will blindly poke around the walls until one of them touches the right spot and the light on the teacher's face shines. They will never understand what they did to make it shine, but that doesn't seem to trouble Professor Jacobs.

Feb 84:

     Gary Sloan's "The Frequency of Transitional Markers in Discursive Prose" (158-179) analyzes how professional writers use such markers: it does not suggest how, or even if, students should be taught to use them.

Nov 84:

     Elisabeth McPherson, in "Then, Now, and Maybe Then . . ." (697-701), writes:

    As for the future, I'd like to see NCTE adopt two kinds of official policies. I'd like to see more resolutions concerned with what we do in our classrooms, as opposed to what outsiders do to us. Research has been telling us for a long time that teaching formal grammar does nothing to improve writing. Why don't we have a policy saying so? (701).
Ms. McPherson, we are told, "is a past chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, a charter member of the National Committee of Community and Junior Colleges, a past chair of the SLATE Steering Committee, and a member of the NCTE Women's Committee and Editorial Board." (697). She is, in other words, an influential person, but she does not state that she has read the research.

Feb 85:

     Patrick Hartwell's "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar" (105-127) could only be published in NCTEland. He begins by stating, "For me the grammar issue was settled at least twenty years ago with the conclusion offered by Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer in 1963." (105) Having thus told us that his mind has been closed for the last twenty years, he procedes to condemn the teaching of grammar, giving copious footnotes along the way. My response to Hartwell, along with the responses of several others, was published in CE, Oct 85: 641-650, so I will not belabor it here. I am curious, however, to see how our colleagues in the sciences will react to Hartwell's opening statement.

Mar 85:

     John Rouse's "Scenes from the Writing Workshop" (217-236) drips with antipathy toward instruction in grammar. That students need to write to learn how to write--the thesis of Rouse's essay--cannot be denied, but that does not mean that instruction in grammar cannot help. Rouse has moreover, an extremely narrow concept of grammar. (See pages 235-236.)

Oct 85:

     "Four Comments on 'Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar'" (641-650) indicate that Patrick Hartwell's conclusion, that we should abandon grammar and go on to other things, is not shared by everyone. Once again, however, the proponents of grammar are put in the position of responding to an attack rather than being able to express their own ideas within the pages of an NCTE journal. Note that Joe Williams states:

    To isolate a set of items relevant to style and make it a grammar coordinate with 2 or 4 is a mistake, unless we reformulate a separate grammar dedicated to teaching style. Such a grammar would synthesize information from all grammars available, plus whatever information other theories of language might provide--Functional Sentence Perspective being the most obvious. The general form of such a grammar would be, I think, relatively obvious. It would integrate surface grammars with case grammars and elements drawn from FSP. This would constitute a genuinely different form of grammar created for a specific purpose to teach style. In any event, we have sufficient reason to question Professor Hartwell's claim that 'we find that the grammar issue (in regard to Grammar 5, or teaching style) simply beside the point'. (642)
I would truly like to see more details of the grammar that Professor Williams describes, but I do not find them, or those of any other grammar, discussed in NCTE publications.

Dec 85:

     We get Martha Kolln's comment on Patrick Hartwell's article, and his response. (875-879) Kolln makes the mistake of trying to be rational, but Hartwell begins his response with "There's little to be accomplished by talking across paradigms, so I'll try to be brief." And noting that he recognized "that teachers and students may perceive the need for something that might be called 'grammar instruction,'" he goes on to note that "otherwise, Professor Kolln is flat out wrong." His penultimate sentence contains the interjection: "but you know I'm right, right?" Hartwell can afford to be so smug because he shares the reigning paradigm of NCTE. And just as Trotsky believed that there would be a final revolution, so Hartwell believes he has found the final paradigm.

Articles in Research in the Teaching of English

     There are numerous "grammatical" research studies published in this journal, most of which are not relevant here since they describe the kinds of sentences that people in various groups write, but do not describe what kind of instruction students should (not) be given. An example of this kind of article is Glenn J. Broadhead, James A. Berlin, and Marlis Manley Broadhead's "Sentence Structure in Academic Prose and Its Implications for College Writing Teachers" (October, 82. 225-240), in which the authors "conclude that a common vocabulary and a common approach to instruction in syntax and style are applicable to the entire range of college writing, and that instruction in the uses of free modifiers (whether through sentence- combining, generative rhetoric, or traditional means) would be as appropriate in technical/scientific writing classes as in freshman composition and other courses." (238) Such articles do not propose a method or concept for teaching grammar, but rather draw conclusions about the grammar and syntax of published writers.

Oct 83:

     William L. Smith and Glynda A. Hull's "Direct and Indirect Measurements of Effects of Specific Instruction: Evidence from Sentence Combining" (285-289) does not indicate whether or not students were informed that they were being taught to use the "Relative Clause, the Appositive, and the Infinitive Nominal." One of the objectives of the study was to discover "whether this instruction . . . lasted beyond the immediate post-test,"(285) and the authors conclude:

         The data clearly indicate that teaching students a structure does alter their behavior; they increase use of that structure. However, the increase does not seem to have a long life. One week later, the students drop back in their frequency. (288)
The results of this study are predictable by anyone familiar with operant conditioning. This study, therefore, does not prove very much, but if it suggests anything, it may be that sentence-combining is, in the long term, no more effective than traditional grammar.

Feb 85:

     Donald D. Neville and Evelyn F. Searls' "The Effect of Sentence-Combining and Kernel-Identification Training on the Syntactic Component of Reading Comprehension" (37-61) is an excellent example of the misinformation that, in NCTE journals, goes by the name of "research." One has to wonder if NCTE hasn't become so enchanted with numbers that it has forgotten how to read.
     The authors, for example, state that "O'Hare's experimental group of seventh graders experienced highly significant growth (p>.001) on all measures of syntactic maturity." (38) Neither these authors, nor O'Hare, apparently reads very carefully. Both quote Hunt's 1970 study, but neither pays attention to Hunt's statement that "the great majority of the syntactic changes that increase with maturity are those that reduce a clause to less than a clause." (43) O'Hare, however, measured only six factors: words/T-unit, clauses/T-unit, words/clause, noun clauses/100 T-units, adverb clauses/100 T-units, and adjective clauses/100 T-units. Even though he was aware of Hunt's study, in other words, O'Hare counted only words and clauses/ T-unit. He did not use all available measures of syntactic maturity.
     In discussing their Cloze Tests, moreover, Neville and Searls state that "the average words per T-unit was 17.5, placing the level of syntactic complexity above that of the writing of skilled adults (14.8 words per T-unit) in Hunt's (1970) study." (50) They thus imply that skilled adults use 14.8 words/T-unit, ignoring the fact that the 14.8 was the result of skilled adults' revisions of the "Aluminum" passage. In his study of the free-writing of skilled adults, Hunt found that they use 20.3 words/T-unit (1965, p.58).
     When NCTE publishes research that is so sloppy, it is no wonder that the teachers in the trenches hesitate to heed, or should I say "heel"?

Articles in English Education
[English Education is the journal for teachers of teachers.]

     The articles in English Education are most interesting in that they point out the gap between the "towers and the trenches," the "towers" being the active members of NCTE; the "trenches," the teachers in the classrooms.

