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The Problems With Learning Grammar: A Proposal for Indirect Teaching Methods

Grammar has been taught in the classroom for quite some time, mostly because “many English and language arts teachers in particular seem convinced that studying grammar does help, or at least it should.” In this sense, grammar is being taught out of tradition, and has caused many people to believe “grammar is good for a person [because it] has become a hallowed part of our cultural mythology” (Weaver 4). While the teaching of grammar certainly holds value in certain classrooms, I argue that it should be removed from the required curriculum of all pre-collegiate institutions because language acquisition (including grammar) is best learned through indirect teaching methods, as proved by biologists who study the human brain, and experimental studies conducted in language acquisition. In turn, I propose that the study of grammar be reserved for those students who desire a greater awareness of how their language functions, and I put forth the notion of teaching grammar using indirect versus direct methods.

One reason people believe in the importance of learning grammar, is that there is a need to understand the inner workings of things, especially language, given its high importance and frequent daily use. Often people feel “a kind of detachment from [grammar], a sense that [they] are not really in control,” when in fact, they know more than they realize (Tubbs 3). Just because a student cannot identify the particular term for a part of speech, does not mean that he/she cannot effectively use it. Through language acquisition experiments, it has been proved that grammar, specifically syntactic maturity, “in performance comes with development rather than rule learning.” To further demonstrate this, biologists have discovered that “language is behavior specific to the human species; that is, human language is not just a more evolved form of animal communication, but a function for which the human brain and anatomy are specifically adapted.” This means, people are “born with a language learning system just as [they] are born with a digestive system,” and as children, we use this biologically built-in language system to acquire the skills of learning how to use language. It is part of the biology of humans to ‘“know’ what to do with words just as we ‘know’ what to do with food” (Sanborn 74-5). As Piaget determined, “cognitive development ‘results from a conflict arising in [a] child’s own mind’” as opposed to someone presenting a problem for him/her. To clarify, a child will develop his/her cognitive thinking skills better by learning to decipher the inner workings of grammar through personal experience, such as encountering it in reading and writing assignments, as opposed to someone handing them a problem and a set of rules in which to solve the problem by. If a child only acquires knowledge when someone else presents a problem to him/her, then the child may ‘“tend to depend on outside provocation rather than his or her own initiative in pursuing the relationship among ideas,’” resulting in poor cognitive skills (Sanborn 78). In other words, a child will learn better through self discovery and application.

In the later years of life (post high school, perhaps), studying grammar can be useful because it “requires an act of self-consciousness that literally asks young people to step outside themselves and examine a process which they perform unconsciously.” In other words, the study of grammar is useful in the discovery of “self-knowledge” (Sanborn 77). Therefore, I propose that the study of grammar be reserved for those who desire to understand themselves on a more conscious level, and those who desire to further their knowledge in linguistics. If a student takes the time to “[examine] their own unconscious process,” then studying grammar can be a good exercise in further understanding his/her self provided the approach is not ‘“this is what English is’ but ‘this is what you do when you generate language’” (Sanborn 79). Also, if a student desires to acquire the necessary knowledge in order to hold a career in “the teaching of language, the teaching of the deaf, speech therapy, the diagnosis and treatment of aphasia, communications engineering, information retrieval, [or] the identification of author or speaker in legal cases,” then the study of grammar becomes practical (Greenbaum 10). In the end, however, the value of understanding “the workings of one’s own language” is trifle and “hardly necessary” unless a student desires to “expand their consciousness and increase their awareness of language” (Sanborn 77, 9).

Another reason educators push to teach grammar is because it seems logical that understanding grammar better will result in improvement in reading and writing (Weaver 5). More so, educators feel it is vital “to learn the conventions of written standard English” in order to properly communicate (Greenbaum 11). The fact is each student comprehends how to use language at their own level, and those who use language well obviously “have a good intuitive grasp of grammar.” This does not mean that a student excels in understanding language because he/she has previously learned and applied a specific set of grammatical rules, but instead, excels because he/she has had “plenty of structured and unstructured opportunities to deal with language directly” (Weaver 5). Most people who “seem to have an instinctive command of the language and write well apparently without benefit of instruction in formal grammar,” are those who “read well and often,” as opposed to those who spend hours on end memorizing a set of grammatical rules (Tubbs 3). Time spent learning loaded grammatical terminology is unnecessary, and students can easily “get along with three labels: verb, noun, modifier (Sanborn 79).

It is true that students need to understand how to use grammar in their writing, as well as be able to recognize what grammar is doing while they are reading, but I propose they can achieve this best “through indirect rather than direct instruction” (Weaver 5). The direct teaching of grammar is a waste of time, and is best improved through the use and practice in language – reading, writing, speaking, listening (Sanborn 74). Trying to learn grammar through direct application is difficult because the definitions of various parts of speech and the countless number of syntactic terms are “circulatory [in] their definitions” because so many of their “definitions are interrelated” (Greenbaum 12). The idea, here, is to improve their reading by making them read, and to improve their writing by making them write (Weaver 5). Especially in pre-high school educational institutes, educators need to create an environment where “language is used and responded to, not analyzed.” Therefore, I also propose that as long as students are actively using language by constantly communicating, reading, and writing (natural, everyday actions that would be hard to stop doing) then little will be lost if direct teaching of grammar in schools becomes extinct. The idea is that people learn best through practice, involving observation and trial-and-error, as opposed to the scientific way grammar is generally taught (Sanborn 78-9). Grammar does not need to be taught as a subject of its own, and should be reserved for the college or late high school student who desires to further their understanding in linguistics or further their knowledge in the structure of language.

While the study of grammar certainly has its advantages in a given field of study or if a student desires to increase their self awareness of language, there is little doubt that it does not belong in a grade school curriculum. From studies conducted in order to determine the effectiveness of teaching grammar to the biologists who have pointed out how language is acquired, it is obvious today that grammar has only been continuously taught out of tradition and a false need to understand the inner workings of language.

Works Cited

Greenbaum, Sidney. “What is Grammar and Why Teach It?” Speech at NCTE, Boston, Nov.

1982. Speech.

Sanborn, Jean. “Grammar: Good Wine Before Its Time.” English Journal 75.3 (1986): 72-80.


Tubbs, Gail Lewis. “A Case for Teaching Grammar.” Writing Lab Newsletter 15.7 (1991): 1-3.


Weaver, Constance. Grammar for Teachers. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English,

1979. Print.


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