January 28, 2005

Grammar is bad for kids

"Teaching English grammar in schools is a waste of time because it does not improve writing skills, according to a Government-funded study published yesterday. The findings have led senior academics to urge Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, to remove the compulsory teaching of parts of speech and syntax from the national curriculum."

So says an article in The Telegraph of Jan 22 2005 (via Onze Taal). One might, of course, take issue with several aspects of the position reported.
  1. The finding, from a study by Richard Andrews of York University, is not based upon a controlled study. Rather, it is based on historical data tracking evaluations of writing across a period in which the UK law changed as regards curricular requirements. I know of no controlled study of whether teaching grammar helps writing, but email me (dib AT stanford DOT edu) if you know better. Furthermore, any such assessment must depend on an independent characterization of what constitutes good writing.
  2. Teachers of writing in the UK do not, to my knowledge, standardly receive any systematic instruction in linguistics. I am confident that in all my years of education in the UK, I never had an English teacher who knew what linguistics was. So any grammar instruction I received probably would have been detrimental to my writing, had I paid any attention.  More generally, one could take the same sort of study as the Telegraph reports on, and conclude that grammar teaching is at present not adequate to have an effect on writing. In that case, there should be more emphasis on grammar, especially in the training of teachers, not less.
  3. Understanding the nature of language, and learning how to think about language for yourself, is independently valuable: it is an important aspect of human culture in its own right, and if used properly is relevant to other areas, such as general critical thinking skills and second language learning. Teaching how language works does not need to be justified solely by its effects on writing skills.
The way grammar has traditionally been taught in the UK is as dull as dishwater. (By a Google count, dishwater and dish water are together 5 times as dull as ditchwater, or ditch water, but I'm not sure which was the earlier idiom.) Perhaps the problem is that much grammar teaching is uninsightful taxonomizing, rote teaching of parts of speech and syntax? Personal opinion: if anything is going to help kids write, it is not a bunch of rules and labels, which will just cramp kids' style and give them premature writer's block. What is needed is a way to help kids think about the structure of language for themselves, a basic scaffolding, and a way to jump effortlessly from one structure to the next.

Posted by David Beaver at January 28, 2005 02:18 PM