The Role of Grammar in the Language Arts Curriculum
Nancy G. Patterson

(This essay is the answer to one of the questions in my first comprehensive examination, taken in the spring of 1998, as part of my PhD program in English at Michigan State University.)
They’ve been called the Grammar Wars—the debate among classroom teachers over the issue of  grammar.  The “wars” are a recurrent thread on English education list servs and the topic of whole issues of professional journals.  Indeed, Connors (1985) and Daniels (1983) both agreed that this debate has been going on for years.  And fifteen after these articles were published, the debate continues.  Newer voices are joining the fray—Martha Kolln, Rei Noguchi, Patrick Hartwell.  And most classroom teachers remain confused.  Should we teach grammar?  Should we ignore?  But the question and its answer is far more complicated than many teachers realize and those simple questions indicate.

In this paper I will divide grammar into two separate categories, Theoretical and Applied, and discuss each of them separately.  I will address the history of grammar teaching when discussing Applied Grammar, and I will then offer a critique of the carious theories regarding Applied Grammar and the issues related to it.

The origin of the word grammar can be traced to the Greek gramma, or letter, as in an alphabetic letter.  This is a development of the word graphein which means to draw or write.  The plural form of the word is grammata which evolved at one point to mean the rudiments of writing, and eventually to mean the rudiments of learning.  Eventually the adjective form of the word, grammatike, was combined with techne and meant the “art of knowing one’s letters”(Dykema 23).

The category that I have named Theoretical Grammars involves those grammars primarily used by linguists.  Patrick Hartwell (1985) calls these Grammar 1 and Grammar 2.  Grammar 1 refers to the internalized set of linguistic patterns that convey meaning.  Grammar involves rules of phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics that are all internalized, usually by the age of 5.  It is this internal sense of how language functions, this inner sense, that allows children to recombine words into intricate and varied patterns that convey meaning.  Grammar 1 deals with the set of formalized rules that are used unconsciously (Moskowitz 1993).   Grammar 2 deals with linguist's attempts to describe and analyze formal language patterns.  There are many grammars that fall into this category.  These deal with the “technology” of language.  Theoretical Grammars deal with specific linguistics studies.

Theoretical Grammars

 Many of the Theoretical Grammars are generative grammars that linguists use to gain insights into human language.  Generative grammars are explicit accounts of structured symbolic expressions.  Stratification grammar, for example, attempts to link sounds and meanings and identify the relationships between the two (Ziegler 1996).

Chomsky (1957) suggested that a grammar should describe a native speaker's intuitive understanding of the language he or she uses.  He uses the terms “deep structure and “surface structure” to describe that intuitive knowledge.  According to Chomsky, just such a grammar would be the grammar that he introduced as Transformational Grammar.  Initially Chomsky tried to explain how actual language users created and understood grammatical structures they had never encountered in previous experience.  He therefore established a set of transformational rules that explained a user's competence with language.  This competence, he theorized, explained how language users could generate grammatical sentences. He explained that competence in language use did not mean a user could invoke the generative rules of the language. We need to look at the term “generative grammar” in order to better understand Chomsky’s point here.

 Chomsky identified three basic types of syntactic structures: finite state grammar, phrase structure grammar, and transformational grammar. Transformational grammar is a means of dealing with constituent structures like active and passive forms.  This is done through a set of rules that are based on the phrase structure, the horizontal structure, and the vertical or tree structure.  Those rules transform phrase structures into other forms and provide a more economical explanation of how language functions.  Transformational grammar, then, is a means of explaining the deep structure of a language.  In the 1970’s there was great optimism regarding transformational grammar.  Its emphasis on how surface structures can be generated from deep structures and how structures can be transformed into stylistic variants seemed to indicate that a study of transformational grammar would carry over into “improved” language use.  But Hillocks (1986) pointed out in his meta-study on the teaching of grammar as a tool in writing instruction that teaching transformational grammar did not seem to have a beneficial effect on student writing.

