Thursday, August 6, 2009

Topic: Grammar and Composition

10-second review: The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has worked hard to suggest that the practice of teaching formal grammar has no relationship to improved writing—in spite of the fact that the research on which the claim is based is not very good.

Title: “The Future of Grammar in American Schools.” Martha Kolln. Keynote Address. [No Date. Possibly 1990].

Quote: “We’re here because we think there’s a place in our classrooms for the study of grammar; we think that grammar has a future.”

Quote: “Back in 1963 the NCTE published a report called Research in Written Composition [written by Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones and Lowell Schoer]. There is one sentence in that report—a one-sentence paragraph on pages 37 and 38—that has kept the report from disappearing into oblivion, one sentence that has been quoted probably thousands of times in the past 27 years. I’m not exaggerating—it is quoted over and over again. It is the only sentence in that report that has lived on. Here are the 56 words that changed our profession’s attitude towards grammar. I call it the ‘harmful effects’ statement:

In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.

In an article in the October 1977 issue of College Composition and Communication ['The Relation of Formal grammar to composition'], Janice Neulieb took the authors of that report to task for making such a strong and unqualified statement in light of their own previous paragraph, which begins: ‘Uncommon, however, is carefully conducted research which studies the effect of formal grammar on actual composition over an extended period of time.’ …. Some of those studies are so badly designed they are laughable. In one, the grammar lessons consisted of usage rules which the students memorized and recited in unison. Why would anyone expect such an activity to improve writing?

No one has designed a study in which grammar is taught in conjunction with writing, in a functional way, and then tested the results.”

Comment: To reinforce Kolln’s point, I offer the results of an informal study I completed a number of years ago:

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 (Mellon, 1969), and Elley, et al., 1976), and I discovered that neither study gave the formal grammar group the careful, articulated instructions that they gave to the experimental group: that is, the researchers never defined clearly what is meant by teaching “formal grammar.” They seemed to imply that simply following a textbook, page by page, was teaching “formal grammar.” No effort was put into establishing a relationship between the grammar students were being taught and writing. In fact, writing was not even being taught at the same time as the grammar. But in spite of that, in one of the studies, the formal grammar group actually outscored the experimental group in ratings of writing (Mellon, 1969).

In my next blog, I am going to suggest a study in which I define “formal” grammar as it relates to writing. RayS.

No comments: