I’ve always been perplexed by this claim by some teachers: Teaching grammar doesn’t improve students’ writing. A problem with it is that it doesn’t define what is meant by “teaching grammar” nor what is meant by “improve students’ writing.” It seems to imply that they have looked at every conceivable way that grammar could be taught and worked with, and they found that none were effective.
When I questioned their basis for this belief, I was often directed to some studies in the 1970s and 80s. Typically, these studies started with students writing a paper. Then for a period of time, they worked on diagramming sentences, doing sentence-combination exercises, identifying parts of speech and completing some grammar worksheets. After this, they wrote another paper, and surprise, surprise, the writing in their essays hadn’t improved. From this, they concluded: teaching grammar doesn’t improve students’ writing.
On top of that, one researcher claimed that his students’ writing got worse, and somehow, he even knew that it was because the students had become obsessed “with avoiding error at all costs, to the point where fluency, content, and reasoning lost their importance.” *
Some teachers have pointed to this “research” as support for their justification to not work with grammar in their writing courses. Their philosophy tends to be: students improve their writing by writing.
How Working with Grammar Can Improve Students Writing
First, a good place to start is to decide how we want students to apply their grammar knowledge to their writing. Next, once we have determined that, we can decide which grammar points and terms to focus on in lessons. And finally, we can organize lessons and exercise that will lead students to understand those and how to use them during the writing process.
Four ways that we want students to apply their grammar knowledge to their writing
1) To develop more advanced sentence styles depending on their level. In order to progress from lower to more advanced levels, students will need to transition from writing simple Subject + Verb sentences to compound to complex ones. (See • Grammar point: “Before going to sleep, I always check under my bed for monsters.” What is “going”?)
2) To edit better. I think it’s safe to say that most ESL Writing teachers encourage their students to write more than one draft. It’s when they are proof-reading their first draft that knowledge of grammar is extremely valuable.
For example, consider the mistake in this sentence: She stopped her son from eat too much candy. A native speaker could probably correctly edit this mistake without knowing any grammar rules by saying that “eat” doesn’t sound right. However, most of our ESL students haven’t developed “an ear for the language” yet. Thus, they’ll benefit from learning what “prepositions” are and how, when they are followed by a verb, that the verb is in the -ing form. See • When Marking Only Half of a Student’s Essay Makes the Most Sense.
3) To understand the teacher’s marks and suggestions on their essays. Needless to say, we want to lead our students to discover their mistakes in their writing and not just tell them how to correct them. To make this process effective, we need to have shared grammar knowledge and grammar terms with our students.
For example, imagine that a student wrote this sentence: They surprised to see it snowing. If we have taught students that certain words like surprised, interested and confused look like verbs but can actually be adjectives, we can give this student above a hint about how to correct this; we could write a code +verb (add a verb) in the margin. See Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills
4) To have more productive conferences with the teacher. As mentioned above, we need to have shared grammar knowledge in order to help our students understand their mistakes.
For example, let’s say a student wrote this: Sara wanted to find an apartment, she searched for one online. During a writing conference with you, to lead her to some options, you could tell her that this is a run-on. You may suggest that she combine these two independent clauses with a conjunction. Or she could use a transitional expression. See • How to lead ESL Students to Discover their Grammar Mistakes on Writing Assignments
Deciding what grammar points to work on (Not all grammar points are equal.)
We can usually eliminate many grammar points to work on by asking ourselves if those are needed for those four points above. For example, I have never come across a situation in which a student needed to use the past perfect progressive. (She had been talking when he interrupted her.) I’ve also never needed to use the term “relative clause” when marking their papers or conferencing with them. Instead, I use (and they understand) the term “dependent clause.”
We can accomplish those four points above by focusing on these relatively few grammar points:
By focusing on these points, students will be able to write sentences like this:
After Marty had finished his work, he was given an award.
(Subordinator, past perfect, passive, dependent and independent clauses)
With this ability, they should be able to express themselves clearly no matter what they are trying to say.
However, let’s say we want students to use more sophisticated and striking styles, for example: For Cindy to miss a deadline would be unusual. Students won’t develop this type of style through explicit grammar lessons, but rather through reading input. (See • A True Story to Motivate Students to Read More
How To Teach Grammar for Better Writing
When we are choosing grammar exercises to assign, it’s helpful to ask ourselves, “After completing these exercises, will the student be able to apply this to write more advanced styles, to edit better, to understand our marks, and to have more productive conferences?”
I imagine that most of us would eliminate exercises such as diagramming sentences or oral drills. However, there are grammar exercises that are effective for accomplishing those goals.
Use an inductive approach. Instead of starting with a rule (deductive), we start by having students read examples and then formulate the rule.
For examples, see
- “Finally I now Understand What Nouns, Subjects and Verbs are.” (And it took only 30 minutes to learn inductively.)
- Inductive Grammar: Why are there commas in these sentences? Here are some clues. What’s the rule?
Discover the mistakes. After students have formulated a rule inductively, for practice, they are presented with a set of sentences or short paragraphs some of which include errors involving that rule. Their task is to discover those errors.
For example, see • Yes! Fun Learning Subordination Inductively (Subordination Part 3)
Revise sentences. The students apply the grammar concept to rewrite sentences in a more advanced style. For example, see • Grammar point: “Before going to sleep, I always check under my bed for monsters.” What is “going”?
Grammar groups. In groups of three, students are led through an analysis of sentences applying the grammar concepts that were introduced in early (inductive) exercises. For examples, see • Engaging grammar group activities (even for quiet students
* Source note: Does bad grammar instructiom make writing worse?
*About the free-download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.