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Web Exclusive - The Case for Not Teaching Grammar

The value of grammar instruction in improving students’ writing has been debated for at least 150 years, and is showing no signs of tiring. But would teaching grammar actually improve writing? In fact, study after study has shown that the study of grammar does not translate to improved student writing. Indeed, the basic skills of writing are not grammatical at all. Writing is not a bottom-up process moving from words, to sentences, to paragraphs, to the dreaded five-paragraph essay. Writing is a top-down process, and its “basic skills” are not grammatical rules, but rhetorical strategies pertaining to the different stages of the writing process: strategies for invention, research, arrangement, drafting, discussing, and revising. Those arguing that grammar instruction will improve students’ writing need to recognize that, at most, the rules of grammar comprise one small piece of a complex process that begins with and supports the students’ intention to communicate.

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Paul Budra, my colleague in the English Department at Simon Fraser University, recently brought to my attention his engaging essay, “The Case for Teaching Grammar”, published in Education Canada in 2010.[1] Although my response is a bit tardy, the topic – the value of grammar instruction in improving students’ writing – has been debated for at least 150 years, and is showing no signs of tiring. Though Budra’s proposal is a modest one – that instructors “carve out a bit of time in the K–12 years to teach writing skills” (by which he means grammar lessons) – I would argue that the impact of such instruction will be even more modest, perhaps nonexistent; in fact, I want to make the case for not teaching grammar. I should emphasize at the outset that my disagreement is pedagogical, not personal: Paul is not only the most collegial of colleagues, but an experienced and award-winning teacher.

As a frequent instructor of SFU’s first-year English courses, Budra knows from experience that students’ writing often contains grammatical errors:

I recently . . . found myself having to explain the rules of punctuation to a class of first year students who had just been accepted into what Maclean’s ranks as Canada’s top comprehensive university. . . . Students leaving high school and entering university do not have, for the most part, the necessary skills to make themselves consistently understood in writing.[2]

The simple solution, it would seem, is to teach those skills. “We teach students skills in physical education class so they can play sports; we teach them skills in music class so they can play instruments.” So why don’t high school English teachers teach grammar skills? To find out, Budra consults Professor of Education Paul Neufeld, who identifies the source of the problem: the emergence of “process” pedagogy in 1966, “a new pedagogical model that emphasized ‘personal growth’.”

“Since the revolution of ’66,” Neufeld explains, “skills have been seen as an enemy to writing.” Under the process approach, “students are asked to generate ideas, plan their writing, do the actual writing, get feedback (often from peers), and then ‘publish.’” Budra believes his own children have been taught this way, as they “regularly produced little ‘books’. They were charming and creative but, like much of the work my university students are doing, full of grammatical errors.”

Unfortunately, Neufeld’s brief history of composition is not only simplistic but also incorrect, most significantly in his confusion of personal-growth pedagogy (better known as expressivism) with process pedagogy, two approaches that are in many ways incompatible. As a result, while the criticisms of Neufeld and Budra apply pretty well to expressivism, they apply not at all to process pedagogy. And when the subject is expressivism, I’ll borrow the stick from Budra and Neufeld and take a few whacks myself. Expressivism did not originate in 1966 but a century before in British Romanticism and American Transcendentalism: “To believe that what is true for you is true for all men,” writes Emerson, “that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.”[3] In its purest form, expressivist pedagogy rejects process because expressivists value one’s first thoughts, straight from the writer within and uncorrupted by stifling concerns about audience or rhetorical purpose. Students do freewriting exercises to access their authentic voices and those inspired first thoughts, and write intimately in their journals. To its credit, expressivism honours a student’s subjectivity. But to its serious discredit, it completely solipsizes writing, removing it from the world of action and communication to the inner world of the writer’s mind.

As for process-based writing pedagogy, there is nothing necessarily revolutionary, and certainly nothing anti-skills, about recognizing that writing is a process. In fact, Budra’s description of process pedagogy describes what we English professors do: we generate ideas, plan our writing, do the actual writing, get feedback (often from peers), and then publish our little books. Nor is this a “new pedagogical model”: Aristotle recognized that composition is a process. Understood in its technical sense, as an approach to composition, modern process pedagogy is a reaction against both expressivism and what compositionists call current-traditional pedagogy: the grammar-based approach Neufeld and Budra seem to endorse.

The teaching of writing as a recursive, adaptable process of invention, research, arrangement, drafting, discussing, and revising challenges the current-traditional approach of teaching writing as a prescriptive, uniform method: come up with a thesis, do an outline, write a five-paragraph essay. Understood in a nontechnical sense, the claim that writing is a process – that it does not just flow forth from the wellspring of genius – is so trivially true and obvious that one wonders why anyone would object to it – unless they’re confusing it with something else, like expressivism.

