Misconceptions about Teaching Grammar

Misconceptions about Teaching Grammar


I advocate teaching grammar, clearly. I read grammar books and studies because I am passionate about grammar. I write about methods for teaching grammar because I’ve seen students soar in ELA classes because they understand their language in a new way.

If you’ve read my blog for an extended period, you know that I don’t simply think an understanding of grammar contributes to better writing. Grammar is the study of our language, and understanding how our words work makes for better readers, for larger vocabularies, for stronger speakers.

I’ve tried to be honest about my experiences with grammar lessons because I now enjoy teaching grammar where I once dreaded it. I think that for these reasons, teachers feel comfortable sharing their grammar woes with me. Their questions are normally misconceptions.

Below are common misconceptions I read or hear about teaching grammar. I’ve also provided resources that I’ve found throughout my grammar studies. If you are questioning teaching grammar or just beginning teaching grammar, I hope my ideas about these misconceptions help.

Are you worried about teaching grammar because you've heard one of these misconceptions? If you wonder why grammar belongs in your curriculum, read this.

Words Change – aka, it makes no sense and it’s confusing

Part of teaching language is showing students the richness of our language and I agree, this can be scary. If you dislike grammar because of the difficulty grammar brings, perhaps think of the situation as a challenge. Look:

We exchanged pleasantries. (noun)

We were pleasant. (adjective)

We pleasantly spoke. (adverb)

For example, this might seem to be a difficult aspect of grammar, but honestly, this is what makes grammar studies much more than memorization. Give an example like this (or this example!) to students. Write about this simple exchange. Debate which situations call for different uses.

Words allow for writers and speakers to decide what version best conveys their message.

That Study…

The Braddock study. Yep. The publication date is 1963. For those who may not know, the Braddock study’s (famously) quoted lines are:

The conclusion [of this review] 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 actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.

Researchers and writers parse pieces of this study. Beliefs about grammar is a spectrum. Most writing about grammar will reference the Braddock study and some teachers will reference this study as to why they should avoid grammar instruction. English teachers don’t agree about it though. Consider:

David Mulroy condemns the Braddock study in The War Against Grammar. Mulroy emphasizes that the Braddock’s study cannot be duplicated. He also ties a lack of grammar studies to lower SAT scores and decreased reading comprehension.

Trygve Thoreson found improvement in student writing with grammar instruction.

Other researchers such as Hannah Patriquin stress that grammar instruction should make sense – that it simply should not be a regurgitation of rules.

Finally, NCTE states:

Knowing about grammar also helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise. Grammar can be part of literature discussions, when we and our students closely read the sentences in poetry and stories.

Yikes. So, that is a ton of information and yes, the Braddock study still influences how teachers consider grammar today. When thinking of grammar, consider more than that one study. (You can read the study online.) It deals with writing, but NCTE encourages teachers to apply grammatical knowledge to more than writing.

When a colleague questions teaching grammar because of the Braddock study from 1963, take some time to research the spectrum of beliefs about grammar. The situation is not simple.

“I want my students to think.”

I hear this, and I know what teachers mean. I want my students to think too. I don’t want students to simply circle the subject or recite ideas to me.

We give our students all sorts of tools for thinking. Consider the tools we provide students for analyzing literature. We teach literary terms, specifics of genres, characteristics of time periods, histories of authors, elements of a story, and more.

What would happen if we armed students with similar tools for studying language? When teaching grammar, teachers most certainly can have students memorize rules and lists. That’s certainly not how I teach grammar.

Understanding language arms students against fake news and biased reporting. Grammar empowers students for choosing the most impactful statement for speeches, for arranging arguments in a paper, or for developing suspense through sentence structure in a narrative. Grammar is a tool for thinking, and I remind students of such.

Advance grammar lessons past rules, and you will see students analyze language with deeper meaning.

I did not always joyously teach grammar. I believed that I would teach senseless rules and force students into memorizing lists. Those ideas… are not true. Understanding the language we read, speak, and write allows for deeper analysis, for a greater understanding.

Grammar isn’t a punitive task to finish within the first ten minutes of class. Instead, teaching grammar to students provides them with a lifelong tool.

EDIT: As I’ve mentioned, learning grammar’s impact on student achievement is a passion of mine. My personal children are elementary students, and I read frequently about handwriting and learning cursive letters. Recent research shows that handwriting is more than a motor skill; children are interacting with their language in a meaningful way.

This has led me to question if the study of grammar is another method for younger students to interact with their language. Because reading and language is the foundation for all other learning, should we teachers provide multiple chances for students to manipulate and play with their language?

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