Can grammar teaching improve pupils’ writing?

Let me begin with an anecdote. The first time I ever really encountered the meta language of grammar was after finishing my degree in English Literature and embarking on a six-week course to qualify to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL). I had to cram a whole host of previously unknown terminology in order to pass the course and it all seemed pretty pointless. Not knowing this stuff hadn’t made a jot of difference to my ability to read and write as far as I could tell. After I got my certificate I bounced from place to place using my TEFL qualification as fairly easy way of making enough money to live in a variety of different countries for months at a time. Over the years I taught English to children and adults in countries as varied as Portugal, the Czech Republic and Japan and in that time I made one interesting observation: I never met a native speaker of any of these languages who did not know the grammar of their own language. This meant that they were able to ask me very specific questions about points of English grammar with which they were confused. The would say things like, “What is the present participle of to have?” or “What other phrasal verbs contain the word off?” Initially, I had to look up the terms they used to be able to answer my students’ questions, but over time I became increasingly familiar with the language of grammar and found it not improved my ability to handle queries, it also made my teaching much sharper.

When I trained to be a ‘proper’ English teacher I quickly found that much of my TEFL experience was useless. English children appeared to be unique in that they hadn’t the haziest idea what any of these terms meant. I wasn’t able to refer to a subordinate clause without spending extended periods introducing the terminology, so – when it became clear that none of my colleagues thought it mattered all that much – I gave up.

Over the last few years I have come to the conclusion that this was a mistake and that being taught traditional grammar can make a big difference to children’s ability to write effectively. I found that if children mastered grammatical knowledge to the point where they knew it so well that they didn’t even have to think about it this gave them an enormous advantage when trying to write about complex ideas. I’ve written about what and why grammar should be studied here.

But, it would seem this belief is contradicted by the evidence. In a new study examining how receptive policy is to evidence, Dominic Wyse and Carole Torgerson have taken the case of grammar teaching to show that despite the current government’s infatuation with grammar teaching, research indicates that there is “a significant and persistent mismatch between national curriculum policy in England and the robust evidence that is available with regard to the teaching of writing.”

In an earlier paper, Wyse argues the following:

The findings from international research clearly indicate that the teaching of grammar (using a range of models) has negligible positive effects on improving secondary pupils’ writing. Of further concern is the negative impact on pupils’ motivation. In the [National Literacy Strategy] Framework for Teaching the move towards the teaching of grammatical ‘technical vocabulary’ such as adjective; noun: collective, common, proper; pronoun: personal, possessive; verb, and verb tense to six and seven year-old children in England is highly questionable. It is regrettable that there is not more evidence about primary pupils; however, the developmental arguments that such teaching is inappropriate at primary level are persuasive. (Wyse, 2001, p. 422, emphasis added)

This finding – that being taught grammar has “negligible positive effects” and a “negative impact on pupils’ motivation” is apparently supported by two systematic reviews undertaken by Andrews and colleagues. (here and here)

What the research suggests appears, on the face it, somewhat implausible: that knowing more about English grammar a) does not improve our ability to write and b) makes us less motivated to write. If this is indeed true we would need to address two important questions:

  1. Why would neither of these claims hold true for other languages?
  2. Why would neither of these claims hold true for any other domain?

To consider the first question first, it might be the case that English is unique or possibly I’m mistaken in my belief that children in very many other countries have a firm grasp of the grammar of their own language and yet also appear both more motivated to write and better at writing than children in Anglophone countries. These are empirical questions which I think would benefit from study, but before anyone rush to conduct a review of the evidence I think we should begin by trying to work out a plausible mechanism whereby knowing more about a subject made you worse at it.

And that leads us to the second question. In no other domain of knowledge (as far as I’m aware) does greater knowledge not translate to greater skill. The more you learn about the technicalities of cooking, the better you get at cooking. The more you find out about horticulture, the more motivated you are to tackle a spot of gardening. This is because building up schematic connections in long-term memory increase our capacity to think about what we know. The more we know, the better we think; the less we know, the less we are able to think.

