I just finished reading The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy.

In The War Against Grammar, Mulroy makes a compelling argument that formal grammar instruction is essential to creating a strong foundation for writing, reading comprehension, foreign language study, access to literary culture, and productive civil discourse.

I found Mulroy’s brief history of grammar and progressive education and his criticism of the current standards movement to be interesting.

I laughed out loud when I read this observation:

“Receptive competence” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words.  [p. 7]

Then I thought I’ve got to work that into some blog posts.  “Balanced literacy” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words.  “College and career readiness” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words.  “Positive Behavioral Supports” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words.

On a more serious note, Mulroy points out what should be the obvious value of standard English, a value I might add, that I had never consciously considered.

In fact, there are better, or at least nobler, reasons to learn and respect standard English.  Its existence not only promotes economic prosperity; it has social and cultural benefits as well.  The spread of standard English through schools has retarded the rate of change in the English language.  As [E.D.] Hirsch points out, linguist Henry Sweet, the model for Shaw’s Professor Henry Higgins, predicted in the nineteenth century that the English, the Australians, and the Americans would be speaking mutually incomprehensible languages by 1980.  Thanks in part to the efforts of people like Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth, this has not happened.  In mastering and using standard English, we participate in a collective effort that has given us effortless access to the thoughts of hundreds of millions of people separated by great distances of space and time.  [p. 86]

When we consider the value of literacy, it is easy to become frustrated with how little of the talk about education reform in Iowa concerns actual instruction.  So, it seems we will be discussing the merits of changing teacher salary structures and requiring more time in school this year without discussing the implications of underlying instructional choices.  The War Against Grammar suggests that this is a mistake.

Sentences always have and always will consist of clauses with subjects and predicates and of words that fall into classes fairly well described as verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.  Individuals who understand these concepts have a distinct advantage over others where the use of language is involved—and that means everywhere.  If only for the purpose of helping disadvantaged students, it should therefore be a high priority for all English teachers to find ways to deliver effective formal instruction in grammar in the middle grades of all schools, not just elite ones.  There is reason to believe that this change of policy would also increase our nation’s appreciation of its literary heritage, promote the study of foreign language, and improve the quality of the spoken and written discourse in which we are all immersed.  [p. 118]

These seem like the sort of things world-class schools ought to be accomplishing, don’t they?

HT:  kitchen table math for both the book recommendation (the ktm post on The War on Grammar is worth reading) and the link to chapter one online.


3 thoughts on “Grammar

  1. Chris

    Interesting post! I teach writing (at the law school level), and sure, I think it would be great if more people had a strong understanding of (and feel for) grammar. But at the same time, I have two reservations. First, I always pull back whenever I hear anyone explaining why their particular subject is so important that it must be forced on everyone. You can write an argument like that for any subject; economics is so important it must be required; anthropology is so important it must be required, foreign language is so important it must be required, etc. It’s the kind of argument that leads to “requirement creep,” when in fact there’s every reason to think that people generally learn better when they are given more choice over what to study.

    Second, I think the quick step from “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone knew x?” to “therefore we must require everyone to take x!” deserves some examination. It seems to presume a very simple input-output model of learning, as if students are just Gumby figurines that can be molded at will. It neglects to take into account the possibility that educational compulsion comes with costs as well as benefits. It also seems to underestimate the degree to which there might be limits to what can be achieved through compulsory education.

    As you know, I think there are serious limitations on the usefulness of empirical educational research, but here’s a post by Freddie deBoer on the research about grammar instruction. DeBoer himself is not one to make grand claims about ed research, but his conclusion: “one thing that I feel comfortable saying we just know in writing pedagogy is that teaching grammar doesn’t work. . . . A vast swath of empirical research demonstrates that teaching grammar is useless.”

