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Kolln and Hancock. Histories of U. S. Grammar Instruction. English Teaching: Practice and Critique (NZ), 2005. Posted 04/22/2018.

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Kolln, Martha, and Craig Hancock. “The Story of English Grammar in United States Schools.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 4.3 (2005): 11-31. Web. 4 Mar. 2018.

Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock, publishing in English Teaching: Practice and Critique in 2005, respond in parallel essays to what they consider the devaluation of grammar teaching in United States schools and universities. English Teaching: Practice and Critique is a publication of Waikato University in New Zealand. The two essays trace historical developments in attitudes toward grammar education in U. S. English language curricula.

Kolln’s essay reports on a long history of uncertainty about teaching grammar in United States classrooms. Noting that confusion about the distinction between “grammar” and “usage” pervaded discussions since the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Kolln cities studies from 1906 and 1913 to illustrate the prevalence of doubts that the time needed to teach grammar was justified in light of the many other demands upon public-school educators (13).

Citing Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer’s 1963 Research in Written Composition to note that “early research in composition and grammar was not highly developed” (13), Kolln argues that the early studies were flawed (14). A later effort to address grammar teaching, An Experience Curriculum in English, was advanced by a 1936 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) committee; this program, Kolln writes, “recommended that grammar be taught in connection with writing, rather than as an isolated unit of study” (14). She contends that the effort ultimately failed because teachers did not accept its focus on “functional grammar” in place of “the formal method [they] were used to” (14).

In Kolln’s history, the hiatus following this abortive project ended with the advent of structural linguistics in the 1950s. This new understanding of the workings of English grammar was originally received enthusiastically; Harold B. Allen’s 1958 Readings in Applied English Linguistics drew on nearly 100 articles, including many from NCTE (12). This movement also embraced Noam Chomsky’s 1957 Syntactic Structures; the NCTE convention in 1963 featured “twenty different sessions on language, . . . with 50 individual papers” under categories like “Semantics,” “Structural Linguistics for the Junior High School,” and “the Relationship of Grammar to Composition” (14-15).

Excitement over such “new grammar” (15), however, was soon “swept aside” (12). Kolln posits that Chomsky’s complex generative grammar, which was not meant as a teaching tool, did not adapt easily to the classroom (15). She traces several other influences supporting the continued rejection of grammar instruction. Braddock et al. in 1963 cited a study by Roland Harris containing “serious flaws,” according to two critics who subsequently reviewed it (16). This study led Braddock et al. to state that grammar instruction not only did not improve student writing, it led to “a harmful effect” (Braddock et al., qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 15). Kolln reports that this phrase is still referenced to argue against teaching grammar (15).

Other influences on attitudes toward grammar, for Kolln, include the advent of “student-centered” teaching after the Dartmouth seminar in 1966 , the ascendancy of the process movement, and a rejection of “elitist” judgments that denigrated students’ home languages (16-17). As a result of such influences and others, Kolln writes, “By 1980, the respected position that grammar had once occupied was no longer recognized by NCTE” (17).

Addressing other publications and position statements that echo this rejection of grammar instruction, Kolln writes that teacher education, in particular, has been impoverished by the loss of attention to the structure of language (19). She contends that “[t]he cost to English education of the NCTE anti-grammar policy is impossible to calculate” (19).

She sees shifts toward an understanding of grammar that distinguishes it from rote drill on correctness in the creation of an NCTE official assembly, The Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG). Several NCTE publications have forwarded the views of this group, including the book Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers, and articles in English Journal and Language Arts (20). Kolln urges that grammar, properly understood, be “seen as a legitimate part of the Language Arts curriculum that goes beyond an aid to writing” (20).

Hancock frames his discussion with a contemporaneous article by R. Hudson and J. Walmsley about trends in grammar instruction in the U.K. He sees a consensus among educators in England that “an informed understanding of language and an appropriate metalanguage with which to discuss it” are important elements of language education (qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 21). Further, this consensus endorses a rejection of “the older, dysfunctional, error-focused, Latin-based school grammar” (21-22).

In his view, the grounds for such widespread agreement in the United States, rather than encouraging an appreciation of well-designed grammar instruction, in fact lead away from the possibility of such an appreciation (22-23). He sees a U. S. consensus through the 1960s that literature, especially as seen through New Criticism, should be the principle business of English instruction. The emphasis on form, he writes, did not embrace linguistic theory; in general, grammar was “traditional” if addressed at all, and was seen as the responsibility of elementary schools (22). Literature was displaced by Critical Theory, which challenged the claim that “there is or should be a monolithic, central culture or a received wisdom” in the valuation of texts (22).

Similarly, he maintains that the advent of composition as a distinct field with its focus on “what writers actually do when they write” led to studies suggesting that experienced writers saw writing as meaning-making while inexperienced writers were found to, in Nancy Sommers’s words, “subordinate the demands of the specific problems of the text to the demands of the rules” (qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 23). Downplaying the rules, in this view, allowed students to engage more fully with the purposes of their writing.

In Hancock’s view, language educators in the U.S. distanced themselves from grammar instruction in their focus on “‘empowerment’ in writing” in order to address the needs of more diverse students (24). This need required a new acknowledgment of the varying contexts in which language occurred and an effort to value the many different forms language might take. Recognition of the damage done by reductive testing models also drove a retreat from a grammar defined as “policing people’s mistakes” (24-25).

Hancock argues that the public arena in which students tend to be judged does not allow either correctness or grammar to “simply be wished away” (25). He suggests that the “minimalist” theories of Constance Weaver in the 1990s and linguists like Steven Pinker are attempts to address the need for students to meet some kinds of standards, even though those standards are often poorly defined. These writers, in Hancock’s reading, contend that people learn their native grammars naturally and need little intervention to achieve their communicative goals (25, 27).

Hancock responds that a problem with this approach is that students who do not rise to the expected standard are blamed for their “failure to somehow soak it up from exposure or from the teacher’s non-technical remarks” (25). Hancock laments the “progressive diminution of knowledge” that results when so many teachers themselves are taught little about grammar (25): the lack of a “deep grounding in knowledge of the language” means that “[e]diting student writing becomes more a matter of what ‘feels right’” (26).

As a result of this history, he contends, “language-users” remain “largely unconscious of their own syntactic repertoire” (26), while teachers struggle with contradictory demands with so little background that, in Hancock’s view, “they are not even well-equipped to understand the nature of the problem” (29). He faults linguists as well for debunking prescriptive models while failing to provide “a practical alternative” (26).

Hancock presents a 2004 piece by Laura Micciche as a “counter-argument to minimalist approaches” (28). Hancock reads Micciche to say that there are more alternatives to the problems posed by grammatical instruction than outright rejection. He interprets her as arguing that a knowledge of language is “essential to formation of meaning” (28):

We need a discourse about grammar that does not retreat from the realities we face in the classroom—a discourse that takes seriously the connection between writing and thinking, the interwoven relationship between what we say and how we say it. (Micciche, qtd. in Kolln and Hancock 28)

Hancock deplores the “vacuum” created by the rejection of grammar instruction, a undefended space into which he feels prescriptive edicts are able to insert themselves (28, 29). Like Kolln, he points to ATEG, which in 2005-2006 was working to shift NCTE’s “official position against the teaching of formal grammar” (28). Hancock envisions grammar education that incorporates “all relevant linguistic grammars” and a “thoughtfully selected technical terminology” (28), as well as an understanding of the value of home languages as “the foundation for the evolution of a highly effective writing voice” (29). Such a grammar, he maintains, would be truly empowering, promoting an understanding of the “connection between formal choices and rhetorical effect” (26).


Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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