Balancing the Teaching of Grammar in The

Beth Pilawski
Traditional Instruction vs. Whole Language:
Balancing the Teaching of Grammar in The
Current Age of Standardized Assessment
The teaching of grammar is a pedagogical subject that has been surrounded by
debate. The form by which grammar is taught has changed many times over the course
of the last hundred years, most notably from strict diagramming techniques and
memorization to a “whole language” approach. There are numerous studies, articles and
even associations in support of both styles. In order to gain the most accurate assessment
of each method, I read about, observed and practiced both methods during my student
teaching. My research and observation helped to lend some personal insight into tackling
the dilemma of which of the two styles is most beneficial to the development of concise
student writing, and how this development relates to the standardized exam.
There is certainly no prescribed consensus among educators as to which method is
more beneficial, nor are there any prescribed guidelines on how to successfully use
either method in the classroom. Even the national standards for teaching grammar are
rather vague. The most pertinent include:
1. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate,
and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with
other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts,
their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features
(e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics)
(Standards for the English Language Arts, December 1, 2004).
3. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g.
conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of
audiences and for different purposes (Standards for the English Language Arts,
December 1, 2004).
6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g.,
spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to
create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts (Standards for the English
Language Arts, December 1, 2004).
While most schools and standards (including the above) are quick to state the final goals
for grammar and writing instruction, most neglect to formulate an opinion on the best
way for an educator to achieve these goals.
It is important to have a grasp on the definition of each of the two methods in
order to understand the educational dialogue that surrounds them. The whole language
approach can be challenging to understand because it is a fluid approach that is
personally tailored by each educator that uses it. Despite this inconsistency, there are
some basic principals that most practitioners of the approach follow. Essentially, these
ideas culminate in the belief that students should be encouraged to focus on the meaning
of what they are writing as opposed to the formal grammatical and syntactical formations
of the sentences. It is assumed that the correct grammatical and syntactical formations
will be gleaned from everyday reading and conversation.
The actual methods for teaching in a whole language approach vary widely.
There is no consensus as to how to teach or any prescribed curriculum in a whole
language environment. Teacher and author Janet Allen offers the following observations
the lack of a consensus regarding the whole language approach in her book, It’s Never
Too Late:
I had to agree with Goodman (1986a), “Whole language is clearly a lot of things
to a lot of people” (p 5). Isolated standardized testing programs and controlled
reading had no place in my definition of the philosophy of whole language. On
the other hand, I wasn’t sure what was happening in my classroom would fit my
understanding of whole language either (23).
Formal grammar instruction, on the other hand, follows a very prescribed course
of study. This includes the introduction of phonics in elementary school and the
implementation of more specific methods of grammar instruction during middle and high
school. These methods include, but are not limited to, lessons such as repetitive practice,
diagramming sentences and rote memorization. Heavy emphasis is given to skills such as
recognizing specific grammatical conventions in context, recognizing sentence types and
identifying the correct usage of various types of words in sentences.
The research regarding the effectiveness of the two approaches varies widely.
Most seems to support the idea that the two methods should be used to complement each
other, especially in today’s world of standardized testing. Though this may sound good
in theory, the idea is not without conflict. Tracy David Terrell, professor of linguistics at
the University of California, offers these observations on the gap between possessing a
formal knowledge of grammatical conventions and the ability to utilize this knowledge in
everyday speech and writing:
An explicit knowledge of grammar by adults is said to be useful in only one
way—as a “monitor” for self-correction under certain circumstances, to wit, that
the learner “know the rule” to be applied, that the learner be focused on
correctness, and that the learner have time to think about applying the rule to the
output (52).
This observation is interesting when considering the current focus on formal grammatical
knowledge. It would appear that rote memorization of grammatical conventions has not
been proven to assist with the fluency of writing and speaking, and yet the focus is
shifting back to its formal instruction in the classroom. Jim Burke, author of The English
Teachers Companion concedes,
States throughout the country now have curriculum standards and frameworks
that call for a renewed emphasis on the teaching of grammar…at all grade levels.
This demand stems from a frustration in the workplace and college writing
programs students’ lack of grammatical correctness…(125).
