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The effect of grammar teaching (sentence combining) in English on 5 to 16 year olds’ accuracy and quality in written composition. Summary


For over a century, there has been debate as to whether the teaching of grammar helps young people to learn to write well. The results have been inconclusive, partly because some parties in the debate have refused to acknowledge research evidence that suggests that the teaching of formal grammar (syntax, parts of speech) in a top-down approach is ineffective; partly because some of the research has been difficult to access and partly because previous studies and reviews have not been sufficiently comprehensive to answer the question of effectiveness conclusively. It is against this background that two in-depth reviews have been undertaken: one on the teaching of formal grammar (syntax) and the present review on the teaching of sentence combining.


The aim of the review is to shed conclusive light on the effect (or not) of teaching sentence combining on writing by 5 to 16 year olds in English.

Research questions

The overall research question for the systematic map of research is as follows:

What is the effect of grammar teaching in English on 5- to 16-year-olds' accuracy and quality in written composition?

The specific research question for in-depth review in the present report is as follows:

What is the effect of teaching sentence combining in English on 5- to 16-year-olds' accuracy and quality in written composition?


The systematic review (both the map and the in-depth study) used guidelines and tools devised by the EPPI-Centre. In short, a protocol or plan for the research was drafted, including a provisional research question for the initial map of research in the field. Exclusion and inclusion criteria for the literature search were written. The protocol was peer-reviewed, revised and then published on the EPPI- Centre's Research Evidence in Education Library. Research papers were searched, identified, screened for relevance and then keyworded to create an initial database. A map of research studies in the field was generated. From the map, two areas of research were identified for in-depth review: formal grammar (syntax) and sentence combining. Papers in this latter area were data-extracted and assessed for quality and weight of evidence with respect to the research question. A narrative synthesis of the results was produced.


The initial electronic searching for research in the field since 1900 identified 4,691 papers, which were screened for potential relevance on the basis of title and abstract. A further 50 potentially relevant papers were identified through handsearching. A total of 267 papers were then obtained and re-screened against the inclusion/exclusion criteria on the basis of the full paper. Of these, 64 were found to meet the particular criteria for the review and constituted a map of the field. Twenty-six papers reported reviews and 38 reported primary research. Of the latter group, 20 papers, reporting on 18 studies, were deemed by the review group to be highly relevant to the in-depth review on sentence combining. Most of these studies (17) were from the USA; one was from Canada.

An overall synthesis of the results from the 18 studies examined in the in-depth review comes to a clear conclusion: that sentence combining is an effective means of improving the syntactic maturity of students in English between the ages of 5 and 16. All but two of the studies specify the age group they worked with: predominantly, this group ranged from fourth grade (9-10 year olds) to tenth grade (15-16 year olds), with the majority clustering in the upper years of primary/elementary schooling and the lower years of secondary schooling. The differences between the studies are largely inherent in the degree of advance that students learning sentence combining enjoy in terms of their syntactic maturity. In the most reliable studies, immediate post-test effects are seen to be positive with some tempering of the effect in delayed post-tests. In other words, as might be expected, gains made by being taught sentence combining in terms of written composition are greatest immediately after the intervention and tail off somewhat thereafter. Significantly, in the one study that undertakes a delayed post-test, syntactic maturity gains are maintained, albeit less dramatically than immediately after the event.


Taking into account the results and conclusions of the accompanying in-depth review on the teaching of formal grammar the main implication for policy of the current review is that the National Curriculum in England and accompanying guidance needs to be revised to take into account the findings of research: that the teaching of formal grammar (and its derivatives) is ineffective; and the teaching of sentence combining is one (of probably a number of) method(s) that is effective.

In terms of practice, a very practical implication of the results of the present review is that it would be helpful if the future development of teaching materials and approaches included recognition of the effectiveness of sentence combining. There needs to be a review of the overall effectiveness of present materials designed to help young people to write; not all the practical suggestions put forward will be effective, and the emphasis on knowledge about language and language awareness, although useful and interesting in itself, may not be helping students to improve their writing skills.

In research terms, the present review(s) have achieved a ground-clearing operation, consolidating advances in the last 100 years or so, and mapping some of the territory for future research. It is suggested that further research needs to move beyond studies of formal grammar and its effects on compositional skills; move beyond the USA into different contexts, taking into account the textual and contextual factors in learning to write; undertake some large-scale and longitudinal experimental studies to find out what works; improve the quality and reporting of such studies in the field; and look at other ways of researching the effects, impact and nature of grammar(s) in learning to write.

This report should be cited as: Andrews R, Torgerson C, Beverton S, Freeman A, Locke T, Low G, Robinson A, Zhu D (2004) The effect of grammar teaching (sentence combining) in English on 5 to 16 year olds’ accuracy and quality in written composition. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education.

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