Grammar teaching and writing skills: the research evidence

Richard Hudson (

Dept of Phonetics and Linguistics, UCL, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

[Published in Syntax in the Schools, 17:1-6, 2001]

1. Historical background

Does a training in 'formal grammar' improve a child's ability to write? At one time it was taken for granted that the answer was yes, so children were taught grammatical analysis as part of the effort to improve their writing. However when educational researchers sought evidence for the expected effects, the results were negative; for example, one of the classic experiments concluded: "It seems safe to infer that the study of English grammar had a negligible or even harmful effect upon the correctness of children's writing in the early part of the five secondary schools." (Harris 1962) A number of studies in the 60s and 70s have since been accepted as 'classic' support for the view that grammar teaching does nothing for children's writing. By the late 60s the dominant view in both the UK and the USA, and possibly throughout the English-speaking world, was that "most children cannot learn grammar and ... even to those who can it is of little value." (Thompson 1969) No doubt this view fitted the spirit of the times both in English teaching (where grammar was seen as a shackle on children's imagination) and in linguistics (where Chomsky was arguing that grammatical competence develops 'naturally' according to an innate programme, so teaching is simply irrelevant).

Since then much has changed in both the UK and the USA, and the pendulum seems to be on the return swing. It would be naive to think that the pendulum is driven by academic research - indeed, there has been very little research on grammar and writing since the flurry in the 60s and 70s; rather it reflects very general attitude changes in education and more generally throughout society. However the result is that there is now much more enthusiasm in some educational circles for the idea that conscious grammar (resulting from formal teaching) could have the useful benefit of improving writing. In the USA this is apparently to be seen in Freshman composition circles (Mccleary 1995) and to a limited extent in the Whole English approach to school English teaching (Weaver 1996), but in the UK (of which I know more) it is one of the main pillars of the newly introduced National Literacy Strategy (DfEE 1997) and the National Curriculum for English (DfEE and QCA 1999). These government directives apply to all state-run schools in England, primary and secondary, and prescribe in some detail both content and methods. The prescriptions are by no means bland commonplaces; on the contrary, they are an attempt to change current practice, and nowhere more so than by reintroducing the teaching of grammar.

One of the reasons given for this major change of teaching policy is the beneficial effect of grammar teaching on the children's writing; but this has inevitably invited criticism from those who believe that the earlier research has proved this effect to be a myth. The status of the research evidence is clearly an important issue, and even an urgent issue given that the policy is already being implemented (on a massive scale). What, then, does the published research really say about the effects of grammar teaching?

2. The present survey

The following report is based on a small-scale attempt to find the answer. Because of time constraints I have regrettably not been able to check all original sources, so my conclusions must be treated with caution; but I think the overall conclusions are sufficiently robust to at least merit serious consideration.

The bibliography has grown out of a wide range of sources, including some responses to a query that I broadcast over a number of email networks. I should like to thank the following for their contributions:

Riikka Alanen, Meredith Bruce, Peter Bryant, Wayne Cowart, David Denison, Paul Higgins, Jasper Holmes, Laura Huxford, Peter Smith, Michael Swan, Futoshi Tachino, John Walmsley, Catherine Walter, Kay Walter.

The information that they supplied ranged from bare bibliographical references to the summary of an entire book. I also used a number of reviews of the literature, all of which were most helpful whatever their theoretical angle:

Abrahamson 1977; Elley 1994; Elley 1975; Fraser 1978; Herriman 1994; Hillocks 1986; Matzen 1995; Mellon 1969; QCA 1998; Rutledge 2000; Tomlinson 1994; Tordoir 1979; Walmsley 1984; Weaver 1996.

I am very much aware that this bibliography must be incomplete, as it contains hardly any references to research outside UK, USA and New Zealand, and in particular very little on languages other than English. Given that some kind of formal grammar seems to be taught in most school systems outside the Anglo-Saxon world (Hudson 1998), and given that it is usually taught for the sake of its effects on writing, there must (one would think) be some research on its effectiveness. This bibliography is meant to grow, so I welcome suggestions for addition or correction.

3. Is grammar too difficult?

The earliest research questioning the value of grammar teaching found that it was simply a waste of time in the sense that most children could not apply any of the categories even after many years of teaching (Cawley 1957; Hudson 1987; Macauley 1947). This is clearly a fundamental objection if it is true, but most research has found that, when well taught, any kind of grammar (traditional or modern) can be learned by most school children at least at secondary level (Bateman and Zidonis 1966; Elley 1994; Elley and others 1975; Elley and others 1979; Harris 1962; Herriman 1994; Kennedy and Larson 1969; Mellon 1969; Quattlebaum 1994; Tomlinson 1994; Tordoir and Wesdorp 1979) and in some cases at primary level - for example, fifth-graders (Gale 1967). My international survey showed that grammatical analysis is regularly taught in some countries to children as young as six or seven (Hudson 1998), and the evidence from developmental psychology is that metalinguistic awareness starts to develop naturally between 5 and 7 years (Herriman 1994).

All that the early research seems to show, therefore, is that it is possible to teach grammar in such a way that children learn nothing; but this is hardly surprising - the same is surely true of any subject. However the early research should act as a warning to any who might argue that any kind of grammar teaching is better than none. It is also interesting to remember that grammar was one of the few subjects that teachers taught purely on the basis of what they themselves learned at school, without any kind of 'boost' at university; a subject with such weak intellectual underpinnings is doomed to eventual extinction, so it is imperative to ensure that the same mistake is not repeated.