Feb 83:

     William L. Smith's "Prologue" introduces the issue. He observes:

    Bill O'Rourke's study of first-year teachers indicates that this trend continues. The rookies claimed that their fellow teachers were more influential than we or our courses. Thus, it is not strange that these rookies would say that we should have given them more instruction in teaching grammar, for Jack Folsom found that those fellow teachers consider grammar, and preparation to teach grammar, the top priority.
         Joe Milner, however, provides a ray of hope. His article affirms our common notion that teachers who are involved in professional activities have quite different perceptions than those who aren't involved. I suspect (that's the nice way of saying "I am convinced") that most teachers fall into the later category; therefore, student teachers and rookies are more apt to encounter them. The "Towers" are seen, quite correctly, as abnormal. Yet through inservice projects such as the National Writing Project, the numbers will shift. (3-4)
We certainly do need hope, even a ray of it, to save us from all of those experienced teachers out there who are teaching grammar. As, in effect, an editorial position statement, Smith's "Prologue" definitely suggests that articles which propose methods of teaching grammar will be received objectively, doesn't it.

     The bias against teaching grammar in Janet L. Miller's "A Search for Congruence: Influence of Past and Present in Future Teacher's Concepts about Teaching Writing" (5-16) appears primarily in the selections from the journals of her student teachers that she chooses to quote. Peter writes: "Nothing prepared me for the daily slow routine of teaching parts of speech. I'm worried that I'll never get beyond the gerund with these kids!" And Tina complains:

    I had to spend the whole class today with my regular seventh graders trying to tackle problems with sentence construction and punctuation. I finally had to tell one group of students to remember that when they stopped talking--that's where a period should go! That is a lot different from my idea of teaching writing! (7)
Although some of us might wonder how many comma-spices and run-ons Tina's intruction resulted in, Tina, Peter, and Ms. Miller aren't worried about such things: by the end of the course they have seen the errors in their cooperating teachers ways and intend to teach writing, not grammar.

     Bill O'Rourke's "'Lion Tamers and Baby Sitters': First-Year English Teachers' Perceptions of Their Undergraduate Teacher Preparation" (17-24) reflects what might be called the "You listen; I'll talk" attitude of NCTE periodicals on the issue of grammar. He writes:

         Should an English education staff be proud or ashamed of the fact that fifteen out of seventeen graduates, after one semester of teaching, tell us that the one thing they wish the university would have offered them is a course in how to teach grammar? If it was a goal to purely reflect the public schools in our teaching, this evidence would tell us to be ashamed. If our goal was to reform the English curiculum in secondary schools, then maybe we should be proud. I taught the linguistics methods course at UNL and I taught it with one overall goal: to make language instruction in our secondary schools more than grammar. We covered history of the language, lexicography, dialect, semantics, usage, public doublespeak, and grammar. But we talked about grammar in terms of what is the purpose for teaching grammar, what does research tell us about its relationship to writing and speaking, what is the thinking behind the different types of grammar? It seems to me that this type of approach, this questioning beyond just the methodology, is precisely what English education should be concerned with. (21-22)
Obviously, O'Rourke is proud of the smorgasbord that he gives his students, even though fifteen of seventeen, after teaching, felt that they needed more instruction in teaching grammar. Most of us who advocate teaching grammar would probably like to see our students have a good introduction, at the least, to the topics O'Rourke covers in his course, but what kind of introduction does O'Rourke give his students? How many weeks does he spend, for example, on the history of the language? On dialect? Can students really absorb the concepts of historical and comparative linguistics in two or three weeks? What kinds of exams does O'Rourke give? Are the students expected to apply the concepts they have learned in the course, or do they simply regurgitate names, dates, and O'Rourke's lectures?
     As for grammar, note that O'Rourke doesn't teach it, he teaches "about grammar." His "we talked about grammar" is charmingly deceptive: his students have not read the research; they have not mastered any of "the different types of grammar." (He is certainly not telling us that within four or six weeks of his course he produces masters of traditional, structural or transformational grammars: if that were the case, his students either shouldn't have complained or should have known enough about grammar to conclude for themselves that it doesn't help students.) O'Rourke's "talked about," in other words, means the instructor talked and the students agreed. Students do have enough sense to know not to contradict the professor who is grading them. Once they didn't have to worry about his grade, they told him what they really thought--but is he listening?

     Jack Folsom, in "More Information and Perspective on Undergraduate English Teacher Preparation" (25-30) does argue for more instruction in grammar. Summarizing the results of his survey, he states: "Among all respondents, the teaching of grammar was far and away the top-ranked item, i.e., the one needing most strengthening at undergraduate level, even for recent graduates (post-1974)." (26) And:

    It is clear from responses of teachers about themselves and others, as well as from assessments and observation of prospective teachers about to go into the field, that knowledge of grammar and usage, with training in appropriate ways to incorporate grammar and usage into the curiculum, deservedly belongs at the top of the list of further changes needed in English teacher preparation. Those who have reservations about the teaching of grammar and usage because "the research shows it doesn't help their writing" might get some fresh perspectives from an article by Fraser and Hodson, entitled "Twenty-one Kicks at the Grammar Horse" (1978). Renewed curricular emphasis upon grammar and usage need not necessarily mean capitulation to the Grandgrind School of Fundamentalism. (27)
Although some members of NCTE might claim that the publication of Folsom's article indicates that NCTE is not biased against the teaching of grammar, it does just the opposite. Folsom's article is not about teaching grammar--it is a report about teachers' attitudes. Many of these teachers feel strongly about the teaching of grammar, and some of them want to publish their ideas about it.
     As editor of Syntax in the Schools, a small, relatively unknown newsletter in its second year of publication, I have received submissions from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, Maryland, Texas, and California. It is true that some of these submissions would not meet the editorial, stylistic standards of NCTE journals, but does NCTE really expect us to believe that during the last three years not a single elementary, middle, or high school teacher has been able to write an article about a method of teaching grammar, an article that would meet the stylistic standards of an NCTE journal?

     Joseph O. Milner's "Towers and Trenches: Polar Perceptions of the English Curriculum" (31-35) is especially interesting, since John Maxwell, in his letter to me, states: "The National Council of Teachers of English as an organization has no official position for or against the teaching of grammar, and your opening sentence suggests that it does." Perhaps Mr. Maxwell should write to Professor Milner, who wrote: "In 1976 NCTE developed its 'Statement of the Preparation of Teachers of English' which served as its basic position paper for enunciating the most advanced thinking of tower folk." (31) Although I do not read that statement as a position against grammar, Professor Milner obviously does. His article reports on his study of the "Measure of Statement Coalescence," an instrument designed to test the attitudes of "tower folk" (active participants in NCTE functions) and the "Trenches" group" (those unenlightened by active participation in NCTE). The instrument consisted of propositions, some of which "were lifted directly from the 'Statement' and set alongside a number of antithetical, 'Bogus' propositions." What does Milner give as his example of a "Bogus" proposition? "Teachers of English need to help students recognize the difference between good and bad grammar." (32) (Please note, Mr. Maxwell, that I did not say that the bogus proposition were "antithetical" to the NCTE statement; Professor Milner did.)
     Milner goes on to note that:

    the Bogus proposition which refers to grammar "standards" and "proper use" was overwhelmingly the most heavily selected (150% more than all other Bogus propositions combined). Those differences which related to grammar or language, then, seemed to be the feature which most significantly separated Trenches from Towers respondents in both of these sections of the MSC. (33)
Considering what should be done about the gap between the towers and trenches, Milner sees two possibilities: "The first general course could perhaps be seen as a refining or moderating of the more innovative and unorthodox pedagogical approaches and attitudes of the Tower folk." (35) But naturally he concludes that "the second course of action, to let Tower thought have a greater impact on those in the Trenches, would seem a better choice." (35) Milner's attitude toward the teachers in the trenches parallels the attitude of many advocates of sentence-combining toward students -- they have no brains, no ability to think; they must be conditioned, cajoled or otherwise herded into the behavioral pens of their masters.

