Handbook of Writing Research

By Charles A. MacArthur; Steve Graham et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 18
"I Guess I'd Better Watch My English"
Grammars and the Teaching of the English Language Arts

Michael W. Smith, Julie Cheville, and George Hillocks, Jr.

Sitting on a plane and chatting with the person next to us, we all have been asked, "What do you do for a living?" If we respond, "I teach English" or "I teach those who want to be teachers of English," the inevitable response is something like, "Oh, I guess I'd better watch my English, then." This exchange shows the close association in the public imagination between teaching grammar and teaching English, an association that persists despite the fact that for a century, research has consistently shown that the teaching of grammar as a separate subject has little or no effect on students' language development. In this chapter, we discuss some of the pressures that might account for the continuation of a practice that has been so roundly criticized. Then we briefly review the research that informs that criticism. Finally, we discuss research and theory that might identify some directions for future research and teaching. But before we do so, some definitions are in order.


The Meanings of Grammar

Part of the problem with discussions of "grammar" is that the term itself has so many meanings. Building on an important article by Francis (1954), Hartwell (1985) argues that the term is used to mean many different things. Two meanings seem especially important to understanding the gap between research and theory. One meaning of grammar is the systematic description, analysis, and articulation of the formal patterns of a language. Modern linguists of different theoretical perspectives seek to provide that description, analysis, and articulation in different ways. Grammar is also the term used to refer to a set of rules governing how one ought to speak or write. While modern grammars eschew this kind of prescription, traditional school grammar (TSG) combines the explanatory function of grammar with prescription. "Parts of speech" and other terms, for example, purport to identify the function of words, phrases, and clauses in English. Mechanics and usage rules (e.g., "Adverbial conjunctions that join independent clauses take semicolons") prescribe a standard for correctness.


The Pressure Teachers Face

It is easy to see why a grammar that has a prescriptive function would be attractive to teachers in an era of high-stakes assessments. Such assessments typically include some kind of editing task in addition to a writing sample. Although test designers seem to recognize the importance of writing as an indica—

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