By Patricia A. Dunn
Most students’ writing—in fact, most people’s writing—could use some improvement: in content, organization, coherence, style, and editing. However, many people continue to think that if only students received a dose of “grammar” instruction, their writing would be better. People can mean almost anything when talking about grammar: memorizing rules or perceived rules, reciting the parts of speech, punctuating someone else’s sentences, correcting spelling or usage errors on a handbook practice page, etc. In many cases the teacher drags out worksheets and instructs students to underline nouns and verbs or perform other tasks isolated from their own actual writing. These out-of-context exercises are not “writing” and, in fact, may even make writing worse.
Engagement, Not Estrangement
First, a word about “grammar” and its relationship to successful writing: It goes without question that good writing needs to be well-edited and meticulously proofread for errors. Readers react quickly, strongly, and negatively to mistakes in students’ writing (see Grammar Rants.) Therefore, teachers need to teach, and students need to learn, specific skills for making finished work as clear and error free as possible.
Teaching editing and careful proofreading, however, is not the same as what many people think of as “teaching grammar.” When well-meaning teachers use the same old isolated grammar drills, textbook exercises, or worksheets that students’ grandparents may have been subjected to when they were in school, students’ writing does not improve.
Peer-reviewed research over the past fifty years has consistently shown that isolated grammar drills and worksheets do not help students improve their writing—and in some cases can make writing worse. This research includes a smart piece of classroom research by Finlay McQuade*. McQuade was a champion of the traditional (de-contextualized) teaching of grammar when he set out to see if his approach actually helped students write better. He thought the course went well, and his students did, too, enthusiastically claiming that they really learned a lot about writing. Unlike many people making claims about grammar and writing, McQuade actually examined “before” and “after” samples of his students’ writing following their dose of traditional grammar. To his surprise and dismay, he discovered that their writing got worse, not better, after this course. He attributes the bad writing to students’ new obsession with avoiding error at all costs, to the point where fluency, content, and reasoning lost their importance.
An extensive analysis of writing research in late 1980s found results similar to McQuade’s classroom research. The chart on page 75 of George Hillocks’ article in Educational Leadership shows how “grammar/mechanics” instruction (focus on the parts of speech, names of clauses, etc.) fared in improving students’ writing: not well. Traditional school grammar had a negative effect score, which means that students’ writing deteriorated after these out-of-context grammar lessons. (Readers curious about the relationship between out-of-context grammar instruction and the improvement of writing should take a look at Hillocks’ chart. First, a brief explanation about some terms: A high “effect score” [.8 and .9] means that whatever technique was used in the study improved students’ writing. An effect score close to “0” means that there was no effect, and a score below “0” [-.3 and -.4] means that the students’ writing after that class was judged to be worse than what they wrote before they had that class or series of lessons.) Those interested in reading Hillocks’ entire study can find the full text of his 1986 book, Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching, online. His charts on pages 206 and 215 of that book (or, pages 220 and 229, respectively, on the scanned document) also show negative effect sizes for “grammar/ mechanics.”
More recent studies of “grammar” and writing have had similar results. In 2007, Steve Graham and Dolores Perin conducted a meta-analysis of many peer-reviewed studies on grammar and writing, called “Writing Next.” Their analysis of many studies on writing and grammar was consistent with McQuade’s and with the many studies Hillocks analyzed. This 2007 online study is long and complex, but readers can get the gist of the results by skipping to page 21 (page 29 on the scanned document) and looking at these researchers’ conclusion about grammar instruction. They, too, recommend against using isolated grammar drills as a way to improve writing.
Why can writing get worse after this kind of teaching? It may be that out-of-context drilling can draw writers away from higher-level concerns about content, purpose, organization, and logic. Or, because students become so focused on avoiding error, they may shorten their essays and sentences significantly, in the hope of receiving fewer red-inked comments. Perhaps the biggest reason grammar drills don’t work is that students can become estranged from writing. They may assume that the low-level grammar drills they do in school are “writing.” Any joy or engagement they might have built up from their own writing at home, or from any real-world connection they may have been starting to see, is drained out by the triviality of the worksheet.
Good Grammar Instruction, the Common Core State Standards, and Writing
Some readers might now be asking, “What, then, is good grammar instruction?”
