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Should We Teach Grammar in the Upper Elementary School Classroom ?

Deborah Hazen's picture

You know that you are an upper elementary school teacher if this workbook cover makes you laugh, cry or break out in hives.


From On How to Write Good

  • Subject and verb always has to agree.
  • Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  • No sentence fragments.

Do you write good? How did that happen? Was it because of your early grammar lessons or in spite of them?

In a recent discussion with Jill Bean about teaching grammar in light of our emerging understanding of how the brain learns language, I proposed that there were interesting implications for teaching grammar.

One of the more frustrating subjects to teach at the upper elementary level is academic grammar. Students frequently replicate the rules of academic grammar (what I will call secondary grammar) in guided exercises, yet fail to apply the same rules when writing independently, for tasks that are not specifically identified as grammar assignments, or in oral replies and presentations.

We are asking students to work with different sets of grammar rules. Is it possible that teaching and correcting grammar contributes to an overall sense of a right and wrong way of thinking in the classroom? Does it get in the way of students learning and taking risks with their thoughts? Could instruction focus on a "less wrong" skill to develop in the upper elementary school grades?

Should we continue to teach the rules of academic grammar in upper elementary school?

One story might be that we should just knock it off. After all, language acquisition is a natural process, our students have learned a primary grammar, patterns and rules that allow them to communicate effectively. Plus, in a multicultural society in which people speak in a hybridization of first and second languages, regional dialects, and group specific jargon, there is a need to embrace the diverse richness of language that results. Another chapter in this story may be that the increasing reliance on new forms of communication like text messaging, social networking sites, Twitter and email all of which present their own sets of grammar rules and expectations (putting the needs of the writer before the needs of the reader) point to the development of a new set of rules/codes every bit as necessary in order to communicate today.

Out of this story also grows a subtext. When teaching formal grammar in the elementary school, we are focusing on the wrong thing. Instead of focusing on kids ideas, we are focusing on their grammar. If we accept that there are anywhere from 3 to 24+ dialects in the United States then everytime a teacher corrects a student's grammar they are essentially delivering the message to the entire class that that student's dialect is substandard. If we further extrapolate that primary language is a form of identity then we are assaulting the sense of self of the student with each correction (more on this later).

Another story might be that the teaching of grammar is a highly political act and must be pursued if we are to ensure a shot at economic parity for all students. Lisa Delpit, speaking on children left behind, identifies "basic skills as the "linguistic conventions of middle class society: punctuation, grammar, five-paragraph essays, and specialized vocabulary." The students who do not get these skills from home need to get them from school if they are to have an equal chance to get into colleges, and to compete for the best jobs."

A third story might be that a formal grammar should be taught but that instruction can be delayed until college or graduate school where learning it becomes learning a lingua franca--a language in which everyone in academe agrees that "X-construction" means this. Prior to this point in time, the focus should be on student ideas. If, in the meantime, a student in a pre-college class attempts to convey something and they are unsuccessful, the natural outcome in a transactional classroom will be to have their audience question their meaning. Let them use the rules of spoken language, and when someone doesn't understand the student will try out alternate constructions as a means to being understood, thus naturally learning the rules they need, underpinnings that will support learning the more formal grammar later, and develop more critical, reflective thinking skills.

Hands up if you ever turned in a paper in a science or social studies class (think back to middle school...come on) and got a lower grade, not because your ideas were lacking, but because your academic grammar was sub-standard. Here's a problem in far too many classrooms, rather than grapple with assessing the thought that went into a paper, it can be far too easy to justify a grade based on a set of "irrefutable" grammar rules. It makes the whole process feel less subjective.

From this story develops another offshoot. Consider that written language and the language of formal presentation is not natural language, it is artificial language. Artificial languages are akin to mathematics, they are governed by sets of arbitrarily adopted rules. Take the rule prohibiting splitting infinitives. It is possible to split infinitives in English, and it is overlooked for the most part when done. The original rule prohibiting the practice in English was developed by grammarians trying to apply Latin rules to English. In Latin you cannot split the infinitive because it is one word. (ex: laudare--to praise (present active)) At one time, everyone aspiring to the halls of higher education was required to learn Latin, the idea being that studying Latin would teach you about language. There are few Latin departments left in high schools and we are stlll stuck with grammar rules (like the split infinitive) that are arbitrary and not necessary to being understood.

A fourth story emerges, the prime time to learn language is between the ages of 2 and 14. If we don't teach grammar then, students won't get it.

A fifth story may go something like this, everyone needs to be able to communicate using standard grammar in order to be understood and well prepared for the future. Standardized testing, the ticket to a shot at higher education, heavily tests facility with academic grammar.

