Grammar In Isolation Never Works For Writing

As recently as 2005, Professor Richard Andrews of York University conducted the largest systematic review of existing studies on the teaching of grammar and found there was no evidence that teaching grammar as a formal stand alone exercise helped 5-16 year old write more fluently, or accurately.

It is therefore surprising that news reports indicate the proposed Australian national curriculum will be reviving the practice of formal grammar. As a result, media headlines scream the tired old catch cry ‘back to basics’ and the conservatives among us salivate. I see red every time the headlines scream ‘Back to Basics’. Teaching the so called basics has never gone away. Teachers confront the basics on a daily basis. It is at the core of what they do. It is insulting to suggest that re-inventing the past is the way to go. Suddenly, educators need to cast their collective eyes backwards with regards to spelling, grammar and phonics. Gee, thanks for that.

This is not to say that the teaching of grammar has no value. It’s just that there are better ways to teach grammar than the way apparently being proposed.

Contextualising grammar assists students to understand the role that grammar plays in developing as an effective writer. It teaches students to produce writing that is ‘reader friendly.’ What it doesn’t do is divorce grammar from the actual act of producing writing. However, what also needs to be present in our curriculum planning is the awareness of the need to teach students to be meta-cognitive with respect to the writing they produce. Grammar alone just won’t cut it.

Metacognition and Writing Development

Talk, as we have come to learn, plays a crucial role in learning to become a literate being.

Research conducted by Sharples (1999) argues that the ages of 10-14 are crucial, as at this stage children begin to be able to talk about how they write, rather than about what they have written,. This is a critical distinction and has clear implications for the way we teach writing.

Other researchers such as Kellog (1990) advocate the need to teach metacognitive awareness. Englert et al, used talk as a tool for making the writing process overt and found a positive correlation between metacognitive knowledge and writing performance, particularly in the students’ ability ‘to articulate their knowledge of structures, how to group ideas and knowing when a piece of writing is complete.’

In discussing meta-cognition, it is argued that the importance of students gaining increased mastery over the language of the writing process cannot be over-emphasised. These research findings are
signalling the importance of a meta-language, though it is not necessarily grammatical language. It suggests young writers need more.

The debate regarding grammar crosses this area. The question arises,-Is the ability to control and manipulate the material at hand more significant than the ability ‘to describe a linguistic feature using grammatical terminology?

We know that explicit teaching of grammatical rules is not necessarily matched by an ability to make corrections. There is no simple relationship between explicit rules and corrections.

Interestingly, Carter’s research (1990) found that the demise of formal grammar teaching and with it the absence of a meta-language in the classroom has been disempowering, preventing learners from ‘exercising the kind of conscious control and conscious choice over language which enables students to see through language in a systematic way and to use language more discriminatingly’.

Looking into the relationship between grammar and writing indicates as Professor Richard Andrews observed, ‘There is still a dearth of evidence for the effective use of formal grammar teaching in the development of writing’.
Any debate about grammar that discards the realities we face in the classroom is not going to be of much value. What we need is a debate that takes seriously the connection between writing and thinking.

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