Good grammar instruction can occur only after the following question is taken seriously: “What is good writing instruction?” The best grammar instruction happens when students are so engaged in a writing project that they want to make it better. For example, if they’re working on a letter to the editor that might be published online, they will take more care in editing it than if they’re simply handing in a formulaic essay for yet another grade. Students know when their work is being read because readers want to hear what they have to say, or if it’s being read so that it can be graded. If students are writing a book review for a real audience, they may finally master whatever conventions they need to learn about subject-verb agreement, verb tense, or spelling. If they’re writing up an interview they’ve conducted with a real person, they might finally concentrate on how to punctuate dialogue. These are teachable moments, opportunities to provide just-in-time grammar lessons that match what students need, when they need it, when they want it.
What we should do, therefore, is everything we can do to make sure students are highly engaged in their writing, as I argued in my last post on this blog. We should all make sure children are excited (in a good way) about the writing projects they are doing in school. Of course, some students will complete even the most uninspiring assignments because they’re concerned about grades. But many busy students need a reason—beyond a good grade—to invest time, care, and effort in a piece of writing. They also need to understand “audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and understanding texts.” These high-level skills take practice. To spend precious class time on point-and-name grammar exercises is to squander time that could be better spent on teaching writing.
As the studies summarized in the first part of this blog have shown, grammar drills can interfere with students’ development as writers. For this reason we also need to make sure that some of the wording in the Common Core (CC) is not used to support a return to low-level grammar exercises, but instead helps teachers design the authentic writing projects that help students do their best, well-edited work.
In some sections of the CC, there seems to be at least some recognition that students need to develop the more sophisticated intellectual processes required for good writing: analysis of audience, rhetorical purpose, and context. For example, in CC ELA Anchor Standard 10, for Writing, we read that students should “Write routinely over extended time frames . . . for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.” This range might include arguments, film or restaurant reviews, sports analyses, travel narratives, instructions, informational pieces, lab reports, letters of application, etc.
This worthwhile CC standard, however, because it is complex and wide-ranging, may be undercut by more traditional language standards on grammar that appear later in the CC document. If not read and implemented carefully, the language standards and how they’re worded could send teachers down a path that may disengage their students from challenging and sophisticated intellectual tasks.
For example, the standards on Language for grades 6-12 go on to name specific terms (“intensive pronouns,” “gerunds,” “participial phrase,” etc.) that students should be able to “demonstrate command of,” or “use.” So far, so good. Sophisticated writers should, and would, use and demonstrate command of these and other grammatical features in their writing. But in a few places, the standards say “explain”: “Explain the function of verbals…” One danger of the command to “explain” these terms is that inexperienced writing teachers may think they need to focus on isolated grammar exercises.
Grammar, it goes without saying, is important. We use it every time we speak or write. However, for students’ writing to improve, they need to write, not fill in blanks or fixate on error. They need to be engaged in authentic writing in real genres, for real audiences, and for real purposes. Authentic writing is so important, in fact, that we need to be serious about writing instruction and all it involves: serious attention to generating ideas; serious attention to organization (which differs from genre to genre and from discipline to discipline); serious attention to audience and the rhetorical strategies likely to work with a particular audience; and serious attention to editing and proofreading one’s own writing, which the writer sees as important enough to revise and edit carefully.
Teachers, professors, parents, and writers who care about students learning to write well should take a look, for themselves, at the studies mentioned above. We should also ask questions about the tasks outsiders are telling teachers to assign. To work hard on their writing, young people need to see it as meaningful—not simply as fodder for robo-graders or sleepy, corporate employees. Experienced teachers, working with their colleagues, should have the freedom to design authentic writing tasks for the students only they know well. This hard work required of students and teachers should have the informed support of parents, administrators, and policy makers.
*I am grateful to Edgar Schuster for drawing attention to McQuade’s research in his book, Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction.
Patricia A. Dunn is a former high school teacher and two-year college instructor who has written several books on the teaching of writing: Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies (1995 and 2011), available online at http://wac.colostate.edu/books/dunn/; Talking, Sketching, Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing (2001); and, with Ken Lindblom, Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices About Their Writing (2011). She is currently an Associate Professor of English at Stony Brook University in New York, where she teaches current and future teachers of English and writing.