May 83:

     In "English Education: The Student Teachers' Viewpoint," (110-112), John W. Myers notes that "when asked to indicate what types of courses should be added, more than half of the respondents suggested a need for more grammar courses at basic and advanced levels." (111) Myers then drops the subject of grammar, even though, among his recommendations, he suggests adding a course "in the area of classroom management and discipline." (112)

Oct 83:

     Joyce K. Killian, in "Preparing English Teachers: The Cooperating Teachers' View" (136-142), asked cooperating teachers about the quality of preparation in grammar, literature, and composition. She states:

         Lowest ratings in preparation went to the area of grammar, the average being only 2.8, or slightly "less than adequate." "You can't teach what you don't know" was the explanation that most cooperating teachers gave for their student teachers' problems in this area. Several pointed out that grammar was poorly taught at the college level, at least the type of grammar that student teachers were expected to teach. This left the student teacher to fall back on what he could remember from his wn junior or senior high grammar instruction." (139)
Although she later notes that Lain and Fagan's survery of novice teachers in 1980 also found preparation in grammar to be ineffective, she does not mention grammar in either her "Discussion" or "Recommendations."

     Janet Boyle's "A Comparison of Secondary and English Methods Classes" (143-148) indicates that English methods instructors in Indiana colleges and universities rated "teaching grammar" fourth most important of 23 topics as actually covered in English Methods courses, behind 1.) teaching literature, 2.) teaching composition, and 3.) materials. In recommended coverage, it ranked third, behind literature and composition. (The other topics included: spelling, speech, journalism, teaching gifted students, slower students, listening skills, and critical thinking.) There being no reason to believe that the instructors in Indiana differ significantly from their colleagues across the country, it seems fair to assume that at least a few instructors, aware of the general controversy about grammar, would want to explain what grammar they teach and why. But since no such articles have appeared in NCTE journals, and since NCTE is not biased against the teaching of grammar [according to Mr. Maxwell], we must also assume that the instructors who favor teaching grammar are illiterate.

Feb 84:

     Walter T. Petty's "There Are Gaps and There Are Gaps!" (34-40) is a real winner. He states:

    There is research evidence accumulated over eighty years that the teaching of the terminology, definitions, and relationships of a grammar--any grammar--does not improve the content or grammaticality of expression nor change usage habits. (35)
and, in calling for agreement about what should be done:
    An example of the possibility of substantial agreement occurs in Burrow's first chapter in Help for the Teacher of Written Composition (Lundsteen, 1976). She points to the timeliness of bringing research conclusions together and then lists twelve points or principles that the committee she worked with agreed upon. All are worthy of note, but a prime example--and one that would hardly be challenged by competent educators--is one mentioned earlier in this article: the teaching of grammar does not improve children's use of language. (36)
Petty doesn't bother with such trivial matters as giving references to this "research," even though some of us might wonder about how much of it he has read. Instead, he tells those of us who advocate teaching it that we are incompetent, thereby warning those who are undecided that they had better shun us!

Oct 84:

     Frederica Davis' "In Defense of Grammar" (151-164) is, as its title indicates, a defense, not an exploration. Ms. Davis' definition of traditional grammar as "the eight parts of speech, mechanics, and usage," is not very clear or comprehensive. Is she too defining grammar as Warriner's? Her suggestion that "traditional grammar should be taught in a systematic, sequential way, using the child's own written work whenever possible" is excellent, but she gives no examples of how this might be done. One has to wonder if her article would have been published if it had not been accompanied by Noam Chomsky's letter (165-66).

Oct 85:

     Joan L. Oftedahl's "Secondary English Methods Courses in the Midwest" indicates that 25.7% of the teachers surveyed believe that "grammar" should be one of the five topics most emphasized in a methods course, whereas 0% of the Methods Professors included grammar as one of the top five priorities. As Ms. Oftedahl points out, most of the methods professors were associated with college English departments. College English professors are not particularly interested in teaching grammar, especially if they can refer to the "research" that demonstrates its ineffectiveness.

     Robert Small's "Why I'll Never Teach Grammar Again" (174-178) again demonstrates the basic preconception of everything that appears in NCTE journals about grammar. For Small, "grammar" is Warriner's. He has a grand time cutting it to pieces, and manages to "throw in diagramming" along the way. Near the end of his article he admits that: "Of course, my attack is not fair to grammar. It is a victim too. Indeed, grammar in the true sense of that word--that is, the study of syntax--has never been a part of the English curriculum." (177) Unfortunately, Professor Small does not suggest what would be included in a pedagogy of syntax--does he realize that concepts such as "subject," "verb," and "clause" are indispensible if students are to study syntax?

Books from NCTE


Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer. Research in Written Composition.

     The often quoted conclusion in this study against the teaching of grammar (37) need not be quoted here. Professor Kolln has pointed out many of the problems with it in her article cited above. What has not been noted, or at least what no one has noted in an NCTE publication, is that Kellogg Hunt's 1965 study (See below.) effectively invalidates the conclusion of this one, since Hunt demonstrates that before his work, there was no satisfactory instrument of measurement. Hunt's T-unit has been almost universally accepted as the first valid measure of syntactic growth. How can the earlier studies be accepted as conclusively valid, when they did not have a valid unit of measurement?
     Still another objection to the research was made by Francis Christensen:

         You must have noticed that I have taken grammar for granted as the necessary prerequisite for the course in advanced composition for teachers, and you no doubt recall having read or having been told that every test made has shown no correlation between knowledge of grammar and ability to write. And I will contend, despite all the tests, that it is not really possible to teach composition (note that I did not say "learn to write") unless both teacher and student have a ready working knowledge of the syntactic resources of the language. The tests prove nothing but the error of the testers in failing to see that there can be no valid correlation where a relation has not been established and made the ground of the teaching. One might as well get a grant and test the correlation between typing and the ability to write. "The Course in Advanced Composition for Teachers," in Notes toward a New Rhetoric. NY: Harper & Row. 162-163.
I quote Christensen because, in the articles and books covered in this entire survey, DeBeaugrande's and Herrington's are the only applications of grammar that NCTE has published.


Kellogg Hunt. Grammatical Structures Written at Three Grade Levels.

     This descriptive study, although extremely important, is not about teaching grammar--it is the research that established the T-unit as a valid measure of syntactic "maturity."


Donald Bateman and Frank Zidonis. The Effect of a Study of Transformational Grammar on the Writing of Ninth and Tenth Graders.

     Bateman and Zidonis note that their results are tentative. "Even so, the persistently higher gain scores for the experimental class in every comparison made strengthens the contention that the study of a systematic grammar which is a theoretical model of the process of sentence production is the logical way to modify the process itself." (37) They further note that "the persistent tendency of researchers to conclude that a knowledge of grammar has no significant effect on language skills (when judgment should have been suspended) should certainly be reexamined." (37)


Roy C. O'Donnell, William J. Griffin, & Raymond C. Norris. Syntax of Kindergarten and Elementary School Children: A Transformational Analysis.

     Like Hunt's work, this is a descriptive analysis: it is thus not an argument for or against the teaching of grammar. If this study, (and Hunt's), were translated into traditional terms (which is possible), it might have a tremendous affect on the way grammar is taught.