Other theoretical grammars like Tagmemic Grammar, developed by linguist Kenneth L. Pike, evolved through attempts to solve problems that occurred when translating the Bible for primarily oral cultures.  Tagmemic Grammar is based on the theory of the “situatedness” of communication.  Tagmemic Grammar evolved into the theory of Tagmemic Rhetoric which views the composing process as one of problem solving within a situational context. Language is used within a cultural context (Edwards 1996).

Theoretical grammars like Functional Systemic Grammar are useful for such studies as Discourse Analysis, and language arts teachers may find these helpful in developing their own knowledge about the structure of the English language. Functional grammars such as Hallidayan have found their way into classrooms, particularly into Australian language arts classrooms.  Some theorists believe that studying grammar from the more functional perspective can impact students’ ability to construct meaning through language.  As Weaver (1996) points out, however, no research has been conducted on the effects of isolated functional grammar teaching and student writing ability.  And, indeed, there may be little impact.  This point will be discussed later in this paper.

The power of Transformational Grammar and those that came after it, is the fact that it attempts to describe language in use, language that is used by real speakers and listeners. Prior to this, grammars were based on what Weaver calls “hand-me-down” rules derived from Latin and from earlier English grammars.

Applied Grammars

The other category of grammar, which I have labeled as Applied Grammar, actually can be divided into two sub-categories—Descriptive and Prescriptive.  Descriptive Grammars attempt to precisely describe the linguistic processes a particular user employs.  It does not tell the user how to speak or understand.  In Descriptive Grammars there are no right or wrong ways to speak or write except as the language itself allows (Zeigler 1996).

Prescriptive Grammars, on the other hand, can be thought of as the opposite of Descriptive Grammars in that they describe rules that govern the use of language.  Prescriptive Grammars establish a “proper” way in which to speak or write.  These are the grammars that are explicitly taught in schools.  Sometimes referred to as pedagogical grammars, these grammars frequently blur into each other.  Traditional Grammars and School Grammars, for example, are often considered the same category and will be discussed together.  Prescriptive Grammars fall into Hartwell’s categories of Grammars 3 and 4.  He points out that these grammars developed “unscientifically” and were largely based on an appeal to “logical principles” and Latin grammar in the guise of English.

Rhetorical Grammar is an interesting development in Prescriptive Grammars and, depending on how it is interpreted, could also be considered a Descriptive Grammar.  According to Martha Kolln (1996), Rhetorical Grammar is based on the noun phrase, what Kolln identifies as the most common structure in the English language.  Kolln’s method asks students to manipulate noun phrases and modifiers and to think critically about the syntactic structure of the noun phrase and the effect of different referents on meaning.

We can place the role of grammar in the language arts curriculum, as currently practiced, on a continuum.  At the far right of the continuum is the practice of teaching Prescriptive Grammars in isolation.  These School Grammars, or Traditional Grammars, are heavy on rules and labels and have a long history in American education.  Indeed, grammar has had a long history in education in general.  At the far left would be the absence of any direct instruction in grammar.
Most theorists trace the history of grammar to the ancient Greeks who made grammar part of a trivium of rhetoric, logic, and grammar.  The Greeks, however, viewed grammar as more than a set of prescriptive rules.  Cheryl Glen (1995) interprets the role of grammar in the Greek trivium as one of style more than rules of correctness.  Kolln also places grammar teaching in this position.  Glenn views this role of grammar, what she calls “fluid, flexible, lively, ever-changing, emotional, beautiful, stylish, graceful language performance” (10) as the goal of grammar instruction.

 Dykema (1993) points out that in Plato and the Sophists we find the word rhema identifying a word that performs the action of the noun, a  noma.  Aristotle pointed out and named conjunctions and explained that sentences contained predicates.  The Stoics continued to identify terms for explaining aspects of the language such as article, number, gender, case, voice, mood, and tense (Robbins in Dykema 1993).

Greek, because of Greece’s prestigious position in the ancient world, influenced other languages and became the model for other grammars, including Latin.  Dykema points out that Greek also served as a grammar model for Syrian, Armenian, Hebrew, and possibly Arabic.