Imagine if research found that being taught the Highway Code made was making no impact on driving ability. What we conclude? That the Highway Code was a load a rubbish and that drivers shouldn’t be burdened with it? Or that, perhaps, drivers were not actually learning the Highway Code because it was being taught ineffectively? For my money, the problem with research that suggests that knowing more about grammar does not translate to better writing is at once obviously right and obviously wrong.

It’s obviously right because why would being able to identify a subordinate clause in a multiple choice question make you better at writing stories? To take a well-worn example, being able to identify a fronted adverbial and then being told to begin sentences with fronted adverbials can lead to some horrifically poor writing! Being taught to identify subordinate clauses and use fronted adverbials instead of doing something more meaningful and interesting might very well be demotivating. But this, I would argue, is a poor substitute for good grammar teaching. No one would argue with the statement that being taught grammar badly has “negligible positive effects” and a “negative impact on pupils’ motivation”. But being taught anything badly is a mistake. What kind of idiot would judge the effects of ineffective maths teaching and conclude that all maths teaching is a waste of time?

The finding that being taught grammatical knowledge does not affect the ability to write is obviously wrong because there’s no plausible explanation to explain knowing more about grammar and syntax wouldn’t improve your ability to write. If we at least tentatively accept that the problem is unlikely to be with children knowing more, this indicates we ought to consider how grammar is taught. The point of good grammar teaching is that the focus is on mastery rather than familiarity. Grammatical knowledge is – like times table knowledge and number bonds – the sort of knowledge that we should seek to automatise. If you have to think about subject-verb agreement or conjugation then you have less working memory capacity to think about more interesting things. If you know these things well enough, you no longer have to think about them, you just know them. I can parse most sentences fairly instantaneously because I have automatised a good bit of grammatical knowledge. I never have to think about what class a word is, I just know. This means I have more space to think about meaning, impact and structure. If I do want to think analytically about a phrase or clause, I have explicit knowledge to bring to bear on my analysis, making it easier to chunk information into already memorised vocabulary items.

In this post I explained the crucial “difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” Just knowing a grammatical term is mostly useless: I know many people who understand so little about the term ‘verb’ that they define it as ‘a doing word’. This lack of understanding leads to obvious problems when children are asked to identify the verb in a sentence like, “I went for a run.”

If the ambition of grammar teaching is for children to know these terms so well that they don’t have to think about them, then it’s hard to believe that any research could ever show this to be undesirable. Further, those children who are most disadvantaged are the ones most likely to come to school lacking an implicit knowledge of grammar. By refusing to teach grammar explicitly we will privilege the already privileged and further disadvantage the disadvantaged.

In a TES interview, Professor Wyse says this:

If I’m being really kind, I’d say current policy is well-meaning, but nevertheless ideologically driven ideas about how children should be taught… I don’t think these things are ever about people not caring. But there’s a risk that young people won’t learn to write as well as they could do – and that’s quite bad, isn’t it?”

To paraphrase: If I’m being really kind I’d say that the objections to grammar teaching offered by Professor Wyse are well meaning, but nevertheless ideologically driven ideas about how children should be taught. I don’t think these things are ever about people not caring. But there’s a risk that young people won’t learn to write as well as they could do – and that’s quite bad, isn’t it?

41 Responses to Can grammar teaching improve pupils’ writing?

  1. darg1 says:

    Intriguing. I shall have to go and look at the various items of research you provide links for herein. However I am not sure that you can yet justify your claim -“If I’m being really kind I’d say that the objections to grammar teaching offered by Professor Wyse are well meaning, but nevertheless ideologically driven ideas about how children should be taught.” – until you can demonstrate that the research he is using to arrive at his postion is flawed.
    There must be diminishing returns on the impact of extra knowledge regarding improving one’s performance in certain fields at least. It is useful to know that self raising flour is needed for particular cakes but if I have to spend ages reading up about what exactly goes on at a chemical / physical level if I substitute plain flour then I might lose the will to bake.

