Thursday, June 11, 2009

Topic: Grammar, Composition and Research (1)

10-second review: On the basis of five studies, English teachers across America threw away their grammar books. Should they have?

Title: “The Relation of Formal Grammar to Composition.” J Neuleib. College Composition and Communication (October 1977), 247-250. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary/Quote: “Where do you go to find out about ‘all’ the research? There are a few summaries available, but not many. And there are some good studies, but not many. You, as a teacher, need to read five studies which summarize what we know now” (1977).

RJ Harris, “An Experimental Inquiry into the Functions and Value of Formal Grammar in the Teaching of English, with Special Reference to the Teaching of Correct Written English to Children Aged Twelve to Fourteen.” Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1962.

John Mellon, Transformational Sentence-Combining (Champaign, Illinois: NCTE Research Report No. 10, 1969).

DB Bateman and FJ Zidonis, The Effect of a Study of Transformational Grammar on the Writing of Ninth and Tenth Graders (Champaign, Illinois: NCTE Research Report, No. 6, 1966).

Frank O’Hare, Sentence Combining (Urbana, Illinois: NCTE Research Report No. 15, 1973).

WB Elley, IH Barham, H Lamb, and W Wyllie, “The Role of Grammar in a Secondary School English Curriculum,” Research in the Teaching of English 10 (Spring 1976).

One of the most influential studies in eliminating grammar from the English curriculum was the Elly study. The author of this article, Neuleib, says of Elly, et al.’s study: “It becomes clear that at least in this one study, no grammar works quite as well as any grammar instruction.” She further points out that, according to the Elly study, only very bright students benefit from grammar instruction, that grammar does not help in editing and that grammar instruction should be eliminated from the lower grades.

Neuleib says, “Before I toss away my grammar books in distress and wring my hands over the fate of usage in my composition classes, I have some questions to ask about this study and about the study of grammar.” Maybe grammar should be taught in high school and college English classes when students are more ready for its intricacies. She also says that the study must be replicated several times before accepting it as “evidence for drawing absolute conclusions” that grammar should be eliminated from the English curriculum.

Comment: I think Neuleib gives a very lame defense for the teaching of grammar.

For years, experts in the teaching of English have been saying that a knowledge of formal grammar has no effect on the improvement of composition. I have read the more recent research, proclaimed at the time to be conclusive evidence for this lack of relationship between a knowledge of grammar and achievement in composition, Mellon, 1969, and Elley, et al., 1976, two of the five studies mentioned in the preceding article.

I discovered that neither study gave the formal grammar group the carefully articulated instructions they gave to the experimental group; that is, the researchers never defined clearly what is meant by “teaching formal grammar.” The studies implied that simply following a textbook was teaching “formal grammar,” without enthusiasm and relying strictly on following the activities, usually exercises, in the text from chapter to chapter. And in one of the studies the formal grammar group actually outscored the experimental group in ratings of writing (Mellon, 1969).

How should formal grammar be taught? How do I define formal grammar? Next time.

To be continued

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