John C. Mellon. Transformational Sentence-Combining.

     The opening words of Richard Braddock's introduction to this study reflect the bias of NCTE: "Recognizing the long-established truth that the study of traditional classroom grammar has a negligible effect on the "correctness" of student writing, . . ." (v). This is, of course, Braddock's (or should we say NCTE's) truth: otherwise thousands of teachers would not still be teaching grammar. Braddock is, apparently, referring to previous research. If Braddock really wants to convince us that grammar has no effect, let him not refer to research studies that covered a span of one, at best two years. Let him--or anyone else--conduct a study in which the experimental group is taught no grammar from grades one to nine. Perhaps Braddock hasn't read Hunt's statements that syntactic development is an extremely slow process? And, as Hunt also suggests, the naturally increasing complexity of students' syntax results in more problems with "correctness."
     Mellon's study has, unfortunately, been overshadowed by O'Hare's. He does report that "significant growth of syntactic fluency occured in the writing of the experimental group." (52). In reporting on an overall quality comparison of the writing of the three groups in the study, Mellon states: "the writing of the experimental group was inferior to that of the subjects who had studied conventional grammar, but indistinguishable from that of subjects who had studied no grammar but had received extra instruction in composition." (69) This means that the traditional grammar group wrote better--Mellon adds "curious results indeed."
     Throughout his report, Mellon makes several interesting comments about the teaching of traditional grammar. For example:

    it may very well be the case that conventional grammar study fails to promote growth of syntactic fluency not because of the usage practice which it features, but rather because of the hundreds of simply structured and altogether childish sentences which it employs for parsing exercises." (63)
Is it the position of NCTE that not one of the thousands of teachers who advocate teachng traditional grammar has proposed ways to overcome this problem? Or is it rather that the editorial boards, swayed by statements such as Braddock's, simply refuse to consider such articles for publication?


Frank O'Hare. Sentence Combining: Improving Student Writing without Formal Grammar Instruction.

     Although John Maxwell rebukes me for my supposedly implying that NCTE has an official policy against the teaching of grammar, here is what the reader finds in the preface to O'Hare's study:

    For historical reasons, the sentence-combining technique arose within the contex of a debate on the relevance of formal grammar instruction (in this instance, transformational grammar) to the acquisition of measurable writing skills. The force of O'Hare's work, which reports impressive positive effects for the exclusive use of sentence-combining, is to render the entire issue academic, at least with respect to the short-term goal of finding curricular and instructional solutions to the problem of illiteracy in writing. (vi)
It is signed, "Peter S. Rosenbaum / For the Committee on Research." The Committee on Research is not, of course, NCTE as a whole, but then, I never said that NCTE had an official policy. Perhaps Mr. Maxwell would like to tell us that NCTE does not stand by its Committee on Research?
     Advocates of the research against grammar often do not indicate which research they mean, thereby making it difficult to determine which studies they consider conclusive. Since O'Hare's is frequently cited, I will examine it in some detail. This is one emperor who definitely needs some new clothes.
     What O'Hare advocates is pure exercise in sentence-combining, with no instruction in grammar. Students, in other words, are not to be told what constructions they are manipulating. As for why they are manipulating them, they must rely on the instructor's assertion that it will help them write "better." O'Hare's approach to sentence combining is thus pure operant conditioning. Few people would argue that operant conditioning can not be effective, but there are some serious questions about its long-term effects. If I am not mistaken, a general principle of operant conditioning is that once the stimulus-response treatment has ended, the bond between the stimulus and response is gradually, if not quickly, worn down by competing stimuli. O'Hare's experiment lasted eight months, and his results are based on pre- and post-treatment writing samples. If we are to be convinced that the treatment has long-term effects, should there not have been another post-test, perhaps even six months later? (As noted above, Smith and Hull (RTE, Oct 83) noted a significant decrease in the effect of sentence combining one week after instruction ended!) O'Hare, however, never addresses this question. Since O'Hare bases his conclusions on both an assessment of syntactic maturity and on an assessment of writing quality, let me briefly examine each.

     The Assessment of Syntactic Maturity

     What was O'Hare measuring? In effect, he measured two things: words per main clause (T-unit), and subordinate clauses per main clause. These two things were divided into six categories: "words per T-unit," "clauses per T-unit," "words per clause," "Noun Clauses per 100 T-units," "adverb clauses per 100 T-units," and "adjective clauses per 100 T-units." He justifies these measures by referring to the work of Hunt and O'Donnell. Discussing Hunt's 1970 study, Syntactic Maturity in Schoolchildren and Adults, O'Hare writes: "Although Hunt used a number of new measures, and got especially interesting results with what he called structures less than a predicate and less than a clause, his findings relating to the number of embedding transformations and to clause and T-unit length were of particular interest to the present study." (24) O'Hare intentionally downplays, in other words, Hunt's statement that "the great majority of the syntactic changes that increase with maturity are those that reduce a clause to less than a clause." (43) In his study, Hunt examines things such as verbals and appositives, constructions that reduce not only the length of a T-unit but also the number of subordinate clauses per T-unit. Such constructions, says Hunt, are most indicative of syntactic maturity. Did O'Hare ignore this so that he could concentrate on length and get impressive statistics, or did he not understand it?
     The importance of reduction to syntactic maturity is noted by both Hunt and by O'Donnell, who even goes so far as to question the validity of counting subordinate clauses as a measure of syntactic growth. (98) (O'Hare doesn't mention this.) The following example suggests the affect of reduction on a statistical analysis:
     a.) They bought a house which was new and expensive.
     b.) They bought a new, expensive house.
Most readers would consider (b) as a better stylistic norm than (a), but, on the whole, (a) gets a better rating on O'Hare's measures: (a) has 9 words per main clause to (b)'s 6, and it has 50 adjective clauses per 100 main clauses, to (b)'s 0. (b) does get a better rating on words per clause (6 to 4.5), but this difference raises another question about O'Hare's study. If we analyze the results of the experimental group (54), we find that there was a 63.6% increase in words per main clause, but only a 21.1% increase in words per clause. May this not indicate that these seventh graders used subordinate clauses where twelfth graders would have used reduced constructions?
     By themselves, clause length and subordinate clause ratios are insufficient measures of syntactic maturity. Much depends, as Hunt suggests in his 1970 study, on the content of the clauses. And, as O'Hare himself suggests in his conclusions: "There is need for massive research into what constitutes a mature style." (77) In Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, for example, Corbett suggests counting the number of sentences that are 5 words below average and 10 words above. Analyzing the 35 passages from well-known writers that Corbett provides as models, I found that 18% of the main clauses were 10 or more words above the average (which was 22.9), and 47% were 5 or more words below the average. A comparable analysis of the writing of college Freshmen indicated 7% that were ten or more above the average (15.3), and only 24% that were 5 or more below. Perhaps the variety of main clause length is as significant as the length itself.
     If we turn from what O'Hare was counting to the subjects of the experiment, we find a still another reason to question his counting subordinate clauses. Early in his report, O'Hare includes a chart that combines the results of the studies of O'Donnell and Hunt. The numbers in that chart for clauses/T-unit are those in the left column below:

