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Why did public schools stop teaching grammar?

I attended public school growing up. When I was in 5th grade, my English teacher taught us how to break down sentences and use the diagramming system to really understand the parts of a sentence and how English is constructed. We did this over and over and over.

Many kids found this process tedious, but I loved it. I went on to get a graduate degree in a field that ensured I would get to do more diagramming!

However, my brother, who is only four years younger, doesn’t remember doing this at all. He also doesn’t recall being taught how to properly use punctuation or other standards of writing. He went through the same school system and even had many of the same teachers. So what happened?

My brother’s situation is unfortunately quite common; I see this a lot with native English speakers who sometimes call for writing tutoring because they recognize they have writing gaps that are holding them back professionally. Many have never been told that their writing skills contain mistakes until the enter their first high profile professional job. Since they have college degrees, this can come as a shock. Why didn’t any professors let them know that their writing wasn’t ready for the working world?

There is much to say on this topic and I have many opinions about how the lack of explicit grammar instruction in public schools (along with the ‘it’s not my job to fix your writing’ attitude of many U.S. college professors) often reinforces class differences in the U.S, but I won’t get into all that here.

Instead, this scholarly article, published about ten years ago, gives an overview of the trends of teaching grammar in the U.S. public school system – when we used to do it, when we stopped, why it fell out of favor, and what we now know to be the results.

Spoiler: it was a bad idea to stop teaching grammar, and it’s unfair to anyone who got caught in this trend when they were coming up through public school. In my case, I was lucky – I remember our teacher saying things like “I was told I’m not supposed to do this but we’re doing it anyway.” I am grateful that she knew what we needed and didn’t buy into the newest educational trend.