  2. Rachel says:

    I’ve discovered that I talk more and more about grammar as I become more familiar with it. I used to be able to work out that a child’s writing was boring and repetitive, but without the language of grammar, I couldn’t easily explain how. Now I might suggest using some pronouns instead repeating the noun so often. I think phonics teaching is leading the way here: by being able to use a language to describe spelling, we can teach spelling better. With grammar, we can discuss why a sentence works well/badly by talking about grammar. It simplifies our explanations. But I suspect confident, enthusiastic teachers make all the difference.

  3. dodiscimus says:

    The problem here, I suspect (and I’m no expert on this area), is that a systematic review of international research probably does show that teaching grammar has negligible positive effects on secondary pupil’s writing. It certainly looks that way from the summaries of the original research in the reviews cited.

    However, without digging deep and hard into the original studies, I think there is always the possibility that the review favours results it prefers, either by bias in selection, weighting that’s not justified by study quality, or dubious interpretation of study findings. Here is a good example of the problem http://www.straighttalkonevidence.org/2017/11/27/how-official-evidence-reviews-can-make-ineffective-programs-appear-effective/

    On the other hand, if you say that teaching grammar improves knowledge and therefore must improve writing, and then suggest that studies that don’t show this are probably due to poor teaching of grammar, you get an unfalsifiable position, don’t you?

    It seems possible to me that although teaching grammar improves knowledge of writing it might do so at the cost of doing something else that improves writing more. For example, those reviews have quite a lot of reference to studies showing interventions using sentence-combining being more effective than traditional grammar teaching. I have very little anecdotal evidence to draw on, and you have lots. I certainly don’t know enough to offer a position on whether or not teaching grammar is a good idea. However, I’m not convinced by your argument on this occasion.

    Best wishes

    • David Didau says:

      I’m not sure my position *is* unfalsifiable: surely all you’d need to do was to evaluate the effects of a grammar teaching approach I approved of 🙂

      Essentially, my argument is supported by what we know about how the mind works and studies in cognitive load theory. I stand by my argument that you would need to show a plausible mechanism for why grammar teacher might lead to worse writing before you go about conducting systematic reviews.

      • Michael Pye says:

        It was getting a bit circular David. The result doesn’t match our theory therefore the results are wrong. We have enough of that kind of thing already without adding to it.

        I did like your argument (but I would), and I would really like someone to dig into the reviews in more detail. In particular where is the evidence for disenfranchisement of students? (in comparison to other approaches).
        Where there any grammatical terms that seemed to be having a beneficial effect?
        ( For example at the sentence level as that was more positively reviewed).

        I agree it doesn’t seem to meet our expectations but it could be correct due to simple opportunity cost. The increased load and delivery time of grammar vocabulary Vs more time focusing on writing examples (or other approach).

        • David Didau says:

          It *could* be the case that teaching grammar leads to an opportunity cost where resources are diverted from more profitable ways of teaching writing, but my experience as an English teacher and working with English teachers from many different settings is that a great many English lessons are wasted on pointless guff.

  4. Blah says:

    I’m surprised that you find this surprising. The naming of parts approach to teaching English is misguided because English is so much more. It’s like Gradgrind trying to teach Sissy Jupe (a circus performer’s daughter) about horses. No, for Sissy Jupe a horse is not a “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” This is Bitser’s definition of a horse which meets Gradgrind’s approval but that’s because Gradgrind is ‘A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir-peremptorily Thomas-Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.’

    Who knows more about horses? Gradgrind? Or Sissy?

    You can know the highway code inside out but be a hopeless driver because driving is more than a collection of facts. Knowing the highway code might help once you are motivated to drive but let’s face it who looks back at it once they’ve passed their driving test? And yes, you need to know speed limits, but it’s not the highway code you’re going to turn to when you need to parallel park or avoid a pile up on the motorway.