Grade  Clauses/T-unit  Difference  Avg. Difference/year
1.29  .11  .11
1.27  -.02  -.02
1.30 .03  .015 
1.42  .12  .12
12  1.68  .26  .065
Adult  1.74  .06 
What these statistics suggest, even though they may not be very sophisticated, is that seventh grade is the period of the largest natural increase in subordinate clauses per main clause. Although this may seem a trivial objection, it is not, given the fact that O'Hare does not account for reductions. It is commonly acknowledged that children, in mastering a new construction, overgeneralize (as in the youngster's "I readed a book"). The .12 increase from seventh to eighth grade in the preceding table, since it is the largest average yearly difference, may already reflect this overgeneralization. (Note, for example, that the .11 increase from third to fourth is followed by a .02 decrease: if we had the statistics for nineth, might not they too show a decrease?) What O'Hare may have done, therefore, is not accelerate "normal" growth, but rather aggravate an abnormality. This is also the place to point out that O'Hare is guilty of what Piaget calls the American fallacy--the attempt to accelerate normal growth rather than understand and guide its direction. As he says, "the control group showed only 'normal' growth." (70)
Still another quesitonable aspect of O'Hare's statistics involves his comparison to Mellon. He claims to be studying seventh grade students because Mellon did and he intends to compare his results to Mellon's. Likewise, he adapts Mellon's exercises in an attempt to keep the studies comparable. Yet, when he comes to his method of counting constructions, he writes:
         Mellon counted clauses of condition, concession, reason, and purpose as separate T-units because he believed that logical conjunctions behave much like coordinate conjunctions. In addition, he discarded clauses with repeating predicate phrases because he claimed they were elliptical and therefore vacuous. This experimenter remained unconvinced by Mellon's reasoning in either case and, therefore, retained Hunt and O'Donnell's simpler and more convincing methodology. (48)
Mellon does not give an example of such a clause, but he does list examples of the conjunctions, one of which is "because." (43) What effect might this change in procedure have on the statistics? Suppose, in the pretest, a student wrote:
I'm sure glad tomorrow is Friday. I just love weekends.

but on the post-test:

I'm sure glad tomorrow is Friday, because I just love weekends.

The pre-test sentence would receive the same rating from each researcher: 5.5 words/T-unit, 3.7/clause, and 50 subordinate clauses per 100 T-units. On the post-test sentence, however, the ratings would be significantly different: Mellon would arrive at 6 words/T-unit, 4/clause, and 50 subordinate clauses per 100 T-units, essentially the same as on the pre-test. But O'Hare's post-test results would be 12 words/T-unit, 4/clause, and 200 subordinate clauses per 100 T-units, i.e., twice the words per T-unit, and four times as many subordinate clauses! Yet, when he comes to comparing his results with Mellon's, he simply states: "The experimental group's mean pre-post change score of 6.12 words per T-unit was approximately five times the statistically significant increase reported for Mellon's experimental group." (55) He makes a similar statement two pages later, but does he even suggest that his way of counting may have influenced his results? No.

    The Assessment of Writing Quality
     Since he edited and corrected the students' papers before he gave them to evaluators, O'Hare has a limited definition of "writing quality." As he says:
         This study was interested in the students' writing ability and not at all in their spelling, punctuation, or handwriting talents. In order to eliminate the possible effects of these extraneous factors on the evaluators' judgments, the thirty pairs of compositions were typewritten so that spelling and punctuation could be corrected. (51)
In her response to Patrick Hartwell, Carole Moses observes, "I wonder how many fragments and run-ons were corrected." (CE 47 Oct 85 646.) I would add comma-splices, and the various misspellings of "to," "have" (i.e., "of"), "it's," "their," etc. The question is particularly interesting since Hunt, as early as 1965, wrote: "As more nonclausal structures are packed into a clause the likelihood of stylistic faults occuring increases apace. The greater the congestion the greater the hazard" (152). Having analyzed a couple hundred passages, I find it difficult to believe that O'Hare could not have counted the fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons per main clause. Apparently, had he done so, he could not then have made the claim that his approach "improves" students' writing.
     Having noted the "notorious unreliability of composition ratings," O'Hare goes on to tell us that his raters were "eight experienced English teachers who were attending Florida State University during the summer of 1970." (50) Although he states that "these evaluators had no knowledge of the nature of the present experiment," I would like to know what courses they were taking. Just as O'Hare assumed that their would be a "rubb-off" effect from the sentence combining exercises to the students' writing, so there could be a "rubb-off" effect from a course in transformational grammar, advanced stylistics, or language development, should one or more of these teachers have been taking it. This possibility is not that far-fetched, since we are told that the teachers:
    were simply told to make a single judgment on the overall quality of the compositions in each pair, basing their decision on ideas, organization, style, vocabulary, and sentence structure. (50)
In the context of this list, doesn't "style" mean "sentence structure"? (If it doesn't, what does it mean?) O'Hare notes, moreover, that the evaluators had a "rater-training" session, without which, such evaluations have been shown to be meaningless. Since the errors in the sentences had been corrected, what was said in that session about "style" and "sentence structure"?
     O'Hare goes to great length, defending his choice of the single judgment over a rating scale (i.e., 1 to 5). Did he not think of, or did he intentionally avoid, another possibility: having the raters make a single judgment about each pair for each criterion. We then would have been able o tell whether the essays were being rated for ideas, organization, style, etc. As the system stands, however, some of the "winners" may have been chosen for ideas, others for organization, etc. This problem is particularly bad since only post-test essays were evaluated! The papers were paired for sex and IQ, but these factors do not account for creativity, use of detail, etc. Thus O'Hare later notes that the experimental group's essays "had much more detail, more 'meat' to them." (72). How do we know that the pre-test essays of this group were not also superior in detail? Finally, we should note that only narrative and descriptive esays were evaluated. As most English teachers agree, when students write expository essays, their organization, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. often falls apart. It would be nice to know what the judgment would have been on expository writing.
     In effect, all O'Hare has proven is that sentence combining increases clause length and the use of subordinate clauses during the course of instruction. But as I suggested above, this may be an aggravation of an abnormality rather than an "improvement." As Hunt wrote in 1965: "In this study the word 'maturity' is intended to designate nothing more than 'the observed characteristics of writers in an older grade.' It has nothing to do with whether older students write 'better' in any general stylistic sense." (5) Having looked at O'Hare's study in some detail, might we not ask how he can possibly state that he is "Improving Student Writing"?


Arthur N. Applebee. Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English: a History.

     He states:

    In language the tenacity of direct teaching is especially clear because of the old and well-documented evidence that grammatical knowledge has no demonstrable relationship to writing ability; but grammar has held its place in the curriculum, protected by the desire of teachers to have something concrete and "useful" to do in their classes. (249-250)
Is this "well-documented evidence" documented in a footnote? No. Is it listed in his bibliography? No.


Constance Weaver. Grammar for Teachers: Perspectives and Definitions.

