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Research on Grammar Study

Following Rei Noguchi’s example in his book Grammar and the Teaching of Writing, I will use the phrase “formal grammar instruction” to mean the direct and sustained teaching of the categories (noun, verb, subject, adjective, ect.), their functions, and rules for their use through definition, drill, and exercises.

Noguchi published his work in 1991, three decades after the National Council of Teachers of English report Research in Written Composition published. The NCTE’s landmark document boldly concluded the teaching of formal grammar had no effect, or perhaps even a harmful effect, on improving writing. 

“...training in formal grammar did not transfer to any significant extent to writing ‘correct’ English or even to recognize it."

Teaching Grammar in Context
Constance Weaver

The years between NCTE’s 1963 findings and Noguchi’s 1991 work saw little change in the day to day teaching of English in American classrooms.  Teachers, succumbing to pressure from administrations and parents, disbelieving the research, and unaware of what to do instead of formal grammar instruction, continued to teach grammar. 

Consequently, most homeschooling parents today experienced formal grammar instruction as part of their English education.  When English class transitioned into the writing portion, we encountered teachers who pointed out every place our original writing didn’t match the grammar text. We have vivid memories of papers returned to us dripping in red teacher’s ink proclaiming loudly, “You can’t write!” 

It is no wonder we feel we can’t teach our sons and daughters to write.

We carry this grammar burden from our past: that English education is predominately the study of formal grammar rules and application of such rules to our writing. Current research continues to confirm this is not true.

In their 2005 comparison of instruction in parts of speech, (verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, subjects and predicates) to instruction in sentence combining, researchers Saddler and Graham found the grammar instruction to actually have a negative effect on student writing. Students who received instruction in parts of speech were less likely to make revisions to their papers.

Noguchi, Saddler and Graham, and numerous other educational researchers offer freeing news to the parent who feels inadequate in their own understanding of grammar.

“Maximizing the benefits of grammar instruction to writing requires teaching less, not more, grammar.  This means making grammar instruction both less expansive and more cost-efficient, which, in turn, should create more time for other kinds of writing instruction."

Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilites
R. R. Noguchi