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One Major Threat to Literacy: Grammar

August 22, 1986|JOHN TAGG

Life is full of paradoxes, real and imagined. One of them is that, having living with paradoxes for however long we've lived, many of us are nonetheless surprised when introduced to a new one. Thus I fully expect that many people will be shocked when I state a paradox that besets the efforts of schools and teachers to promote genuine literacy: One of the greatest enemies of real literacy education in our schools is the systematic teaching of English grammar.

The grammar lobby has a long history. Latin grammar was the first of the Seven Liberal Arts, vanguard of the Trivium of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic. The principle that grammatical instruction is the foundation of learning was carried over whole into the teaching of the vernacular language. We still group the foundational years of formal education under the label grammar school. In 1878 Adams Sherman Hill, Boyston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in Harvard College, introduced his book "The Principles of Rhetoric" with this sentence: "The foundations of rhetoric rest upon grammar; for grammatical purity is a requisite of good writing."

Times, of course, have changed. We now have programmed textbooks, behavioral objectives and even computer-aided instruction. But one thing that hasn't changed enough is that students in what we now call "language arts" courses are compelled to waste much, if not all, of their time in useless exercises aimed at "learning grammar." Robert Perrin, who teaches English at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, had the experience a couple of years ago of reviewing high school composition textbooks for the state of Indiana. He complained: "I see students each year enter college unprepared to write paragraphs, let alone good essays. Instead, they have spent their time in high school plodding through exercise after exercise, labeling sentence parts and punctuating sentences in their books."

Now, relax. I'm not saying that good grammar isn't important. What I am saying is that teaching grammar as an independent subject is a silly waste of time. We all learned our basic grammar when we learned how to talk. We learned it with no formal instruction, and without the slightest awareness that we were "learning grammar," because we had to in order to be understood. When we reach the age when we can handle writing we should learn written grammar the same way we learned the grammar of speech, except by reading and writing rather than speaking and listening. Unfortunately, the magnetic pull of easy mechanical grading has attracted many schools to multiple-choice tests and the nearly ubiquitous "workbooks." The great advantage of these handy tools is that they take less of the teacher's time. Unfortunately, they are also a complete waste of time, for both teachers and students.

'A Harmful Effect . . . '

In 1963, Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones and Lowell Schoer reviewed all the research they could find on the modes of teaching writing and came to this conclusion: "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 composition, even a harmful effect on improvement in writing."

That, of course, was more than 20 years ago. In 1984, George Hillocks of the University of Chicago reviewed more than 500 research studies conducted in that 20-year period. He compared formal grammar with several other modes of teaching writing (e.g., free writing, models, inquiry) and concluded: "The study of traditional school grammar has no effect on raising the quality of student writing . . . In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage . . . results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing."

California's 1985 Model Curriculum Standards for English reflect a grasp of this insight: They mention grammar and mechanics only briefly and place them in a subsidiary and instrumental role in the process of teaching writing. But the real test, of course, is what happens in the classroom. What's the story, kids? Parse any sentences this week?

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