Background and Theory

“Research over a period of nearly 90 years has consistently shown that the teaching of grammar has little or no effect on students.”

-George Hillocks & Michael Smith, 1991

Definition of Grammar

In order to tackle the issues related to language awareness and use,
it is important to first give a definition of grammar. Among various formulations of grammar
in literature, the following three meanings seem to accurately represent commonly accepted
understanding of grammar, which is:

1. Unconscious knowledge of language that allows people to produce and comprehend
language. It is learned informally by all language users; thus everyone acquires grammar.
2. Conscious knowledge of language structures including concepts (parts of speech),
terminology (verb, sentence), and analytical techniques (parsing) for talking about the
language. Very often people refer to this grammar as based on Latin grammar system.
3. “Linguistic etiquette”, and consists of rules about correct and incorrect usage.
Historically, “proper” or Standard English can be traced to the dialect spoken by
educated people in the London area several hundred years ago (Asselin).

So, traditional grammar instruction for many centuries was heavily based on the second
definition of grammar, whereas linguistic research of the twentieth century (transformational
linguistics in particular) elaborated on the importance of the first formulation; but neither of
these methods incorporated the social component of grammar instruction. Alternative grammar
instructions can be looked at as an attempt to embrace sociolinguistic discourses surrounding the
teaching of grammar.

Nowadays it is very common to find alternative studies of grammar instruction (or also
called teaching sentence structure, syntax, combining sentences) that emphasize students’
ability to “recognize issues of race and class that determine acceptable usage and [to] learn
the importance of audience in their own language use (Lindblom and Dunn 71). The article
Analyzing Grammar Rants: An Alternative to Traditional Grammar Instruction suggests
several ways to develop students’ rhetorical knowledge of audience and context with the help of
analyzing grammar rants (see "Practical Lessons" page).

Grammar Instruction Applied to Punctuation

Noted Australian researcher Brian Cambourne ‘s (1988) general principals for teaching are immersion, demonstration, expectations, responsibility, approximation, practice, engagement, and response.  He feels these conditions are necessary in order for children to learn, and that these apply to all grade levels.  The emphasis is on the process, and not as much the product.  These principals can be used in the teaching of punctuation. 

In Mina Shaughnessy’s (1977) book Errors and Expectations, she states that errors tell a vast amount about what students are learning.  When increasing knowledge, we will make errors in first attempts.  Because of this, students will make more mistakes when they venture out and try more complex skills rather than play it safe with what they already know. 

One important aspect of teaching grammar is punctuation.  It allows the reader to feel the ebb and flow of the text as intended by the author.  But how do we teach punctuation?  Are worksheets and drills vital to the acquisition of this skill?  Research shows it is not.  Learning punctuation in the context of writing is much more effective than studying punctuation marks and rules for punctuation in isolation.  (Calkins, 1980).   Lucy Calkins has studied reading and writing for many years and feels students should be able to manage their own learning.  Her studies have shown that repeated exposure to mentor texts and systematic, regular practice in writing and reading are essential in helping children improve (Calkins, 2001).  If children are truly invested in writing and care about their work, they will feel purpose in what we teach them (Calkins 1994)

Calkins is backed up by Janet Angelillo in her book A Fresh Approach to Teaching Punctuation.  Angelillo’s theory is that we can teach students to use punctuation effectively and correctly through careful assessment of what our students know and build on their learning from there.

So we’re aware that it is best to embed the study of punctuation into our teaching, but where do we go from here?  Below you will find an assortment of web sites and books to help you navigate the waters of teaching punctuation, whether you teach kindergarten or high school students.