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More grammar gaps.


As a teacher of teachers, I must address whether or how grammar belongs in instruction. The official National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) position, against formal grammar teaching, is that most honored in U.S. practice. However, those for any grammar use voice their views in the NCTE's Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG). Some states, like California, require grammar instruction. Divisions exist among grammar-instruction supporters. This article explores both grammar wars and issues which separate classroom-grammar supporters.

A Discipline Divided

Whether grammar should or should not be taught one way or another divides the profession. Representative of over forty years of grammar wars are the February, October and December 1985 issues of College English. Authors include Kolln, Williams et al, and Hartwell. Not necessarily interpretable as exclusive in theory, the National Council of the Teachers of English (NCTE) webpages reflect a division in practice:

One webpage has the official, never amended, NCTE 1986 statement on grammar:
 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.

Another NCTE webpage has
 Knowing about grammar is important for numerous reasons. It's the
 language that lets us talk about language. It names the type of
 words and word groups that comprise sentences in English and other
 languages. It helps with understanding what makes sentences and
 paragraphs clear, interesting, and precise. It can be part of
 literature discussions as we examine the sentences in poetry and
 stories. It lets us understand that all languages and all dialects
 follow grammatical patterns. Research shows that learning grammar
 is best done in the context of reading, writing, and speaking.

Beneath the above text are three columns which contain

1. Seven online articles on Grammar,

2. Suggested readings from three books and one journal article on grammar

3. a. Grammar Kit advertisement,

b. Link to Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar,

c. Link to the official anti-grammar position statement, and

d. Link to what grammar teaching is supported by research.

My Students Make me Do it.

My grammar-dispute study does not follow from finding such research to be fun. I teach literature and writing, but my chief charge is teaching linguistic insights into language to future teachers. These include Early-Childhood Education, Elementary Education, Elementary Education with Secondary English Extension, Secondary English Education, and Special Education majors among others. Consequently, I have had to consider grammar's role both in my own and in my students' classroom use. My students reflect the same attitudes toward grammar which this article discusses. The majority rejects any classroom grammar, and a minority supports some kind of grammar instruction. The students, and the authorities which I will cite, differ however. Most student views reflect no critical thinking. Most students are unfamiliar with literature addressing either classroom practice or research findings. A common denominator among the negatively disposed are statements like "I write well, am a devoted reader, and have learned from good models without formal grammar instruction. Who needs it?" A smaller positively disposed group deems grammar instruction good for people like medicine and exercise. A still smaller group thinks sociopolitically: "Restore grammar along with spanking, phonics, prayer in schools etc." Besides education students, I have found other students in literature classes with the who-needs-it? view. My impression, nothing more, is many are journalism majors and creative writers from various majors.

My own view, teach labels for metalanguage, results from classroom experience. (I must add that a bias doubtless exists because I am a linguist, so language analysis interests me intrinsically.) The classroom experience is in college composition. I find intelligent, hardworking students whose reading, frequent or infrequent, has not led to success in writing. I find great difficulty in addressing such students' recurrent structural errors without shared grammatical terms available for metalanguage about writing. Nonetheless, I do not attempt to persuade education students to adopt my view. I do insist that their opinions be supported by sources drawing from classroom practice and/or from research findings. Further, I ask them to support their rejection of the position opposing theirs. The majority of my students have little or no grammar background of any kind. Consequently, I make a special effort to represent those opinions supporting instruction with which they are unfamiliar.

Revisiting of Grammar Instruction.

Ed Vavra, a major advocate for some grammar in the curriculum, founded the newsletter, now journal, Syntax in the Schools in 1984. In 1990, he helped found what has become the NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. (ATEG) Vavra (1991) discussed his view of the organization's history. In the early 80's, it was almost impossible to get an article about teaching grammar published in the professional journals. Establishing his newsletter and his involvement with the ATEG was a reaction to this difficulty. In 1999, The Association became an Assembly of the NCTE. Vavra believed that the ATEG substantially influenced the NCTE and other professional organizations to resume accepting articles on teaching grammar. The ATEG has a webpage (Haussamen 2005) devoted to grammar questions culled from its listserve. I recommend the ATEG listserve to anyone interested in classroom grammar. One frequent issue is defining both grammar itself and grammar labels.