    Now, I’m a bit of a grammar geek. In fact, I love grammar. But I loved English first. I loved reading and I loved writing. I picked up an extensive vocabulary and an implicit understanding of sophisticated grammatical constructions long before (decades before) I could name them. Doing A Level French and beginning French at university gave me a pretty good grounding in the grammatical terms that I hadn’t been able to name and hadn’t needed to name as a child and even as an A Level student and then teaching A Level English Language consolidated my knowledge. Knowing these terms has not made me a better writer or reader and it is as nonsensical to assume that knowing grammatical terms is going to make one a better reader or writer as it is to think that knowing how many teeth a horse has will make you a better rider.

    I have loved English since I can remember. I grew up in a reading household, was read to as a child, was fated (doomed) to be an English teacher. But I sometimes wonder whether I would have loved it and whether I would have had as deep and instinctive understanding of grammar or anything else if I had gone through the curriculum as it is now.

    Unless you are a linguist then grammar is probably the least interesting aspect of a text but the SpaG tests and recent approaches to English have caused children to see it as the most important aspect hence my student wanting to identify and discuss word classes in ‘The Tempest’ instead of well, instead of absolutely anything else about it. Very few real world writers or critics would ever identify and comment on word classes, fronted adverbials or the structure of passages of text arbitrarily extrapolated to suit examination papers. It is interesting when you can say how the grammar contributes the bigger picture but too often pupils haven’t got the skills to spot or enjoy the bigger picture or to correctly identify the way in which the grammar contributes to it. It’s like trying to say something meaningful about a single blob of paint in a painting. It’s also something that children are now taught they can get ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when real life grammar doesn’t and has never worked like that.

    • David Didau says:

      “I’m surprised that you find this surprising. The naming of parts approach to teaching English is misguided because English is so much more.”

      I’m surprised you think it’s important that it might be helpful to be able to name the clutch and gears stick when driving is so much more more.
      I’m surprised you think it’s important that it might be helpful to be able to name oregano and basil when cookery is so much more more.
      I’m surprised you think it’s important that it might be helpful to be able to name tectonic plates and oxbow lakes stick when geography is so much more more.

      Repeat ad nauseam.

    • As I recall, Grandgrind is a great one for only teaching children things that are “relevant” to their lives. He is a very progressive teacher in that respect.

      And I would bet good money that the children in his classes would learn more about horses from him during them, than from Sissy. It is hard to teach anyone anything when you have only tacit knowledge of it.

  5. Sara says:

    You do realise that this is part of the problem with the phonics debate as well .. at least it’s the only reason I can figure out. Being unaware of how words are built, how stems are turned into different classes or tenses by adding prefix or suffix and how these function, must make it hard to comprehend why accurate grapheme phoneme knowledge is so crucial.

  6. I think the question is what constitutes “good” teaching of grammar. Studies going back a century have indeed shown that teaching grammar — in the sense of teaching the parts of speech and rules in the abstract — have no positive impact on students’ writing. Some studies have even shown a negative impact. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to teach grammar. As a previous commenter has pointed out, there’s evidence that sentence combining is effective. More fundamentally, we need to teach grammar IN THE CONTEXT OF STUDENTS’ OWN WRITING. Rules of grammar and parts of speech are simply too abstract for many students.

    As for the idea that students in non-English-speaking countries are more conversant with grammatical concepts, I think it might depend on the level of education of the students. I too have taught English as a second language — to adults, many of whom had low levels of education. I doubt that many of them were able to identify a present participle or the like in their native languages. On the other hand, many did appreciate a clear explanation of English grammar rules. But that wasn’t enough — they actually needed to try to use those rules, make mistakes, be corrected, and try again. Indeed, writing conventions do need to become automatic for students, and it can be useful to have names for at least some of them. But they won’t become automatic if students simply read or hear about them.

    I think that’s true as well of many of the analogies offered in the post. Yes, the more you learn about the technicalities of cooking, the better you will get as a cook. But how do you learn those “technicalities”? Simply by reading a cookbook? Or by actually trying to make the recipes?

