Do you want to improve your students’ writing? Well, don’t teach grammar. I’m serious. Teaching grammar does not improve student writing. I will never forget the year that I devoted an unreasonable amount of class time to teaching grammar with the hope that students would stop making all those careless mistakes in their writing. It didn’t work.
I soon discovered that decades of research had proven what I had learned through experience. In The Neglected “R”: The Need for a Writing Revolution (2003), The National Commission on Writing said this:
“Experiments over the last 50 years have shown negligible improvements in the quality of student writing as a result of grammar instruction.” (Becoming a Nation of Readers, National Institute of Education, 1985.)
“Decades of research (Elly, 1979, Hillocks, 1986, Freedman, 1993, Freedman and Daiute, 2001) have shown that instructional strategies such as isolated skill drills fail to improve student writing.”
Putting it even more strongly is this:
Research over a period of nearly 90 years has consistently shown that the teaching of school grammar has little or no effect on students.
Grammar and Usage (1991) by George Hillocks and Michael Smith
But before you throw out all those fabulous grammar books, please let me explain why it doesn’t work – and then how to make it work (at least a little bit better).
Now, I’m going to assume you have three goals you want to accomplish:
1. You want to improve student writing.
2. You want to improve student grammar.
3. You want to prepare students for the English Language Arts (hereafter ELA) standardized test.
Am I wrong here? What teacher today does not want to have success in all three of these areas? The fact is, when you teach writing effectively, student achievement rises in all three of these areas.
Grammar and Isolated Skill Drills: What Are They?
What does the research mean by grammar and isolated skill drills.
Isolated Skill Drills – Nearly all writing, grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization taught out of workbooks are isolated skill drills. This type of learning is also referred to as rote memorization or drill-and-kill. Isolated skill drills means what the term says – that skills and concepts are taught in isolation, as opposed to being taught in the context of authentic reading and writing.
Does the Research Apply to Just Grammar or to all Conventions? The Six Traits of Writing places all of these language concepts into the category of Conventions: grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.
In the real world, all these categories of Conventions are commonly lumped into the category of Grammar. When we hear the word Grammar, we must consider that the person may be referring to all categories of Conventions. Many people use the term Grammar as a generic term. Think about it: The term Conventions Police is unlikely to replace the term Grammar Police. But I assure you, the Grammar Police care about conventions as much as they care about grammar!
Furthermore, the research seems to be quite similar across all categories of Conventions. Here are two additional items of research that include spelling and punctuation:
If you teach elementary school writing or struggling middle school writers, be sure to check out Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay on the homepage.
Learning punctuation in the context of writing is much more effective than studying punctuation marks and rules for punctuation in isolation.
When Children Want to Punctuate: Basic Skills Belong in Context (1980) by Lucy Calkins
Concerning the amount of time devoted to spelling… an increase of time beyond a certain minimum is not rewarded by better results; or in other words, that all the time beyond this minimum is simply thrown away.
The Futility of the Spelling Grind (1897) by J.M. Rice
Grammar and Standardized Tests: Don’t Be Taken By Surprise
Don’t let the research fool you. Teachers must still teach grammar and conventions. Here’s an example straight from the 3rd grade California Standardized Test released test questions showing what’s required on the test:
• “Grammar: Identify subjects and verbs that are in agreement and identify and use pronouns, adjectives, compound words, and articles correctly in writing and speaking.”
• “Grammar: Identify and use past, present, and future verb tenses properly in writing and speaking.”
• “Punctuation: Use commas in dates, locations, and addresses and for items in a series.”
• “Capitalization: Capitalize geographical names, holidays, historical periods, and special events correctly.”
You can imagine what is expected in 8th grade and in high school. Please don’t be fooled into thinking that students don’t need to learn, dare I say memorize, the rules of grammar and conventions.
Three Points Made So Far:
1. Don’t teach skills in isolation.
2. Don’t expect that a large amount of instructional time devoted to grammar and conventions will significantly improve student writing. In fact, don’t even assume that all that time will improve students’ understanding of grammar and conventions. As you will see with the penny example, when students learn grammar and conventions in a meaningless way, the information exits as quickly as it enters.
3. Students learn all the skills connected to reading and writing by reading and writing – i.e., studying real communication with a purpose.
Four Reasons Why Grammar Instruction and Isolated Skill Drills Don’t Improve Student Writing
Effective instruction really means time-efficient instruction. Everything works to some degree, but not everything works in a time-efficient manner. We must not waste time doing what is not time-efficient. Classroom time is limited and valuable.