A possible response to the need for academic grammar in a changing world goes like this. When I was in high school, everyone had to learn how to type, when I was in middle school we diagrammed sentences, when I was in elementary school, everyone learned about number bases. You had to know these things to succeed. You'd be hard pressed to find any of these things in schools today. We don't even teach the metric system with any vigor today and I distinctly remember the urgency with which we were taught that the English standard system was going away. I don't use any of these skills, what I do use every day are the untested skills that I learned in school. Qualities and skills that make me a lifetime learner. Just because we load the standardized tests with grammar questions doesn't make academic grammar an irrefutably necessary skill. I am certain that we could find brilliant mathematicians, scientists and social scientists (both English as a first and second language speakers) who rely on co-authors or editors when publishing their work in journals.

If we are going to teach grammar in upper elementary school, what can we learn from brain research that might inform the way we teach?

  • What contributes to the difference in behavior that we see when students successfully complete a grammar exercise, yet do not employ the same set of rules for academic/secondary grammar in other situations?

Research into motor skill automaticity may be relevant as we explore the difference between performance on an explicit grammar exercise where students are made to be aware of the grammar rules they are expected to apply and other situations in which students are not thinking about the grammar, but instead are focused on another process (ex: conveying information). 

Alternatively, maybe it isn't a matter of automaticity. Students might not apply the grammar rules for the same reason that they "blank" when faced with a math calculation in science or reading a graph in social studies. They may not be making a transfer of cognitive skill.


  • Are there differences in the way the brain acquires first language and second languages and can those differences help us construct a story about differences in how the brain acquires academic grammar after 8-10 years of using a less formal grammatical construction?

It is still unclear that a particular area of the brain is responsible for language. However, a recent study observes that in the case of a bilingual person who experienced aphasia damage to the second language skills was found to be more profound and less recovered after treatment than damage to his first language skills.


  • From the nervous system's perspective, what is grammar?

Friedemann Pulvermüller, Yury Shtyrov, Anna S. Hasting and Robert P. Carlyon conclude that "the attention-independence of early brain-physiological processes of syntax from auditory discrimination processes suggests that aspects of syntactic processing are, in a relevant sense, reflex-like... Early automaticity of syntax appears to be best explained in terms of an encapsulated grammar network including neuronal assemblies that act as discrete grammatical sequence detectors."


  • If brain architecture and genetics result in the natural learning of language, what can we learn about how the brain works as language develops and how can that support teaching academic grammar rules in the upper elementary classroom?


  • In the case of a behavior like language, how do we access, or in a sense, convince the cognitive unconscious to be "interested" in learning new patterns?


  • Is grammatical syntax a form of knowledge of the self and how does the nervous system experience attempts to change a person's grammar?

Is an attempt to change grammar an attack on a person's sense of self? If so, students may experience psychobiological responses to grammar instruction, assessments and correction.


  • Is the teaching of academic grammar better thought of as a cognitive-behavioral intervention?

I observe that a number of people are able to switch with ease between informal and formal grammatical constructions (code switching), so one story might be that when teaching academic grammar, are we adding a system of rules not supplanting a system. When we were visited by Sara Gibbs, she spoke about treatment for anorexia and explained that in her experience the internal dialogue present in the anorexic never goes away, they simply learn another story to arrive at the desired behavior. Does that mean that we would do better to think of academic grammar instruction as a cognitive-behavioral intervention?

What would that mean for grammar instruction in the classroom? Proponents of the writing workshop model advocate the teaching of grammar rules as needed when specific constructions come up naturally in student writing either in mini-lessons or one-on-one conferencing with a student. Some reject this as a process that is too hit and miss and suggest that practice will make perfect, teaching grammar in isolation and reinforcing the lessons through grammar drills that include sentences without any context.

What would a cognitive-behavioral intervention approach to grammar instruction look like? I'm imagining that first we have to embrace the political and economic nature of grammar in the United States.Viewed this way, we begin with the idea that the habit of not using academic grammar is actually not in the best interest of the student. We could then begin to ask questions common to cogntive-behavioral approaches such as: Will your present behavior help you get what you want out of life? What changes do you need to make to reach your goals?


  • Are there other implications for teaching grammar in upper elementary school?

The history of code switching

We need to reflect on why we are teaching grammar. Because we've already observed that kids come to us with a functional grammar and that at the same time identifies them as members of a particular group. In school, introducing academic or secondary grammar rules is a daunting task that includes the need to interest students in the necessity for using the new set of rules, the challenge of crafting instruction that will result in something approximating student automaticity with the secondary grammar when completing an academic task--written or oral, and is fraught with the emotional tension of requiring the use of a syntax that may differ from that spoken in their family/community of origin.

