The text below appears in Syntax in the Schools 17.2 (Winter 2001),

the journal of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG)

Grammar Teaching and the Development of Writing Skills in the UK:

an LAGB Linguistics at School Session1

Anthea Fraser Gupta, University of Leeds

Susan Barry, University of Manchester

Richard Hudson, University College London

Ewa Jaworska, University of Essex

For nearly twenty years, the rationale for the teaching of English grammar in schools has been an issue on the British public arena. At the end of the 20th century, grammar flared up on the political stage when the New Labour government asserted that explicit knowledge of grammar had significant bearing on the development of pupilsí writing skills and, based on that assertion, designed an English syllabus. Within a year, in the autumn of 1998, grammatical analysis became the central point of the National Literacy Strategy (DfEE 1998). This is an integrated syllabus for the teaching of reading and writing within the curriculum for English in Englandís primary schools, for 5-11 year-olds. The National Literacy Strategy suggests methods of teaching, and of timetabling, and groups language teaching into analysis at three levels: the word, the sentence and the text. Specific analytic terms and approaches are prescribed for these three levels, and linked to years and terms of schooling. This is part of the Governmentís education policy, and it is receiving substantial amounts of additional state funding. Whether it is seen as a success, depends on primary school leavers hitting higher target grades in their English writing tests in Summer 2002.

This development re-ignited academic interest in the assumption about the relation between explicit grammar teaching and the development of writing skills. A large-scale literature survey carried out by Richard Hudson established that while there was a lack of conclusive empirical evidence in this area, 'the idea that grammar teaching improves children's writing skills is much better supported by the available research than is commonly supposed' (Hudson 2000: 4).

The issue came into focus at the Autumn Meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB), held at the University of Durham in September 2000, at a two-hour session in the Linguistics at School series organised by the Association's Education Committee. The remainder of the present article is a report from the event.

The underlying idea for the session was to provide a platform not so much for the presentation of more research on the topic as an exchange of views and evidence of practitioners in the field in front of a mixed audience of linguists not normally concerned with linguistics at school and those who provide courses for trainee teachers in higher education institutions. The session was also open to teachers and other interested professionals from outside the LAGB.

In front of such an audience was a panel of three specially selected speakers: Jim Crinson (Head Teacher and English teacher, Collingwood Primary School, North Shields), Geoff Barton (Deputy Head and secondary school English teacher, Thurston Community College, Suffolk) and Raphael Salkie (School of Languages, University of Brighton, responsible for a grammar course for trainee school teachers at the University's Education Department). Their brief was to give views on the session's main topic from their respective experiences in primary school, secondary school and higher education/teacher training. The presentations were followed by general discussion.

The specific aims of the session were:

The session seemed timely: grammar had now been firmly embedded in the primary school curriculum: the National Literacy Strategy had been running for nearly two years, and a similar framework (DfEE 2000a) was about to begin to be piloted nationally at the first stage of selected secondary schools (ages 11-14). The session also preceded the distribution to all primary schools of an official teaching resource Grammar for writing (DfEE 2000b), whose focus is on sentence-level analysis in relation to shared writing classroom activities.

In their presentations, both Crinson and Barton (who have published on the subject of grammar teaching, e.g. Crinson 1977-99; Barton 1999, 2000, 2001) were in agreement that grammar should be taught in an active way, primarily in the context of pupils' own writing and rewriting, rather than as a separate subject involving manipulations of decontextualised sentences. The latter may be appropriate only for the most able pupils and serve to refine their already high-level competence in writing. Reading and listening to a variety of printed texts such as instructions, police reports and fiction is also of some value, and analysing printed texts can be useful too as a separate activity - but only as a preamble to pupils' own writing and rewriting. The most dramatic result of explicit instruction in grammar has been observed in less able pupils when they are guided through experimenting with sentence length and variety: short vs. long sentences, coordination and subordination, or full sentences vs. sentence fragments in relation to stylistic effect such as clarity of instructions or raising tension in the opening of a thriller. Attention to punctuation in its relation to grammatical structure (e.g. parenthetical commas for non-restrictive relative clauses) can also be beneficial. Vital to these activities is a judicious use of specialist grammatical terminology and the level of detail of its presentation. In parallel with other curriculum subjects, notably science, technical grammatical terms should be used regularly and without apology, and so should simplifications of the properties of linguistic constructs.

Salkie focused on the nature of (prospective) teachers' knowledge about grammar and the issues that need to be confronted in developing their analytic skills. Assuming that teachers' explicit knowledge should be more sophisticated than pupils', the use of standard grammar textbooks - such as derivatives of Quirk et al. 1985, for example, Newby 1987 and Crystal 1996 - has been the usual practice. However, there are a number of problems with such textbooks: they do not distinguish clearly and systematically between structural and functional concepts, their coverage is sometimes limited to simple sentences, and they make little provision for preparing the students to analyse the complexities of sentences in real texts. Courses are sometimes limited to 10-12 hours in total and much material has to be learned in students' own time. In addition, because - at present - British students generally have no prior experience of English grammar, they approach its study with prejudice and apprehension.

Salkie was emphatic in highlighting the need to identify the grammatical concepts that would be most useful to support the teaching of writing, which is the stated aim of teaching grammar in schools, primary schools in particular. Clearly, however, the standard textbooks and courses do not equip teachers for this purpose. He suggested that one possible approach to developing relevant textbooks would be to examine some of the excellent guides to effective writing (e.g. Strunk and White 1979, Gowers 1986 and Turk and Kirkman 1989), and to identify the terms they single out in their advice for writers. He acknowledged a problem, however, which is that these guides tend to focus on technical, scientific and administrative prose rather than on creative writing, and they therefore emphasize simplicity and clarity whereas teachers might want to encourage more complex forms of expression. It is, thus, necessary for material to be developed specifically to meet the needs of trainee teachers. One should bear in mind, however, that their curriculum space is too limited for a comprehensive study of grammar and that, in any case, they do not need to learn as much about the grammatical system as budding linguists do.

The ensuing discussion showed that there was general agreement that explicit teaching of grammar will help some (perhaps most) pupils to improve their written English. This followed from the presentations of Crinson and Barton - teachers competent and confident in their practices - and Salkie, who raised objections to 'traditional' grammar teaching without denying the usefulness of the teaching of grammar of some kind. The agreement also followed from the general thrust of the research evidence summarised in Hudson 2000 (circulated in advance of the meeting).

The discussion also showed that we do not yet appear to know what specific metalinguistic knowledge (terms for talking about language) is most needed by the pupils in their development into competent writers. Nor do we really know how much more than the pupils their teachers have to know in order to help them. A clear indication of progression of learning is needed here.

Finally, the discussion revealed that there is a continuing need for linguists to be involved in at least the following areas:

The main impetus for the National Literacy Strategy was a political one, but the discussion at the Durham session suggests that there is wide support for the general aim of teaching grammar both to children and their teachers. The complex linguistic and pedagogic issues involved show that the only effective way of helping to achieve the desired results in both grammar teaching and in the associated teaching of writing is collaboration between linguists, teachers and educationalists.


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