In the first century A.D. Quintillian,  a Roman teacher of Rhetoric, outlined his Institution Oratoria, a 12-book curriculum designed to train the ideal orator.  In Quintillian’s day, grammar was a science that included lessons on speaking and writing well, and on interpreting poems.  Grammar lessons dealt with word order, word choice, and agreement.  Students learned through memorizing the master rhetoricians’ speeches and poems.  When they were ready, students were allowed to write their own material mimicking the masters.

What set Quintillian apart from other teachers of the era was that he organized his instruction into a hierarchy that began with grammar and ended years later with rhetorical studies (Lindemann 1995).

Grammarians were in demand in ancient Rome, according to Dykema, who uses as evidence the fact that the slave Lutatius Daphinis, a grammarian, was purchased and put in charge of the public libraries.  It was the mission of the grammar teacher in Rome to develop stylistic purity and manliness in their students, who were, of course, almost always boys.  The lessons involved reading, writing, speaking, spelling, identification of nouns, verbs, conjunctions, articles, prepositions, adjectives, pronouns, participles, interjections, conjugation, vocabulary, and drilling in the rules that must be used in writing and speaking.  Grammar at this point meant the naming of the parts of the language as well as the effective use of the language.  Eloquence was the goal and grammar instruction and was the only means to achieve that goal.  Teachers like Aulus Gellius represented the aristocrat's belief that language practiced by that class reflected the correct use of language (Dykema 1993).

Although it was not the custom to give aristocrats of the Middle Ages much education, there was a tradition of grammar instruction.  The Greek and Roman traditions had continued, but something was missing.  Dykema believes that it was a cultural background that permitted pertinent questions.  For example, when studying early Christian texts written in Greek, Christian teaching influenced translation.  Dykema provides the example of the Greek word scala meaning step.  Church authorities believed the Holy Ghost had ruled that the word was singular.  Church officials also proclaimed that the verb had three persons, proof that it was divinely inspired by the Trinity.  And it was believed that, through Latin, those who were divinely inspired could more quickly gain knowledge of the Trinity and be guided to salvation.  Latin grammar was the vehicle for salvation (Dykema 1993).

Latin grammar was dominant until about the twelfth century when Greek philosophy came into fashion, but the authority of the grammarian for the most part remained unchallenged.  But the re-emergence of Greek philosophy brought about a period of intellectual and artistic achievement in the Middle Ages.  However, native languages contained no “respectable” literature and were not considered themselves respectable. To learn the language of scholarship and literature, unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Medieval scholar had to learn with the aid of formal grammar.

The Renaissance continued the classical tradition of educating boys, and doing so in Latin and Greek grammar.  Grammar studies were considered a means of honing the mind and the classical trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic were considered the foundation of all knowledge and were prerequisites for later studies in theology, philosophy, and literature (Weaver 1996).

This tradition continued well into the 19th century.  Boyd (1995) citing Kenneth Cmiel, indicates that in the years after the American Civil War, the ability to speak and write “correctly” became more and more a class distinction.  Cmiel, according to Boyd, concluded that a small but powerful minority of “verbal critics” called for a purification of linguistic behavior in secondary and post secondary schools.  Boyd points out that the academic community was very receptive to this push at a time when undergraduate rhetoric programs were moving away from classically-based oral recitation.  The focus became “error-free” writing and the basic definition of good writing was writing that was without errors (Boyd 1995).

What complicated the issue, however, was the horrendous paper load that accompanied the new emphasis on writing.  Boyd notes that the typical writing course between 1880 and 1910 held between one hundred and forty to two hundred students.  Teachers had literally hundreds of papers to read each week.  Boyd writes that at Harvard during the academic year 1899 to 1900, eleven writing instructors taught six hundred and thirty students who produced more and ten thousand pages of writing during the year.

In order to handle this paper load, teachers of the time turned away from assigning so much writing and instead turned toward a teaching model that placed an emphasis on mechanical correctness.  Suddenly teachers could assess writing for superficial correctness. This came at a time when social pressures were demanding a re-establishing of socio-economic class distinctions (Boyd 1995).

