More Grammar Gaps

By Hoffman, Melvin J. | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

More Grammar Gaps

Hoffman, Melvin J., Academic Exchange Quarterly


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. …

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