Spelling & Grammar in Tibetan: Why you shouldn’t worry about it (so much) [Part 2]

1 What the research shows

The number one reason you shouldn’t worry about “studying spelling and grammar” is, frankly, very hard for students to hear. And that is this—it simply doesn’t work. Studying spelling does not improve your spelling, and studying grammar does not improve your grammar!

This honestly sounds unbelievable at first. As you read this, you already disbelieve me, and think you are wasting your time listening to me. After all, all our lives, we have been told that proper spelling and grammar are very important. And, all our experience, from our earliest childhood memories, tell us that the way we get good at language is through studying it.

We memorize spellings in order to pass our spelling tests in grade school. Likewise, we memorize grammar rules, and our teachers mark our papers in thick, red ink to punish us when we get it wrong.

But the research shows that these methods simply aren’t effective. In fact, the research shows that these kinds of teaching techniques can actually be discouraging for students, and detrimental to their improvement!

(Fast forward to the bottom of the article to see the citations of studies by experts in language acquistion).

2 How do we get better at spelling & grammar?

IF that’s true, then why did we get better at language? And why do we continue to feel like these kinds of teaching methods are effective? Well, the truth is, we did get better at language—and we got better alongside, and during the same time in which we were taught ‘proper spelling and grammar’.

But, correlation is not causation; we got better simply by gaining experience in language. We were exposed to more and more language over the years: We heard more of it, and we read more of it. At the same time, we practiced more and more language: We spoke more of it, and we wrote more of it.

So simply by using language, we improved. That we just so happened to be “studying” it, formally, in school, and taking tests in it—that part is just coincidental!

Looking at “studying grammar”, something we do all school year, and saying it causes “improved language skills”, something that happens naturally over time, is a bit like having a cat that meows all day, and a phone that rings all day—just because the phone rings after the cat meows doesn’t mean the cat’s meowing causes the phone to ring!

They are actually independent and unrelated variables that simply co-occur…

3 Don’t take my word for it

Please don’t take my word for it! I know, dear reader, that you still don’t believe me. You know that studying grammar improves grammar, and that both entail grammar, so they must be related.

Even if you don’t believe me (yet), maybe you’d be willing to check the research yourself. I have compiled some resources from peer-reviewed articles and respectable academic institutions and publishers; I will list them here. Among experts in language acquisition, this view is actually prevailing and widely accepted!

And if you still don’t believe it, feel free to find counterexamples, and forward them along. We will happily concede if a preponderance of evidence turns the tides in the other direction…

3a Quotes and citations

“A century of research shows that traditional grammar lessons—those hours spent diagramming sentences and memorizing parts of speech—don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers. Yes, they need to learn grammar, but the old-fashioned way does not work. This finding—confirmed in 1984, 2007, and 2012 through reviews of over 250 studies—is consistent among students of all ages, from elementary school through college. For example, one well-regarded study followed three groups of students from 9th to 11th grade where one group had traditional rule-bound lessons, a second received an alternative approach to grammar instruction, and a third received no grammar lessons at all, just more literature and creative writing. The result: No significant differences among the three groups—except that both grammar groups emerged with a strong antipathy to English.”

Cleary, M. N. (2014, February 25). The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar. The Atlantic.

George Hillocks (U. of Chicago) does a comprehensive review of experimental studies conducted from 1963 to 1982 and concludes that “effective instruction is quite different from what is commonly taught in schools”.

Hillocks, G. (1984). What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies. American Journal of Education, 93(1), 133-170.

The authors of this study conduct a meta-analysis of interventions for literature instruction, and calculate the weighted effect of each intervention. Of all the intervention strategies, grammar instruction is the worst. It’s effect is NEGATIVE.

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(3), 445–476.

Another meta-analysis, this time of 115 documents. Grammar instruction is the ONLY method that doesn’t even have statistically significant results.

Graham, S., McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S., & Harris, K. R. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879–896.

In a study published by the National Council of Teachers of English, authors found that “the effects of grammar study are negligible”.

Elley, W. B.; And Others. 1979. The Role of Grammar in a Secondary School Curriculum. Educational Research Series No. 60.

A review of young writers, ages 5–16. The authors conclude: “There is little evidence to indicate that the teaching of formal grammar is effective”.

Richard Andrews, Carole Torgerson, Sue Beverton, Allison Freeman, Terry Locke, Graham Low, Alison Robinson, Die Zhu (2013). “The effect of grammar teaching on writing development.” British Educational Research Journal.

The author explores the influence of traditional grammar study in the Japanese context. He concludes that: “it is undoubtedly a serious handicap for Japanese students of English”, writing: “The yakudoku habit clearly is a severe handicap for the Japanese student. It limits the speed at which the student reads, induces fatigue; and reduces the efficiency with which sl he is able to comprehend. The meaning of a text is obtained via Japanese translation, and is only an approximation to the original. Yakudoku also has detrimental effects on the other language skills—listening, speaking, writing.”…

Ueda, A. (1979). “Chokudoku chokkai.” Yomu Eigo. pp. 78-103. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, Hino, N. 1988. “Yakudoku: Japan’s dominant tradition in foreign language learning.” JALT Journal 10 (1 & 2): 45-55.

