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Belief in grammar is misplaced

Studies reveal that syntax lessons have very little influence on how children write. Jon Slater reports from the annual academic gathering

Teaching children grammar has virtually no effect on the quality or accuracy of their writing, the British Educational Research Association annual conference was told.

Dr Sue Beverton, from Durham university, said that the belief held by some teachers, newspaper editors and members of the public that grammar teaching was effective, was mistaken.

Research into the effect of teaching syntax, the correct way of ordering words in sentences, showed that other methods and theories, such as learning to write by writing, should be given greater credence, she said.

It remains to be seen whether there is sufficient time in the curriculum to teach syntax for its own sake, Dr Beverton said.

"The main implication of our findings is that there is no high-quality evidence that the teaching of grammar is worth the time if the aim is the improvement of the quality andor accuracy of written composition," she added.

The findings are the results of a study of existing research carried out for the government-backed evidence for policy and practice information and co-ordination centre (EPPI) at London university's institute of education.

Dr Beverton and her colleagues examined 4,566 potentially relevant papers.

The study claims to be the largest systematic review in the history of research on the topic.

Dr Beverton was speaking on the opening day of the 30th annual Bera conference in Manchester last week.

Further criticism of literacy teaching came from Wendy Jolliffe, from Hull university. Her study found that the national literacy strategy was not prescriptive enough and that teachers were not told about the learning theory that underpins it.

This left teachers following instructions without understanding the bigger picture, she said.

The conference was attended by around 1,500 academics from the UK and countries such as Malaysia, Jordan and New Zealand.

Research by Judith Ireson, from London university's institute of education, made headlines with its finding that more than a quarter of secondary pupils have had lessons with a private tutor. The research was based on interviews with more than 3,000 pupils.

Not all the papers presented to the three-day conference were so accessible.

Topics ranged from Lecturing at theology college: masculinity and forbearance to Pidgin English literacy in anglophone Cameroon secondary schools: realities, prospects and tensions.

Ruth Lupton, again from the institute of education, won the best dissertation prize for a study which found that the number of exams disadvantaged pupils were entered for varied hugely.

The (unofficial) award of paper title of the week went to Sue Waite and Bernie Davis of Plymouth university for Collaborating in order to collaborate on collaborative approaches: beliefs and barriers.

A close second was Those (interpretivists and post-modernists) who think educational research need not be scientific are quite mistaken: in defense of a currently unfashionable idea that all educational research is scientific which had its supporters among the academics at the conference dinner held at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United.

The effect of grammar teaching (syntax) in English on 5 to 16-year-olds'

accuracy and quality in written composition by Richard Andrews, Sue Beverton et al is available from the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre,

'write away' literary competition. see 8-page pull-out in teacher magazine

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