FAQs about grammar teaching


Q. Didn't someone famous write about grammar teaching as "the grammar grind"?

A. You'd certainly think so, to judge by the number of citations of this phrase that you can find on the internet via Google; but they're all wrong. There's no true source for this so-called quotation. It's actually a misquotation of Robert Browning (The Grammarian's Funeral):

So, with the throttling hands of death at strife,
Ground he [the grammarian] at grammar: ...

Q. Hasn't the research proved once and for all that grammar teaching is a waste of time?

A. No. It has shown that decontextualised and unfocussed grammar teaching is a waste of time. But some research shows that well-planned and focussed grammar teaching does improve writing and reading skills.

Q. Hasn't recent research on grammar by people like Noam Chomsky shown that traditional grammar is all wrong?

A. No. It's true that grammar has turned into an extraordinarily technical area of research within linguistics, but most of the categories and terms that school children were learning a hundred years ago are still used (alongside a lot of new ones). What has changed is our understanding of how all these categories are related to each other in the complex structures that we call grammars.

Q. Isn't grammar far too difficult for most children?

A. No. In Russia every child learns the basic word classes (so-called 'parts of speech') in the first year of primary school, and the main clause elements (such as 'subject' and 'object') in the second year. Grammar is taught as a matter of course in most of Eastern Europe and most countries where a 'Romance' (= descended from Latin) language is spoken - France, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Portugal, ... Children can master these ideas quite easily when taught properly.

Q. Wasn't there once a thing called 'sentence diagramming' that was part of grammar teaching?

A. Yes, and in many countries it's still a popular activity - e.g. in the USA, which is well provided with web sites explaining how to do it. The system that's widely used in the USA and parts of Europe was invented in the 19th century and is rather rigid, but it has its uses as a way of showing how a clause is built out of a verb and its subject, with various bits and pieces added to each of these and to each other. Modern linguists have devised much better ways of diagramming sentences which would be very useful in KS3 classrooms. For a good illustration of how they might be used for teaching syntactic structure, try the VISL web site in Denmark, which was built for school children; but there are plenty more to choose from (e.g. one for KS3 teachers on my web site).