Boyd writes:
      An insistence upon student proficiency in the grammatical
      and stylistic conventions of the upper middle class was
      to serve as a bulwark against the encroachments of ‘vulgar[izers]’
      upon traditional class distinctions and provide a guarantee that
      the college-educated would be adequately trained in the ‘objectivity’
      and ‘correctness’ valued by the managerial class.  Further, the push
      for proper’ grammar and word usage has been shown to coincide
      with a dramatic change in the demographics of the college
      population brought on by relatively more open admission
      policies in the years after the Civil War.  No longer could the
      homogeneous student population of the pre-War years be assumed,
      as more and more young people for non-elite backgrounds came to
      fill the universities in search of access to the privileges of high
      socio-economic rank (75-76).

The tradition of correctness pushed itself into the new century and remained a mainstay in composition practice.  In 1945, NCTE appointed the Commission on the English Curriculum to investigate the research on teaching the language arts.  However, the commission essentially left the grammar issue untouched (Ross 1995).  But, by 1956, the commission briefly concluded that the teaching of grammar did not seem to have much impact on student writing abilities.  However, the commission went on to say that “an intelligent student can be assisted in the revision of his writing and in the self-analysis of recordings of his speech” (cited in Ross 75).  This, then, was a justification for teaching grammar. And this justification reflects a change in ideas and language.  It meant correctness.  And to achieve correctness, students had to learn the rules of correctness and the names of the parts of the language.  This became the foundation of School Grammar, the Prescriptive Grammar used in most American textbooks.

Smitherman, writing in 1977, saw a continuation of the cult of correctness, fed by misconceptions and myths regarding languages in general.  She points out that one of the myths was that in every language there were “primitive” or “underdeveloped” languages. The belief was that some people spoke the correct version of the language, and that other people spoke a dialect, or wrote or spoke a form of the language that was sloppy and unsystematic.  Smitherman points out that linguists have “put the lie to such myths, and have arrived at a number of ‘linguistic universals’ underlying all languages.” (191).

And new voices are continuing to speak out, to ask teachers to re-evaluate the place of prescriptive and descriptive grammars in the English classroom.  Certainly decades of research has called this question also.  Before we look at the newer voices in the Grammar Wars, we need to look at the studies that prompted some of the new voices to speak out.

New Voices

Children by the ages of five or six are usually fluent in their language.  They use it confidently without knowing the names of the parts and structures they speak.  They are users of Hartwell’s Grammar 1.  By the time children reach school age they are competent in the use of all five basic sentence patterns (Hunt 1995).   They are able to use negatives, passives, ellipses, and imperatives (Gillet and Temple 1984) and they can use present, past, and future tenses (Loban 1976).  These grammatical concepts are first learned through oral speech, through the immersion process that allows children to develop language (Moffett and Wagner 1992).  But one of the traditional elements of a language arts program is isolated grammar instruction (Elley, Barham, Lamb and Wyllie 1975).  English teachers have traditionally placed great faith in the direct benefits of separate grammar instruction (Elley et al 1975). Specifically, they often teach grammar in isolation from writing (Tchudi 1991).  The skills approach to literacy has its foundation in behaviorist theory, which assumes that literacy is acquired through direct separate skills instruction.  These skills would then become integrated through practice (Griffith, Klesius, and Zielonka 1991).

As early as 1906 there was some doubt as to whether direct and isolated Prescriptive Grammar instruction was meeting the needs of students.  Franklyn Hoyt theorized that there existed the same relationship between this type of grammar and composition as existed between any two other subjects such as grammar and geography (1906).

A New Zealand study conducted by Elley, Barham, Lamb, and Wyllie (1975) found that English grammar instruction, whether it was traditional or Transformational Grammar, had “virtually no influence on the language growth of typical secondary students” (17).  This was one of the most influential of the grammar studies and one of the first to mention Transformational Grammar, which was beginning to find a place in the classroom as perhaps an alternative to Prescriptive Grammar instruction.

A study conducted by Harris (1962) found after two years of traditional grammar instruction, five high school classes of students performed worse on an assessment piece that looked at sentence complexity and surface errors than a similar group who did  not study formal grammar.

