Like other areas of English language arts, there are lots of different ways to tackle grammar instruction. The two most common are the prescriptive approach and the descriptive approach. But what’s the difference between them? Is one more effective than the other? Let’s find out!

The Prescriptive Approach

Prescriptive Approach - an approach to grammar that describes established rules of structure and usage of a language

Think of the prescriptive approach as the more “formal” or “traditional” way to teach grammar. This approach focuses on the proper use of language, enforcing guidelines for things like sentence structure, punctuation, and word choice. For instance, English students learn prescriptive grammar rules like:

  • Don’t begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.
  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.

The Descriptive Approach

Descriptive Approach - an approach to grammar that examines how educated, native speakers of a language speak and write and infers conventions about what is generally regarded as correct or standard

Comparatively, the descriptive approach to grammar examines how people use language in everyday life. Even though people don’t always speak and write in ways that stick to the standard rules of grammar as described in the prescriptive approach, they're still able to convey coherent messages. Descriptive grammar recognizes that because language evolves over time, what’s considered “incorrect” may eventually become an acceptable way of speaking or writing. Some common descriptive “rules” for English include:

  • Whatever follows a coordinating conjunction in a sentence will be linked (in the reader’s or listener’s mind) to whatever immediately came before it.
  • The time or space relationship conveyed by a preposition can be lost if the preposition comes after its object.

Which Approach Should You Use?

So, which approach to grammar is better? Short answer: they’re both great! Each approach can play a valuable role in teaching grammar, depending on your ELA goals. If your students need to write for formal situations like academic papers or reports, the prescriptive approach might be more appropriate because it values clarity and order. If you want your students to better grasp the language they encounter in prose, poetry, dialogue, and other real-world applications, the descriptive approach might be a better fit.

The key to well-rounded grammar instruction is to strike a balance between these two approaches. By teaching students the standard rules of prescriptive grammar, and then showing them how those rules play out in the real world using descriptive grammar, you can help your students master the English language and become confident communicators in the process.