Back to basics: should universities teach grammar?

Many students are confused about grammar and sentence structure – so should universities teach it explicitly? Words image from

Imagine a student turning up at university and not knowing basic multiplication. He or she could be hard-working, bright, enthusiastic but completely unable to answer a basic question like: what’s six times seven?

If the scenario sounds extreme, consider it a reasonable analogy for what has happened to the teaching of English grammar and syntax in Australia. All too often, school-leavers start their tertiary studies without adequate skills in writing and communication, disrupting their studies and frustrating academic staff.

There has been a push to change this situation. The new Australian English Curriculum for primary and secondary school, for example, emphasises learning grammar systematically and explicitly. And the recently released English Language Standards for Higher Education (ELSHE) addresses the problem at a tertiary level.

But universities can take this issue further and teach English grammar and composition in undergraduate degrees.

The three Rs

At the Australian National University, a one-semester course in Traditional Grammar is compulsory for students wishing to enrol in beginners’ level Latin and Ancient Greek.

Designed to help students understand the fundamental structures and principles of language, this subject has been running for two decades and can boast a remarkable degree of success.

Many of the students who attend Traditional Grammar claim that the class has improved their writing skills. Those who are also learning modern languages claim that firm grammatical knowledge bolsters their proficiency.

The course was created for two simple reasons. First, faculty members realised that they were spending a lot of time clarifying basic grammar issues rather than actually teaching the languages. Second, ancient languages cannot really be taught via the “immersion” method, which leaves the grammar-based approach as the only option.

Learned assumptions

In any case, specialists are beginning to question how successful the immersion method is. This method’s main assumption is that students will “pick up” or “catch” language skills from their environment, learning through speaking, listening, and reading, without any explicit grammatical instruction.

For the last four decades, Australia has followed the rest of the English-speaking world by putting immersion at the centre of its language pedagogy, especially in primary and high-school English classes.

But recent trends in the U.S. show that systematic grammatical instruction guarantees, on average, greater rates of success. Not all students can simply pick up how to structure a sentence correctly, and without this skill, they are left floundering to express ideas or argue a point.

Immersion also fails to address socio-economic differences and the obvious fact that not all students have access to the same kinds of “language environments”. The remarkable example of the “writing revolution” that has occurred at New Dorp high school on Staten Island, NY, suggests that English-language teaching needs to get back to basics.

Not our problem?

So, if large numbers of Australian university students display inadequate writing and communication skills, is it the fault of high schools? Or should universities themselves be taking more responsibility?

The answer is “yes” on both counts. Ideally, higher education should not have to disrupt or put off tertiary-level study in order to instil more basic knowledge. Local Australian students should arrive at university with at least the fundamental principles of grammar firmly in place.

At the same time, transitioning to university is rarely smooth. When first-years encounter new, discipline-specific content and new forms of analysis, their writing often takes a step backwards. What can Australian universities do to ensure that this step is only temporary?

One possibility is to introduce university-wide writing programs that situate academic literacy within the particular demands of individual disciplines. In other words, these programs would teach analytical, academic writing not in isolation but via specific subject areas and topics.

Another possibility is to set English-language placement exams for all incoming students, not just those from overseas.

As things stand now, university students must gain what they can from a piecemeal arrangement that includes feedback on assignments, on-campus Learning Skills units, and the occasional, targeted course like the ANU’s Traditional Grammar. Clearly, Australian tertiary institutions must take a more standardised, unified approach to the issue of student literacy.

And they must do so soon.