Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Teaching prescriptive grammar hurts student writing

Posted: Jan 22, 2014 14:01;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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_Update: Actually, the chart I was really thinking of can be found here.

The other day in my grammar class, I mentioned an article that reviewed years’ worth of controlled studies into methods of composition structure. The article I was thinking about was George Hillocks, Jr., “What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies,” American Journal of Education 93.1 (1984): 133–170.


The table I was thinking of in class is from page 157:



I’d overstated this conclusion a little: while teaching grammar was indeed the only thing people did that made student writing worse, I was wrong when I said it had a greater effect in absolute terms than any other method.


On the more general question of whether teaching grammar is effective, here is Hillock’s conclusion:


Grammar.-The study of traditional school grammer (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems (160).


Although you need to be careful, because the results are not alway independent, this conclusion has been reached time and time again in different contexts over at least the last forty years. One relatively recent study from an English context is: Dominic Wyse, “Grammar. For Writing? A Critical Review of Empirical Evidence,” British Journal of Educational Studies 49.4 (2001): 411–427.

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