Invited Post by Ally Zhou, Ph.D.
Linguistic accuracy plays an important role in the quality of written texts; however, the explicit teaching of linguistic form – particularly grammar – for the purpose of improving learners’ writing has generated an ongoing debate in the fields of first language (L1) composition and second language writing studies. As suggested by the following excerpt (Zhou, 2009, p. 33), some theorists consider grammar teaching ineffective, whereas others believe that grammar or language is a resource for making meanings, and thus students need to be taught how to utilize this resource effectively even though the explicit teaching of grammar does not always lead to writing improvement.
After reading the following excerpt and drawing on your learning experiences, please share your thoughts about the role of grammar instruction in helping learners to develop L1 writing proficiency.
The teaching of L1 composition has undergone three paradigm shifts within the last half
century: focus on form, emphasis on the writer, and focus on the social context of text
production. Even though at present all these focuses co-exist when a new teaching approach
emerges (Kroll, 2001), scholarly interest in writing processes and the social context of
writing has weakened the role of explicit language instruction (Frodesen, 2001). More
importantly, L1 composition researchers dispute whether explicit grammar instruction is
needed in the writing classroom. In 1996, the National Council of Teachers of English
dedicated a full issue of English Journal to grammar instruction titled The Great Debate
(Again): Teaching Grammar and Usage.
Explicit grammar instruction has been viewed as leading to little improvement in writing
(Hillocks, 1986) or even to harmful effects due to its displacing ‘instruction and practice in
actual composition’ (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, & Schoer, 1963, cited in Kolln, 1996, p. 27).
A recent review on the effect of grammar teaching on writing development in students
aged 5–16 also found little positive effect for grammar teaching (Andrews et al., 2006).
However, the authors of this review warn that the quality of research to date is insufficient
to prove the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of grammar teaching.
A number of L1 composition educators have challenged anti-grammar teaching claims
and questioned the weakened role of grammar instruction in writing classrooms. Nunan
(2005) and Noguchi (1991) argue that grammar still needs to be taught even if the teaching
of it does not necessarily help students produce instantaneous better texts. ‘It is not unusual
for people acquiring a skill to get “worse” before they get better and for writers to err
more as they venture more’ (Shaughnessy, 1977, p. 119). Noguchi (1991) insists that ‘just
because formal instruction in grammar proves generally unproductive in improving writing
does not necessarily mean that we should discard all aspects of grammar instruction’
(p. 3). Furthermore, Nunan (2005) believes grammar rules offer students tools to form and
articulate more elaborately complex thoughts.
Martinsen (2000) and Weaver (1996) point out that grammar must be taught in the
context of students’ writing. For instruction to be effective, grammar teaching in writing
classrooms must link rules with usage or difficulties students encounter in authentic writing
tasks. Weaver (1996) argued that ‘teaching “grammar” in the context of writingworks better
than teaching grammar as a formal system, if our aim is for students to use grammar more
effectively and conventionally in their writing’ (p. 23).
Zhou, A. (2009). What adult ESL learners say about improving grammar and vocabulary in their writing for academic purposes. Language Awareness, 18(1), 31-46.