     The title of this book is incomplete: it should be Grammar for Teachers, Not for Students. She states:

    Students do need to develop a good intuitive sense of grammar, but they can do this best through indirect rather than direct instruction. Instead of formally teaching them grammar, we need to give them plenty of structured and unstructured opportunities to deal with language directly. If we want them to improve their reading, they must read; if we want them to improve their writing, they must write. This does not mean, of course, that grammar is of no use whatsoever, or that grammatical terminology should be entirely avoided. Rather, it means that teachers need not teach grammar so much as use their own knowledge of grammar in helping students understand and use language more effectively. (5-6)
Weaver cites the research (4, 88-89) and comes to the usual conclusion:
    formal instruction in grammar may have a harmful effect, partly because it tends to alienate students, and partly because it takes time that might more profitably be used in helping students read, write, listen, and speak more effectively. (89)
In spite of her protests, she is not clear about what she means. She goes on, for example, to state:
    Let us be clear, however, on what we mean. There is little pragmatic justification for systematically teaching a grammar of the language, whether that grammar be traditional, structural, transformational, or whatever. On the other hand, it may be desirable or even necessary to use some grammatical concepts and terminology in helping students become more effective language users. Thus the teacher needs a fairly solid background in grammar in order to work with students. (90-91)
Does this "clarification" mean that a teacher should or should not use the term "clause" when working with a student? And what good will it do for the teacher to use the word "clause" if the student doesn't know what clauses are?
     Although the work of both Hunt and Mellon is listed in her bibliography, there is no indication that she has though about what either said. She says nothing about natural syntactic development, and never suggests that a third grade teacher and a tenth grade teacher might be working with different syntactic problems. Particularly interesting are the examples she uses in her own exposition of grammar--their average T-unit length is about seven words, or around fourth grade level. Did she read Mellon's comments about traditional grammar books:
    The remarkable thing about all the practice sentences, however, is that they repesented immature types which junior high school composition teachers rightly exhort their students to avoid, although the experimenter finds without exception that all widely used seventh grade texts are limited to these puerile sentence types. Apparently they are employed on the assumption that students of this age cannot learn to speak about the grammatical structure of more complex language. Not only is this untrue, it causes these students to experience and perhaps emulate sentences far below their attained level of syntactic fluency. (38-39)
Perhaps Professor Weaver believes that her student teachers can't read beyond the fourth grade level? Her examples are particularly surprising since she claims that grammar should be taught, if at all, only in relation to students' writing. But her book does not include a single sentence written by a student!
     Having prepared a smorgasbord of traditional, structural and transformational grammars in Chapters 6, 7, and 8, it would have been nice if Professor Weaver had digested her meal before putting it on the table in Chapter Nine. In presenting her readers with grammar that they can "use," she uses one term to refer to two concepts, and labels one concept with two different terms. Thus, "sentence" has two defintions:
    [a] In terms of punctuation, a sentence consists of whatever occurs between an initial capital letter and a final period. According to this definition, a sentence may be as short as a single word, or as long as several hundred words.
    [b] In grammatical terms, a sentence consists of an independent clause plus any dependent clauses that may be attached to it or embedded within it. Thus defined, a sentence is sometimes called a "minimum terminable unit," or T-unit for short. (145)
This means that, in grammatical terms, a compound sentence is not a sentence, but rather two sentences. (Perhaps this is some kind of new math in which 1 equals 2?) Obviously, I'm not being fair: what Professor Weaver would say is that a compound sentence (definition "a") is composed of one or more grammatical sentences (defintion "b"). But then, perhaps, sentence (defintion "a") cannot really be a "compound," in the normal sense of that word, since a sentence "a" is the entire single string of words between that capital letter and period. We can see why Professor Weaver does not advocate teaching grammar to students: the grammar she gives us is so confusing that we teachers will have trouble keeping it straignt.
     The problem arises because Professor Weaver hasn't thought about many of the grammatical concepts she offers. For example, she simply accepts a poor, and traditional, definition of "independent" clause: "The independent clause is a subject-plus-predicate construction which can stand alone as a sentence." (144) The problem with this definition can be demonstrated through one of the sentences she uses to exemplify a dependent clause:
Everybody knows that the elephant eats peanuts. (144)

Again, this is a traditional example, typical of those used by all the grammarians who write textbooks based os previous grammar books. But students are likely to write this sentence as:

Everybody knows the elephant eats peanuts.

From the students' point of view, "the elephant eats peanuts" can stand alone: it therefore fulfills Professor Weaver's definition of independent clause. To this, Professor Weaver would probably respond that there is an ellipsed "that" after "knows," which is easy for her to say, but how is the student supposed to know when there is and when there is not an ellipsed "that"? Professor Weaver could have avoided this whole problem by recognizing that the T-unit is not a "sentence," but rather the equivalent of an independent clause.
     Finally, Professor Weaver knows how to play the fads: she labels traditional grammar "Grammar as Product" and transformational as "Grammar as Process," thereby associating traditional grammar with that out-dated method of teaching writing by emphasizing product rather than process. But then, Professor Weaver's book is not intended to help teachers use grammar--it is propaganda for sentence-combining exercises. The more confused she can get teachers about grammar, the more likely they are to abandon it.


Janice N. Hays, et al. The Writer's Mind.

     In "Written Products and the Writing Process," Lee Odell uses grammatical terms to describe writing, but he does not suggest using them in teaching.


Myers, Miles & James Gray. Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Composition: Processing, Distancing, and Modeling.

     This collection is not as biased as many published by NCTE, but it still does not include any articles on approaches to teaching grammar. In his introductory essay, Miles Myers quotes Elley, Barham, Lamb, and Wylie on the conclusions of their research: "The results presented show that the effects of such grammar study are negligible. . . It is difficult to escape the conclusion that English grammar, whether traditional or transformational, has virtually no influence on the language growth of typical secondary school students." (8) Apparently sensing the inductive leap in their conclusion, Myers adds: "one might argue that the study suggests the limited value of drill in language learning." (9) A little later, Myers approvingly refers to O'Hare: "Frank O'Hare . . . modified Mellon's exercises and found that both the essay scores and syntactic maturity improved as a result of direct instruction in sentence combining." (11) One has to wonder about how carefully Myers read O'Hare--if he read him at all. (See the discussion of O'Hare, above.)
     The tone of Lester S. Golub's "Stimulating and Receiving Children's Writing: Implications for an Elementary Writing Curriculum" (103-115) is definitely anti-grammar. Since he is reacting to the transformational texts which teach students what they already know (negative, passive, interrogative, etc.), his tone is understandable, but transformational grammar is only one kind of grammar.
     Part Four of this text, "Modeling," includes several essays which use grammatical concepts, but the emphasis of the essays is on teaching style and the extent to which the writers teach grammar is not clear. Christensen's "A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence" (175-184) is important, but not pedagogical, as James Gray implies in his following "Sentence Modeling" (185-203). Gray's ideas for sentence modeling imply that the teacher needs to understand grammar, but the extent to which students are exposed to it are not clear. Thus Gray gives students model sentences and shows them which are the base clauses. The students are then expected to write variations of the models. As he extends the models, he includes phrasal modifiers (189), verb phrases and clusters (193), absolute phrases (194), etc. The relevant question here is: does Gray expect students to be able to recognize and identify these constructions in what they read and write? Since he spends only two or three weeks on this work (201), the odds are that he does not. The difference is crucial: if students can identify the constructions, then they can use his method to analyze whatever they read--they are free to determine their own style; if they cannot, then they are simply mimicking sentence patterns, being conditioned to believe that Christensen's cumulative sentence is the best way to write.
     In "Mimesis: Grammar and the Echoing Voice" (212-221), Phyllis Brooks proposes the "persona paraphrase," a method in which she gives students passages from good writers and asks them to rewrite them using essentially the same sentence structure. Although her approach has the advantage over Gray's of not being limited to a particular style of sentence, and although she does note that she hopes "to refine further its use in the teaching of specific grammatical points" (221), she does not suggest how students should be taught grammar.
     Josephine Miles does not discuss teaching grammar in her "Writing in Reason" (222-225), but her analysis of "ideas as sentences" suggests the need for having students learn how to analyze their own sentences. Professor Miles notes that the "point" of a paragraph, essay, etc. is best stated not as a topic, but as a subject/verb statement. The predication, once found, gives students a direction in which to develop an idea. Everything that Professor Miles says makes sense, but the problem is that students cannot--and have never been taught to--find the subjects and verbs in their own writing.