In one sense, in our heart of hearts, we all know that teaching writing and teaching grammar is a combination of these two quotes:
Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.
– Richard Peck – 2001 Newberry Award Winner
You can only learn to be a better writer by actually writing.
– Doris Lessing – 2007 Noble Prize in Literature Winner
Even though the above two quotes say it all, here are four more reasons why grammar and isolated skill drills don’t improve student writing:
1. Students Must Care about the Words and Ideas They Put on the Page
2. Students Beat the Worksheet System: They Figure Out the Trick
3. Universal Grammar: Grammar is Innate
4. Grammar and Conventions are Not Writing
Let’s take a closer look at these four concepts.
1. Students Must Care about the Words and Ideas They Put on the Page
Teaching is not just about “how children learn.” It’s also about how the mind works. The most comprehensive book I’ve read on the subject is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013). It makes clear that the mind truly does work in mysterious ways. Two TV shows that replicate many of the same or similar experiments are Brain Games and Your Bleeped Up Brain.
The fact that we can spend an enormous amount of time teaching something does not mean it will stick. Take this little brain challenge: Can you spot the real penny? You’ve spent an enormous amount of time with pennies. Surly, you can spot the real penny. But most people can’t!
Why can’t people spot the real penny? Answer: Most people don’t believe that it’s important to remember the details of a penny. However, I bet a coin collector would easily spot the real penny. As relates to teaching writing, students learn what’s meaningful, important, and in context. We want students to feel about writing the same way that a coin collector feels about coins.
The most effective way to teach writing, grammar, and conventions is to get students to care about the words they put on the page. When this happens, students are ready to learn. The research makes this point clear. In case you are wondering, this is the purpose behind Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay. It gets students writing, and it gets them writing in a way that leaves them exclaiming, “I get it! I finally get it!” Be sure to check out the writing program!
2. Students Beat the Worksheet System: They Figure Out the Trick and then Mindlessly Fill in the Blanks
The heading of this one says it all. A couple years into teaching, I realized just how prevalent this practice was. On my summer vacation, I did a Spanish language immersion program at a school located on a beach in Costa Rica. The school assigned worksheets as homework. It had been many years since I had done a worksheet, and my worksheet assignments were taking me an hour or more, while younger high school and college students were finishing in 30 minutes or less.
I was quite frustrated and could not figure out what was going on. This was supposed to be a vacation! Finally, I asked a group of students, “How are you all getting your homework done so fast?” They replied almost in unison, “You just figure out the trick and then finish all the rest the same way.” For the first time in my life, I felt old!
Well, the technique worked. It really was that easy. I could finish worksheet pages without even thinking about the skill! Unfortunately, I was actually trying to learn the language, so I didn’t always apply my newfound knowledge. Eventually, I did become fluent in Spanish, but I surly did not accomplish it by doing workbook pages. Note: It was through the process of learning Spanish that I came to see authentic writing as an important component of language and grammar mastery. Once again, my personal experience matched what the research says works.
Worth mentioning, struggling students often can’t figure out the trick in the same way that high-performing students can. This is why some students finish workbook pages in no time flat, while others take seemingly forever.
3. Universal Grammar: Grammar is Innate
The research says we are supposed to be teaching reading and writing in context and with authentic purpose. The research largely says we learn to read by reading and writing; and we learn to write by reading and writing. Reading and writing! I don’t know if the research actually supports whole language, but it certainly doesn’t dismiss it as a component of learning to read and write.
I’m not a fan of whole language simply because so many teachers have failed to make it work. Furthermore, I believe there is an intrinsic value in understanding the foundation and the rules of language beyond just being able to apply them. How rewarding can it be to be great at something and not understand the principles that create the greatness?
Having said that, there is quite a bit of evidence that grammar is innate and that we don’t need to learn grammar using formal techniques. Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist long considered the father of modern linguistics, has made this argument for decades. He makes his point quite clear with one sentence: “Is the man who is tall happy?” (Research that sentence if you so desire.) Now modern genetics has entered the conversation with the identification of the FOXP2 gene. While we can’t say for sure if the FOXP2 gene is a grammar or language gene, the FOXP2 gene has certainly started the debate.
Once again, it’s not that grammar instruction and isolated skill drills don’t work at all. It’s more that they are simply not an efficient use of time because the payoff is minimal compared to a more natural methodology. In short, we learn the rules of language, grammar, and writing FASTER and BETTER by reading and writing with interest and passion. If grammar were truly innate, this would be the case.
