Why I recommend self-report to audit teachers’ grammatical knowledge

The response to my recent post on supporting teachers’ standards of literacy was overwhelmingly positive, although, as expected, there was also some criticism.

Some of the criticism was directed at my suggested process and several people were unhappy about the use of self-report to audit teacher’s current level of confidence. I acknowledge that self-report is a notoriously unreliable tool for determining what people think and believe – often respondents simply answer in the way that they think the questioners wants them to and they are at pains to present themselves in the best possible light. Additionally, some readers felt that many teachers lacked the self-awareness to accurately asses their own level of mastery and we might witness a Dunning-Kruger Effect were the least skilled mistakenly rate themselves as proficient, and the most knowledge are most aware of their own lack of complete mastery and so underrate themselves.

My recommendation is for teachers to be told that they will be held accountable for the answers they provide. My survey asked teachers to indicate their level of confidence with specialised concepts like subject-verb agreement. If you’ve never heard the term before then it’s a safe bet that you will rate yourself as ‘red’ (requires support). If you sort of know what it means but would be unable to support other teachers in developing their proficiency then you would indicate your level of mastery as ‘amber’ (unsure). It wouldn’t matter to me whether a teacher who should properly have answered ‘red’ but, either from shame, pride or confusion incorrectly answered ‘amber’; both answers will be treated in essentially the same way. Any teacher who considers themselves either red or amber will be expected to demonstrate how they have sought to improve their professional understanding over the following year.

It may well be that some teachers are proficient in subject-verb agreement but have never encountered the term. This is a very simple matter to rectify and move a teacher from an implicit to an explicit understanding. The advantage to knowing the term is that your understanding of a pupil’s mistakes and advice on making a correction will be much more efficient. Instead of reading “the snake slide over the sand” and thinking ‘that sounds wrong’ you can point out that the verb from needs to change to fit with the subject of the sentence; that where the subject (the snake) is singular the verb (slide) needs the letter s added. When both teachers and students share the same explicit knowledge, teachers can simply say, “Your subject doesn’t agree with your verb,” and everyone will understand what needs to happen.

Admittedly, there is more scope for mistakes with a term like ‘paragraphing’ which has entered common usage. Every teacher will be familiar with the concept even if they lack the confidence to explain why another’s use of paragraphs might be incorrect. I wouldn’t expect any teacher to be ‘red’ in this instance, but neither would I expect every teacher to be ‘green’.

Any teacher who mistakenly identifies themselves as ‘green’ would – I hope – be rapidly spotted as out of their depth when it cam to providing support or training for colleagues. A more difficult to spot problem might be those who know they’re ‘green’ but can’t be bothered to go to any extra trouble. On the whole, I don’t really mind too much if this is the case – the fact is that they do actually possess the required standards which is the whole point of the exercise. That said, I would hope that a well designed appraisal process would pick up any teachers on the Upper Pay Scale and direct them into activities which met the required standards for post-threshold professionals.

Having consulted with three different schools on implementing this sort of system, self-report is the best approach I’ve found for a light-tough, low-threat knowledge gathering exercise against which priorities can be established and teachers held to account for their responses.

As I tried to make clear in the first post, all this requires two essential ingredients in order to be effective:

  1. Sensitive handling: teachers are not responsible for what they haven’t been taught and don’t know they don’t know.
  2. Intelligent accountability: we only get the best out of people when we trust them to be their best and support them in that endeavour. Teachers are responsible for being the best they can and accessing the support offered.

7 Responses to Why I recommend self-report to audit teachers’ grammatical knowledge

  1. Name says:

    Might it not help to include a self-assessment test with the self-report?

    Perhaps having a passage that contains a number of errors, first asking teachers to identify, then match the identified errors with potential technical labels for the problems.

    It would need to be a complete passage since without context, “the snake slide over the sand” might be an issue of incorrect tense rather than s-v agreement.

    • David Didau says:

      An understanding of S-V agreement depends upon an understanding of tense. And, no, I don’t think that would necessarily be helpful. Many people can spot errors when they know they are there and are prompted to look for them. This would end up concealing what I what to find out i.e. have teachers mastered the basics of grammar.

      • Name says:

        It is the labeling of the error which is central to the activity, since by your argument the formal knowledge of grammar is important.

        More worryingly, I am not sure if mastering the “basics of grammar” will do anything to help prevent “passing on misinformation and bad habits to their student”.

        In mathematics, one might ‘master the basics’ and this may be sufficient since complex mathematical contexts are unlikely to arise in the course of one’s daily teaching.

        In language complex situations abound and if one tries to apply the ‘basics’ misinformation will surely result.

        If teachers are held accountable to the (inaccurate and often false) ‘basics’, and perversely incentivised to ignore their tacit knowledge of grammar, I cannot but see that such an initiative will cause more problems than it aims to solve.

        There is good reason to be skeptical of the value of explicit grammar knowledge,
        see for example: ‘The effect of grammar teaching (syntax) in English on 5 to 16 year olds’ accuracy and quality in written composition’

        Furthermore, given that many fluent English users developed their fluency with very limited grammar instruction but with significant exposure to language, would it not be better to focus our energies into promoting pupil reading?

        • Michael Pye says:

          From what I can tell the research ( and I am still getting my head around it) seems to say that teaching grammar explicitly has not lead to evidence of improvement or regression in reading and writing. This does not mean we should not do it, simply that it does not have evidence of working better then other approaches. Most of the evidence I looked at was from systemic reviews and meta-analysis, and I lack the skills and the time to probe very deeply, so I may have simply got it wrong. Note my conclusion is based on my perception of the consensus, some people do argue that specific studies prove that grammar does/doesn’t work. Even Tim Oats and the others behind the new primary curriculum seem to accept this as the current state of affairs (feel free to jump in if you have a background in this area: I would appreciate the perspective). This seems to agree with your link.

          This conclusion supports teaching grammar explicitly or implicitly for teaching reading and writing. It does not falsify either approach. If you believe grammar has value as knowledge in itself you will likely favor that approach: If not then it will seems an unnecessary burden and distraction.

  2. Michael Pye says:

    I think you have designed a clever way of determining someones proficiency. Enacting the cure seems more challenging though. Where, when and how would this happen.?

    Maybe small mixed groups (red, green and amber) with some pre-planned resources and examples for the group to go through could work. Reinforcing it in class would be more challenging, maybe action research could find a more practical use here.

    Perhaps every week choose a concept (I.e subject-verb agreement) then challenge teachers to give some examples of spotting it in class, and asking what they did about it.

    Signing staff up for some online modules, with a language specialist available for advice, both in person and via the internet, might be easier, less embarrassing, and more efficient to track though.

    It is interesting thinking about a specific problem with up skilling teachers. Normally it is discussed in a somewhat general, and helpfully nebulous way.

  3. The University of Bristol have an excellent online grammar guide which you includes exercises. This is available for anyone to use.

  4. […] 10. Why I recommend self-report to audit teachers’ grammatical knowledge, by David Didau […]

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