Clearly there is a need for strong writers and speakers in all aspects of our society.
Yet if the formal instruction of grammar has little to no affect on the development of
students’ writing, one must question why our society places so much value on it by
including it on standardized tests.
My student teaching observations introduced me to a combination of the two
methods of instruction, and also to the affect that standardized testing is having on
current methods of grammar instruction. While placed in a ninth grade gifted and honors
classroom, I observed a teacher who assumed that grammar instruction should have
occurred prior to her student’s arrival in her classroom. Though the teacher did include
an occasional formal grammar lesson, these were to be considered “reviews” of
previously gained knowledge. Most of these lessons consisted of having the students
review the conventions of one particular part of grammar (adverbs, for example), and
then participate in an out-loud reading of the exercises at the end of the chapter.
The immense gap of the abilities of the students in the class was immediately
evident upon observing the first few exercises. Some of the students were able to go
through the exercises with ease, while others squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs as it
came closer to being their turn. It was almost painful to watch some of the students
struggle to find the right answer to their assigned question. Interestingly, these were also
the students that had a more difficult time with the writing assignments, and their other
classroom assignments as a whole. Most could barely form paragraphs, let alone focus
on using more mature organizational strategies and descriptive language.
However, despite these obvious discrepancies in performance, it was very
difficult to assess where each individual student was on the road of language and writing
development. The students that struggled with their grammar exercises and other
assignments were also normally the ones who had difficult home lives or had moved
around a great deal as a child. Was their poor performance due to a lack of knowledge of
grammatical conventions, or a lack of a stable educational base and immersion in
reading? The answer to this question remained elusive. My high school cooperating
teacher often questioned the placement of these students in an honors level class, but
nonetheless worked with them after school to maintain their grades and become more
familiar with the formal grammatical conventions of writing.
One interesting thing I noted was that the grading of these students was different
than the rest of the class. The rubrics conceived for these students were loosely based on
the whole language concept of placing emphasis on comprehension and meaning as
opposed to syntax and other formal structuring. In this particular application, the whole
language route was also seen as the “lower ability” route. Students with a formal
knowledge of grammar were considered to be the students of a higher ability level, a
standard clearly reflective of standardized testing.
Another quality that many of these students possessed was the fact that they had
not attended the adjoining middle school. This high school had the unusual situation of
having a large percentage of their students (more than eighty-five percent) filter in from
the neighboring middle school. This allowed for the direct collaboration between
teachers of all grades regarding the teaching of writing. Unfortunately, this arrangement
put those students who did not attend the middle school at a distinct disadvantage. They
were clearly less prepared to meet the demands of the high school teachers.
My middle school cooperating teacher had similar ideas about the instruction of
grammar in her classroom. All of her students could identify grammatical conventions
when called on in class, and I never observed an awkward moment where a student
struggled with a grammar question. Her approach to teaching grammar was more along
the lines of the traditional diagramming and memorization, and she carefully followed a
prescribed method each day. Utilizing a workbook, she listed one sentence on the dryerase board each week. Monday, the students worked on parts of speech, Tuesday:
sentence parts, Wednesday: clauses and sentence type, Thursday: punctuation and
capitalization and Friday: diagramming the sentence.
When asked how she felt about this structured method of instruction, she replied,
“I’m not sure that formal grammar instruction improves the kids’ writing overall, but they
are tested on it. Most of these kids could pick up these conventions by listening to those
around them” (Conversation, November 29, 2004). I found this statement to be
indicative of the current trends in grammar instruction.
According to Research on Written Composition, New Directions for Teaching,
which quotes a 1963 study by Braddock, Lloyd-Jones and Schoer, “in view of the
widespread agreement of research studies based upon the many types of students and
teachers…the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible…effect on the improvement
of writing” (133). It appears as though even though research has shown that the formal
instruction of grammar has little to no affect on the quality of student’s writing, it is
included in instruction because standardized tests demand it.
If one directly sites the research available, putting students through hours of rote
memorization and filling out worksheets in order to recognize the formal conventions of
grammar seems unnecessary. This opinion is supported by research such as that of Leona
B. LeBlanc, in her article “A Comparison of Instructor-Mediated versus StudentMediated Explicit Language Instruction in the Communicative Classroom”: “students
who acquire grammar inductively through implicit instruction would learn grammar as
well as students who were taught deductively (explicit instruction)” (736).