What does "Grammar" Mean?

Ed Vavra (2001) attributed difficulties in evaluating the teaching of grammar to the lack of a common definition for the term itself. Before designing effective studies, researchers must better understand the natural development of syntactic maturity. However, lack of a shared definition of terms prevent this. Lack of a common definition for grammar and grammar labels is not new. Terms related to "grammar" like "rhetoric" have also proved resistant to a shared, understood definition. Difficulty refining and defining terms concerning any language-oriented discipline is as old as the terms themselves. I address the long history of this difficulty in Hoffman (2005): "Grammar: Defying Definition beyond two Millennia."

Many noteworthy attempts to address grammar definition exist. W. Nelson Francis' (1954) article-,among other topics--defined three uses of grammar. Karl W. Dykema (1961) briefly discussed grammar history from classical to medieval times, providing four separate definitions. Much later, Patrick Hartwell (1985) wrote an article, "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar." Building upon Francis, Hartwell distinguished five meanings for grammar, the best known schema among those listed above. Hartwell's definitions are briefly paraphrased below.

1. Innate rules which people know but cannot consciously explicate, though they know when rules are broken. Pedagogy's closest approach to natural grammar teaching is through foreign language immersion techniques.

2. Any modern linguistic theory's explanation of language, particularly the syntax.

3. A set of usage prescriptions; what people mean by good and bad grammar.

4. Any traditional grammar version, a body of knowledge including parts of speech and word group labels, prescriptive, and Latinate.

5. Uses of labels from grammar 4 (sometimes 2) descriptively in mini-lessons. They provide metalanguage for discussing writing in context, using actual, not artificial, text. This is sometimes termed rhetorical grammar.

Some speakers and writers are precise when using the term, grammar. Familiar with Hartwell or another system, they convey accurately what they mean. Unfortunately, most assume that their own use is general. As a teachers' teacher, I recognize that my students will read and write about grammar. In essays, I ask students to associate Hartwell's numbers with grammar and grammatical whether from sources or in their own text. I want them to discern their own and others' use of the terms. Many language-arts and English teachers zealously accepted scholarly justification to reject traditional grammar teaching. They disliked teaching it; their students disliked learning it. Divisions existed among those unhappy with school grammar. Most English-teachers chose total abandonment. Fewer argued that some labels should be taught, related to specific writing problems and reading applications, not in isolation. This largely fits within Hartwell's rhetorical grammar category

Drill-and-kill school grammar is championed by very few anymore. Among those who support rhetorical grammar, disagreements remain. However, among supporters, nearly everyone agrees that:

1. Usage (grammar 3) should be taught.

2. Drill-and-kill school (grammar 4 as body of knowledge) exercises helped few or none.

3. Reading and writing should link with learning linguistic and/or traditional labels whether for modeling or "error correction." Labels cannot be learned as disembodied entities existing in a contextual vacuum.

Certain disagreements recur both on the ATEG listserve and elsewhere in discussions of teaching grammar. Besides grammar terminology discussed above are three other contentious areas.

1. What grammar should be taught, i.e. what labels based on what theory or principles?

2. When should it be taught--both at what grade level and in what sequence in a curriculum?

3. How should it be taught i.e. what methods should be employed?

What Grammar should Be Taught?

Anyone wishing full texts of material cited from the ATEG website can directly access past ATEG postings from its archive: As of this writing, listserve archive contains postings from February 1995 to April 2005. Ed Vara (1991) discussed the ATEG mission: educators need to discuss how and why grammar is being taught. Some ATEG members may support "traditional" grammar; most do not. To find and develop alternatives in grammar teaching, there must be free and open discussion. One common discussion topic among ATEG members is terminology. What labels from new theories can be applied to elementary and secondary pedagogy? Arguments against modern terminology include:

1. Any new terms adopted are not accepted by a majority of practicing linguists who divide among thirty or more theoretical frameworks. Why teach terms not in general use?

