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Literature Review

Part 3 of Inquiry

            For decades across English-speaking countries, there has been ongoing debate about the teaching of grammar in schools. Complicating the matter, the term “grammar” has taken on multiple definitions for teachers and researchers. There are those who view grammar prescriptively, seeing grammar as a governing set of syntactic rules, and those who see grammar more descriptively, as a socialized device for communication. The scholars I have encountered all point to the misguided nature of historically prescriptive grammar teaching practices, showing knowledge of rules to be an ineffective method for teaching. However, in looking for more effective approaches to teaching grammar, scholars do not agree fundamentally on the purpose of this education. Some think grammar should be taught to improve writing, while others think it should be there to improve social communication. With their divergent end goals guiding the teaching practices the authors espouse, the studies reach different conclusions about how grammar education can be more successful. In the narrowness of how they define that success, and in the different assumptions they make, the authors, and teachers in the field, seem to be talking through one another. Fusing aspects of the research, the literature shows the need to examine the multifaceted effects of descriptive teaching practices beyond looking just at writing outcomes. In moving away from some of the rule-based learning, what happens to habits of mind, to perceptions of comprehension and the relevance of grammar, to affinity for the subject? It begs the broader question from which my inquiry stems in which I do not minimize the potential outcomes – what happens when I teach grammar descriptively?

             For almost all the researchers I encountered, seeing grammar within a descriptive, rhetorical model was paramount. Smith & Wilhelm (2006), in an examination of the past research into the effectiveness of grammar teaching, concluded that “teaching grammar - in the sense of identifying or defining parts of speech, labeling, diagramming, or parsing sentences - … is senseless” (p. 40). The reason, they suggest, is that, within the prescriptive model described above, rules are learned in isolation, without context (Andrews, 2006; Mart, 2013; Weaver, 1996). Students can not inherently transfer rules to their writing, and to their speech. In regurgitating information, they remain unable to translate the learned guidelines to the real world. While researchers are confident in the potential for an improved descriptive model of teaching, in an examination of 31 British teachers’ mindsets about grammar, Watson (2013) found that teachers were largely unaware of the contrasting definitions of grammar. Perhaps due to their lack of knowledge about the subject, many teachers felt their duty was to convey rules and demand accuracy. Understanding that educational practices can only change when teachers buy in, Watson saw it vital for teachers to learn that grammar can broaden beyond a set a rules. Interestingly, when discussing their beliefs, many of those teachers felt grammar could teach “‘choice’ rather than ‘rules’, ‘effects’ rather than ‘accuracy’, and contextualized rather than decontextualized pedagogy” (Watson, p. 8). Those opinions bespoke personal value systems that fit within the descriptive, rhetorical model. Calling “for recognition at policy and professional level of multiple ‘grammars’ or ‘grammar pedagogies,’” Watson felt that discriminating between definitions could allow teachers to better match their practice with their personal value system (p. 12). Getting teachers to see descriptive grammar as a possibility would allow grammar to transition into a more successful descriptive era.

             However, although researchers agree teachers must begin teaching grammar as more than a set of rules, they have divergent notions about what grammar education should accomplish. The first of these camps is rooted in the belief that grammar should be taught primarily to advance students’ command of syntactic structures. These authors feel that ultimately, grammar exists to improve writing by giving students a greater sense of available techniques for sentence creation (Jones et al., 2013; Andrew et al., 2006). Operating under the belief that grammar is “a meaning-making resource for writing development, ” Jones et al. (2013) developed a mixed-methods, randomized, controlled trial to see what technique could create the best writers. Looking at middle-school aged kids in the Midlands region of England, they found that when teachers embedded linguistic features and effects in writing units, students better recognized how grammatical choices could shape their texts. They saw an overall effect that when grammar and linguistics were embedded in writing units, students used more complex structures in their writing. Operating under similar assumptions as Jones et al., Andrews et al. (2006) examined found studies on grammar teaching of children aged 5-16, they found similar results.

             Both studies show teaching practices that demand “application of knowledge” instead of “knowledge about” (Andrew et al, 2006, p. 52).  In each, students demonstrated some improved writing when they were asked to apply the concepts. However, the overall effects remain inconclusive. The fact that prior writing achievement was a significant factor in improvement in Jones et al.’s study raises concerns about the viability of the technique, as it might not yet involve sufficient scaffolding. Moreover, given that pronounced achievement gap, the improvement for the top kids might not be caused by the intervention. Tdo accept these techniques as the way forward, educators need to believe better writing is more complex writing. While both studies shared that view in their analysis, more complex sentences do not always represent the best form of communication (Myhill, 2010). Good writing, I contend, is more nuanced than simply being complex writing.