This “explicit instruction” can be reached through use of music and video,
illustration and other creative outlets can help to keep kids’ attention and accomplish the
true goal of ensuring that students are internalizing what you are teaching them, and not
just blankly memorizing a list of definitions. Teacher and author James Burke offers the
following motivation for students attempting this “mixed” approach of grammar
If, however, students learn elements of grammar in the context of expanding their
options as writers, it has its place…When my students come in, I tell them we will
focus on how to make their writing more descriptive and their sentences stronger
Findings such as these draws into question the value of memorizing and internalizing the
various formal constructions of grammar. This especially since students must then make
the next step of applying that knowledge with little or no assistance from their instructors.
It has been my experience that while most educators are quick to assist their students in
the identification of grammatical conventions through grammar practice, few take the
next step of helping their students identify them in their own writing. This potential gap
in the instructional process obviously supports the previously mentioned research.
It was with this research and personal experience in mind that I approached my
first-period middle school eighth graders with a challenge. While opinions on both sides
of the controversy vary, I wanted to conduct a small, short-term study to see if I could
determine which blend of the two methods might better help my students. I acknowledge
that this study is limited in subject size and scope, but I felt that with its completion I
could gain a basic insight into what might work best for my students.
To begin, I presented my twenty-six students with a one-page, four-paragraph
essay that was full of grammatical errors. The task was to edit the essay, and to break up
the monotony I had them complete the first two paragraphs on their own and save the last
two to go over with the class. The results were pretty much what I expected. The
students who were already reasonably proficient in reading and writing did fairly well
with the editing, while my ESOL (English as a second language students) and those on
the lower end of the curve did not see many of the errors. I then asked the students to
name the grammatical rule that was broken in each of the incorrect sentences.
This too went as I expected. The students named only one or two of the more
commonly known rules. These results confirmed my suspicions that most of the students
from a reasonably stable educational background in English will be able to pick out and
edit a grammatically incorrect sentence, but usually will not know which of the formal
grammatical rules or conventions are being broken by the sentence. This would be just
fine for those in support of a whole-language approach, but is unacceptable in the face of
the thirty-five standardized tests that my students take in one school year’s time.
Standardized testing is clearly beginning to dictate which method of instruction
that today’s educators are using. Though it seems to go against research, all teachers
must include the formal instruction of grammar in the classroom in order to prepare their
students for standardized testing. Despite this, my personal methodology clings to the
idea that educators should make an effort to strike a balance between the two methods. I
believe that success lies in area between rote memorization of grammar skills and the
application of those skills to everyday writing and speaking.
Both methods of grammar instruction place value on the final goal of instruction,
which is to produce concise, creative writers. Therefore, creating harmony between the
two should be the focus of English teachers who are committed to producing wellrounded and knowledgeable students. There is no exact answer to the question of which
method of instruction is best. Truthfully, it seems to depend on what the person assessing
the writing values more: meaning or correctness.
Being mindful of this and of the weight of standardized testing, teachers must
focus on keeping the student’s attention and on helping them to process and store what
they need to learn. The key seems to be to devote time to finding a balance between the
two methods and carefully pre-assessing each student to get a background of what they
have learned and what they need to focus on. The collection of this information is vital to
the responsible planning of classroom grammar activities that will appeal to and best
instruct all types of learners.
Works Cited
Allen, Janet. It’s Never Too Late. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1995.
Burke, Jim. The English Teacher’s Companion. Portsmouth, New Hampshire:
Heinemann, 1999.
Hillcocks, Jr. G. Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching.
Urbana, Illinois: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills,
LeBlanc, L.B. & C.G. Lally. “A Comparison of Instructor-Mediated versus StudentMediated Explicit Language Instruction in the Communicative Classroom.” The
French Review, 71, (1998): 734-746.
Standards for the English Language Arts. 1 February 2005 <>.
Terrell, T.D. “The Role of Grammar Instruction in a Communicative Approach.” The
Modern Language Journal, 75, (1991): 52-63.