2. Modern terms often change as theory changes. Why teach terms that don't have shelf life?

3. Most modern terms have no pedagogical support structure applicable to elementary and secondary education.

Proponents argue for greater accuracy and for greater ease in teaching. However, I prefer an updated use of the traditional terminology. The familiar terms continue, but the teaching methodology changes. I first saw this idea advanced in one of Lester's earlier grammars. Lester (1990, 345) discussed revised traditional grammar. It is not profoundly different from school room traditional grammar. Where it differs is that structural and transformational concepts and techniques inform the definitions for the parts of speech. The idea is to help students use their intuitive knowledge of English to gain a better grasp of traditional terms and concepts.

Among those who believe grammatical terminology necessary as metalanguage for discussing writing, difficulty remains in finding commonly agreeable terms. Johanna Rubba (1999), an advocate for advanced grammar teaching in high school and college, reached a conclusion aligned with Lester.. Differences in terminology between most modern linguistic theories and traditional grammar hampers the development of common terms. Rubba cautioned that linguists should not insist that many people currently teaching grammar should change their usage. This might not be feasible for many working professionals.

Grammar: what Grades, Sequences and Methods?

There is no agreement about this. If any consensus exists, it is that studies are necessary regarding pupils' syntactic maturity at various grade levels. However, considerable disagreement exists over how to construct, conduct and interpret such studies. Some school systems have moved ahead in spite of such studies' dearth. The year 1997 saw grammar labels' return both to Great Britain and to the state of California. Great Britain reinstituted some traditional and some modern-linguistic labels in its National Literacy Strategy (1997-2005). A BBC education site reported Teachers returning to school to learn grammar well enough to teach it in "Grammar Crammer for Teachers" (2000). Grammar labels generally are under the rubric Grammar and Punctuation in grades R-6. (R, reception, is used instead of K, kindergarten.) In grades 7-9 grammar labels are under the rubrics, Word Level and Sentence Level. These latter occur on separate webpages. Grade 10-12 grammar objectives are broader and include more usage than labels, and they appear on a separate webpage. California instituted grammar-label requirements for grades K-12. Later grades have the same requirements for two-years. Details are available in "K-12 Academic Content Standards for California Public Schools" (1997-2005.) Its grammar labels are under the rubric, Written and Oral Language Conventions.

Tim Hadley (2005) researched early studies on grammar teaching to see what earlier studies had contributed to our understanding of grammar methods and age appropriateness of material. His research went as far back as 1917. He found that studies in the 1930's and 1940's showed a general consensus. First, teaching formal grammar terminology removed from the context of actual writing did not help students to write better. However, teaching functional grammar did help students. Second, younger children did not yet have the ability to learn, master and assimilate grammatical principles into their writing. However, by the time that they got to college, they did profit from grammar instruction. These findings led Hadley to criticize Harris's 1962 dissertation, Braddock's 1963 report, and the profession's subsequent rejection of grammar instruction. First, the results of Harris's study had been known for decades. Second, the study was conducted with 12-14 year-olds, not generalizable to older students, especially college students. Harris did not deny that teaching functional grammar might be helpful, only that teaching formal grammatical terminology was harmful. However, the way Braddock's report presented it, and what everyone seemed to read, was that teaching any grammar was harmful. That interpretation was immensely harmful and has remained so for more than forty years.

Kolln (2005) addresses the issue of research as well. Kolln had examined every research study on grammar which she could find. The Harris study had provided the NCTE with the "harmful effects" of formal grammar instruction on writing. It had compared two methods of teaching grammar: traditional and functional. However, Braddock (1963) says nothing about the efficacy of the functional group. Kolln found no one that had done research on applying students' formal grammar knowledge to their work in writing.