    I haven’t reviewed the research he’s referring to, so I certainly can’t vouch for it. But my gut instinct is to think: there are people who gravitate toward words and all things verbal, and those people are likely to reach a pretty high level of grammar skill even without compulsory instruction (and are likely to choose to take writing classes anyway); there are also people who could sit through years of compulsory grammar instruction and absorb hardly any of it. I’d be surprised if compulsory grammar instruction made more than a very modest long-term impact on most people — which would then have to be weighed against the possible beneficial impact of what they would have chosen to take instead.

    I suspect you could achieve at least as much by making sure that schools don’t lead kids to think of reading and literature as boring and aversive.

  2. Karen W Post author

    Chris—thanks for commenting. I haven’t written about it here yet, but you know that I have been working for months now to get various local and state level education officials to acknowledge that the use of the word “or” in a statute creates two alternative conditions, only one of which must be met to qualify for the exception (otherwise the drafters would have used the word “and”). So you can imagine that I might be particularly receptive right now to the notion that formal elementary grammar instruction might not be a bad thing. It is frustrating to be trying to find yet another polite way to explain the function of the word “or” in a sentence to other adults.

    That being said, I am interested in knowing why people think any particular discipline is or isn’t worth studying. I think that our kids deserve an explanation better than “because I said so” or “because the state said so” or “because it’s on the test” for the curriculum they are being offered.

    I agree with your concerns about compulsion and too many one-size-fits all requirements. However, I do think that educators make (at least) two mistakes. First, I think that they are too quick to make assumptions about what children will or will not find interesting. With all the fuss about “relevance” I think that educators sometimes underestimate the natural curiosity many children have about the world (including the written and spoken language used by the adults they know), at least until we turn learning into a chore they do to please us. I’ll just note that Maria Montessori observed that children have a sensitive period for grammar and she designed grammar materials that many Montessori children find appealing. I guess I’d say we don’t know how many children might take an interest in grammar if it was offered in an appealing (and voluntary) way at the right time in their intellectual development.

    Second, I think that educators assume that all kids can just pick things up and that formal instruction spoils their enjoyment. So, I’ll note that while some people do pick things up without formal instruction, some people will need help and I think that teachers ought to offer that help. When I think of activities I hated in PE class, for example, they were the ones that we participated in without prior instruction. Would I have ever come to love kick ball? Possibly not, but I might have felt less anxiety about the game if anyone had ever taken the time to teach me exactly what to do when the ball came rolling at me. I think that it is entirely plausible that some kids hate reading because they can’t figure out for themselves what the rules are for making sense of what they see on the page and the teacher won’t tell them what the rules are.

    To sum up (before this comment become longer than the original post), I think we might be surprised what interests kids if we don’t spoil it for them and that I think voluntary formal instruction might open the door to enjoying academic studies just like voluntary formal instruction in athletics, music, art, cooking etc. can help some of us better enjoy pursuits in those areas.

  3. Chris

    I agree completely! I realize that it must be hard for a mammoth institution to be able to offer instruction to each kid at the very moment when that particular kid is most receptive to it, but I’m not sure our system even sees that as an ideal anymore. We seem to be headed to (already at?) the extreme end of the spectrum: all kids must be taught a, b, and c at exactly times x, y, and z. Given the educational value of choice and autonomy, even a big lumbering bureaucratic institution ought to be able to incorporate some of those things into its curriculum — much more than our system does now.

    Sometimes it seems like school systems are much more interested in being able to say “We teach x” than in being able to say “Our students learn x,” or seem to have forgotten that there’s a distinction between the two. And by “our students learn x,” I mean something more than “Our students perform well on standardized tests given shortly after our course on x.” If it makes no appreciable difference on them as adults, what’s been achieved by it? Of course, the ways that our schooling affects our later lives are subtle and complex enough that they would be very hard to measure empirically. But the trend seems to be: we can’t empirically assess whether we’re getting what we want; therefore we should want something else. Then we can succeed!

    LOL, by the way, about “and” versus “or.” Are you sure you’d want to put those people in charge of teaching your kids grammar?


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