James D. Willimas opens his chapter, "Grammar and Usage" by stating that "the biggest myth about writing is that it is somehow linked to grammar." He cites many studies which all conclude that teaching traditional grammar has no effect on writing performance, including a well known study by Hillocks (1986) which found that if taught in certain ways, traditional grammar instruction can actually be detrimental to student writing. Hillocks says that those who insist on grammar instruction in the name of writing improvement are doing a "gross disservice" to students by doing so.
Williams admits that this conclusion is hard for many to believe because it seems to contradict common sense. After all, we learn the alphabet before we learn to spell words. Yet, Williams reminds us, we do not learn language by a "building block" approach. Children learn grammar from their home communities and come to school with grammar "already embedded in their brains." In fact, claims Williams, it is impossible for children to process or naturally produce ungrammatical phrases.
Williams goes on to explain that most writing errors are, in fact, not grammatical in nature, but are errors in usage. Where traditional grammar is concerned with grammatical terminology and parts of speech, usage is the way in which language conventions govern how we use it in different contexts (i.e. spelling, punctuation, subject-verb agreement). Teaching grammar will not correct these usage errors. Instead, Williams suggests, students most effectively internalize usage conventions by reading.
Williams concludes by saying that he doesn't mean to imply that the teaching of grammar has no worth. He says there is value in talking about language and studying its intricacies. But, if our goal is to teach students to write better, Williams insists that students will be better served if teachers, rather than spending a great deal of time on grammar instruction, focus more on reading, and on providing the most effective (if idealistic) writing instruction: giving students as much one-on-one instruction as possible.
It is difficult for many to believe that grammar instruction has no effect whatsoever on writing. Like Williams claims, I have never had a writing instruction course before this one, yet have been teaching students to write for many years. Though I have never spent much time teaching grammar, I have felt guilty for not doing so. Because I had so much grammar instruction in my own schooling, I just thought it must be something I should be doing. I’m relieved to hear that it wouldn’t affect my students' writing anyway.
My district (the largest in Minnesota), though, certainly buys into the belief that grammar instruction is valuable. We need to raise our writing test scores? The solution: more grammar! Students are required to have Daily Oral Language instruction every day in their elementary and secondary English classes. A DOL lesson consists of sentence correction and a discussion of grammar--completely unrelated to any other projects on which students are working. When they get to 12th grade, which has no DOL component, I find that students are able to name the parts of speech, but still have usage errors. My own experience is that it is more effective to give students usage mini-lessons, but only when they are near the end of the writing process for any particular paper, and to tie in that mini-lesson directly with the paper on which they're working.Posted by gust0124 at April 11, 2005 9:55 PM