I.       Overview

II.    History

a.'       'Origins: 16th – 18th Centuries

b.'      'Standardization: 19th Century

c.   Dismissal: 20th Century - Present  

III. New Conceptualization of Grammar

a.'       'Contemporary Argument

b.    Evidence against Traditional Grammar Instruction

c.    In-Class Alternatives

'I.'                  Overview

The teaching of grammar has been a heavily debated topic for many years, including many members of academia, spanning the range from teachers, researchers, linguists, and even philosophers. If one were to conceptualize the two sides of this debate, each side would most likely be those who uphold traditional structuralized grammar instruction, between those who believe that this traditional instruction leads numerous issues when it comes to student composition.

'II.'               History

a.      ''Origins: 16th – 18th Centuries

The earliest examples of English Grammar studies showed a profound reliance on traditional conformity to Latin principles. Up until, 1586, grammar instruction would be solely conducted in Latin and within the realm of the church, and the first attempts to address the English language in a similar way would spend most of their time drawing comparisons between a word or system and its Latin counterpart. Beginning with William Bullokar’s Pamphlet for Grammar, English instruction in this field would be characterized by a strict adherence to the rules of language, based on the conviction that a sense of perfection is necessary to become “educated” in linguistics—all of this being deeply rooted in Latin principles [11]. As modifications to the instruction of grammar developed through the seventeenth century, their target would continually be directed towards the education of the less privileged.  By the eighteenth century, however, recent additions to the schools of grammar (namely Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, With Critical Notes) would allow student to be “self-taught,” making grammar study available to a wider audience [11]. Their primary focus at this point, however, was still to impart in their students the necessity to achieve a standard of perfection.

b.      ''Standardization: 19th Century

With the advent of the era of scientific thought, the English language would begin to be looked at through a scientific lens. Throughout the nineteenth century, linguists would begin to systematize modern language, giving rise to wide new range of studies including the idea of spoken English. Henry Sweet, an English linguist, would be the first to attempt to coalesce these quickly developing fields in his book, A New English Grammar: Logical and Historical, including the ideas of phonology in his theories [11]. Mores scholars would begin to import their own interpretations over the century, developing a complex and comprehensive study of the widespread structure of language.

c.       ''Dismissal: 20th Century - Present

As the field of grammar studies progressed through the early 20th century, their investigations began to reveal a new perspective: that grammar studies may be far less instrumental in a student’s development of a language than had previously always been believed. This new breed of scholar had the conviction that a person’s comprehension occurs within their own mind based on their experiences speaking and listening to the language. By the 1960’s, linguists were beginning to believe in the majority that grammar studies were ineffectual and merely distracting to both a student’s education in language comprehension, and to the focus of academic research at large [3]. However, in the 1980’s, a revival of the traditional standards of grammar began to leak back into the field of research and today the debate still continues over whether grammar instruction is practical as an educational focus or not.  [1]

'III.'           New Conceptualization of Grammar

a.      ''Contemporary Argument

Traditional grammar instruction can be defined as heavily structuralized teaching methods of grammar, such as dissecting sentences into parts of speech, diagraming sentences, or discerning which words are verbals, gerunds, participles, and so on. This debate has led to numerous upheavals and reincarnations of how grammar should be taught in classrooms throughout the decades, such as the “death” of traditional grammar instruction in the 1960s, to the “revival” of it in the 1980s, as Hudson and Walmsley suggest. Today, it seems as if grammar instruction is yet again being analyzed by numerous academics in order to ascertain which new methods, if any at all, should be used in order so that students can grasp the concept of grammar more easily. [1]

As stated by Hudson and Walmsley, in the 1980s many governmental standards were introduced for America’s public school system, which also discerned the textbooks and curricular methods to be used for teaching grammar. [1] Also, as Dunn and Lindblom state, it is much easier for (especially new) teachers to teach this grammar from structuralized textbooks, and especially more easy to grade student composition based upon grammar instead of a piece’s actual content. Dunn, Lindblom, as well as Hartwell also seem to imply that there is a sociocultural aspect to the teaching of traditional grammar, wherein the teachers and academics defend the traditional methods do so in order to keep their power of being authoritative symbols to their students.[2][3]  

b.      'Evidence Against Traditional Grammar Instruction'

The concept that traditional grammar instruction should be retooled is most easily seen in both Dean and Nunan’s respective articles which incorporate their own personal experiences as teachers. When these individuals first started teaching their students grammar, they both used traditional grammar instructive methods as discerned in their textbooks. This eventually led to the majority of their students becoming disengaged with the subject matter, becoming either uninterested or completely overwhelmed by the information they were given. This correlation between student disinterest is also seen by Wyse, who also deemed that the traditional model impacted student writing quite negatively. However, when these teachers began to have their students write their own sentences, and began to analyze them as a class, the students became much more engaged in the lesson.[4]

Some academics even bring forth theories which challenge how the term grammar should be defined, such as Bybee’s description of the usage-based grammar theory. The usage based grammar theory states that grammar is not the cognitive organization of language, but instead is a cognitive organization of one’s own experience and understanding of the language. Thus, the concept of grammar becomes more abstract and personalized than the structuralized “linguistic straightjacket” of grammar as stated by Paraskevas, whom states that grammar should become a more flexible system wherein a student can learn how to express their ideas in an appropriate way. [5] This sentiment is also shared by Hughes and McCarthy’s article, which states that grammar should be treated as a subject of discourse instead of structuralized rules and boundaries. [6]

As stated by Ellis, if the institution were to begin to move away from traditional methods of  grammar instruction, more research should be made to determine which new methods or guidelines of teaching grammar should be adopted by teachers. This research should include the realms of pedagogical research, action research, as well as participatory research so that both researchers and teachers can coordinate with one another in order to discover which new methods are positive towards students’ compositional growth, and which are not. [7]


c.       'In-Class Alternatives

Lindblom and Dunn suggest that students read an article pertaining to a newspaper columnist’s pet peeves when it comes to grammar, and as a class discuss why exactly these things would bother someone. One can also incorporate the student’s pet peeves in order to have them bring their own experiences and thoughts to the discussion in order to engage students. [8] Nunan suggests that grammar should be taught by incorporating and peer reviewing the classes work together, so that the students can learn from one another with the teacher acting more as a moderator in a discussion. [9] Tchudi recommends that students should present the individualized non-proper grammar of something of their own interest, such as the grammar of surfer lingo, Grateful Dead, or bumper stickers. [10] As such, Lindblom, Dunn, Nunan, and Tchudi appear to be telling us is that there truly is no clear nor absolute perfect way to teach grammar, however they all appear to be emphasizing the importance on creating an atmosphere in where class participation and engagement are encouraged.