             While Constance Weaver (1996), the author of Teaching Grammar in Context, a renowned book in the field, shares the underlying assumption that grammar exists to improve writing, she has a slightly different view on what that means. Her central aim is “for students to use grammar more effectively and conventionally in their writing” (Weaver, p. 23). That effectiveness does not rely on complexity, but instead, on five central concepts she believes need to be taught over a students’ lifetime. She contends that between kindergarten and graduate school, students need to learn elements of basic grammatical principles (i.e. commonly accepted, prescriptive rules), sentence-combining style, syntactical style, dialectic power, and punctuation. Though she believes grammar should be expanded beyond prescriptivism, she recognizes it must not abandon all convention, especially as those conventions are widely accepted in the socialized world. However, like Jones et al. (2013) and Andrew et al. (2006), she accepts grammar serves students better by adding further elements to their writing than accuracy. Like Smith (2006) too, she shares the idea that teaching grammar should be more than about reducing errors.

             The unconventional aspect of Weaver’s approach is the idea that she believes these concepts should be taught incidentally and casually. When the points come up in conversation, students can notice patterns on their own and develop deeper learning as a result. “No matter how students are taught grammatical concepts, syntactic constructions and stylistic devices, or language conventions and editing concepts,” she writes, “they will not automatically make use of these in their writing” (Weaver, 2006, p. 23). For students to make use of these devices, she believes teachers should revisit these five central topics regularly, providing opportunities for incidental contact along the way so that students can come to the idea on their own. While I much prefer her five-pointed notion of good writing to more limiting approaches, her idea about teaching grammar incidentally seems overly idealistic, for I cannot see how a kindergartner will come to ask about syntactic structures on their own. The contact with grammar must not always be incidental, or else coverage may become limited. Educators can lose control of what has been learned. In order for students to know the right questions to ask, a teacher must inquire with them, helping them see what questions to ask. I disagree too with the notion that grammar only serves writing. In limited its outcome to improving writing, she misses how it can affect habits of mind and a love for learning. Good grammar instruction must not minimize its own value by insisting it only serves to help writing.

             Cagri Mart (2013) and Debra Myhill (2010) suggest that grammar education can have a variety of positive effects. Mart, looking broadly at English development across both L1 and L2 speakers, has the most prescriptivist lens of the authors surveyed. Understanding the set of rules grammar can provide can be necessary for L2 students, she sees grammar as a means of organizing words and messages. She contends, “knowing more about grammar will enable learners to build better sentences” both in speaking and writing (Mart, 2013). Though like the previous authors she sees grammar as a tool to improve writing, she does not believe that was its primary role for students. Instead, it acts primarily as a means to understand the nature of language, allowing students access into a vast expanse of possibilities within the language. Similarly, Myhill sees grammar as scaffolding for language development. Teaching grammar offers students “a theory about how language makes meaning” (Myhill, 2010, p. 179). Using knowledge of how that theory works, students can explore how grammar and punctuation act as tools to create and refine meaning. She contends knowledge of grammar should not limit how students use syntax, punctuation, and other accepted grammatical concepts. Similar to Weaver, she accepts a standard from which we must operate. However, she believes that knowledge of grammar should empower students to deviate from convention, allowing their syntax and punctuation to change the rhythm and mood of lines. With knowledge of the theory, words, both spoken and written, can dance (Myhill, 2010).

             Though Myhill offers less specific teaching strategies than the other authors, her work allows greater flexibility for what grammar instruction can accomplish than any other approach. It does not limit grammar to merely improving writing. Rather, it extends grammar to a communicative position. It operates under the assumption that writing and communicating are social acts, ones that “[express] identity and positioning in relation to the world and the readership” (Myhill, 2010, p. 171). Fundamentally, that is an assumption I am more inclined to agree with. For it allows grammar instruction to be more other oriented, not limiting grammar to the self. All learning should ultimately serve a purpose beyond bettering the self, with grammar no different.

             My inquiry project probed how that idea, that grammar exists to give an arsenal of social, communicative tools to students, can work in a seventh grade classroom. I examined what happens when the descriptive teaching practices the earlier authors deploy to achieve good writing fit within this framework. Taken together, the literature suggests that grammar should not be taught just for any isolated reason. As such, though I hoped to see many of the writing benefits the authors documented, I looked primarily for how students’ attitudes and perceptions of grammar change. In teaching grammar, we should seek to provide our students with the variety of communicative tools the English language offers. While I believed in offering the socially accepted rules of grammar alongside encouragement to explore meaning through experimentation, I sought not to place too much value judgment on their constructions, but rather was interested in charting the ways in which this descriptive approach could impact language and attitudes towards grammar.

Click here to continue to part 4 - my Methods

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