Bad Writers: The Unexpected Consequence of Removing Grammar Instruction

EdWeek Digital Directions Article on Teacher Survey

Here is the latest in a string of polls that basically asks the same question over and over again. HAS TECHNOLOGY HURT STUDENTS WRITING ABILITY? Inevitably the survey comes up with the same results. Students still have a lot to say but sometimes don’t know the correct way to say it. Researchers always point to a lack of spelling and grammar knowledge as the result of students texting and using word processors. What is always overlooked is that grammar instruction came to a screeching halt about the same time as the technology revolution started.

In 1985, the National Council of Teachers of English reported that 50 years of research showed that teaching grammar in isolation does not improve speaking or writing. This resolution significantly halted the explicit teaching of language arts in the classroom. As with all education reforms, the baby was thrown out with the bath water. More recently the NCTE has had a bit of a rethink with a set of guidelines (not a resolution) written in 2002 on the importance of grammar instruction. These guidelines point out that grammar is really teaching the structure of language and the different choices that writers have to express themselves. Perhaps, in those 50 years between 1935 and 1985, grammar instruction was an exercise in enforcing rules of usage, but that did not mean that it was wise to remove all language arts instruction. Rather than isolating language arts, it should be applied to writing.

Language arts means just that, the art of crafting language. Certainly some of that involves rules of usage, but more importantly it involves the ability to manipulate the structures of language to express ideas. The goal of writing instruction should not be to produce merely correct text. The goal of writing instruction is to produce students who can write eloquently and persuasively using the full range of tools provided in the English language. For that to be the goal, we must stop blaming modern technology and champion true language arts instruction to the classroom.

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