    Some might object that it’s impossible for teachers to correct all the grammar mistakes students make in their own writing. But it’s quite possible if you begin at the sentence level rather than with longer pieces of writing that may be riddled with errors. For more on that approach — and for an overview of an approach to teaching writing that simultaneously develops writing skill (including the use of grammar and conventions), content knowledge, and analytical abilities — you may want to check out the book The Writing Revolution (of which I am a co-author).

    • David Didau says:

      I don’t agree that we necessarily need to teach grammar in the context of children’s own writing. I think this approach is likely to overload working memory and embed bad habits. I’ve written about this here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/english-gcse/glamour-grammar/

      To say “Rules of grammar and parts of speech are simply too abstract for many students” is to damn them with low expectations. These things are no more abstract than phoneme/grapheme relationships and can be automatised in the same sort of way. The point I tried to make in the post is that if children know this stuff well enough, they don’t *have* to think about it.

      You appear to agree that “the more you learn about the technicalities of cooking, the better you will get as a cook.” But then go on to present a false dichotomy. We need to read cook books *and* practice following recipes. But most amateur cooks are only really able to follow the recipes of others. Few cooks understand the technicalities of cooking sufficiently well to design their own recipes beyond mere imitation.

      I have a copy of your book, although I’ve not started reading it yet. Thanks for the prompt.

      • Delighted to hear that you have a copy of the book, and I think you may find that we don’t disagree significantly in the approaches we would take.

        But I do feel the need to respond to parts of your comment above. I said that “rules of grammar and parts of speech are simply too abstract for many students,” and your comment was that I was “damning them with low expectations.” I would say that on the contrary, I (and others at The Writing Revolution) have extremely high expectations for what students who currently struggle with writing are capable of doing — IF they get the right kind of explicit instruction. “High expectations” mean nothing if teachers don’t provide students with the support they need to meet them.

        The real problem, as I see it, is that we have been underestimating what a difficult task writing is for most students. The analogy of the “cooking technicalities” may be an apt one — and my own earlier use of it somewhat off-base. The fact is that we DO ask students to “design their own recipes beyond mere imitation” every time we ask them to write something independently — a level of ability that, as you acknowledge, is unlikely to arise simply from reading a cookbook.

        Yes, we need to embed aspects of writing in students’ long-term memories so that their working memories aren’t overwhelmed — I totally agree with you there. But that means selecting a few key grammatical concepts and terms, teaching them explicitly, and then having students use them repeatedly in sentences of their own devising that are rooted in the content they’re studying, with prompt and targeted feedback from a teacher.

        And — as the book explains — it’s really not that difficult to teach grammar in the context of students’ own writing, if you begin at the sentence level. It works very well, and we have seen it done repeatedly.

        • David Didau says:

          Sorry I used the phrase “damning them with low expectations”. That was unworthy. I’m sure you do have the highest of intentions for your students. What I should have said is that leaning the names of a limited number of grammatical concepts is actually a fairly straightforward exercise. Students have to learn abstract vocabulary all over the place in school and it can feel very daunting. However, once they’ve learned it, thinking and talking about new concepts becomes easier. To that extent I think it’s worth the effort to select items of high tariff meta language to teach.

          You might also find some of the sentence level work I’ve done complements some of the ideas in your book: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/english-gcse/art-sentences/

    • Michael Pye says:

      It is on my window sill Natalie. It is sharing my attention with Steven Pinkers Words and Rules. Your book makes more and more sense everytime I come back to it.

  7. There is an assumption floating around here that ‘grammar’ (as defined by the grammar in the GPS test (as it is now called) is the one key piece of knowledge about language that children need to know. Why would that be? People studying writing over the last fifty years have created several fields, several areas of ‘knowledge’ if you like e.g. narratology, stylistics and pragmatics.

    Narratology studies and describes how writing is narrated, stylistics addresses many elements of style some of which include grammar, and pragmatics focusses on dialogue.

