Kolln, M., Hancock, C. (2005). The story of English grammar in United States schools. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 4, 11-31. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cookie,url,uid&db=eric&AN=EJ847258&site=ehost-live&scope=site
For nearly a century, educational researchers have been questioning the worth of teaching formal grammar rules in public schools. Although dispute often arises concerning the teaching of grammar in schools, English teachers must promote the fundamentals of grammar in order for students to reach high levels of achievement in writing.
Presenting the first section of a two-part article, Kolln (2005) outlines the rise and fall of grammar’s acceptance in public schools over the past century. Early studies conducted by Hoyt and Rapeer (1906 and 1913 respectively) questioned whether children in elementary school were ready developmentally for formal grammar studies. Questions continued to surface during the next thirty years as researchers debated the standards of correctness used in shaping grammar curriculum. In the middle of the 20th century, a highpoint of hope came for the teaching of grammar in school due to the work of applied linguists who advocated studying English on its own terms instead of using Latin categories. Kolln asserts, “There is no question that in 1963 grammar occupied a place in NCTE’s inner circle-new grammar was being tried out, looked at, and experimented with” (p. 15). Later in the same year, however, hope quickly changed to hate when the NCTE published an anti-grammar statement. Instead of promoting the benefits of a strong foundation in grammar, the NCTE began emphasizing the harmful effects that formal grammar instruction can have on a student’s writing. Notions of linguistic elitism soon became taboo as more education philosophers began promoting student-centered learning rather than traditional teacher-centered approaches to teaching English. With the exception of minimal increases in grammar instruction due to NCLB, the trend in English curriculum has been to emphasize writing as a student’s individual process without emphasizing a correct product.
In the second half of this article, Hancock (2005) creates projections concerning the future of formal grammar studies in the public school setting without much optimism. Hancock laments, “Rather than a narrative about the rise and fall and revival of grammar, we can only offer an account of the fall and include current symptoms of, and current work towards, an impending revival” (p. 21). The foremost concern for Hancock surrounding the potential for a revival of grammar in the public schools centers on the quality of English teachers. In order for English teachers to instruct students effectively on the basics of grammar, they must have strong understandings of grammar. Most colleges do not require prospective English teachers to take more than a single course in the history of English and grammar. Because of this trend, most new English teachers have little knowledge or concern for the principles of grammar. Furthermore, Hancock notes that progressive education practices neglect the espousing of rigid grammar rules. Although Hancock believes that formal teaching of grammar holds importance for the future of written and spoken English, he recognizes that the lack of teacher training and formal grammar proponents leaves this future bleak.
In this article, Kolln and Hancock (2005) combine to highlight the disturbing trend in rejection of formal grammar instruction as a worthwhile tool that is occurring in America’s public schools. Before reading this article, I was somewhat oblivious to the lack of formal grammar instruction in American schools because my background in grammar is strong. The public school I attended emphasized formal grammar rules in English classes and offered two additional composition classes. Although my high school provided me with a strong basis in grammar and writing, it often left me lacking in my knowledge of literature. In the same way that emphasizing writing left literature instruction lacking in my high school, many schools across America decide to emphasize literature and the writing process rather than taking time to teach formal grammar rules. Writing on the mentality of many progressive English teacher, Kolln comments, “Notice that teaching grammar in isolation doesn’t simply use up time better spent in other pursuits. It now ‘hinders the development of students’ oral and written language’ (p. 18). Although I would agree that teachers must make decisions concerning what aspects of a subject to emphasize in their curriculum, saying that highlighting an aspect such as grammar hinders a student’s overall achievement is a harmful attitude that will leave students lacking the fundamentals necessary to achieve high levels of composition. While reading this article, I could not say that many of the reasons Kolln and Hancock (2005) listed for the decline of teaching formal grammar in schools and for the lack of optimism surprised me. Undertones throughout much of this article conveyed the shift in many schools from a traditional teacher-centered approach to a progressive student-centered approach. Hancock notes the trend that critical responses to a text are now equally as important as the actual texts in the minds of many. It makes perfect sense to me that this trend would carry over into the writing process and manifest itself in a way that makes the student’s personal writing process more authoritative than any set of standardized rules of usage. Although I do not agree with removing formal grammar rules completely from curriculum, I do support notions of integrating grammar rules with teaching the writing process for more authentic learning.