APOSSESSION OF EVIDENCE is not, as the saying goes, the same as proof of absence. But if you keep searching hard for something and keep not finding it, you can be forgiven for starting to worry. And so it is with the controversial – and heavily politicized in Britain – issue of explicit grammar teaching in schools and its association or otherwise with enhanced writing ability.
Another study, in this case a large randomized controlled trial, has recently been added to the extensive literature on the subject. Like almost all of its predecessors, it found that teaching kids how to describe the little things in a sentence doesn’t make them better writers. It was novel in that it tested six- and seven-year-olds using a digital platform called Englicious to take grammar lessons, alongside routine teaching of grammatical details and their functions in the classroom. The Englicious group did no better than those given ordinary instructions when it came to writing narrative passages. (The extra help slightly improved their performance on a task called “Sentence Combination,” which requires students to make two sentences into one in a logical way, such as adding “because.” But even this effect was not statistically significant .)
Bas Aarts, one of the project’s researchers and one of the scientists behind Englicious, hopes that with longer exposure or a study with older students, an improvement in writing skills could be seen. Other observers may wonder if the national curriculum in England, which has made grammar such a central part of its English program since 2014, may have hit a dead end.
The force behind the reforms, Michael Gove, a Conservative former education secretary, is sometimes vilified for other political reasons (particularly among opponents of Brexit, which he championed). He is said to have insisted on including personal mumbo-jumbo in the grammar syllabus, particularly the subjunctive form ‘If I became“. The mere mention of his name turns up the nose of many teachers – also because some of them were reluctant to teach the new material themselves after decades of grammar having largely disappeared from the classroom.
In retrospect, it hardly seems surprising that learning how to underline a modal verb such as “may,” “should,” and “may” does little to help students use it effectively in their own writing. These words are understood by small children anyway, without them having to know what they are called. This may lead to the conclusion that grammar teaching should be shelved altogether. But there are reasons to reform it rather than abolish it.
Understanding language is part of a broader education in what makes people human. How concepts are converted into sounds and how these sounds combine into sentences, commands or questions are questions that have occupied many linguists in the philosophy departments. What they reveal about the mind has engaged psychologists and cognitive scientists.
There are practical reasons to ask children to study grammar as well. One is that explicit knowledge of it makes learning a foreign language easier. Even if you could intuitively form subordinate clauses in your native language as a toddler – only without guidance – it is easier to get along with them in German or Russian in later years if you know how to define and recognize them. Many English speakers learn grammar by learning a foreign language, rather than the other way around.
For grammarians interested in the jobs of the future, the field of natural language processing is booming. After many years of poor results, technological wizards have developed programs for automatic translation, speech recognition (as in dictation software), and other services that are actually usable, if far from perfect. These tools may rely more on knowledge of artificial intelligence than the subjunctive, but linguistic expertise is still important and can give aspiring programmers an edge over competitors whose best language is Python.
Grammar could be taught even better. A small study showed improvement in some students when concepts were specifically linked to writing tasks. Even so, it may never be easy to point to an increase in widget output that results directly from improved education. A chef doesn’t need to know chemistry to make a delicious sauce. But the science of how words combine to form meaning is as fascinating as it is fundamental.
This article appeared in the culture section of the print edition under the heading “More Than the Sum of Its Parts”