The Place of Grammar in Language Teaching 0.JPG

Control over academic writing is a requirement for success with challenging literacy tasks, such as reading textbooks or writing research papers and literature reviews.[1] As early as the elementary years, students are expected to process new information from texts, so failure to understand the basic grammatical structure of those texts can be a serious obstacle in their reproduction of information. The connections are understandable since the grammatical conventions designed to aid students in their development of basic literacy skills logically progress to a level of academic literacy. The theory of gradualism is clear: how parts of speech as basic literacy teach students how to identify basic sentence patterns, which teaches them how to punctuate sentences. Parts of speech, then, lead to sentence patterns, which lead to proper punctuation; which eventually leads to solid sentence structure and paragraph writing. Ignorance of basic literacy skills affects future academic comprehension, and ultimately how we communicate.

The Rules

Historically, writing instruction focused on handwriting and on correctness of the product created through emphasis on grammar, usage, and imags.jpgmechanics, i.e., sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, etc. These conventions or rules establish the structure of writing. Grammatical rules, the way people speak and write, are built upon the consensus of educated readers and writers. In other words, the rules function to structure our language for all who use it. These conventions that grow from the language itself can decide if a word or expression exists (or not) and can describe its form and function. These rules are generalizations, impressions gained over time, given life by its function and context, [2] not, as some declare, the prescriptions of an elite group.[3] Indeed, language teachers need to know more about language than just grammar to improve comprehension.[4] Do we, as student teachers, need to create a transdisciplinary environment to foster student learning? Nevertheless, despite the frequent invocations of grammar and widespread concern about its inadequate development, there is no simple definition of what literacy is.

Forms of Literacy keep-cool-during-philosophical-debate-200X200.jpg

The primary definition of a literate person is one who is able to read and write, following the Oxford English Dictionary. The ability to read simple texts that one has been able to write for oneself, it may be argued, constitutes a suitable criterion for defining basic literacy. Academic literacy is somewhat specialized—namely, the ability to reflect on those texts, to paraphrase, summarize, extrapolate form, and re-conceptualize texts. Furthermore, these criteria include knowledge of how to classify texts as a type—for example, a report, opinion piece, poetry or prose—and to adopt the appropriate interpretive stance for each. Also, it involves the ability to manage the complex grammatical forms employed in literary and expository texts. More advanced literacy leads to a mastery of a metalanguage.[5] The theory of gradualism is evident.

iages.jpgToday’s context

Within the current burgeoning digital, technological explosion, new choices and shifting emphasis have radically modified the literacy landscape. The very advances in communications technology have, in fact, increased the power of language. In recent decades, within its new context, writing instruction continues to evolve as the processes of writing changes. This implies changing the way students absorb knowledge through language. The traditional text on the page has become a more complex endeavour. The new digital space has variety, and we are producing more, i.e., infusion of the visual with data/symbols/words from the internet, texting, you tube, etc. The by-product is that the reading changes, but is it better.


Currently, there is little agreement with grammarians over how to describe the English language and what terms to use. Jerrold Katz presents a detailed argument to view language as an explanation that transmits meaning of an object; it is not the object in and of itself, but a representation of it.[6] Therefore, hermeneutics (interpretation) is as close as we can get with language. We are caught in a "play of interpretations" because we cannot describe the "thing in itself," just a proximate understanding of it. On the other hand, Noam Chomsky’suntitled.jpg mentalist conception of language, as an abstract object, remains the most influential, commonsensical perspective.[7] In this view, the knowledge of language is characterized as a (generative) grammar: a finite system of interacting rules and principles that specify an infinite number of expressions, each of which is a structural configuration, e.g., of words into sentences, associated with phonetic form and meaning.[8] He believes that replacing the traditional English grammar with a transformational approach would communicate a more exact analysis of language.[9] This begs the question: If language is the essence of our humanity, do contextual changes replace the need of basic writing skills?