Like Hadley, Kolln then criticized the design and interpretations of the studies which she had read. She claimed that the scope of recent research had been too narrow. Not one study, including the famous New Zealand research (Elley et a1,1976 and 1973), had made the following comparison. Compare a writing class without formal grammar with a class where systemic grammar was part of writing education. The grammar groups in the published studies were never taught to apply conscious grammar knowledge to writing. The recurrent question addressed was whether grammar knowledge transfers automatically to writing. A better question would have been whether grammar knowledge applies to writing, and what is the best way to do that. In his grammar-defining article, Hartwell (1985, 106) ,who does not favor classroom grammar instruction, commented on studies:
 It is worth noting at the outset that both sides in this
 dispute--the grammarians and the anti-grammarians--articulate the
 issue in the same positivistic terms: what does experimental
 research tell us about the value of teaching formal grammar? But
 seventy-five years of experimental research has for all practical
 purposes told us nothing. The two sides are unable to agree on how
 to interpret such research. Studies are interpreted in terms of
 one's prior assumptions about the value of teaching grammar: their
 results seem not to change those assumptions.

No general agreement about any form of grammar efficacy is ever likely to exist.. Teachers draw definite personal conclusions from their own successes and failures in classroom teaching of usage, labels and rules.


Other disagreements are too many to list or to discuss, but one issue endlessly recurs: sentence diagramming. Proponents view it as a beacon shining upon recesses of grammar ignorance which would otherwise remain in darkness. Detractors see it as confusing, difficult, and as a waste of time. Great successes in experience by the former contrast with dismal failures in experience by the latter. Naturally, this argument never resolves. Those interested in this dispute can find two sets in the ATEG archive in May 1995 and April 1997. My own diagramming experience is mixed. About a third of any class benefits greatly. Another third is confused, upset, resentful, and learns nothing. The remaining third, pained by it, puts up with it enough to pass the course.

Consequently, I no longer teach my students to diagram, nor do I suggest that they teach it. I ask them to learn to read diagrams, to be able to distinguish structures and deal with various kinds of ambiguity. The analogy I present is that of map reading. A map reader does not need to be a cartographer. I use Reed-Kellog diagrams with some minor modifications. These diagrams were not originally intended to distinguish underlying from surface structures. However, bracketing missing/deleted elements permit observers with limited grammar labeling ability to understand phrases which share surface but not underlying structures. Traditional diagrams have less apparatus than old Aspects-model trees. Such counter-intuitive diagrams like X-bar trees or brackets within brackets would just glaze my students' eyes over.

Where do/can Teachers Find Mini-lessons?

Some teachers who post to the list want to use minilessons in grammar. However, they do not feel prepared to do all the preparation, design, execution and presentation of such lessons. The NCTE grammar page's first column lists examples of what grammar teachers have taught to their satisfaction at various grade levels. Ed Vavra's Kiss Approach to Grammar Instruction is also worth looking at on his webpage.


This article lists but settles no arguments. Its contents draws from my own teaching experience. I wanted my students, who were and are future teachers, to evaluate their own position on grammar critically rather than simply basing their practice on whatever view is in vogue. I hope that it helps teachers, and others who read it, to understand more clearly the contexts of grammar disputations. Any wishing to pursue areas discussed here will find several relevant urls among the references.


ATEG Archive, 9 Feb 1995 to Present< wa.exe?A0= ateg&T=0>.

--. Diagramming, Online Postings, 7-21 May 1995, < wa.exe?A1=ind9505&L=ateg>

--. Diagramming, Online Postings, 8-19 April 1997, < wa.exe?A1=ind9704&L=ateg>

--. Grammar Resources Links Page, No Date, <>

Braddock, R. Lloyd-Jones, R. & Schoer, L. Research in Written Composition. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1963

Dykema, Karl W. "Where our Grammar Comes from." College English 22 no. 7 (Apr. 1961): 455-465.

