A brief history of grammar teaching in England.

You may wonder why grammar teaching has been out of fashion for some time, and why it has come back. The following very brief history may help you to put the recent history into context. Click here for more details about developments in the twentieth century.

  • The ancient world took grammar teaching very seriously as a foundation for instruction in writing skills - hence the link between the word grammar and the Greek gramma, 'written character'. Another perceived benefit was for thinking skills, where grammar was paired with logic and rhetoric.
  • The 18th century developed prescriptive grammar teaching, and tried to analyse English grammar as though it was the same as Latin grammar. Grammar teaching in school was mainly about (a) Latin and (b) avoiding 'errors' in English.
  • The 19th century developed historical linguistics as an important university research subject, with heavy emphasis on how languages are related but little impact on school grammar teaching. Meanwhile, English literature, in the struggle to establish itself as a university subject, saw language as its competitor for the title 'English'.
  • The early 20th century saw a steady decline in the quality of grammar teaching in English schools, and increasing calls for its abandonment. One reason for this decline was the complete lack of university-level research on English grammar, which led a government report in 1921 to conclude that [it is] “…impossible at the present juncture to teach English grammar in the schools for the simple reason that no one knows exactly what it is…”. Another reason was an energetic campaign on behalf of literature, presented as a liberal and liberating alternative to the the so-called 'grammar-grind'.
  • The later 20th century (from about 1960) saw two competing trends.
    • Most schools stopped teaching grammar in English (and somewhat later in MFL); meanwhile, Latin teaching had largely died out too, so pupils no longer had any systematic instruction in grammar. This is the educational background of most young English teachers.
    • English grammar became an important research subject, partly driven by the overseas publishing market in English as a Foreign Language and partly by the intellectual impetus of theoretical linguistics. Most universities now have a department of Linguistics or of English Language where undergraduates study English grammar. This is the research background of the 'modern grammar' espoused by the KS3 Strategy.
  • The end of the 20th century (from about 1990) reversed the anti-grammar trends in school through a series of major reports on the perceived shortcomings of English teaching (which was clearly failing in its major task of teaching literacy). These reports all followed the first one (the Bullock Report of 1975) in replacing traditional grammar with a much more defensible kind of grammar which should be:
    1. a form of grammar which can describe language in use;
    2. relevant to all levels from the syntax of sentences through to the organisation of substantial texts;
    3. able to describe the considerable differences between spoken and written English;
    4. part of a wider “syllabus of language study”.
    Central government decided to promote the teaching of grammar (though different ministers clearly had very different ideas of what this meant) as part of a drive to improve literacy standards. This decision is:
    • controversial, because grammar teaching has had such a bad press for such a long time;
    • challenging, because it really involves the introduction of a new subject rather than a simple re-instatement of an existing one, with all that this means for syllabus design and for teacher support.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it has been all too easy to misunderstand the introduction of 'modern' grammar as the re-introduction of 'traditional' grammar, which is why the KS3 Strategy team asked me to write this explanation.

Further reading