Some teacher-researchers found that grammar instruction can be far more effective if it is incorporated into student writing instruction (Atwell 1987, Meyer 1990).  We see here a turning away from teaching Prescriptive Grammar and a turn toward the acknowledgment that there are certain conventions of written language that are learned best within the context of composition studies, not isolated drill in those conventions or rules.  It is important to note here that we are for the most part dealing with Hartwell’s Grammar 3, the linguistic etiquette which encompassed paragraph rules, rules about double negatives, capitalization and certain structures such as “ain’t” and “I seen.”  Routman (1991) believes that it is more appropriate to teach parts of speech and structure labels after students have achieved writing fluency and conceptual understanding.  Moffet and
Wagner emphasize that grammar skills develop through the practice of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

 Holdaway (1979) maintains that there are two forms of knowledge.  Productive knowledge involves the knowledge of how to do something.  Abstract knowledge is the knowledge about something.  When we relate this to the issue of grammar, Holdaway stresses that it is far more important that students know how to use language effectively.  It is less important that they know the analytical terms that relate to language and syntax.  He adds that educators have made the mistake of thinking that students need to know about how the language operates in order to use the language successfully.  He believes the purpose of language arts instruction should be reading and writing fluency.  That cannot happen as successfully if teachers take up class time to drill on “unintelligible rules of syllabification” (86).

Linden and Whimbey (1990) agree with Holdaway.  They liken the teaching of large doses of Prescriptive or School Grammar to the practice physicians used when they bled the sick.  Linden and Whimbey claim that truly effective means of teaching writing were not available to teachers in the past, and so teachers resorted to “superstition, alchemy, charlatanism, and other grabbing-at-straws methods” (11).

Clearly Prescriptive Grammar and the cult of correctness that seemed to accompany it was seen by many researchers as problematic.  They loudly questioned whether the isolated instruction in the rules of language use and the names of the parts of language somehow transferred into an ability to write clearly and fluently.  Somehow the classic trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic had lost much of its power.

Still Newer Voices

Perhaps in reaction to the perceived call from some for teachers to completely abandon the teaching of Prescriptive Grammar, newer voices began to speak out.  Few of them asked for a return to School Grammar, but most were asking teachers to rethink their definitions of grammar.

Martha Kolln, who is highly critical of the 1963 Braddock report stressed that students need to be consciously aware of their own grammatical knowledge and that this can be done through studying structures and labeling them.  Kolln uses problems she perceives in the design and implementation of the Braddock study as evidence of her point.  She instead points to another study that was published at the same time as the Braddock report.  The Meckel report, which used many of the same studies as the Braddock report, concluded that not enough time had been devoted to teaching grammar.  Meckel pointed out that the formal study of grammar does not have to be isolated from student writing (Weaver 1996).  But it is not clear what Meckel means by the term grammar.  Kolln, however, points out that flaws in the studies that advocate the de-emphasis of Prescriptive Grammar instruction indicate that grammar should be taught.  Her contention that grammar as application is interesting, but her belief that this is “proved” through pointing out flaws in previous studies is contestable.

Rei Noguchi is another newer voice that is asking teachers to think critically about the role of grammar in the classroom.  His book Grammar and the Teaching of Writing (1991) suggests that teachers limit the use of grammatical terminology to those elements or features that are necessary in helping students create fewer errors in their writing and to write more effective sentences.  Noguchi is one of the newer voices who believes students must formulate their own operational descriptions of how language functions. This is a move away from the cult of correctness and a recognition that students already have a vast knowledge of Grammar 1, even though they may not be able to articulate it.  Noguchi is attempting to lead teachers toward more Descriptive Grammars that recognize the linguistic abilities of students.  Noguchi, however, acknowledges that power structures within the culture demand a level of “correctness” in writers and suggests that teachers focus on the most common “errors” in student writing and those “errors that seem to most concern those who wield power in corporate, academic, and political arenas.

According to Weaver, these are essentially errors in subject/verb agreement, and the failure to recognize subordinate clauses and phrases as incomplete sentences.  Weaver also adds the misuses of commas in certain situations, such as introductory phrases and the lack of commas with the use of appositives and interrupters.