    Why single out ‘grammar’ from this knowledge base? It is no more ‘nuts and bolts’ or ‘essential’ than these fields, some of which can be accessed very well through imitation and investigation?

    • David Didau says:

      I don’t assume that grammar “as defined by the grammar in the GPS test” is “the one key piece of knowledge about language that children need to know”. In fact I think much of this knowledge might be unhelpful. I have explicitly set out here what aspects of grammar I believe it is important for children to know well: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/writing/why-study-grammar/

      Grammar is singled out because it’s the most controversial aspect of those things some people believe we should teach people.

  8. By the way, the historic reason why grammar (as defined by the old ‘O-level’ exams) was abolished from secondary schools , lies in the stats sitting in the heart of the DfE somewhere. This showed that there was no correlation between the scores on the grammar question and the scores for ‘composition’ (writing a story or essay). They had 20 years of thousands of exam candidates as their sample.

    • David Didau says:

      As I’ve said, *simply* knowing the name of a thing is no substitute for knowing it. It is but a prelude for being able to think about the thing with greater clarity. But for all that the idea that there would be *no* correlation between grammatical knowledge and composition seems surprising since there’s a great deal of evidence that ability in most things tends to correlate. I’d love to have a look at some of this data – do you know how it might be possible to get hold of it?

  9. I agree with you, David, and I think you make as strong a case for grammar teaching as any I’ve read. The ‘debate’ about grammar teaching reminds me of the ‘debate’ about Brexit – full of straw men, non-facts and insularity. The fact is that the anglophone countries (not just the UK) all stopped teaching grammar in the 1970s, but (pace Michael Rosen) it wasn’t just because of statistical evidence – it was much more because the universities weren’t giving future teachers the intellectual underpinnings they needed, so the teaching was getting worse and worse. Then the research came along and killed it off.

    One of the flaws in the debate is the assumed unique link between grammar teaching and writing: the only reason for teaching about grammar is to improve writing. What about reading and foreign languages? Take away the link to writing and you lose the daft idea that grammar must be taught in the context of writing (which is like teaching arithmetic only in the context of physics experiments). What children need is a solid understanding of grammar and standard grammatical terminology which teachers can then build on in teaching writing, reading, foreign languages and several other imaginable school subjects.

    You rightly say that grammar is taught in many other countries. If you want evidence for this claim, you’ll find a great deal of information about other countries at http://teach-grammar.com/geography .

    Best wishes, Dick Hudson

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Dick – good points. You’re right to say that English grammar is worth teaching for its own sake not simply as a means to improve written expression. Although, Englemann’s Expressive Writing scheme takes this approach very explicitly and has an impressive evidence base.

  10. Blah says:

    ‘I’m surprised you think it’s important that it might be helpful to be able to name oregano and basil when cookery is so much more more.’

    Oh, that’s ridiculous. Yes, I need to know what a can of tomatoes is if I am making a pasta sauce (although actually as a busy working mother I am more likely to use a jar of mixed herbs than fresh basil and oregano, sorry). Do I need to know what a veloute or a brulee is at the age of 10 in order to make fairy cakes? No. Do I need to know the exact ratio of flour to sugar in order to enjoy the cake that somebody else has made?

    In fact this analogy just supports my case. As with anything, we should teach children what they need to know in an age appropriate way.

    Knowing ‘sentences’ and ‘paragraphs’ at age 10 is necessary. Begin able to identify a ‘fronted adverbial’ is not. Prioritising the learning and identification of grammatical terms over other aspects of English is unhelpful at best and counterproductive at worst. It is not the way to switch them on to English any more than being able to name herbs and spices would switch kids on to cookery. Leave the ‘Can you identify this obscure vegetable?’ for Masterchef.

    Start with the basics and add when children have demonstrated basic competence and (more importantly) enthusiasm!

    • David Didau says:

      So, you want to condemn children to making fairy cakes? Or only eating other people’s cakes? This is everything that’s wrong with education: you disproportionately condemn the least advantaged with your low expectations.

