Teaching students how to combine sentences more effective than formal grammar instruction

iStock_000020536048XSmallAdding to 100 years of debate on the topic, an extensive research review suggests that there is little evidence teaching formal grammar to 5- to 16-year-old students is effective. “The teaching of sentence-combining appears to have a more positive effect on writing quality and accuracy,” says an article in the February 2006 issue of the British Educational Research Journal.

The authors caution, however, that, “There is insufficient quality of research to prove the case with either approach.” Relevant research was culled from an initial list of more than 4,700 papers on grammar-related topics published between 1900 and 2004. The final list consisted of 11 papers most relevant to an in-depth review of the teaching of formal grammar and 20 papers most relevant to an analysis of sentence-combining. The authors define formal grammar, or syntax, as “constraints which control acceptable word order within a sentence, or dominance relations.”

Under the heading, sentence-combining, the authors include “a range of practical techniques for moving from existing sentences and elements of sentences to compound and complex sentences.” One example is combining two sentences in a variety of ways — with a conjunction, a semi-colon or by adding a dependent clause. Sentence-combining can also refer to sentence-embedding and other techniques for expanding the structure of sentences.

Practical technique

The authors stress that what mostly distinguishes sentence-combining from traditional formal grammar teaching is that it is a practical technique that can be used in specific situations. In contrast, formal grammar teaching “is abstracted from practice and usage, formulated into rules and then ‘applied.'” They are quick to point out that they are not suggesting that teachers do not need to know formal grammar. Of all the research they reviewed, the authors cite one 30-year-old study (O’Hare, 1973) as perhaps the best research yet on the effect of sentence-combining on written composition.

The goal of the study was “to test whether sentence-combining practice that was in no way dependent on the students’ formal knowledge of transformational grammar would increase the normal rate of growth of syntactic maturity in the students’ free writing.” The study, conducted at the seventh grade level over a period of eight months, comprised 83 students randomly assigned to two experimental and two control classes.

Results showed that the experimental sentence-combining group had highly significant growth that exceeded the control group on all six measures of syntactic maturity. “Indeed, eighth graders were writing at the same syntactic maturity level as twelfth graders on five of the six measures. In terms of writing quality, as judged and agreed by a team of eight evaluators, the experimental group also exceeded the performance of the group, particularly in narrative and descriptive composition.”

While the authors acknowledge that their studies do not cover all aspects of the teaching of grammar, they do argue for more emphasis on sentence-combining and other practical approaches that appear to have more positive effects on writing development.

“The Effect of Grammar Teaching on Writing Development” British Educational Research Journal Volume 32, Number 1, February 2006 Pps. 39-55.

Published in ERN March 2006 Volume 19 Number 3

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