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The Great Grammar Debate

Although not as contentious as the debate on how to teach children to read, the debate on how to teach grammar* has its moments. In fact, elements of the reading and grammar debate do have similarities regarding how language is transmitted.

The lines of division within reading have been drawn between those who favor part to whole graphophonic (phonics-based) instruction and those who prefer whole to part (whole language) instruction. (Check out my blog on the Reading Wars to get up to speed on the current issues in this debate.) Similarly, the divisions within grammar have also been drawn between those who favor part to whole instruction and those who prefer whole to part instruction. By the way the writers of the Common Core State Standards certainly have made up their minds. Guess which side they favor.

Part to Whole

The essence of part to whole grammatical instruction is the inductive approach. Advocates believe that front-loading the discrete parts of language will best enable students to apply these parts to the whole process of writing. Following are the key components of this inductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar to provide a common language of instruction. If a teacher says, “Notice how the author’s use of the adverb at the start of the verse emphasizes how the old woman walks.” Some would carry the memorization further than others: “Notice how the author’s use of the past perfect progressive indicates a continuous action completed at some time in the past.”

2. Identification leads to application. If students can readily identify discrete elements of language, say prepositional phrases, they will more likely be able to replicate and manipulate these grammatical constructions in their own writing. A teacher might suggest, “Let’s add to our sentence variety in this essay by re-ordering one of the sentences to begin with a prepositional phrase like this one shown on the LCD projector.”

3. Focus on the rules of grammar leads to application. If students understand and practice the grammatical rules and their exceptions, they will more likely be able to write with fewer errors. Knowing the rule that a subject case pronoun follows a “to-be” verb will help a student avoid saying or writing “It is me,” instead of the correct construction “It is I.” Some advocate teaching to a planned grammatical scope and sequence; others favor a shotgun approach as with D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) instruction.

4. Distrust one’s own oral language as a grammatical filter. “Whoever John gives the ring to will complain” sounds correct, but “To whomever John gives the ring, he or she will complain” is correct. Knowing pronoun case and the proper use of prepositions will override the colloquialisms of oral language.

5. Teaching the components of sentence construction leads to application. If students know, can identify, and can apply key elements of a sentence: subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, and clauses they will better be able to write complete sentences which fit in with others to form unified and coherent paragraphs.

Whole to Part

The essence of whole to part grammatical instruction is the deductive approach. Advocates believe that back-loading the discrete parts of language as is determined by needs of the writing task will best enable students to write fluently and meaningfully. Following are the key components of this deductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar and identification of grammatical components, other than a few basics such as the parts of speech, subjects, and predicates, does not improve writing and speaking. In fact, teaching grammatical terms and indentifying these elements is reductive. The cost-benefit analysis indicates that more time spent on student writing and less time on direct grammatical instruction produces a better pay-off.

2. Connection to oral language is essential to fluent and effective writing. The students’ abilities to translate the voice of oral language to paper help writers to develop a natural and authentic voice that connects with the reader in an unstilted manner that is not perceived as contrived. A teacher might use mini-lessons to discuss how to code-switch from less formal oral language to more formal written language, say in an essay. For example, a teacher might suggest replacing the fragment slang “She always in his business” to “The couple frequently engages in a physical relationship” in an essay on teen dating.

3. Connection to reading and listening provides the models that students need to mimic and revise to develop their own writing style. Reading and listening to a wide variety of exemplary literature, poetry, and speeches will build a natural feel for the language that students place within their own “writing wells.” Students are able to draw from these wells to write effectively (and correctly) for a variety of writing tasks.

4. Minimizing error analysis. Teachers believe most grammatical errors will naturally decrease with  #2 and #3 in place. A teacher might say, “Don’t worry about your grammar, punctuation, or spelling on your rough draft. Focus now on saying what you want to say. We will worry about how you say it in the revision and editing stages.” Teachers are concerned that too much error analysis, such as practiced in D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) will actually rehearse errors.

5. Teaching the whole paragraph with a focus on coherence will best enable students to apply the discreet parts such as subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, and transitions to say something meaningful.

Of course, the Great Grammar Debate is not necessarily “either-or.” Most teachers apply bits and pieces of each approach to teaching grammar. Teachers who lean toward the inductive approach are usually identified by their “drill and kill” worksheets, their grammatical terms posters, and Grammar Girl listed and Purdue University’s OWL prominently in their Favorites. Teachers who lean toward the deductive approach are often pegged by their “ignore and write more” writers workshops, mini-lessons (if they ever get to these), and their writing process posters prominently display on the wall, next to their autographed picture of Donald Graves.

My take? I suggest an informed instructional balance of the two approaches is most effective. Using effective diagnostic assessments can narrow the focus and time commitment of the inductive crowd. Well-planned front-loading of key grammatical terms, with identification and application practice can transfer to better student writing without having to wait until the process of writing osmosis magically takes place.

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  1. Ann Walker
    April 2nd, 2010 at 10:30 | #1

    Your excellent article cleared up my confusion on knowing what is the best way to teach composition. I teach a low level composition class designed to prepare students for a higher level composition course. The teacher of this higher level course and I have debated about the best way to prepare students to write. After reading your article, I realize now that I fall into the Part to Whole camp, while my colleague falls into the Whole to Part camp. No wonder we were debating! Thank you for making these concepts so simple.
    Sincerely, Ann

  1. January 31st, 2012 at 09:58 | #1