4. Grammar and Conventions are Not Writing
Early ancient Greek writing was simply a long string of letters. Was that not writing? There were no conventions, and I can’t imagine that the grammar was what it is today. Clearly, it was still writing. In fact, ancient Greek writing expressed such profound ideas that they still influence us today.
Please note, I never attempt to make a case against correct grammar and conventions. Grammar Police are mean, and it’s disheartening to have a piece of writing dismissed because of errors. However, writing is and always has been about recording and communicating ideas and information. Writing is getting ideas, organizing ideas, and recording ideas. Writing is prewriting, writing, and rewriting. Writing created conventions; conventions did not create writing. We learn writing and conventions by writing; we learn only conventions and grammar through isolated drill skills.
In summary, we are not learning to write when we study grammar and conventions. I’m not saying that they are not connected, but they have different names for a reason. To be fair, we are learning to write correctly when we apply our knowledge of grammar and conventions in writing.
Let’s Be Practical: How Workbooks and Isolated Skill Drills Can be Helpful, Useful, and Beneficial
Bilingual education in California was a failure because the teachers weren’t bilingual. In other words, just because the research says something works, does not mean that it will work.
The research on the correct way to teach grammar and writing assumes that all teachers are grammarians, who while in college, were also English majors and Literature majors. Such is not the case. Personally, I was a business major. I’ve had to learn an enormous amount about language, grammar, and writing.
In most elementary schools, some teachers are more gifted in math, some in science, some in language, and some can simply control a classroom. The reality is that a well-structured, spiraling, collection of isolated skill drills can be helpful and useful for many teachers. Here’s why:
1. They provide a focused roadmap of skills that teachers must teach and students must learn. This roadmap helps teachers and students stay on track and prepare for the standardized test.
2. They keep teachers and students moving forward. The class doesn’t get bogged down trying to master one concept.
3. They help prevent time-wasting detours that go nowhere.
4. They create a list of skills that writing teachers can refer to and hold students accountable for. In short, teachers can more easily communicate this: “I know and you know. And I know that you know I know you know. So follow the rules.”
5. They are likely to help bring about a certain amount of success on the multiple-choice sections of standardized tests.
I’m practical and reasonable. Workbooks and isolated drill skills are not going to disappear. However, hopefully teachers will not ignore the research and over-rely on workbooks. Let’s look at how to get better results with isolated drill skills.
Improving Student Writing: A Few Suggestions for Using Workbooks and Isolated Skill Drills
We all want our students to write better, and we all want to be effective writing teachers. Am I correct when I say this? I think I am also correct when I say that we all have in our classroom some form of supplemental material or workbook that contains isolated skill drills. After all, workbooks are often a required component of a district’s reading and writing curriculum.
Here are five ideas on how to use workbooks and isolated skill drills to more effectively improve student writing:
1. Accept that they don’t teach writing. Accept that they only teach skills that students must apply correctly when writing. Spend more time holding students accountable for these skills in real writing than on worksheets.
2. Use the worksheets and workbooks quickly. Once I realized the truth about them, I cut the time spent on them in half. The result: I quickly realized that I had been spending too much time on them. There was an all around better energy in the classroom. I used the time saved to connect the workbooks to real reading and writing.
3. Help students understand when and how to use a strategy. For example, dialogue is far less effective in an argument essay compared to a narrative story. Workbooks rarely provide the whole truth about a writing strategy; hence, the name isolated skill drill. Note: The more that you learn about language, grammar, and writing, the easier this is to make happen. Most every skill and strategy in writing has a proper or strategic time and place.
4. Create grammar and conventions Cheat Sheets. Metaphorically (or literally) cut up the workbook and extract the important parts (the rule and the examples). Use them to review and teach within the context of real reading and writing. When a teaching moment presents itself, be prepared to review rules and concepts. And don’t just wait for these teaching moments. Don’t just find them. Create them! Furthermore, train the class to discover and point out these teaching moments.
5. Teach one thing at a time, but not one tiny rule at a time. Too often workbooks break concepts up into minute parts. In reality, students learn the nuances of language when reading and writing, so there is no need to break up the nuances into minute parts. For example, the following concepts can be broken into tiny parts or taught more as a whole: plurals, possessives, contractions, parts of speech, syllables, punctuation, types of adjectives, verb tenses, types of nouns – the list goes on and on. It’s better to continually review and return to big concepts than to spend time mastering little skills.
Be sure to read the second part of this series: Teaching Writing and Grammar: Writer’s Workshop, Spiraling Writing Curriculum, Authentic Writing, and Isolated Skill Drills.Have you taken a look at the Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay program yet?