Susan Hunter and Ray Wallace both call for teachers to rethink the role of grammar in the English classroom.  They admit that too great a focus on School or Traditional Grammar is not the answer, but they add that this is not the only approach to grammar.  Wallace believes the issue has been skirted for too long, especially among college composition teachers, and that these teachers need to find ways in which to reconnect grammar and writing. Hunter suggests that the re-establishing of the trivium where grammar becomes something more than an issue of correctness will give students something akin to what it did for Frederick Douglass who saw grammar study as a means of gaining “intellectual and ethical power to sustain freedom within a community” (245).


The 1980’s were heady days for me as a teacher because I began to read the theories that formed the foundation for many classroom practices that I had begun to adopt.  These were the days when I seemed to react the most strongly against many of the more traditional classroom practices.  And part of that reaction was to abandon the teaching of grammar.  By that, I mean the teaching of Prescriptive School Grammar as outlined in the grand-daddy of all Prescriptive Grammar texts, Warriner’s.  This was the teaching of Hartwell’s Grammars 3 and 4.  I remember my own school and the years of drill and skill exercises that varied little from one year to the next.  Only the color of the Warriner’s cover seemed to change.

I did very little writing in school, but I was always recognized as a good writer. I paid little attention to the prescriptive rules in the grammar texts of the day, but I often wrote “error free” papers.  I recall that even as a young reader, caught in the thrall of Nancy Drew mysteries, I found myself paying attention to the conventions of punctuation and apostrophes.  I did not realize for many years that others who read the same books as I, who grew up in the same neighborhood and spoke a similar dialect of English, rarely noticed those conventions and had difficulty using them in their own written language.

My senior English teacher urged my parents to dissuade me from majoring in voice in college.  She believed I should major in English.  The fact that I eventually changed my major to English was more about the fact, however, that I could write “error free” papers than it was about a love of reading literature or a call to teach the youth of America.  I needed to major in something if I was going to stay in college, and, after all, I could write.

As a new teacher I became caught up in the culture of my particular school and taught what I was told to teach.  That included a large does of School Grammar.  But perhaps because I considered myself a writer, I also included a great deal of writing in my high school English classes.  The fact that I saw little transfer between the Prescriptive Grammar lessons and the writing I received from my students disturbed me.  But I did not know how to change my teaching to bring about better pieces of writing—better in both issues of correctness and in the development of ideas.

It was at that time that I first learned about writing as process, and as problematic as the term “process” has become, in relationship to a body of theory about writing, it is still the theoretical base form which I operate most of the time.

The question I asked myself was whether the teaching of rules and the names of sentence parts had any positive effect on student writing.  The answer continued to be a resounding no.   If I were to place myself on the grammar continuum with the teaching of Prescriptive Grammars in isolation at the far right, my place would be at the far left of the continuum.  Other than a few convention issues, I do very little whole class instruction in Prescriptive Grammar.  I generally deal with such issues as tense, subject/verb agreement, and pronoun/antecendant agreement with individual students as the issues arise.  My goal is to place students in as many language-rich experiences as possible.  Hartwell would agree.  The model of writing instruction that he believes is most effective is that which is based on “rich and complex iteration of learner and environment in mastering literacy, an interaction that has little to do with sequences of skills instruction as such” (108).

But there may be some theorists, Noguchi, for one, to whom I should listen.  Noguchi believes that students should be given the opportunity to formulate their own operational descriptions of how the language functions.  This takes us into the interesting idea of Descriptive Grammars, those grammars that describe language in use.  Noguchi suggests that teachers work with students at the sentence level with lessons involving subject/verb/modifier.  And, indeed, if grammar lessons limited the amount of terminology to these three concepts, many more students might have a chance at gaining a conscious insight into the structures of the language and a sense of power to manipulate those structures.  Too many Prescriptive Grammar lessons were reduced to learning terms and labeling words.