 "From a psychological perspective, humor, analogy and metaphor can be viewed as nonthreatening to ones self-esteem; thus, bypassing the natural resistance to change (Earle, 1995). (from Humor, Analogy and Metaphor: H.A.M. it up in Teaching)


Jessie Barth's picture

I think it is interesting how

I think it is interesting how many comments on this post are focused on pointing out the minute grammar mistakes of the author and other commentators. Higher (college+) level grammar is important in scholarly writings, but is that really what we are concerned with teaching our students? I think rather than focusing on teaching students to have PERFECT grammar, we should be more concerned with the smaller things that make a huge impression. Spelling and use of everyday verbs in everyday conversation are the kinds of things we need to put an emphasis on. In the big scheme of things, not all students are going to pursue a higher education, or even a job that requires those higher level skills. Every student, whether pursuing a degree or just getting a basic job out of high school, can benefit from knowing how to speak correctly and eloquently.

Serendip Visitor DAVID's picture

your nonstandard grammar?

No offense intended, but do you purposely break a number of grammatical rules in your article, or are they unconscious errors, I wonder? The most common one I note is the comma splice or run-on sentence. Is this an in-your-face breach of sentence rules intended to get us English teachers twitching? Just curious. Your article is interesting, but for me, some credibility is lost when a writer of a formal, academic piece on grammar seems to have forgotten some very basic rules that must be followed for clarity's sake nearly always. Were the run-ons intended to sometimes break the formal tone?

Deborah Hazen's picture

PBS Special -The Human Spark

Interesting brain scans showing how children and adults react differently to grammar errors. There is some evidence that brain activity associated with finding grammar errors does not localize in the brain (is not efficient) until children reach the ages of 10-15.

The Human Spark on PBS


Geneva Tolliferreo's picture

7/17 PM Finale


allow the boxes to open that God is Holy...






Geneva Tolliferreo's picture

Response to Deb's Grammar Presentation

I believe Grammar is more practical than political, as it is a survival and success necessity.  In my opinion, higher order Grammar skills need to be taught as students progress through their pre-k to 16+ experience.

Jessie Barth's picture

You are correct, grammar is

You are correct, grammar is definitely more of a practical skill, but it has it's applications politically as well. Teaching grammar should be spread about the entire educational career, rather than focused on in later classrooms. Early exposure creates a foundation for later teachers to build upon, rather than a gap to fill.

Lucienne Davis's picture

The Other Story Response from Kathy, Antoinette, Lucienne

Grammar, the other white meat!  Grammar should be thought at a young age.  Children should be taught the rules of grammer as they speak. Kids then will learn to incorporate the the rules of grammar into daily verbal skills. Finally, a child's verbal skills will be infused with rules of grammer and will be naturally transacted into written language.  The teaching of grammarshould be spiral and reciproacal as the child emerges.

Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

Story One

I do think that students should be corrected and be able to model what is considered to be acceptable grammar and dialect that it is approriate to use in certain context.  There are places and times that it can't always be used.  For example, a job interview; you can't say,"Yeah man I uh need these job, cuz I'da need to ...Yeah right, Man!  Would you hire this person!  You would probably be nice but think this person is not what you want for your company.  Yes, we can model good grammar without demeaning the student.

Jessie Barth's picture

I couldn't agree more with

I couldn't agree more with you. I think that the important thing is to prepare students for these types of situations, like the example you used of a job interview. There is definitely a way to correct grammar in the classroom without demeaning the student.

joycetheriot's picture

Students need to be exposed

Students need to be exposed to all areas throughout their education so they'll be ready to communicate in the world as either a skilled academian, or a colorful storyteller. Both have their very important role in a culture but without exposure perhaps only the storyteller emerges.

RecycleJack Marine's picture

Talking slang

Shoshana and Jack agree that teachers need to teach correct grammer as part of writing lessons, but thatb it's OK to speak slang in informal settins. Grammer should not be taught separately.

RecycleJack Marine's picture

Talking slang

Shoshana and Jack agree that teachers need to teach correct grammer as part of writing lessons, but thatb it's OK to speak slang in informal settins. Grammer should not be taught separately.

Brie Stark's picture

Story number 3

Story number 3 expansion:

Pro-story: There is a big argument right now that a second language is best learned by immersion and discussion, rather than learning grammatical rules.  If grammar is pushed early in life, ideas are often secondary.

Con-story: However, from another view point, it's harder to learn things later because the critical learning period (often age 2-7) is over and acquiring new information/changing a story is more difficult after this period.  The brain's plasticity also decreases over time.

Discusison: Perhaps could elect to take a grammatical course if certain persons felt the need to use grammar correctly early in life while immersed.  However, would these individuals who took this elective be considered better students?  Wil says it is a value judgment, and it's hard to get away from such value judgments. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

teaching "rules" of language ... and other things

Interesting issue, both in its own right and more generally.  Should we teach "laws" of mathematics?  of physics?  of psychology?  A couple of years ago, there was a major fight at the Naval Academy about whether or not to continue teaching the use of the sextant for celestial navigation.