A Word, Please: Dealing with anti-grammar attitudes

I recently came across an interesting grammar artifact.

The California Department of Education’s 1986 “Handbook for Planning an Effective Writing Program: kindergarten through 12th grade” offered this advice for parents, attributed to the National Council of Teachers of English: “Watch out for the ‘grammar trap.’ Some people may try to persuade you that a full understanding of English grammar is needed before students can express themselves well. Some knowledge of grammar is useful, but too much time spent on the study of grammar steals from the study of writing.”

The handbook also offered some advice for educators: “Perhaps the most widely ignored research finding is that the teaching of formal grammar, if divorced from the process of writing, has little or no effect on the writing ability of students.…This is not to say that the study of grammar has no place in a writing program.…However, it is best taught when a specific need for it emerges in a student’s writing, not in isolation from actual writing.”

The handbook cited a study that demonstrated that grammar instruction did not make a group of students better writers. It was conducted in 1967 — around the time people were getting wise to nonsense prescriptivism of the day.

The prior decade had been the heyday of unfounded prohibitions against splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions and beginning sentences with “and.” Clearly, that brand of “grammar” wasn’t helping students write better.

But does the anti-grammar attitude that had emerged by 1986 and lingers today go too far?

Just because grammar instruction didn’t help a group of test subjects become better writers doesn’t mean it should be discounted. That’s like saying we should stop teaching algebra because it will never help students balance a checkbook.

The department itself inadvertently demonstrated the danger of passives. “The most widely ignored research finding” conveniently sidesteps the question of who was ignoring it, leaving the assertion unfounded.

So even if it’s true that teaching the grammar concept of passives doesn’t make students better writers, couldn’t it make them better critical thinkers?

Also, what exactly would it mean to teach grammar “when a specific need for it emerges in a student’s writing”?

“Now, Bobby. I see you wrote, ‘The running from the cat was a thing that was scary to the mouses in the morning in the house.’ Let me explain to you why your subject and verb aren’t ideal, why your prepositional phrases aren’t well placed and why your plural is wrong. But first, let me explain to you what subjects, verbs, prepositional phrases and plurals are. Get comfortable. We’re going to be here a while.”

In warning parents “Some people may try to persuade you that a full understanding of English grammar is needed before students can express themselves well,” the department found convenient boogeymen in “some people.” But did they really exist?

The big question is whether those well-intentioned educators were throwing away the baby with the bathwater. It would take a lot of research to know whether reduced emphasis on grammar hurt students. And all I have is anecdotal information about how the students educated under this philosophy have fared.

In the nine years I’ve been writing about language, many people have confessed to me they’re ashamed that they don’t know more about grammar, often punctuating their confessions with “and I was an English major!”

No one’s ever told me that they learned too much grammar — or even enough. It seems almost everyone under 50 feels they missed out on something.

Unfortunately, some of the people who feel this way are now English teachers. That doesn’t bode well for Bobby.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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