Charles R. Duke, Editor. Writing Exercises from Exercise Exchange. Vol II.

     R. Baird Shuman, in "An Action-Learning Approach to Reading, Grammar, and Punctuation," states, "Although I had never mentioned the word subordination or the term subordinate conjunction, every student in the class had imbibed the essence of this concept which many English teachers find very difficult to teach." (274) That an English teacher can coach students into combining simple sentences into a complex one hardly demonstrates that the students have mastered the concept of subordination.

     Anne J. Herrington's "Grammar Recharted: Sentence Analysis for Writing" (276-287) is by far the best piece on grammar that NCTE has published in the last three years. (But then, its only competition is DeBeaugrande's essay.) Herrington's system involves a five column chart--"(1) Preceding Subject," "(2) Subject," "(3) Between Subject and Verb," "(4) Verb," and "(5) Following Verb"--with which she helps college students analyze the style of sentences. Why can't NCTE publish more articles like this one? Of the 79 articles in this collection, Herrington's is the only one that even suggests that knowledge of grammar can be helpful, and it was probably included because of its emphasis on style, not grammar.
     Thomas Brownell comments in "A Writing Course Final Exam": "I hadn't taught grammar specifically. Instead, when a student reached the editing stage and still was making serious grammatical errors, I would spend parts of several classes in mini-lessons on trouble areas using examples from student writing to teach the principle involved." (327) But this is hardly a discussion of teaching grammar.


Christopher J. Thaiss and Charles Suhor. Speaking and Writing, K-12: Classroom Strategies and the New Research.

     Ann Jeffries-Thaiss and Christopher J. Thaiss's suggestion that children "think of adjectives we could use to describe the spirit, or mind, of the Renaissance" (9) is hardly an argument for teaching grammar, even though the idea itself is excellent. It is, moreover, the only statement in this book that even suggests using grammatical concepts in the context of the students' writing.
     Donald L. Rubin and Kenneth J. Kantor's "Talking and Writing: Building Communication Competence" (29-73) is an argument for sentence combining. Along the way they state:

    Some of the writing instruction offered in early years is motivated by a logical analysis of the composing task, but runs contrary to a psychological analysis of learners' capabilities. For example, some researchers strongly urge that teachers not expose elementary students to grammatical terminology (if, indeed, students need exposure to grammatical terminology at any age). (48)
In the light of their first statement, why don't the authors, instead of referring to the research, see the possiblity of realigniig the sequence in which grammatical concepts are taught, such that it follows the psychological development of the child, as, for example, Hunt suggested?
     Charles Suhor, in "Thinking Visually about Writing" (74-103), places grammar in his "Content Area Model" and ridicules it regularly. Not satisfied with references to the research and a students' (collective) poem against grammar, Suhor decides to bring Piaget into the attack:
    In terms of Piagetian theory and research, most students do not have sufficient skill in manipulating abstractions to understand, digest, and apply dense concepts like the absolute phrase, the gerund, and the participle. (78-79)
This single statement calls into question Suhor's understanding of grammar and of Piaget. Note that we are dealing not with a quotation from Piaget, but rather with Suhor's interpretation ("in terms of Piagetian theory and research"). Since he has been talking about high school students, we must assume that Professor Suhor is telling us that 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students cannot handle concepts such as the gerund--they don't have the ability to manipulate such abstractions. But are these not the same students who somehow manage to manipulate geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and even, in many cases, calculus? Had Professor Suhor thought about it, he might have decided that the concept of "gerund" is no more "dense" than an axiom in geometry.
     That he considers these concepts "dense" reflects his own problems with grammar--"dense" is, after all, a subjective word, and his problems with grammar are intricately related to his misapplication of Piaget's theory. Indeed, all three of the concepts to which Suhor refers (absolute phrase, gerund, and participle) are easily comprehended by students if they are taught through a process based on Piaget's theories. Although Piaget likes the visual model of the graph, and frequently speaks of "plateaus," periods of suspended upward movement, for our purpose, Vygotsky's model of concentric circles provides a clearer, briefer, and more forceful model.
     For both Piaget and Vygotsky, "learning" is a process of assimilating new knowledge into what the learner already knows. For Vygotsky, two expanding concentric circles symbolize this process. The inner circle represents assimilated knowledge; the area between the two circles is the "zone of proximal development," and the area outside the outer circle represents knowledge that is beyond the grasp of the learner. As the concepts within the zone of proximal development are assimilated, the circles expand, new concepts continually coming within the grasp of the learner. Quite simply, high school students can assimilate geometry and algebra because they have earlier assimilated addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They can't assimilate "noun absolute, gerund, and participle," not because they are incapable of handling abstractions, but because they have never assimilated subject, verb, and clause.
     Assimilating a concept is not the same as memorizing a definition and being able to recognize ten (or a thousand) simple examples of it, which is the way that grammar has traditionally been taught. Instruction might well begin in this manner, but if we wish the student to assimilate the knowledge, then instruction has to go beyond this so that the student can, for example, underline all the subjects and finite verbs in anything that s/he writes or reads. The student who can do the latter has consciously assimilated subjects and finite verbs and is ready to move on to the next circle, the one with gerunds and gerundives: any verb that is not finite has to be a verbal (gerund, gerundive, or infinitive), and gerunds and gerundives are recognizable by their participial ("-ing," "-ed") form. Students can easily master gerunds and gerundives by analyzing writing--their own and that of others, eliminating all the finite verbs from consideration. Of course, if they cannot eliminate all the finite verbs, then they have a confusing mess which they cannot systematize. This system works--I use it regularly in a course I teach for future teachers; I've tried to publish about it in NCTE journals, but I've been told that I don't know anything about the "research." Suhor, of course, can misinterpret Piaget, ridicule grammar, and still get published, but then, he shares NCTE's beliefs.


Olson, Gary A. ed. Writing Centers: Theory and Administration

     Once again we find Patrick Hartwell attacking grammar, this time in "The Writing Center and the Paradoxes of Written-Down Speech" (48-61). Although he condemns grammar, he never defines it. Thus, "seventeen of the eighteen CETA adult students corrected essentially all of their errors of grammar, spelling, and, by intonation, punctuation--but none of their errors in usage--when they read their work aloud." (54-55) If usage is not a part of grammar, what is? Hartwell's main argument in this article is, moreover, fundamentally flawed. Comparing the comments of weak and strong writers about what they do when writing, and finding that weak writers focus more on grammar and mechanical errors, Hartwell concludes:

