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Is it necessary to study grammar when learning a language?

In 1962, Roland Harris investigated grammar instruction with middle school students in London, England. Harris compared two groups of students those who got heavy doses of traditional school grammar (what he calls formal grammar?, and those who learned grammatical concepts within the context of language use. The second group of students learned concepts as they arose in regular language use situations such as speaking and writing. In their summary of the Harris study, Elley, Barham, Lamb, and Wyllie (1975) wrote:

“After a period of two years, five classes of high school students who had studied formal grammar performed significantly worse than a matched group of five nongrammar groups on several objective criteria of sentence complexity and the number of errors in their essays. (p. 6)”

It was the Harris study, as well as others, that helped Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer conclude in their meta-study, an examination of previous research studies, that the isolated teaching of school grammar did not result in the outcomes that teachers expected. The following from their 1963 report, commissioned by NCTE, Research in Written Composition, is frequently quoted:

“In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing (pp. 37?8). ay. Students in each strand were evaluated at the end of each year.”

Another study published in May 1975 was performed in New Zealand by W. B. Elley, a member of New Zealands Council for Educational Research, and I. H. Barham, H. Lamb, and M. Wyllie, from Aorere College. One of three studied groups dealt with rhetoric and literature, where students used about 40% of their time for free reading, another 40% for reading class sets of books, and the rest of the time for creative writing. Students received no instruction in formal or Transformational Grammar or rules. They studied spelling and writing conventions as the need arose. They learned nothing about parts of speech or sentence analysis.

The researchers discovered that Transformational Grammar and traditional study of grammar had little or no impact on student language growth. Here again, then, is a study that concluded the isolated teaching of traditional grammar, meaning the identification of parts of speech and the rules of usage, had little or no impact on students?abilities to write well.

Another important meta-study, again commissioned by NCTE and this time conducted by George Hillocks (1986), concluded that there is no evidence that the teaching of grammar improves writing. His Research on Written Composition also concludes that isolated grammar lessons could have a negative effect on student writing. Hillocks wrote:

“The study of traditional school grammar (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) resulted in significant losses in overall quality.”


The conclusion is that formal grammar language study does not appear to advance students language skills.

Instead, students need to move toward what Glover and Stay call �the grammar of discovery,?and toward a classroom that includes grammar within the context of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Grammar should be a means through which students learn more about themselves, their texts, and the world around them.

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About Sally Morgan

My name is Sally Morgan, I'm American and currently a Language Teacher in New York State Schools for French and Spanish. I have studied Foreign Languages, translation and teaching at the Columbia University in New York. I lived for 3 years in Europe including France, UK and Italy.

I am a passionate linguist and love how speaking another language opens the doors of communication and therefore a whole world.

Please ask me any questions below

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