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Grammar: Over-simplifications by teachers 'hinder' pupils

There is more emphasis on 'grammatical acrobatics' than on good writing, according to a three-year study from the University of Exeter

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There is more emphasis on 'grammatical acrobatics' than on good writing, according to a three-year study from the University of Exeter

Classroom explanations of grammatical terms often only serve to confuse pupils, new research reveals.

Definitions such as “a verb is a doing word”, “an adjective is a describing word”, or “a relative clause is a comma sandwich” – often hinder pupils’ understanding of the underlying concepts, according to the three-year study by academics from the University of Exeter.  

Helen Lines, one of the study’s authors, said: “Quite often, those definitions rely on a surface part of the structure, rather than addressing the grammatical idea behind the terminology.”

For example, she said, the term “comma sandwich” merely indicates that a clause should be bordered by commas on either side. It does not reveal the function that a relative clause plays in a sentence.

The research also found that spelling, punctuation and grammar tests encourage pupils to use grammatical structures in order to pick up extra marks, rather than for effect.

Because grammar teaching tends to focus on the requirements of the curriculum, there is a tendency to talk about “deploying” grammatical structures, according to the findings.

“The key stage 2 teacher assessment creates a sense that good writing is about demonstrating grammatical acrobatics and getting things in,” said Debra Myhill, who led the study.

Pupils therefore find it difficult to explain the effect that a particular grammatical structure might have on their writing. They use grammatical terms for extra marks, rather than for effect.

“The grammar test is not supporting the teaching of grammar which develops children’s expertise as writers and readers,” Professor Myhill said. “It would be helpful to clarify what the role of grammar is in the curriculum.”

The Exeter study tracked the development of grammatical understanding and writing development in two primary and two secondary schools.

Uncertain and scared

The study also found the following:

  1. Teachers do not always understand why they are teaching grammar
    “The curriculum has no clearly stated rationale for the presence of grammar in the curriculum,” the academics said.
    “As a consequence, teachers are uncertain whether the point of teaching grammar is to secure grammatical accuracy in writing, to enable students to be able to label and identify grammatical terms, or to enable them to become more linguistically aware readers and writers.”
  2. Teachers are often scared of grammar
    “The fear of being wrong with grammar is huge – the fear of being exposed,” Professor Myhill said. “You don’t get that as a literature teacher, because everything is about opinion – there’s no right or wrong. You can’t wing it as a grammar teacher.”
  3. Pupils are able to use logic and analogy to work out what purpose grammatical structures serve
    However, pupils also use teachers’ definitions to inform their own reasoning. When told, for example, that a verb is a doing word, they can then end up using the information to draw erroneous conclusions, the academics said.
    But, they added, the presence of this capacity for grammatical reasoning shows that, if teachers provide explanations that focus on the grammatical ideas behind the terminology, then pupils will be able to form an effective understanding of the terms.
  4. Using examples from published pieces of writing can help pupils to understand the difference that grammatical choice can make
    This “can open up awareness of the repertoires of possibility that grammatical choice can allow,” the academics said.
  5. Pupils may be able to use grammatical terms before they can name them
    Some pupils are able to explain exactly why they use a particular grammatical structure – and the effect that it has on their writing – before they know the structure’s official name. “This raises a further important question about how much of this is developmental and how much is linked to how students are taught,” the academics said.

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