Elley, W. B., I. H. Barham, H. Lamb, and M. Wyllie "The Role of Grammar in a Secondary School English Curriculum." Research in the Teaching of English, 10 (1976), 5-21;

--. The Role of Grammar in a Secondary School Curriculum. Educational Research Series no. 60. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1979.

Francis, W. Nelson. "Revolution in Grammar." Quarterly Journal of Speech 40 no. 3 (Oct. 1954): 299-312.

"Grammar Crammer for Teachers." Education. Online BBC Posting, June 9, 2000, <>

"On Grammar Exercises to Teach Speaking and Writing." National Council of Teachers of English Position Statement, 1985 NCTE Annual Business Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1998-2005,< about/over/ positions/category/gram/ 107492.htm>

Hadley, Tim. ATEG Online Posting, 8 May 2005, < wa.exe?A0=ateg&T=0>

Harris, R. J. An Experimental Inquiry into the Functions and Value of Formal Grammar in the Teaching of Written English to Children Aged Twelve to Fourteen. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. University of London, 1963. [Sometimes listed 1962.]

Hartwell, Patrick. "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar." College English 47 no. 2 (Feb. 1985): 105-107.

--. "Patrick Hartwell Responds." College English 47 no. 6 (Oct. 1985): 649-650.

--. "Patrick Hartwell Responds." College English 47 no. 8 (Dec. 1985): 877-879.

Haussamen, Brock. "Some Questions and Answers About Grammar." Prepared from the works and discussions of the members of the NCTE's Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, 2005, <>

Hoffman, Melvin. "Grammar: Defying Definition beyond two Millennia." Academic Exchange Quarterly 9 no. 2 (Summer 2005): Forthcoming

K-12 Academic Content Standards for California Public Schools. English Language Arts. California State Board of Education, 12 April 2005, [standards adopted December1997] < english-languagearts.pdf>

Kolln, Martha. "A Comment on 'Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar'." College English 47 no. 8 (Dec. 1985): 874-877

--. ATEG Online Posting, 6 May 2005, < =ind0505&L=ateg&T=0&F=&S=&P=559>

Lester, Mark. Grammar in the Classroom. NY: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1990. National Literacy Strategy, UK, 1997-2005,

Key Stages 1: R-3 and 2: 4-6. < resources/nls_framework/year1/term1/>

Key Stage 3: 7-9. < Section2TeachingObjectives/year7/wordlevel/>

Key Stage 4:10-12. < @id=D_vDG58NTEXBznfWgXAyPe&POS[@stateld_eq_main]/@id=6164&POS[@s tateId_eq_note]/@id=6198>

Reed, Alonzo and Kellog, Brainerd. Higher Lessons in English. Rev. NY: C.E. Merril Co., 1909 [Rev. of Prior Rev. NY: Clark and Maynard, 1885]

Rubba, Johanna. Online Posting. 1 February 1999, wa.exe?A1=ind9902&L=ateg

"Teaching Resource Collections > Grammar," National Council of Teachers of English, 1998-2005, <>

Vavra, Ed. ATEG Conference Address, 1991, <>

--. Kiss Approach to Grammar Instruction, No Date, <>

--. Pennsylvania College of Technology Faculty Website, No Date, <>

--. Quantitative Research. Online Posting. 16 February 2001, <ATEG@LISTSERV.MUOHIO.EDU>

Williams, Joe; Richard D. Cureton, Carole Moses, and Edward A. Vavra. "Four Comments on 'Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar'." College English 47 no. 6 (Oct. 1985): 641-649.

Melvin J. Hoffman, Buffalo State University College, NY

English BS & Linguistics MS, IIT: Chicago; Linguistics Ph.D, SUNY Buffalo; and Religious Studies MA. Canisius College: Buffalo; Courses: Composition, Linguistics, Biblical and Classical Literature.
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Title Annotation:teaching
Author:Hoffman, Melvin J.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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