Research questions ‘extensive’ focus on grammar

Grammar teaching approach does not improve Year 2 pupils’ writing, finds study
2nd March 2022, 12:00am


Research questions ‘extensive’ focus on grammar
cartoon of people pointing out grammar mistakes on giant paper

New findings call into question whether “extensive” grammar teaching is helping pupils’ writing, according to researchers.

The UCL and University of York academics say today’s findings, on one grammar teaching approach, match previous studies ”which do not provide enough robust support for extensive grammar teaching as the best way to improve writing”.

They are calling for an in-depth review of the grammar requirements in England’s national curriculum to ensure pupils receive “the teaching of writing they deserve”.

The findings published today are an evaluation of Englicious, a web-based resource for teachers, combining grammar teaching and links to writing. 

Englicious had “effectively no impact” on Year 2 pupils’ narrative writing but could help pupils to generate sentences, according to the research paper published by academics at UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and the University of York, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

While the research did find that the grammar content of Englicious could be taught in a “more beneficial way”, it concluded that the “lack of robust research evidence” supporting the grammar requirements in England’s national curriculum was a “concern”.

The authors suggest the curriculum should focus more on what helps children to develop their writing skills at different points in development, using teaching approaches such as sentence combining, strategy instruction and emphasising the processes of writing.

Research trial

As part of the trial, 70 Year 2 teachers and 1,736 pupils were allocated at random to either receive the Englicious intervention programme (manualised for the trial) or their usual grammar teaching.

The teachers’ lessons in the Englicious classes differed from those in the “business as usual” control group classes because they linked the grammar teaching more closely with the pupils’ practising of writing - a feature of the Englicious approach. 

The results showed that, while children who were allocated the intervention programme had encouraging results when it came to generating sentences, there was no statistically significant improvement in their narrative writing. 

The pupils’ writing was tested by a narrative writing test and a sentence generation test before and after the end of the grammar intervention.

Their progress was measured first by a test of narrative writing (primarily through the Progress in English (PiE) test) and the second test through a bespoke Sentence Generation Test (SGT).

‘Unusually strong’ focus on grammar 

The teaching of grammar in primary schools became a key part of England’s national curriculum in 2014, which increased the attention on learning grammatical terms.

But the stronger emphasis on grammar has been met with criticism from some education academics.

UCL’s Professor Dominic Wyse, who co-authored today’s paper, said the move towards grammar in the 2014 curriculum “isn’t sufficiently based on research evidence about how children learn to write”.

England’s national curriculum requires children aged 6-7 to be taught grammatical terms such as noun phrase, statement, command and tense, while older primary school children have to learn terms such as subordinate clause, adverbial, modal verb, active and passive.

Professor Wyse told Tes: “There is an unusually strong focus on grammar and learning technical terms in England’s national curriculum compared to other curricula internationally”.

In a written statement, he said the lack of impact of grammar interventions on pupils’ writing raised questions about the grammar specifications in the national curriculum.

“Although teachers praised the Englicious intervention for its hands-on and interactive approach, our results match other experimental trials which do not provide enough robust support for extensive grammar teaching as the best way to improve writing,” he said.

Professor Wyse added: “Until an in-depth review of England’s national curriculum is undertaken, children are unlikely to be receiving the optimal evidence-based teaching of writing that they deserve.”

‘Positive effect on sentences’

Co-investigator Professor Bas Aarts (UCL English Language and Literature and Englicious lead) said the study had found some benefits to the Englicious approach.

He said: “The free resources on the Englicious website did help teachers to deliver the specifications of the national curriculum in an engaging way, and led to a positive effect on children’s ability to generate sentences by combining clauses.”

But, he added: “We would have liked, however, to have seen stronger evidence of the benefits of grammar teaching on children’s narrative writing and more must be done to help children learn to write.”

The authors suggested that further research should explore the “merits of the manipulation of words, phrases and sentences closely connected to other evidence-based practices for the teaching of writing, within grammar and writing lessons”.

Grammar ‘not just about literacy’

Professor Willem Hollmann, linguistics professor at Lancaster University, told Tes the findings on the effectiveness of Englicious were “disappointing” but “not entirely surprising”.

He added that the limited effect of the intervention was also not surprising given teachers’ prior knowledge of and training in grammar, and that more CPD was needed.

There may be value in grammar “from the perspective of education as developing a broad and engaged perspective on the world around us”, he added.

“In future considerations about the status of grammar in the national curriculum and in the evaluation of interventions such as Englicious, it would be useful to bear the broader importance of ‘language awareness’ in mind.

“Literacy is obviously very important but studying grammar should not necessarily be just a means to this end.”

Study ’raises more questions than it answers’

Debra Myhill, professor of education and director of the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter, said the study “raises more questions than it answers”. 

“The statistical results show no evidence that the teaching intervention improved either children’s narrative writing or their sentence generation,” she said.

Professor Myhill questioned why the Englicious teaching approach would ever have resulted in better narrative writing.

She said: “The teaching intervention itself focuses principally on teaching grammatical concepts, such as nouns or verbs, with a writing exercise which makes use of those grammatical concepts. 

“Crucially, there is no teaching of narrative writing. So one key question might be why would learning grammatical concepts and playing with them improve narrative writing? Why would knowing what a verb or a noun is improve your narrative writing?”

“We need to remember the complexity of writing and the multidimensional nature of writing. A teaching intervention might improve the accuracy of children’s spelling, an aspect of writing, but may have no overall effect on the judgement of a piece of narrative writing.”  

Professor Myhill added that it might be useful to look at these sub-components to better understand the complex processes of writing and teaching writing.

She also said that no question was asked about the children’s understanding of the grammar and their grammatical thinking, and that this could be an interesting line to pursue in further research.

Responding to the research paper, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “We continue to build on the progress we have made in raising literacy standards for all children, and have set an ambitious new target for 90 per cent of children to leave primary school in England having met the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030.

“Good grammar is central to achieving our target and that is why we have made it a fundamental part of the national curriculum at all key stages.”

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