The Arguments

Few educators would disagree that writing remains an essential skill. Increasingly, in recent decades, educators have related worries about stgood-grammar-reasons.jpgudents’ literacy accomplishments to their lack of academic written skill. Researchers such as Hillocks and Smith allege that teaching grammar does not improve basic literacy skills and serves no practical purpose.[10] And Brodie goes even further to say that grammar instruction can actually incapacitate young writers as they grapple with right/wrong methods of correction.[11] Teachers who reject the traditional methods have opted instead for a so-called comprehension-based pedagogy in which students come to know the grammar through exposure to "comprehensible input.”[12] The belief that grammar will naturally be understood with exposure through different forms of media sources. It's a way for teachers not to bother with the instruction of grammar. Yet Alan C. Purves disagrees. He feels that “it is through grammar that one person is able to shape a verbal or partially verbal artifact so that another person knowing that grammar can make sense of it. Grammar is that set of conventions by which people connect discrete bits of information.”[13] Indeed, without the basics in place, communication is impossible, as is higher forms of literacy. There simply would not be any clear dialogue. Have the institutions failed to adapt to change, has the material become irrelevant, or are traditional thinking models relevant to current social trends?
Let us now examine the specificities of grammar from a functional perspective.


In fact, the earliest word formation rules dates back to the second millennium B.C. in Babylon.[14] There is much more evidence to support grammar teaching in Classical Greece, where grammatiké came in to usage for the understanding of letters.[15] This was the start of the tradition between the study of grammar and the teaching of writing that was exported to the rest of the world.


The notion of the literacy episteme brings into play a timeless epistemological tradition, in both philosophy hubble_3.jpgand the sciences. In the twentieth century, this tradition included an appreciation of writing as a special practice of language. This turn from language to include writing began with the philosopher’s quest for the general conditions that make human knowledge possible. Since Kant, such conditions have been viewed as the a priori of our empirical knowledge. We can then see that the literacy episteme can be conceptualized as an historical a priori, a kind of epistemological backdrop for our understanding of writing. The literacy episteme defines the terms under which we see the finished product, a fully developed culture of literacy.[16]

Scope and Current debate Issues

Grammar teaching at school deals with the traditional parts of speech; can be expanded to include all aspects of language stkeep-cool-during-philosophical-debate-1_1-120X120.jpgructure. As previously discussed, the debate circulating for decades is whether grammar improves writing. Are student writing abilities ill-suited to engage University assignments? Students today have developed different skill sets from the texting, gaming, and twittering hysteria; have the ability to quickly sift, sort, and multi-task, but scholarly research methods are still a lengthy and nuanced practice, for example, creating 30 pages of text to make a point and sustain it takes academic literacy. In the process, have we as educators ‘dumbed down’ literacy expectations? Has sentence construction taken a back seat to social interaction?

Aims and Methods of Grammar Teaching

The ultimate aim is to support the learning of literacy skills—hence the etymological link with gramma ‘written letter’ and graphein ‘to write.’ Grammar of any language is itself a complex system of connected facts whose immediate aim is to be an understanding of the system in and of itself. Here’s how it works. Grammar teaching can target a prescriptive list of errors; or be directed toward healthy teaching and encourage growth. However the method, grammar helps young writer’s to develop richer grammatical repertoires by:
  • by providing constructions of writing
  • by directing attention to the form of what they read
  • to recognize patterns
  • provide a deeper understanding of how language works

There are three ways to teach grammar. These include:

  • separate – separating grammar mechanics from topics in writing.
  • reactive – grammatical instruction in context, or when it is needed. This approach literally means grammar is never taught because of time required to explain most grammatical functions.
  • proactive – allow grammar to have its own systematic structure. This is the basis for sucessful grammar instruction because it acknowledges the needs of the class and teaches to a particular point of grammar. By having a systematic structure, grammar can be closely linked with writing.

