On the teaching
of grammar

Research over a period of nearly 90 years has consistently shown that the teaching of school grammar has little or no effect on students.
-George Hillocks & Michael Smith, 1991


The most common reason for teaching grammar as a system for analyzing and labeling sentences has been to accomplish some practical aim or aims, typically the improvement of writing. For decades, however, research has demonstrated that the teaching of grammar rarely accomplishes such practical goals. Relatively few students learn grammar well, fewer retain it, and still fewer transfer the grammar they have learned to improving or editing their writing.

What doesn't work: The research

What works better: The research

For learners of English as a second language, research suggests that extensive reading may promote the acquisition of grammatical structures better than explicitly studying or practicing such structures (Elley, 1991). Indeed, for both first and second language learners, extensive reading significantly promotes grammatical fluency and a command of the syntactic resources of the language (Krashen, 1993).

Implications for teaching grammar as an aid to writing


Braddock, R., Lloyd-Jones, R., & Schoer, L. (1963). Research in written composition. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Calkins, L. M. (1980). When children want to punctuate: Basic skills belong in context. Language Arts, 57, 567-573.

Daiker, D. A., Kerek, A., & Morenberg, M. (1990). The writer's options: Combining to composing (4th ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

DeBoer, J. J. (1959). Grammar in language teaching. Elementary English, 36, 413-421.

DiStefano, P., & Killion, J. (1984). Assessing writing skills through a process approach. English Education, 16 (4), 203-207.

Elley, W. B. (1991). Acquiring literacy in a second language: The effect of book-based programs. Language Learning, 41 (3), 375-411.

Elley, W. B., Barham, I. H., Lamb, H., & Wyllie, M. (1976). The role of grammar in a secondary English curriculum. Research in the Teaching of English, 10, 5-21.

Encyclopedia of educational research (3rd ed.). (1960). New York: Macmillan.

Harris, R. J. (1962). An experimental inquiry into the functions and value of formal grammar in the teaching of written English to children aged twelve to fourteen. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of London.

Hillocks, G., Jr. (1986). Research on written composition: New directions for teaching. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Hillocks, G., Jr., & Smith, M. W. (1991). Grammar and usage. In J. Flood, J. M. Jensen, D. Lapp, & J. R. Squire (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (pp. 591-603). New York: Macmillan.

Hunter, S., & Wallace, R. (1995). The place of grammar in writing instruction: Past, present, future. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Killgallon, D. (1987). Sentence composing: The complete course. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Krashen, S. D. (1993). The power of reading: Insights from the research. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

McQuade, F. (1980, October). Examining a grammar course: The rationale and the result. English Journal, 69, 26-30.

Rosen, L. M. (1987). Developing correctness in student writing: Alternatives to the error-hunt. English Journal, 64, 62-69.

Strong, W. (1986). Creative approaches to sentence combining. Urbana, IL: ERIC and the National Council of Teachers of English.

Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Prepared for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework project and copyright © 1995 by Constance Weaver. In C. Weaver, L. Gillmeister-Krause, & G. Vento-Zogby, Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education (Heinemann, 1996). May be copied.

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