      • Blah says:

        You’re deliberately misunderstanding me to defend your position and you are very, very wrong to suggest that I have ‘low expectations’ (honestly you think that because I would rather my students could appreciate Prospero’s role in the ‘Tempest’ or the theme of magic or power than spot the definite article this means I have ‘low expectations’? Really? So Gradgrind condemns Sissy Jupe ‘Girl number 20 unable to define a horse’).

        There is nothing wrong with fairy cakes so there is no ‘condemnation’ involved – I still enjoy both making and eating them and the fact that I made and ate fairy cakes in primary school has not prevented me from learning and appreciating more advanced culinary skills later in life. Learning how to make fairy cakes and the ingredients that go in them may well be seen as the first step to introducing children to good cooking. I do not think that teaching children to identify a kohlrabi (the culinary equivalent of a fronted adverbial) and teaching children that identifying ingredients and even being able to comment on their particular effect in a meal would be many people’s idea of a good way to introduce children to cooking. There is no point in being able to identify kohlrabi or teaching children to roll sushi or make a roast dinner if they can’t mix butter and sugar or don’t enjoy eating fresh food in the first place.

        For your information, my ‘low expectations’ have recently got a kid into Oxford, the first in his family to go to university from a single parent family in a council estate in a deprived town. Do you know what switched him on to English? Not a fronted adverbial (very much suspect he couldn’t define or identify one), it was opening the door to literature. Breaking down books into naming parts does not encourage a love of reading any more than being able to identify a kohlrabi makes you a good cook.

  11. Blah says:

    I would say the most important thing about teaching cooking or gardening (at school age, I’m not talking about Masterchef) is 1.) appreciation and 2.) a sense of accomplishment – DOING it.

    The idea that anybody would start developing either subject WITH CHILDREN by naming some of the more complex ingredients/plants is utterly incomprehensible to me.

    It speaks of a fundamental lack of understanding of English or appreciation of it.

    Gradgrind can tell you how many teeth the horse has got but can’t ride one, stroke one, enjoy one.

    I’ve seen students at all levels when given a text go straight for the use of ‘the definite article’. Honestly they think being able to give the correct name to ‘the’ is the best way to approach a poem for the first time!! I’ve been teaching for a long time. This is new and it’s soul destroying.

    • David Didau says:

      This is a straw man. No one has argued that one thing must precede another except you. Why would you assume that someone who values the teaching of grammar must therefore not value other aspects of English teaching?

      It’s also naive to think that appreciation and enthusiasm comes from nowhere. They are a function of knowledge: the more you know about the art of writing, the more you can appreciate. As they mature and children begin to recognise that their writing is hamstrung by their inability to spell, punctuate, construct interesting sentences and convey complex ideas they quickly lose the childish enthusiasm they may have had then younger. It’s a bit like concluding that being taught perspective would get int he way of children’s enthusiasm for painting: if they don’t receive this kind of technical instruction at some point then they’ll begin to compare their art with that of more knowledgeable others and conclude they’re rubbish.

      The reason children “go straight for the use of ‘the definite article’” when analysing a poem is because they don’t know *enough* about grammar. If all you know is terminology then that is all you can think about. I don’t think anyone believes that is a good idea.

  12. Blah says:

    ‘No one has argued that one thing must precede another except you’

    The way the curriculum is now structured prioritises grammar (and a very particular approach to grammar) over and above reading and writing whole texts. The Sp&G test at KS2 and the way the curriculum is geared up to this is evidence of this.

    It is also understanding where children are in their development. They simply do not need to know the names for more complex grammatical ideas at aged 10 – these do become a barrier to enjoying and understanding the more important aspects of English at that age.

    ‘The reason children “go straight for the use of ‘the definite article’” when analysing a poem is because they don’t know *enough* about grammar’

    Do you still teach? I mean actually day in and day out in the classroom as opposed to flying in and telling people how it’s done?