However, there is little indication, as Weaver points out, that a conscious knowledge of language structures will impact student language use.  Hartwell agrees.  He writes:

If Grammar 2 knowledge affected Gramma 1 performance, then linguists would be our best writers. (I can certify that they are, on the whole, not.)  Such a position, after all, is only in accord with other domains of science:  the formula for catching a fly ball in baseball is of such complexity that it is beyond my  understanding—and, I would suspect, that of many workaday centerfielders (113).

I have problems with other position Noguchi takes, as well.  He writes that “if grammar is potentially transferable to style and if ineffective grammar teaching and ineffective grammar learning are negated in some way, then formal instruction in grammar can be of help in the area of style” (12).  This is a tremendous leap.  As Keith Rhodes (1997) points out, there is no evidence that ineffective teaching or learning are the problems.  We cannot assume that grammar teaching will have an impact on writing style or any other aspect of writing.

Patrick Hartwell points out that the rules we use are too complex to define easily.  If we give students opportunities to describe their language in use, will they be able to do so, and will this impact their abilities to use language more effectively.  There is still no evidence that Descriptive Grammars can do this.  And certainly my work with middle school writers has not given me reason to believe that opportunities to describe language in use is the whole answer.

Perhaps if students began their earliest school literacy acquisition in situations where they had to use meta-linguistic skills to describe their language in use, the story would be somewhat different.  Certainly there is a growing body of theory that such matacognitive activities help students think more deliberately about their use of language and the construction of meaning.  And Hartwell points to studies that reinforce the theory that meta-linguistic awareness is a component of print literacy.  He adds that the ability to manipulate language through such techniques as sentence combining can certainly help students build meta-linguistic awareness so that they are consciously involved in language and attend to both meaning and surface form. Hartwell points out, however, that any kind of activity involving language can contribute to students’ increased awareness of language as language.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in the issue of errors.  What exactly are errors and what do they tell us about writers?  Hartwell, citing Mina Shaughnessy, notes that mistakes in such things as punctuation are not so much conceptual failures but performance errors.  Hartwell adds that often these performance errors occur because of instruction.  Hartwell calls for teachers to shuck off their hyperliterate perception of the value of formal rules, and to regain the confidence in the tacit power of unconscious knowledge that our theory of language gives us.  He adds that most students, when reading their writing aloud, hear and correct their errors, often without noticing that they have written something other than what they wrote.  This tells us that Grammar 1 is firmly in place.  He goes on to say that the usage problems teachers often see in student papers are linguistically unnatural and a departure from the grammar in our heads, Grammar 1.  The answer then seems to be one of placing students in a position where they can see the differences between their Grammar 1 and what they have written. I have seen this work year after year with middle school students.  They may not be able to hypothesize the rules of grammar based on their Grammar 1, but they can often see the “unnatural” structures they have written.

And this seems to transcend dialect.  Hartwell stresses that native speakers, regardless of dialect, carry with them a knowledge of Grammar 1 and that “mastery seems to transfer into abstract orthographic knowledge through interaction with print”(123).

We are far from understanding how this happens in students.  I have difficulty accepting Kolln’s premise that if students focus on the noun phrase and build from there, that they will develop the metalinguistic awareness to produce fluid prose.  And I have difficulties with Kolln’s rationale that Rhetorical Grammar, or Stylistic Grammar, as Hartwell calls it, should have a central place in the curriculum simply because she has found flaws in the research design of the Elley and Braddock studies.  Plus, Kolln maintains that there is a vocabulary of style that students must master.  This, then, places students in a position where they are still learning ABOUT language rather than learning to manipulate language in a meaningful context.
 The question remains as to whether formal grammar instruction, whether it is Rhetorical Grammar or one of the other Applied Grammars, has any impact on student writing.  The answer is still no.

Hartwell agrees.

        Our theory would predict that formal grammar instruction,
        whether instruction in scientific [Theoretical} grammar or instruction in
        “the common school grammar,” would have little to do with control
        over surface correctness nor with quality of writing (125).