“This volume examines theoretical foundations, empirical research, and pedagogical implementations of focus on form. Traditional language teaching can result in limited fluency, whereas communicative approaches tend to produce fluency…”

Doughty, Catherine; Williams, Jessica, eds. (1998). Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The effect of traditional grammar was measured against practice across two academic years. The grammar lessons had no significant, measurable effectiveness.

Harris, R. J. (1962). “An experimental inquiry into the functions and value of formal grammar in the teaching of written English to children aged twelve to fourteen.” Doctoral dissertation, University of London.

“It is likely that students do not actually grasp the literal meanings of grammar textbook rules; or if they understand them, they probably do not actually learn them; or if they learn them, they probably do not remember or use them. If students are successful in acquiring a good grasp of grammar, it must be from some other source. The researchers suggest that regular encounters with the real language – in other words, comprehensible input – is the true source of grammatical competence.”

Hastings, Ashley & Brenda Murphy (2004). “Implicit Standards for Explicit Grammar Teaching.”

An overview of significant findings in the research, including the fact that it was recognized as early as 1950 that “no relation exists between knowledge of grammar and the application of the knowledge in a functional language situation”.

Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching Grammar in Context. United Kingdom: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

If you teach students grammar, they can test well on grammar; but, it won’t improve their language skills—like their abilities in writing, speaking, or translating. The authors write: “This paper investigates the effect of explicit grammar instruction on grammatical knowledge and writing proficiency in first-year students of French at a UK university. Previous research suggests that explicit grammar instruction results in gains in explicit knowledge and its application in specific grammar-related tasks, but there is less evidence that it results in gains in production tasks. A cohort of 12 students received a course in French grammar immediately prior to their university studies in order to determine whether a short but intensive burst of explicit instruction, a pedagogical approach hitherto unexamined in the literature, was sufficiently powerful to bring about an improvement in their grammatical knowledge and performance in production tasks. Participants were tested at three points over five months, and the results were compared with a group which did not receive the intervention. Our results support previous findings that explicit instruction leads to gains in some aspects of grammar tests but not gains in accuracy in either translation or free composition. Reasons for these findings are discussed in relation to theories of language development and the limitations of working memory.”

Macaro, Ernesto (2006). “Does intensive explicit grammar instruction make all the difference?” Language Teaching Research.

Krashen comes to the same conclusion about direct instruction in grammar (as citations 1–11 provided thus far), and adds this about spelling instruction in particular: “Almost all studies show little improvement in spelling through direct instruction. There is extensive evidence… showing that spelling instruction has little effect. Rice (1897) claimed to find no correlation between the amount of time children were instructed on spelling and their spelling performance. Additional evidence that spelling instruction is not very effective comes from Brandenburg (1919), who reported no improvement in spelling accuracy among college students after their psychology papers were “persistently and clearly” marked for spelling errors in one semester. Finally, Cook (1912) showed that students have a very hard time learning and applying spelling rules. Cook gave a total of 96 high school and college students a spelling test containing words that exemplified spelling rules the students had studied the previous semester. He found no difference in accuracy among (1) students who said they knew the rules and used the rules while spelling the test words, (2) those who knew the rules but did not use them, and (3) those who did not know the rules at all. Also, the college students did better on the test, but the high school students knew more spelling rules, confirming the lack of a relationship between knowing spelling rules and spelling accuracy.”

Page 26, Krashen, S. D. (1993). The power of reading: Insights from the research. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

A key quote from Hillocks that essentially describes how traditional grammar teaching leads to language insecurity—NEGATIVELY impacting students’ writing ability: “The study of traditional school grammar (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems.”

“Traditionally, teachers have worked to eradicate errors in two ways: by teaching mechanical and grammatical correctness through drill exercises in grammar/usage texts, and by pointing out all errors when marking student papers… Although numerous research studies show that there is little or no transfer of learning from isolated drills to actual writing experiences and that the time-intensive practice of the teacher’s ‘error hunt’ does not produce more mechanically perfect papers, this 100-year-old tradition still persists”.

Lois Matz Rosen (1987). Developing Correctness in Student Writing: Alternatives to the Error-Hunt. The English Journal, Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 62-69

The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing” (pp. 37-38).

Braddock, R. (1963). Research in written composition. Champaign, Ill: National Council of Teachers of English.

Haynes, E. (1978). Using Research in Preparing to Teach Writing. The English Journal, 67(1), 82-88. doi:10.2307/815550

“Several different reasons have been advanced for the teaching of traditional grammar, among them the notion that it is good for mental discipline and that a knowledge of it automatically improves a student’s ability to write. Research, however, does not support these assumptions”.

Palmer, W. (1975). Research on Grammar: A Review of Some Pertinent Investigations. The High School Journal, 58(6), 252-258. Retrieved June 9, 2021.