    It’s not because they don’t know enough about grammar. They know far more than I did at that age. It’s because the curriculum has encouraged them to value grammar over more important aspects of English. Kids have come to see grammar as synonymous with English. Same way they have learned to misunderstand ‘structure’ as picking out something from the beginning, middle and end of a passage extracted from a literary text by an examiner and not a writer.

    It’s a horrible way to teach and learn English. And the reduction of kids taking English at A Level and fact that reading and writing skills aren’t actually improving is evidence of this.

    Not to mention the kids that can happily identify subordinate clauses and comment on their effect in a sentence but think that’s more important than character or theme or viewpoint.

    • David Didau says:

      Well, countering my assertion with your own is of limited use. I think you’re wrong. Clearly you think I’m wrong. Do please feel free not to burden yourself with reading my blog.

  13. Blah says:

    ‘It’s also naive to think that appreciation and enthusiasm comes from nowhere.’
    Who is this naive? Not me. I am saying that appreciation and enthusiasm for English does not come from teaching kids how to spot a fronted adverbial at age 8 or 9.
    Having said that, there is now a breed of kids who does enjoy doing this and thinks this is what English is.

    • Michael Pye says:

      Blah please stay, however consider focusing on your reasoning rather then personal anecdotes. It would make it easier to read and help avoid the idiological clashing, as well as helping to reduce unnecessary strawmen.

  14. petertomkins says:

    It is interesting how emotive grammar is. In my humble opinion I think it boils down to this conundrum:
    – I completed A Level English (Literature – there was no Language then), an English Degree, my PGCE, six years of teaching and becoming a second in English before I started teaching English Language A Level and thought I’d better learn some grammar
    – Most English teachers are the same – although my daughter has an English Language degree and is doing ITT training at the moment (but feels less prepared for the subject than the others on her course who have English Literature degrees)
    – The low level of grammar knowledge on the part of many English teachers has meant that grammar teaching initiatives have been delivered by people who lack confidence in their grammar knowledge
    – Is it any wonder, therefore, that the impact of teaching grammar on writing is minimal at best.

    It is a little like the French and Spanish conundrum: Spanish is an easier and more useful language to learn than French – but as all schools teach French – more or less – we have a dearth of Spanish teachers. In the same way English teachers have been through a system which doesn’t prepare them to teach grammar.

    As an aside we were short staffed in English and overstaffed in MFL and so, rather than ask the MFL staff to teach English, have created a Literacy and Oracy lesson where they teach a mix of oracy skills – with some drama specialists – and grammar. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  15. Matt says:

    Very interesting post. A couple of points regarding the questions you raise and a question about context:

    1. Why would neither of these claims hold true for other languages?

    Is there research suggesting that teacher grammar does improve writing in other languages? If there is this would strongly question the findings of Wyse and Torgerson.

    2. Why would neither of these claims hold true for any other domain?

    The difference I see between knowledge of written grammar and knowledge in many other domains is that written grammatical knowledge is, to large part, taken from the morpho-syntactic knowledge already learnt through learning verbal language. The difference between verbal and written language to me seems more one of representational format, different additional mechanisms of production and processing and some more constrained/formalised grammatical rules (?) in writing. It’s difficult to think of other domains of knowledge that share such overlapping functional knowledge in the same way that verbal and written language do. Perhaps learning to drive in a car and then using that knowledge when you learn to drive a van? Not a great analogy but perhaps you can see what I’m trying to say. What do you think?

    I wonder how much of the value of teaching grammar is to do with context. Is it more valuable for certain types of writing, rather than it being valuable for all types of writing? If so, perhaps the work that Wyse and Torgerson discuss isn’t sensitive enough to tease apart any contextual differences?

  16. Jen says:

    I will be back to add more when I have free time but anyone contributing to this thread would find this book interesting… The War Against Grammar

    https://www.amazon.com/War-Against-Grammar-CrossCurrents/dp/0867095512

  17. […] my last post I discussed evidence that suggests grammar teaching does not lead to an improvement in […]

  18. […] 2. Can grammar teaching improve pupils’ writing?, by David Didau […]

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