The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Should Schools Teach English Grammar to Children?

on May 26, 2019

Today I am posting a piece I wrote several years ago for the National Council of Teachers of English. I decided to do that because the teaching of grammar to children in school has again raised its ugly head, and I want to make clear why that is a waste of time.

Some years ago, while visiting a grade 4/5 classroom in the school where I was principal, I listened to a group of children reading aloud the first drafts of essays they had written about the holidays celebrated in America. They were helping each other to correct errors and make meaning clearer. In reading her essay aloud one girl said, “In the United States we celebrate Christmas by giving and receiving gifts and sing Christmas carols.” Immediately, another girl in the group interrupted her, saying, “That word should be singing.” The interesting thing for me was not that the second girl was absolutely right, but that she was able to do it without knowing why. Neither she nor any other child in the classroom could have stated: “Sentence elements of equal grammatical rank should be expressed in parallel constructions.” Yet, all of them subconsciously knew that principle of English grammar and were able—most of the time—to demonstrate it in their speech and writing.

This story is but one illustration of what happens most of the time in language usage; we construct grammatically correct sentences or correct our mistakes by intuitively applying the rules that govern English syntax. If, instead, we had to apply those rules consciously, they would only get in our way, making it impossible for us to speak or write at all. For example, to construct a simple two-word sentence, such as “He dreams,” requires the application of at least seven grammar rules. Imagine trying to apply them consciously following the instructions of English grammar: “To say what I mean, I need a noun phrase and a verb phrase. The noun phrase can be made up of a singular noun plus a determiner, a plural noun, a proper noun, or a nominative case pronoun. If I choose a pronoun, it can be singular or plural, but it must be inflected for a first, second, or third person. The verb I choose can be transitive, intransitive, or copulative. If it is transitive, it needs an object. But if it is copulative, it needs a complement. In any case the verb must also be inflected for a first, second, or third person to agree with the pronoun.”

With grammar rules so complicated and hard to remember, you may wonder why we have them at all. The fact is that such rules were created by linguists in order to explain language phenomena that had already existed for thousands of years. Most of the grammatical explanations were reasonable at the time they were created, but some have been discredited by subsequent discoveries about language. Others were cancelled out by actual changes in spoken language over time. In all cases, though, the rules were merely rough models for incompletely understood mental processes. No grammarian ever asserted that a grammar list exists in the brain, from which human beings select and apply rules as they needed them.

Although grammar rules are explanations for what exists in language– not prescriptions for what “ought to be”– they have been misused for a long time. Teaching those rules in schools started with instruction in ancient Latin and Greek, where it made sense because those were “dead” languages that nobody spoke anymore. But then those rules gradually slipped into other parts of the school curriculum, such as modern foreign language courses and English classes, where they should never have been.

Over the years, the teaching of grammar has continued to be prominent in English and foreign language instruction in schools, leaving less class time or energy for students to speak, read, or write. Yet, many perceptive teachers, sensing that grammar lessons might not be beneficial for students, have pressed for research to determine their real impact on learning. As early as 1906, studies were undertaken that attempted to show the relationship between school-taught grammar and naturally acquired language skills. Since then, hundreds of such studies have produced clear and unequivocal conclusions: the teaching of formal grammar does not help any student to speak, to write, to think, or to learn a foreign language.

It is important for today’s educators to know that recent research studies do not justify teaching grammar as the way to help students write better. Although we accept the fact that many social, economic, and political forces influence education, we ought not allow them to outweigh knowledge and reason in determining what the school curriculum should include.

3 responses to “Should Schools Teach English Grammar to Children?

  1. Doug Garnett says:

    Really outstanding post, Joanne. My oldest suffers a pretty extreme dyslexia. It badly affect both is reading and his writing. Yet when he reads something, he has lazer eared ability to correct it grammatically — and to hear better ways to say it.

    That’s opened my eyes to how instinctive language is (and must be). Thanks for the post!


  2. Frankey Jones says:

    Brilliant explanation! I’m saving this for future use!


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