Having cleared up that misunderstanding, there remains the issue central to Budra’s essay: grammar instruction. “As long as I have been teaching,” Budra writes, “instructors have been complaining about student writing.” Indeed they have, and in fact the complaints are so similar as to constitute a genre I call the Literarist’s Lament. All the laments make the same argument: in Budra’s words, “student writing has been demonstrated again and again to have deteriorated since basic grammatical skills stopped being taught.” A prominent lamenter is celebrity English Professor Stanley Fish who, in his NYTimes.com blog, “Think Again,” complains that “student writing has only gotten worse:…millions of American college and high school students will stride across the stage, take diploma in hand and set out to the wider world, most of them utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence.”[4] Likewise does Harvard President Charles Eliot lament first-year students’ “ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation.”[5]

The solution offered in the laments is always the same and is always, we are told, “simple and obvious”:[6] what is needed, Budra asserts, is training in “the basics”. Fish too calls for “a return to basics,” since the study of grammar will (although Fish admits he has no evidence), “translate into a greater alertness to the operations of form in [one’s] own writing.”[7] Under Eliot’s leadership, Harvard introduced its own back-to-basics composition requirement, emphasizing “punctuation, grammar, and expression.”[8] Although it’s been demonstrated (again and again) that student writing is not worse than ever,[9] the Literarist’s Lament has a history even longer than Budra realizes: Eliot’s was written in 1871. Budra’s assertion above should be revised to read, “people continue to believe that student writing has deteriorated, and have likely been believing this for as long as there have been both students and writing.” Why we remain so invested in this belief must be the topic for another essay.

Budra concedes two possible objections to his proposal to teach the basics: “The first is that teaching these ‘rote’ skills stifles the creativity of students. . . . A more serious objection is that teaching traditional writing skills imposes the arbitrary standards of a hegemonic cultural elite on a youthful population who are creating new forms of literacy.” Demonstrating the conventionality of the lament genre, Fish imagines the very same objections: that he is “urging a series of arid exercises that could not possibly engage the interest of any student,”[10] and that “notions of correctness are devices by means of which the powers that be extend their illegitimate hegemony.”[11]

Wistfully recalling a time (which never actually existed) when students were grammatically virtuous, current-traditionalists continue to demand more grammar instruction, either unaware of or unfazed by the decades of research proving its uselessness.

There are, however, at least two other objections, which the laments never mention: grammar exercises don’t work, and the “basic skills” of writing are not grammatical at all. “Massive evidence,” writes W. Ross Winterowd, “leads one to conclude that systematic grammatical study of any kind does not improve one’s writing or speaking ability”: the study of grammar does not translate to students’ writing. The numerous studies Winterowd cites for support are just the tip of a mountain of empirical evidence proving that grammar exercises “are a vandalistic waste of time”: grammar exercises make one proficient not in writing but in grammar exercises.[12] Nevertheless, wistfully recalling a time (which never actually existed) when students were grammatically virtuous, current-traditionalists continue to demand more grammar instruction, either unaware of or unfazed by the decades of research proving its uselessness. Arguing that the majority of first-year college students are “unable to write a paper relatively free of errors,” Budra asserts that “this sort of negative outcome would, in most areas of human endeavour, be taken as empirical evidence of the failure of a technique.” In reality, current-traditionalism has not been conquered by expressivism, but continues to structure English pedagogy in many high schools worldwide and in more than half of college writing programs.[13] Therefore, if one believes that students enter university ill-prepared, then one must accept that the failed technique is not process pedagogy or even expressivism, but grammar-based current-traditionalism.

My second objection to grammar instruction is that the basic skills of writing are not grammatical at all.

My second objection to grammar instruction is that the basic skills of writing are not grammatical at all. Writing is not, as it is imagined by current-traditionalists, a bottom-up process moving from words, to sentences, to paragraphs, to the dreaded five-paragraph essay. Students “can’t write clean English sentences,” Fish laments, “because they are not being taught what sentences are.”[14] Budra seems to concur: “This is what needs to be taught: first, that a sentence is a complete thought.” In fact, a sentence is not a thought, complete or otherwise, nor even an utterance; it is a formal, syntactic structure. The belief that complete sentences are isomorphic representations of complete thoughts – and that, by extension, correct and orderly writing reflects an orderly mind – originates in seventeenth-century theories of cognition and remains a central tenet of current-traditionalism. These theories survive nowhere but in the assumptions underlying current-traditional pedagogy and are as valid as believing that personality is governed by the humours or that burning objects give off phlogiston. Writing is a top-down process, beginning with the writer’s motives in relation to some perceived exigence. The “basic skills” of writing are not grammatical rules, but rhetorical strategies pertaining to the different stages of the writing process: strategies for invention, research, arrangement, drafting, discussing, and revising. Writing is about know-how, not know-what: if we want to teach people to drive, we don’t have them memorize the parts of an engine.

The “basic skills” of writing are not grammatical rules, but rhetorical strategies pertaining to the different stages of the writing process: strategies for invention, research, arrangement, drafting, discussing, and revising.