4. Do structured grammatical exercises improve writing?

Grammar teaching could be surreptitious, as it were, with a clear underlying theory of grammar but minimal use of grammatical terminology. This is in fact how a lot of grammar teaching has been done; and in particular there is a well-recognised activity called 'sentence combining' which seems to be widely used in the USA. There is some evidence, apparently good, that this kind of activity benefits children's writing (Abrahamson 1977; Barton 1997; Hillocks 1986; Mellon 1969; O'Hare 1973), and in some studies it turned out that this kind of grammar teaching produced better results than more traditional teaching of grammatical analysis. For example, " Hillocks surveys the many studies of the effects of sentence combining, and finds them overwhelmingly POSITIVE at all levels (grade 2 to adult). 60% show significant gains in syntactic maturity; 30% non-significant gains; 10% no gains." (Weaver 1996, reporting Hillocks (1986)).

Why should these exercises be so much more successful than traditional analysis? It seems reasonable to assume that it is at least in part because they are exercises in the production of language, and specifically in the production of written language, so they feed much more directly into the child's growing repertoire of productive skills than exercises in grammatical analysis do. In short, they are more closely integrated into the teaching of writing, so the skills acquired in isolation are more likely to transfer directly into a usable skill. However this conclusion does not necessarily rule out the possibility of transfer from grammatical analysis under the right conditions

5. Can grammatical analysis ever benefit writing?

Here the research evidence is divided. There are studies which show no benefit from teaching grammatical analysis (Elley 1994; Elley et al 1979; Hillocks 1986; O'Hare 1973), contrasting with other studies which do show a benefit. In the latter studies the benefit can be shown in two ways: by comparing the writing of an experimental group who have received grammar teaching with that of a control group who have not, or by correlating subjects' writing skills with their explicit knowledge ('grammatical awareness'). The link to grammar teaching in the second case rests on the plausible assumption that this enhances grammatical awareness. The references which show benefits in these ways are: Bateman and Zidonis 1966; Bryant et al 1997, 2000; Gale 1967; Heap 1991; Kennedy and Larson 1969; Klotz 1996; Mason and Mason 1997; Mason, Mason, and Quayle 1992; Mccleary 1995; Mellon 1969; Nunes et al 1997a,b; Williams 1995. The least we can say is that, contrary to popular wisdom, the question is still open.

However it may be possible to go further by isolating the features that distinguish the two groups of studies. We start with a quotation from the very large-scale Finnish study conducted by Laurinen 1955, since this is not widely known in English-speaking countries. The study was conducted in 1946-7 and involved over 3,000 primary pupils; to judge by the summary I have seen, the methodology supports the general conclusions: "Equally good results in punctuation were attained in the third grade both by those classes that had not learned to analyse sentences and by those that had; in the sixth grade, better results were shown by the latter group. The sixth-grade pupils who are good at punctuation have generally mastered parts of speech and are able to distinguish between subordinate and principal clauses; knowledge of a generally prescribed list of conjunctions is less important." (Laurinen 1955: 276). This report suggests some features of grammar teaching which has positive effects on writing:

It is clearly focussed on one particular area of grammar (subordinate and main clauses) which correlates with an aspect of writing where children need help (punctuation).

It is spread over many years - at least from third to sixth grade.

It starts in primary school.

The first of these characteristics may be the crucial one, as it seems to be missing from the negative studies and is present in many if not all of the positive ones. We may assume that the long period of study and the early start helped, though we have to recognise that some of the positive studies have lacked these features - indeed some have shown effects after very short periods of teaching by an enthusiast (e.g. Williams 1995).

6. What kind of grammar?

If children do write better when they are taught grammatical analysis, does it matter what kind of grammatical analysis they learn? We consider first the question of the choice between modern and traditional grammar. The studies have tried out traditional grammar, transformational grammar (of an early vintage) and specific parts of systemic grammar, but it is not clear that any approach has a clear advantage, and most studies were not intended to compare alternative grammars. Nor do the relevant studies agree. On the one hand Tordoir and Wesdorp (1979) survey no fewer than 53 studies and conclude that traditional grammar is best, followed by transformational grammar, with terminology-free exercises bringing up the rear. On the other hand Gale (1967) found in a direct comparison of transformational and traditional grammar that transformational grammar was better, and the following studies also support modern grammars rather than traditional ones: Bateman and Zidonis 1966; Gale 1967; Heap 1991; Kennedy and Larson 1969; Mason and Mason 1997; Mason, Mason, and Quayle 1992; Mccleary 1995; Mellon 1969; Williams 1995. No doubt a great deal depends in such comparisons on other variables - e.g. the teacher's preparation (and motivation) and how clearly focussed the course was.

Secondly, should grammar teaching go beyond the traditional focus on sentence-level grammar (i.e. syntax)? The research strongly supports the inclusion of both morphology (Bryant et al 1997, 2000; Nunes et al 1997a, b) and features relevant to the organisation of discourse and texts (Heap 1991; Mason and Mason 1997; Mason, Mason and Quayle 1992).

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, the idea that grammar teaching improves children's writing skills is much better supported by the available research than is commonly supposed. However there is no denying the need for more research in this area, so we finish with quotations (from Walmsley 1984) by two of the twentieth century's most distinguished psychologists who have taken an interest in this question. First, Robert Thouless (1969:211):

"If a small part of the research effort that has been put into demonstrating the uselessness of grammar ... had been distributed over a wider field, more might be known about how skill in the use of English can best be developed."

And second John Carroll (1958:324):

"I am reasonably sure that unless the student gets a feeling for sentence patterning ... his own sentence patterns will show many obvious defects. Research on the effectiveness of teaching English grammar in improving English composition has been mainly negative, but until this research has been repeated with improved methods of teaching English grammar, I will remain unconvinced that grammar is useless in this respect."


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