Some Questions and Answers about Grammar

NCTE’s Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, 2002

Why is grammar important?

Grammar is important because it is the language that makes it possible for us to talk about language. Grammar names the types of words and word groups that make up sentences not only in English but in any language. As human beings, we can put sentences together even as children — we can all do grammar. But to be able to talk about how sentences are built, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences — that is knowing about grammar. And knowing about grammar offers a window into the human mind and into our amazingly complex mental capacity.

People associate grammar with errors and correctness. But knowing about grammar also helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise. Grammar can be part of literature discussions, when we and our students closely read the sentences in poetry and stories. And knowing about grammar means finding out that all languages and all dialects follow grammatical patterns.

Is grammar included in the NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts?

Four of the twelve standards call on the students’ understanding of language and sentence structure:

I hear that teaching grammar doesn’t help students make fewer errors. But students make so many mistakes in their writing. What should I do?

Teaching grammar will not make writing errors go away. Students make errors in the process of learning, and as they learn about writing, they often make new errors, not necessarily fewer ones. But knowing basic grammatical terminology does provide students with a tool for thinking about and discussing sentences. And lots of discussion of language, along with lots of reading and lots of writing, are the three ingredients for helping students write in accordance with the conventions of standard English* [1].

I try to teach the standard parts of speech and the usual rules for correct writing even though I’m not convinced the students retain the information for very long. What’s the best way to approach grammar under these circumstances?

Two suggestions:

Make good use of the other languages and the various dialects of English in your classroom. Compare the informal private language that students speak around friends and family with public standard English* [1]. Learn a little about the noun and verb patterns in Spanish and African American Vernacular English, for example, so that you can make comparisons when discussing standard English* [2]. Students feel prouder of their home language when they hear even briefly in school about its grammatical patterns.

Grammar workbook exercises get pretty dull, but they do cover the basics. Are they worthwhile? How should I use them?

Traditional drill and practice will be the most meaningful to students when they are anchored in the context of writing assignments or the study of literary models. Students find grammar most interesting when they apply it to authentic texts. Try using texts of different kinds, such as newspapers and the students’ own writing, as sources for grammar examples and exercises. This approach helps make grammar relevant and alive. It also avoids the artificiality of studying sentences in isolation, a problem with grammar books; in real texts, students can see how sentences connect and contrast to each other through their grammar.

What kinds of grammar exercises help students write not just correct sentences but better, more expressive ones?

Grammar is a large, complicated subject, and I’m not very sure about some of it myself. Besides the grammar material that is in the books I teach, what topics in grammar will help my students?

Here are some recent additions to the traditional study of grammar that you can use in the classroom:

Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading

Adger, Carolyn Temple, Catherine E. Snow, and Donna Christian (eds). What Teachers Need to Know about Language. Washington, DC; Center for Applied Linguistics, 2002.

DeBeaugrande, Robert. “Forward to the Basics: Getting Down to Grammar.” College Composition and Communication. 35 (1984): 358-367.

“An Issue on Teaching Grammar.” English Journal. 85.7 (1996).

Kolln, Martha. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

Kolln, Martha, and Robert Funk. Understanding English Grammar. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.

Noden, Harry R. Image Grammar: Using Grammatical Structures to Teach Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1999.

Noguchi, Rei. Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1991.

Nystrand, Martin. “English Language Instruction.” Encyclopedia of Education Research. Ed. M. C. Alkin. New York, NY: MacMillan, 1992: 443-453.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Weaver, Constance. Teaching Grammar in Context. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1996.

_____, editor. Lessons to Share on Teaching Grammar in Context. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1998.

Wheeler, Rebecca, ed. Language Alive in the Classroom. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999.

Wheeler, Rebecca, ed. The Workings of Language. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999.

Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 6th ed. New York, NY: Longman, 2000.

Wolfram, Walt, Carolyn Temple Adger, and Donna Christian. Dialects in Schools and Communities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999. [3]. The Web site for the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, with a variety of resources for teaching and learning about grammar. [4].  For a fuller discussion of African American Vernacular English, see the Linguistic Society of America’s position statement on Ebonics at [5].

Prepared by Brock Haussamen with Paul Doniger, Pam Dykstra, Martha Kolln, Kathryn Rogers, and Rebecca Wheeler, and with appreciation for the works and discussions of all the members of NCTE’s Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar.

This document has been endorsed by the Linguistic Society of America.

This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.