History of English Grammar Instruction – An Overview

This post presents a brief overview of the history of English grammar instruction. I recently heard a discussion of how young people – Millennials and Generation Z – have not been taught American history, do not know the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. I don’t know about this “decline” in the education of American students in civics.

But in my previous post, Woe is I, I referenced similar complaints made by average persons about the decline in English language usage skills; for example, the commonly heard “It’s me” instead of the prescribed “It’s I.” The lament: Why aren’t people being taught correct grammar?

This is also a complaint of professionals: teachers and scholars in education, including higher ed. Even after presenting papers at English studies and writing conferences about the historical lack of a uniform curriculum for grammar and usage instruction, I would still hear colleagues complain about their students’ lack of these “basic” skills.

Throughout the blog, we have examined these rules and “errors” of Standard English, the dialect having the most power and prestige. The post on the history and influence of the English was necessarily brief; however, the development from Old English into Middle English – when English was primarily oral and informal and varied by regions – was dramatically influenced by the introduction of printing press in the late15th century. Because most legal governmental was done in French or Latin after the Norman Conquest (1066), there was no need for a standard written English. Now it became a practical concern, with the “natural choice” of the “national” dialect being that of London, the center of wealth and learning then.

As English evolved, writers and scholars wanted to “fix” it permanently, to reduce the language to rules and set up a standard of usage—similar to attempts by Royal & Language Societies of the 17th and 18th centuries in countries like France and Italy—as the Age of Reason and Neo-Classical literature took hold. These language reformers wanted also to refine it – i.e., remove imperfections. Lexicographers like Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) created dictionaries to capture the language, and scholars, like Robert Lowth, wrote textbooks to teach “proper” grammar. Though a Hebrew and Religious professor, Lowth wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1763), one of the most influential books of its time: it went through more than 40 editions before 1800 and was used and much imitated into the 20th century. Lowth based his grammar on those of Latin and Greek—the classical languages and cultures valued by the neo-classicists of the time. (Many attribute Lowth with propagating the myth of never ending a sentence with a preposition, though merriam-webster.com credits a 1646 book.)

Some grammars and dictionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries tried to be descriptive. American grammarian, textbook author, and lexicographer, Noah Webster, not only created the first truly American dictionary (continued today as Merriam-Webster), but he also produced a groundbreaking grammar in 1784. Webster did not base his rules on those of Latin; rather “grammar is formed on language, and not language on grammar.” He promoted American English and culture, and though he studied Anglo-Saxon and many other languages, he shared similar inconsistencies to English grammarians and he later tended to be conservative.

The debates on English grammar and usage and the best way to teach it continued into the 20th century and beyond, as we have seen in numerous posts in this blog. While many continued to follow prescriptivist rules (traditional Standard English), others promulgated a descriptivist approach, preferring to describe or follow what is practiced by the speakers of the language. The development of the field of Linguistics aided in this descriptive movement. In writing handbooks and usage dictionaries and guides, we see the origins and various uses of a word or rule; for instance, see previous posts on farther vs. farther or on like as a conjunction.

Opinions about the proper way to teach grammar run just as strong. In the early 20th century, though standards of correctness were also being questioned, grammar instruction consisted primarily of usage, including error correction and avoidance. The educational research methodology was rudimentary, with beliefs that grammar teaching grammar took away from other subjects or was ineffective in younger grades because of a lack of maturity.

In 1935, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) tried to formalize instruction, producing a report called An Experience Curriculum in English. It advocated a comprehensive, systematic program of functional grammar with recommendations of objectives for different grade levels. However, it was not universally adopted, and the NCTE later instituted a Commission on the English Curriculum (1945-1965): it produced 5 Volumes (by 5 separate Committees) which reviewed and recommended best practices in English Language Arts (ELA) instruction. Unfortunately, the Commission had a literature bias, and although it says grammar and writing instruction are important, but it offers nothing about methods.

Grammar instruction was next influenced by structural linguistics, such as research in the 1950s and 60s by Noam Chomsky, which increased the knowledge and theory of language acquisition and provided a descriptive grammar – a set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given language. Soon linguistic-based textbooks, such as Roberts English Series, were developed and adopted, but not without controversy and criticism. Indeed, Chomsky never intended his studies to be a model of grammar instruction.

About the same time, an environment against teaching grammar at all developed. In 1963, the NCTE produced an anti-grammar statement based on the phrase about “harmful effect” of grammar instruction derived from the 1963 book, Research in Written Composition. Regrettably the phrase was taken out of context and the book’s methodology was questionable, but it influenced English curriculums in many ways, including the primacy of literature at all levels, the previously mentioned rise of structural grammars, the ascendancy of process approaches in composition instruction, the Expressive (empowerment) writing approach, the creation of WAC programs (writing across the disciplines), and the whole language approach to language acquisition. Amid political pressures against an elitist language in the 1970s and 80s, instruction in mechanics and usage was limited to final the editing stage of the writing process. This minimalist or anti-grammar approach led to a general public view of grammar as a loose collection of prescriptive mandates and to a lack of preparation for teachers in their own education, who themselves had little, if any, grammar instruction (pre-K-12) or only 1 or 2 recommended college courses (History of English, Introductory Linguistics) for ELA student teachers.

By the late 20th early 21st centuries, the pendulum had swung the other way, with State and Federal Standardized Tests & Grammar Competencies, including No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the SAT essay section, and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). This last curriculum focused on college- and career-readiness and demanded grammar accuracy and rigor: “students must gain control over many conventions of Standard English grammar, usage, and mechanics as well as learn other ways to use language to convey meaning.” Unfortunately, the CCSS has been controversial both in education generally and in grammar instruction specifically; for instance, it designated a separate language strand and many of its standards are vague.

Despite its historical anti-grammar approach, the NCTE has long had an active interest group, the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar, which has always advocated grammar instruction, even if its methods have changed from stand-alone to embedded grammar teaching. Other experts, while recognizing the value of grammar in context of writing and reading, still believe that grammar instruction is necessary, especially a systematic approach which gradually builds (or scaffolds) on basic concepts to more advanced ones.*

Opinions and feelings on this and other language topics can run pretty strong, as we have seen throughout this blog, but as with many decisions a writer faces, it comes down to a matter of individual style and need. Are you insecure about your grammar knowledge or skills? If so, more on this, see the post Why Study Grammar?

(*See Kolln and Hancock, Mark Pennington; material on Lowth and early grammars from Grammatical Institutes, theconversation.com, and merriam-webster.com; sources for Webster’s dictionary and grammar.)

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