Evaluating the Success of Grammar Teaching

I would argue that teaching grammar can have an influence and work if taught sufficiently by well-informed teachers who are proactive, i.e., closely integrated with activity to which grammatical instructions is relevant. Here is a basic activity:

Here are some exercises that improve writing:

– Sentence combining. This activity combines focus on a specific aspect of grammatical form.[17]
– Specific aspects of spelling instruction produced immediate improvements.
– Teaching about noun phrases helped children improve comprehension.
– Devising lesson plans with hands-on activities that engage students in learning.[18]

Questions for Consideration and Reflection

Do we have to re-think how we teach grammar?

Is revision of grammar in the curriculum need reconsideration? for a better grammar?

How can teachers improve delivery methods?

How do we convince students that rules are important?

Online writing lab: Handouts--grammar, punctuation, and spelling site from Purdue University includes multiple handouts about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, many with attached exercises, which can be done online or printed. PowerPoint presentations on sentence clarity and comma use can be downloaded and adapted for personal use.
Vocabulary, free word puzzles, and activities
Need to brush up those Latin and Greek roots? Give your students a vocabulary boost through lesson plans, word lists, SAT/ACT preparation, and thematic puzzles. Website includes a daily puzzle.
Web English teacher
This comprehensive website features a topical front page and links to all aspects of teaching English, from AP/IB to ELL/ESL. The grammar page includes an extensive list of interactive ideas for teaching grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation.[19]

[1] Pauline M. Rea Dickins and Edward G. Woods, “Some Criteria for the Development of Communicative Grammar Tasks,” TESOL Quarterly 22, no. 4 (Dec., 1988), p.623-625.

[2] Bill Gribben, “The Role of Generalization in Studying Grammar and Usage,” English Journal 85, no.7 (Nov., 1996), p.56-57.

[3] Patrick Hartwell, Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar, College English 47, no. 2 (Feb., 1985), p. 105-127

[4] William Murdick, What English Teachers Need to Know about Grammar, English Journal 85, no.7 (Nov., 1996), p.42-43.

[5] Gribben, “The Role,” p.56.

[6] Jerrold Katz, Language and other abstract objects (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), p.92. Op. cit. Jerrold Katz, “An Outline of Platonist Grammar,” In Katz, J, ed., The Philosophy of Linguistics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p.199-200.

[7] Noam Chomsky, Knowledge of Language: its Nature, Origin, and Use (New York: Praeger, 1986), p.25-48.

[8] Ibid., p.123-150.

[9] Noam Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.5-25.

[10] George Hillocks and Micheal Smith, “Grammar and Usage,” in Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts, eds. James Flood et al. (New York: MacMillan, 1991), pp.591-603.

[11] Peter Brodie, “Never say Never: Teaching Grammar and Usage,” English Journal 85, no.7 (Nov., 1996), p.77.

[12] Stephen Krashen, Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (Oxford: Pergamon, 1982), p.15-30.

[13] Alan C. Purves, “Grammar and Usage,” The English Journal 86, no. 2, (Feb., 1997),p.10.

[14] Gene Gragg, “Babylonian Grammatical Texts,” in The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, ed. Roan Asher (Oxford: Pergmon Press, 1994), p.296-298.

[15] Robert Robins, A Short History of Linguistics (London: Longman, 1979), p.13.

[16] Jens Brockmeier and David Olson, “The Literacy Episteme,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy, eds., David Olson and Nancy Torrance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p.4-18.

[17] Frederica Davis, “In Defense of Grammar,” English Education 16, no. 3 (Oct., 1984), p.156.

[18] Rhoda Yoder, “Of Fake Verbs and Kid Words: Developing a Useful Grammar,” English Journal 85, no.7 (Nov., 1996), p.83.

[19] Harold, Suzanne Myers, “Language Arts: Grammar, Spelling and Vocabulary for Educators,” Teacher Librarian 35, no.5 (June, 2008), p.77.