         These results have to give a further jolt to the little English teacher in all of us--and one would hope, a fatal jolt. Who learns what English teachers tell them? Weak writers. They learn a mechanical view of writing, dominated by a rigid sense of form and a strong, even dominant, concern with grammatical correctness. (57-58)
Hartwell is excellent at using pejoratives, isn't he! But we can view the weak writers focus on rigid form and mechanical errors from another perspective, a perspective which leads to just the opposite conclusion. In terms of Piaget's "plateaus" and Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development," we can conclude that the weak writer has not mastered a basic, lower level of writing and is therefore not prepared to advance until that level is mastered. The strong writers, on the other hand, have "assimilated" this level of writing and deal with it automatically.
     In "Promoting Cognitive Development in the Writing Center," Karen I. Spear tells us that:
    A seventy-five year tradition of research has conclusively demonstrated the irrelevance of usage testing to writing competence (research that has nevertheless failed to affect many educators); the developmental approach provides another challenge to such tests. (72)
Her footnote for this is to The English Teacher's Handbook by Stephen and Susan Judy. Now I wonder who they might be?
     Bene Scanlon Cox, in "Priorities and Guidelines for the Development of Writing Centers: A Delphi Study," does manage to tell us that "the writing center should assume responsibility for teaching all grammar skills." (81) This is one of nine "primary considerations" for "establishing the writing center's philosophy of service to students." How the center should do this is not discussed.
     In "Developing a Peer Tutor Program" (132-143), Linda Bannister-Wills informs us that a "practicum is also a forum for tutors to debate the virtues of grammar instruction" (139). Led by Professor Bannister-Wills, however, practicums are probably like Bill O'Rourke's You-listen;-I'll-talk grammar courses for future teachers (See above, EE, Feb 83.), since she also states, "directors can institute an optional series of grammar seminars that teach tutors how to convey grammatical information (minus terminology) to students who must pass an error recognition competency test." (138) Students can debate, in other words, as long as they come to the conclusion that grammatical terminology should not be used.
     The belief that we can "convey grammatical information (minus terminology)" is fascinating because it is true, just as a person can learn to work on a car's engine without knowing what a carburetor, distributor, or alternator is. I once owned a two-cylinder Fiat 500, and a friend taught me how to work on it. I never learned the names of the various parts--I recognized them by their shape and position in the engine, and I managed fairly well. Of course, when we got an eight-cylinder Malibu with all the pollution control equipment on it, I stopped looking under the hood. My Fiat is comparable to the average fourth grade student's sentence. It is easy enough to see what is wrong with "They went to the store, they were late," but what does a student do with the following?
    Cherri was dressed in stylish Calvin Klein, the kind with the zippers at the ankles, and enough jewelry to put the Queen of Engand to shame, and Timmy looked as if he came straight from the chicken coop, maybe it was just me but he seemed to smell like it to.
I would suggest that the student who has no knowledge--and therefore no firm concept--of main and subordinate clauses has little, if any hope of finding the problem. Even if the student does find the problem, she has no criteria for being sure that she has indeed found it. The student with a knowledge of "clauses" might also have trouble, given the way grammar has been taught, but when this student does find the problem she will be able to base her judgement on her knowledge of "clauses." On what does the student without such knowledge base her decision?
     Rodney Simard, in "Assessing a New Professional Role: The Writing Center Tutor" (197-205), tells us that:
    An emphasis on grammar has at any rate been proved to be ineffective; as Karen I. Spear points out, "abundant research has successfully documented the weak correlation between writing improvement and grammar instruction." Current practice is to admit freely to the student, as does William Strong, "that a technical knowledge of grammar will have little or no impact on . . . ability to use the language with grace and precision . . . ." (200)
Simard's footnote for the quotation from Karen Spear is to the Writing Center Journal, but this is the same Karen Spear whose article in this book was discussed above, and there she based her conclusion not on the research, but on the summary by the Judys. We are, in other words, four steps removed from the research -- the researchers, the Judys, Spear, and finally Simard. Note too that Strong informs students (the quotation is taken from the introduction to his textbook) not that knowledge of grammar will not help them write longer T-units (which is what the research studied), but that it will not have an effect on their "grace and precision"! If I did not know that I am here concerned with educational "research," I would believe it was the game in which everyone sits in a circle and one person whispers something to the next, everyone waiting to see how it will be mangled by the time it gets to the last person.


     Although the articles in English Education indicate that teachers in the trenches feel a great need for better instruction in grammar, their feeling goes unheeded not only in that journal, but in the others as well. Only two articles, of the thousands published over three years, have concerned a method of using grammar in instruction, and those articles are limited in scope, DeBeaugrande's being concerned only with avoiding errors, Herrington's primarily with sentence style. In the numerous attacks against the teaching of grammar, however, Ken Donelson, editor of English Journal, tells us that it is "bullshit," Elisabeth McPherson calls for a formal policy against teaching grammar, Peter Rosenbaum tells us that the Committee on Research considers the question closed, Walter Petty implies that anyone who teaches grammar is incompetent, and Patrick Hartwell insinuates that they are "little English teachers." Advocates of grammar are allowed to "Comment," but the anti-grammar author gets the last word. All of this is based on the "research," which is probably read less often than it is put in footnotes. And the research itself, as my brief critique of O'Hare's suggests, simply does not support the conclusions drawn from it.

     In his letter to me, John Maxwell writes, "I think it would be fairer and better for your purposes if, in the future, you state that 'many researchers and others who write for NCTE journals are biased against the teaching of grammar.'" But as Robert J. Connors notes in discussing the power of journals to "filter" ideas:

    This "filter" function of composition journals brings up the inescapable question of where intellectual authority in a field really lies. To a considerable -- some would say an alarming -- degree, it lies with the editors and the editorial boards of the major journals. Here we must make a sharp distinction between institutional authority and intellectual authority. Journal editors possess the former and play a large role in creating the latter. Editors of journals, especially major journals like College Composition and Communication and College English, act in their own persons as "gates," determining what sorts of scholarship will be accredited, deemed permissible. The selective perpetuation of new ideas that is carried on by these wielders of institutional power has an immense effect on what constitutes the body of knowledge defining the discipline itself. (College English 46 April 84, 352)
This survey suggests that the editorial boards of NCTE journals share Hartwell's paradigm. Even if one reader favors the publication of an article about teaching grammar, the odds are that the other two will outvote her, probably with references to the "research." I have made the survey as fair as I could. If anything, I have probably missed some of the attacks against grammar. Readers will, I hope, forgive my occasional sarcastic tone--it has, to use O'Hare's phrase, "rubbed-off" from the tone of so many of the articles I read in NCTE journals. One of the interesting things I noted in compiling the survey is that many of the opponents of teaching grammar hold influential positions within NCTE: Richard Lloyd-Jones (President), Ken Donelson (editor of EJ), Elisabeth McPherson, Peter Rosenbaum, Arthur Applebee, Charles Suhor. Although I have seen Robert de Beaugrande's name on the editorial board of at least one NCTE journal, none of the other advocates of teaching grammar, to my knowledge, holds a position of influence in NCTE.

     I leave it to my readers to decide if I am wrong when I state that NCTE is biased against the teaching of grammar.

P.S. I want to emphasize that the position of NCTE has changed significantly in the decade since this piece was written. In October, 1987, Ben Nelms, then editor of English Journal, published a focus issue on grammar. As he noted:

         We received very few manuscripts which directly responded to our call. Some questioned our daring to suggest that the subject of grammar was worthy of our readers' consideration. The whole issue was laid to rest long ago, we were told. Others rejoiced that EJ had returned to its senses -- and traitional English grammar. (41)
That he received "very few manuscripts" is not surprising. As this document suggests, advocates of teaching grammar had been being pounded into submission for decades. But the situation has changed considerably. In the November 1996 issue of English Journal, Leila Christenbury, then editor, published twenty articles on the teaching of grammar, and received many more than she could print. Editors of many other NCTE journals are likewise looking for articles on the teaching of grammar.
      Unfortunately, many English teachers are still referring to the "research" to justify their dislike of teaching (or inability to teach?) grammar. This post is for them.
EV 11/21/97