In Defence of Grammar

An article in the Guardian this week has caused quite a stir.  (Here in case you haven’t seen it  In this article, a best-selling novelist who teaches creative writing observes how “joyless” children’s learning of writing has become as it focuses on grammar.  She states that as a writer, she has found “nothing of value” in it.  

As a writer and teacher, I could not disagree more.  I grew up in a school system that put English grammar at the heart of its teaching.  I clearly remember diagramming sentences.  This did not stifle my creativity or stop my flow of words.  I am of course a sample of one, which is not very convincing when discussing a whole country’s way of learning.  However, as an English teacher, I see again and again the negative effect of assuming that grammar knowledge will somehow just “happen” in daily life.  

For many people, understanding how to use grammar correctly in both writing and speaking does just happen naturally.  These people are usually avid readers.  If you ask them if a sentence is correct, they just know if it is or isn’t even if they can’t verbalise the grammar rules behind it.  And they don’t need to.  How many times in your adult life are you asked to diagram a sentence and its grammar?  Probably never.  You are just expected to use grammar correctly.  

However, if you are not one of these people for whom grammar rules are assimilated naturally, your writing can start to unravel quite quickly.  Over the years, I have taught teenagers that fall into this category.  They generally don’t like reading, have not been taught grammar in a formal way, and their writing is far behind where it should be for their age group.  No amount of teaching creative writing will improve their written work when they cannot tell you what an adverb is, the rules of comma usage, or how to punctuate direct speech. Why does it matter, I hear you cry?  My reply is: How can a student express their ideas clearly and creatively if they do not have the tools to do so?  If a student does not know what an adverb is, how can they communicate the nuanced differences in their character’s behaviour?  If a student does not know how to use a comma to add an adjective clause, how can they effectively detail the setting they are describing?  

Am I advocating that students are just taught grammar day in and day out?  No, of course not.  Research by Exeter University (Myhill et al., 2013) demonstrated the benefits of relevant grammar when taught explicitly and in context. Teachers who contextualised the study of grammar within the reading of literature and discussed real life texts reported a positive impact on pupils’ writing and a deeper knowledge and understanding of language.

It is clear that teaching grammar needs to be integrated into both reading and writing activities so that children learn about grammar in context.  Here are some techniques I use when integrating grammar rules into English lessons:

  • Think about why.  Use text extracts to look at a particular grammar rule and ask why the author has used it.  For example, I might highlight every comma in a descriptive passage and then discuss why each one has been used.  We talk about the rules as well as the effect the usage has on meaning and enjoyment of the passage.  
  • Model grammar usage in your own writing.  In the above example, after discussion of the comma usage in the passage, I would then write a couple of sentences while the student is watching in which I model comma usage.
  • Put it into practice.  Finally, the student would write their own sentences in which they apply the rules they have learned.  This should of course be followed by a discussion of the effect that their writing had on the reader (me!).

In an article (2013) on the Telegraph’s website entitled ‘It’s cruel not to teach children grammar’,  the author concludes in a way that says it best: 

At its worst, educational theory that rejects grammar does so because of a mad idea that children are noble savages better left to authenticity and the composition of rap lyrics…  Grammar sets them free. No one would think it a kindness to give a teenager a car without teaching her to drive, and that includes the rules of the road. 

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