What Should Teachers Know

To understand the complexity of the grammar issue, teachers need to have some understanding of the language acquisition process.  And they need to understand that children enter the classroom with a thorough grounding in the internalized system of rules of their language.  They already know Grammar 1.  Teachers should also understand that, barring some cognitive impairment, native speakers use “good” grammar, even though the language they speak may not be “standard” English.  They should also understand the problems in thinking of grammars as a remedy for supposed inadequacies in students writing and spoken language.

bell hooks (1994) eloquently points out a few problems with the notion of teaching grammar.  In essence she asks “whose grammar are we teaching?”  If the goal of grammar teaching (whether within the context of writing or not) is to help students speak and write the language of power, we must ask ourselves if this is a noble goal. And by assuming that there IS a language of power, and that those who master it have a better chance of being “successful” what are we saying about those who do not, or will not, speak that language?  hooks, recalling the fact that Africans brought here during the slave trade had to learn the “language of the oppressor” writes:

        Needing the oppressor's language to speak with one another
        they nevertheless also reinvented, remade that language
        so that it would speak beyond the boundaries of conquest
        and domination.  In the mouths of black Africans in the
        so-called New World, English was altered, transformed,
        and became a different speech (170).

hooks goes on to say that there is a direct relationship between the broken English that displaces Africans as slaves and the black vernacular speech of some African Americans today.  She points out that this “rupture of standard English” enables both rebellion and resistance.  Black English, she points out, is an intimate speech that enables resistance to the dominant culture but also creates an alternative space for different ways of thinking crucial to creating an alternate world view.  She stresses that “it is absolutely essential that the revolutionary power of black vernacular speech not be lost in contemporary culture.  That power resides in the capacity of black vernacular to intervene on the boundaries and limitations of standard English” (171).

In our attempts to help students gain control over language, and to help them express themselves through oral and written texts and learn the conventions of standard English through those experiences, we cannot forget that other dialects are used successfully.  “So called” standard English may be the language of power, but only in certain venues.  It is important for teachers to remember this.  hooks writes:

          To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and
          oppressed people’s attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences
          in language.  We seek to make a place for intimacy.  Unable to find
          such a place in standardized English, we created the ruptured, broken,
          unruly speech of the vernacular (175).

But there is still a problem here.  Granted we must honor the validity of all dialects.  And we must honor the fact that language is a cultural marker. But what about those who speak only a non-privileged dialect?  It is fine and good to respect that dialect as dynamic and powerful.

But Delpit points out that those who believe grammar (or issues of correctness in standard English), namely writing process advocates, view the mundane issues of correctness and the teaching of skills to be a hindrance to the process of writing.  Delpit points out that some Black students, for example, continue to write and speak in their own dialect and are not pushed to use standard English.  And although Delpit does not support the isolated skill and drill that many students are subjected to, she does believe that Black students, for example, be given enough experience with the technical skills of language that could help them find a place in the world outside their own dialect group.  She writes:

          Let there be no doubt: a skilled minority person
          who is not also capable of critical analysis becomes the
          trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant
          society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions
          which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.
          On the other hand, a critical thinker who lacks the skills
          demanded by employers and institutions of higher learning can
          aspire to financial and social status only within the disenfranchised
          underworld.  Yes, if minority people are to effect the change which
          will allow them to truly progress we must insist on ‘skills’ within
          the context of critical and creative thinking. (19)

Teachers need to understand the power issues involved in the teaching of grammar.  And, indeed, it is a question of power, as Hartwell, citing Emig stresses.  He writes:

          …that the thrust of current research and theory is to take power
          from the teacher and give that power to the learner. At no point
          in the English curriculum is the question of power more blatantly
          posed than in the issue of formal grammar instruction.  It is time
          that we, as teachers, formulate theories of language and literacy
          and let those theories guide our teaching…(127)

It may seem that the truth of the grammar issue may be that there is no truth.  Students acquire language and literacy in much the same way, through social interaction, through dialogue.  And over the course of the literacy acquisition years, which is probably an entire lifetime, language users grow in their abilities to use that language.  We as teachers can foster that growth through meaningful language-rich classroom activities that place students in situations where they build upon their knowledge of Grammar 1.  But clearly more research needs to be conducted, especially in the area of Descriptive Grammar and its impact on student writing.

Reference list

March 16, 1999
Nancy G. Patterson
Michigan State University