Myhill and Watson on The Role of Grammar in the Writing Curriculum

Although the issue of the value of grammar teaching has often been framed in terms of the relevance of explicit and implicit grammatical knowledge, it is also true that one strong line of argument has been located in discussions of the impact of teaching grammar on students’ language use, particularly writing. In other words, does explicit knowledge of grammar support writing development and attainment in writing, or as Elbow argued, ‘nothing helps your writing so much as ignoring grammar’ (Elbow, 1981).

Over the past 50 years, there have been a number of research reviews or meta-analyses addressing the effect of grammar teaching on students’ learning (Andrews, 2005; Andrews et al., 2006; Braddock et al., 1963; Hillocks, 1984; Wyse, 2001), all of which have concluded that ‘the teaching of school grammar has little or no effect on students’ (Hillocks and Smith, 1991) or even that it has a ‘harmful effect on the improvement of writing’ (Braddock et al., 1963: 37). Indeed, Graham and Perin’s (2007) meta-analysis investigating effective strategies for teaching writing found a negative effect for ‘the explicit and systematic teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences’ and the authors argue that this finding challenges ‘some educators’ enthusiasm for traditional grammar instruction as a focus of writing instruction for adolescents’ (2007: 21). A review by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI, 2004) concluded that it could find no evidence for any benefit of grammar teaching on writing quality, although the authors did also note that ‘the quality of seven out of ten of the primary studies included in the indepth review on the teaching of syntax is a limitation on the review, as is the lack of recent research’ (Andrews et al., 2006: 51).

[C]onsideration of a fully theorized role for grammar within the writing curriculum has largely been hijacked by political–professional debates about grammar’s inclusion or not, and that the debate has not substantially developed since it began in the early 1960s. The same arguments are voiced and re-voiced over time, but with little re-theorization or advancement. Silently underpinning this long-standing debate, and perhaps perpetuating it, is the fundamental distinction between prescriptive and descriptive views of grammar. Whilst linguists have long theorized grammar as a description of language which will change and evolve as language changes, public and political views of grammar have tended strongly to prescriptive views of grammar. Hudson and Walmsley, in their analysis of the separate development of academic linguistics and grammar teaching, draw attention to ‘an ever-widening gap ... between the practice of professional grammarians, on the one hand, and the lay public and practice in schools on the other’ (Hudson and Walmsley, 2005: 595). However, this binary division between linguistics and educational perspectives on grammar is not wholly correct.

Following the eschewing of grammar teaching in Anglophone countries in the 1960s, an alternative view of grammar emerged that was characterized by a view of grammar as ‘knowledge about language’, a view that was significantly influenced by sociolinguistics (e.g. the work of Peter Trudgill; see, for example, Trudgill, 2000) and was descriptive in theorization. ... [I]t is possible to argue that, despite the prolonged debate, one element of the theorization of grammar in the writing curriculum from both a linguistic and theoretical perspective is that it is founded upon a theory of descriptive, functionally oriented grammar. Given this foundation, the review also points to ways in which this theorization may be developed further.

Within the theoretical perspectives offered by Systemic Functional Linguistics, and rhetorical grammar – and the recent empirical work of Fearn and Farnan (2007), Macken-Horarik et al. (2011), Myhill et al. (2012), and Schleppegrell (2007) – there are signs of an emerging consensus that grammar may be important in developing learners’ understanding of how language works and, specifically, how grammar choices are significant in shaping and constructing meaning. Cameron argued theoretically that ‘knowing grammar is knowing how more than knowing what’ (1997: 236), pointing out that grammatical terminology is simply the tool that facilitates language investigation and analysis. To set this in a classroom context, this means that it is more important to know how a passive construction alters the emphasis in information conveyed than it is to know that it is a passive construction. ... This consensus is less concerned with grammar as an arbiter of accuracy, and more concerned with ‘insights that go well beyond the minimum needed to write conventionally or correctly’ (Hancock, 2009: 194). Carter and McCarthy (2006: 7) draw attention to the notion of grammar as choice, as well as a grammar of structure, and Myhill et al. (2011) have conceptualized the contextual teaching of grammar within the writing curriculum as one that seeks to open up to young writers ‘a repertoire of infinite possibilities’.

Taking this theorization one step further, fostering young writers’ awareness of the linguistic choices available to them in writing and how those choices differently shape meaning is developing their metalinguistic knowledge of writing. ... Arguably, adopting descriptive approaches to grammar and nurturing students’ abilities to make choices and decisions in their writing is developing this metapragmatic knowledge, and rendering it available to inform the process of writing. Such knowledge is explicit, what Roehr described as ‘declarative knowledge that can be brought into awareness’ (Roehr, 2008: 179) and goes beyond the use of linguistic metalanguage to label and identify to include explicit knowledge of how linguistic choices subtly shape or alter meanings. It may also be significant that the empirical studies of Keen (2004) on sentence-combining, of Wyse (2006) on vocabulary choices, and Myhill et al. (2011) all seem to be highlighting the importance of talk, or metalinguistic discussion, in enabling this explicit metalinguistic knowledge of writing. Thus a more coherent theorization of a role for grammar in the curriculum might be framed as the teaching of grammar which promotes students’ explicit metalinguistic understanding of how grammar choices shape meaning in texts and of the writing choices available to them, founded upon a descriptive, functionally oriented understanding of grammar.

Myhill, D., Jones, S. and Watson, A. (2013). Grammar matters: How teachers’ grammatical knowledge impacts on the teaching of writing. Teaching and Teacher Education, 36, 77-91. || Link