Todd Wedel is Academic Dean and Upper School Principal for The Academy.

Todd Wedel is Academic Dean and Upper School Principal for The Academy.

A recent article in The Atlantic ran the title above. The thesis, succinctly stated, is the subtitle: “No more diagramming sentences: Students learn more from simply writing and reading.”

Although reported as news, this is certainly not the first such revelatory article that has come across my news feed.  As one involved in writing instruction and passionate about those forms of grammar instruction the article decries, it seems fitting to answer the challenge.

The author notes that a number of studies have revealed the only measurable difference between students who receive grammar instruction and those who do not is not found in their written competency; the only discernible difference, the article relates, is the negative attitude students with grammar instruction have.

And so we must lament the consequences-students, including adults, terrified of making a grammar mistake, incapable of the freedom of composition, incapacitated even from applying for jobs they believe their grammar will preclude them from, and perhaps most telling, the apologetic tone and demeanor of those who know themselves flawed.

As a writing teacher, I’ve encountered these issues.  There must be something of a holdover from the caricature (but perhaps not overly so) school marm scolding even mistakes in speech, for I’ve had friends of my parents suddenly grow tense when they hear I teach writing, almost all saying something along “Well, I’ll have to watch how I talk.”  As though I intend to begin taking notes and berating them for using a sentence fragment (of which this is one).

So I can sympathize with the plight of students, of humans, so limited and so fearful.

The problem, the article notes, is “These students are victims of the mistaken belief that grammar lessons must come before writing, rather than grammar being something that is best learned through writing.”

And the research seems to bear this out.  Students can learn much of what they need to be competent composers through learning what correct writing “sounds” or “feels” right.  Remedial grammar instruction as grammar instruction for high school or adult students does tend to have negative impacts in attitude and perceived ability.  Grammar instruction rooted in and integrated into holistic writing instruction shows great growth.

So, at a school which highly values an instruction in formal grammar, what defense can we mount before such scientific evidence?