I must note that, while Fish believes a writing class should teach only form and grammar, Budra wants grammar to get just “a bit of time.” And indeed, little grammatical reminders may help one remember a particular point of usage: “its” vs. “it’s,” for example. But why emphasize that, of all things? I respond to students’ writing using a six-point rubric devised by the Writing Program at the University of Southern California: addressing the issue, cogency, support, control, style, and grammar/mechanics. If these are the important features of effective writing, why focus on grammar – as opposed to, say, cogency or support? One reason is that grammar lessons are, as Budra states, “easy to teach.” He wants K–12 teachers to have “the basic skills they need to teach grammar.” But you don’t need any skills to teach grammar; all you need is a grammar book. And since grammar is easy to teach, it should be easy to learn; therefore, students who still don’t write well are assumed to be not very bright. Criticism which should be directed at grammar-based pedagogy is thus directed instead at the students of that pedagogy.

All English professors agree that writing is important, but most would rather have high school teachers teach it – and then criticize them for not doing a good job.

A less obvious and pragmatic reason for the persistence of current-traditional pedagogy is that it is philosophically consistent with the literarist vision of English as a discipline. Budra suggests that, “the pedagogical ideology of our present education system is preventing students from learning simple writing skills.” Those skills, I have argued, are not grammatical (or simple) but rhetorical. And Budra is right; the pedagogical ideology of English departments is indeed preventing students from learning these skills – but he and I are not referring to the same ideology. The ideology in most English classrooms is belletristic: literary texts (belles lettres) are considered the height of written expression, superior to practical and nonfiction forms of writing. The belletristic view of English coincided historically with the rise of current-traditional writing pedagogy, and the two work hand-in-glove: since anyone can teach the masses how to write (if by “writing” one means “grammar”), the professoriate can focus on teaching literature to the smart ones. Thus not only do few English professors today have the expertise to teach writing, the majority don’t want to. All English professors agree that writing is important, but most would rather have high school teachers teach it – and then criticize them for not doing a good job. Meanwhile, high school teachers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: they’re blamed for using expressivist methods that don’t teach effective writing, and for not using current-traditional methods that, as I’ve indicated above, don’t teach effective writing either. Under expressivism, as Budra so aptly puts it, students “can’t write but can tell you what color their feelings are”; under current-traditionalism, students can’t write but can tell you what a gerund is. But aren’t those the only two approaches? No. If we teach writing rhetorically, then we address the interrelationship among the writer’s motives, the audience, the text, and the context. Within such a pedagogy, students learn to write well – that is, effectively – by determining what they’re trying to do and who their audience is, by analyzing the rhetoric of effective texts, and by imitating, practicing, and revising.

A “little bit” of grammar instruction? Okay, I guess, but don’t expect it to accomplish much beyond superficial improvement. And if people must – and I fear they must – continue to demand more grammar, let’s at least stop demanding it on the fallacious grounds that students’ writing is worse than ever – it isn’t – or that K-12 teachers lack “the basic skills” to teach well – they don’t. Let’s recognize that, at most, the rules of grammar comprise one small piece of a complex process that begins with and supports the students’ intention to communicate.

EN BREF - Le débat portant sur l’importance d’enseigner la grammaire pour améliorer l’écriture des élèves a cours depuis au moins 150 ans, et est loin d’être terminé. Mais l’enseignement de la grammaire améliore-t-il vraiment l’écriture? De nombreuses études démontrent que les élèves qui étudient la grammaire n’écrivent pas mieux. En fait, les éléments « de base » de l’écriture ne sont pas grammaticaux. L’écriture n’est pas un processus ascendant passant des mots, aux phrases, aux paragraphes et enfin au redouté essai de cinq paragraphes. L’écriture est un processus descendant dont les éléments de base ne sont pas des règles grammaticales, mais des stratégies rhétoriques liées aux différentes étapes du processus d’écriture : des stratégies d’invention, de recherche, d’organisation, de rédaction, de discussion et de révision. Lorsqu’on enseigne la grammaire pour améliorer l’écriture des élèves, il faut admettre que, tout au plus, les règles grammaticales ne sont qu’un petit élément d’un processus complexe qui commence par l’intention de communication de l’élève et qui la soutient.


[1] Education Canada 15.4 (2010), np. <http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/case-teaching-grammar>.

[2] Ibid. All Budra quotations are from the above essay.

[3] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” in The Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brooks Atkinson, ed. (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 145.

[4] Stanley Fish, “The Writing Lesson.” NYTimes.com. 4 May 2006, np. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2006/05/04/the-writing-lesson>.

[5] Qtd. in Heidemarie Z. Weidner, “Back to the Future” (Chicago: Conference on College Composition and Communication, 1990), 3.

[6] Fish.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Weidner, 3.

[9] Although students are making different kinds of formal errors than in times past, they are not making more errors. See Robert J. Connors and Andrea Lunsford, “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research,” College Composition and Communication (1986).

[10] Fish.

[11] Stanley Fish, Save the World on Your Own Time (New York: Oxford, 2008), 49.

[12] W. Ross Winterowd, The English Department (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998), 43.

[13] Sharon Crowley, The Methodical Memory: Invention in Current-Traditional Rhetoric (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), 139.

[14] Fish, “The Writing Lesson.”