Teachers hate teaching grammar. At least that is the impression you might get if you venture into the comments section under any article about the teaching of grammar in our schools.
For a good example, just see a recent Grammar Bites column by Mark Brenchley and Ian Cushing. It concerned the difference between a conjunctive adverb and a subordinating conjunction, which was written in response to teachers’ queries about this issue.
They are knowledgeable and deeply passionate about effective literacy teaching and experts in giving advice: they work in universities studying how to help teachers teach grammar and both offer free resources to teachers.
Yet, the comments underneath their article and on social media were mostly extremely negative, and sometimes rude.
Teachers posted to call the teaching of grammar: “appalling”, “madness”, “codswallop”, and one stated that “a whole generation is having their childhood scarred by this unnecessary nonsense”.
Reasons to hate teaching grammar
There are, of course, valid reasons why teachers feel negatively about teaching grammar.
Insecurity and frustration are key factors. During teacher training, very little time is spent on grammar, simply because the ITT curriculum is so jam-packed already. And many people of teaching age did not get a thorough foundation of grammar taught to them at school.
Expecting teachers to teach the National Curriculum (NC) specifications without any support from the government (apart from a glossary of grammatical terms, which is non-statutory, and has only brief explanations of the terminology), was madness.
The situation is made worse by the fact that the resources that are ‘out there’ – that have filled the vacuum left by the government – have been produced by stakeholders with a commercial interest. They have often been created in haste by non-specialists, and are frequently inaccurate as a result.
And maddeningly, the internet doesn’t help when teachers look up grammatical terms, because they will often get several different answers to a question they ask, and it’s hard to know which answer is correct.
Then there is the perfectly reasonable question as to whether having a knowledge of grammar is necessary for school children.
Many teachers believe the answer to be ‘no’, so, for them, having to teach it is particularly galling.
On the first point about the lack of assistance, I have the utmost sympathy: resources and professional support should have been supplied by the government.
On the second question, you will no doubt expect me to disagree with those teachers. But I don’t: the answer to whether knowledge of grammar is 'necessary' is emphatical: no.
Some well-known authors have said, “I never learned any grammar and look at me now: I’m a famous author.” And, of course, they are right. You can have a successful career in any field and be happy, without knowing any grammar.
But this misses the point.
After all, the same can be said about studying history, art and music: you can get old without ever having heard about the Great Fire of London, van Gogh or Mozart. It’s almost impossible to identify any evidence-based positive benefits of having some knowledge about these subjects.
But I hope you agree that learning about them enriches your life.
What we need to persuade teachers of is that this is also true for grammar, and this is especially so because we use grammar all the time in our daily lives.
Is the grammar taught at Key Stages 1 and 2 too hard?
Yes, some of it is, and parts of the curriculum ought to be changed, as became clear when the schools minister had to issue a clarification about so-called exclamative sentences.
A good case can be made for simplifying the KS1 curriculum, and for moving some of the concepts to KS2. However, it should be remembered that across KS1 and KS2, there are only around 40 terms that pupils need to learn, and these include many intuitively easy-to-understand terms such as ‘noun’, ‘adjective’ and ‘verb’.
True, there are also some harder terms, such as ‘subordinating conjunction’, but none of them is harder than some of the mathematics terminology that children need to learn at KS2, such as ‘place value’, ‘equivalent fractions’, ‘negative numbers’ and other very abstract maths concepts.
But even if you agree with me about this, you may point to the fact that children are tested on these grammatical terms, and “testing puts too much stress on children, and we shouldn’t subject them to that”.
An argument against tests is not, though, an argument against the teaching of grammar.
But I will address the testing point all the same. There is some evidence that the KS2 tests do not unduly put stress on children. In April 2016, the BBC carried out some research on Sats testing. They asked students ‘What do you think about tests at school?’ and ‘How do you feel when you take tests at school?’
When the results were released on 9 May 2016, the BBC headline, was "Primary pupils ‘feel test pressure’ – survey" (the link to the Com Res test results was removed from this website).
We might ask if this is the right headline when 60 per cent of children said they either didn't mind (48 per cent) or enjoyed (12 per cent) taking the tests? Some of you will point to the results that show that 59 per cent were nervous and 39 per cent were worried, and will say that this is unacceptable for young children, but surely it’s natural to feel some nervousness or worry before a test – and that’s something they need to be prepared for in life.
To my mind, a far more interesting outcome is that only a minority of children (27 per cent) felt stressed, and that 45 per cent were either confident, happy or excited about the tests.
To counter again, teachers may point to the political angle. The Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (GPS) curriculum, and the associated tests, were introduced by Michael Gove – who has never had a wide fan base among teachers – during his tenure as education secretary.
It’s quite likely that there were indeed dubious political reasons for introducing the GPS test: namely, to test schools, rather than pupils, as Bethan Marshall has argued (‘The politics of testing; English in Education 51.1, 27-43, 2017), but the time has come to ask: have there nevertheless been any positive effects of the GPS curriculum in UK schools?
I believe that this is the case.
The case for grammar
So what’s good about grammar teaching?
First of all, interestingly, as research by Hugh Bell has shown, school children actually enjoy learning about grammar, as this quotation from an interview with a teacher shows:
"They love [grammar]. And I think it’s down to the teacher’s enthusiasm – and I am enthusiastic about it. A little girl said to me the other day ‘this is a present continuous,’ and I said ‘is it?’ I’ll be honest, I had to look it up. She said ‘I looked it up,’ and she must have learned it that way. . . I will stop a lesson if there’s a particularly good sentence. ‘Stop! Listen to this, listen to this!’ You big it up, and the pleasure the children get from that is just remarkable. Then, once you’ve grabbed them they will start producing really good sentences." (Jan)
Kimberly Safford reports similar sentiments (‘Teaching grammar and testing grammar in the English primary school: the impact on teachers and their teaching of the grammar element of the statutory test in spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG); Changing English 23.1, 3-21):
"Children love the SPaG … Which is really odd. It is quite strange … kids really enjoy it. They look forward to their SPaG test. It’s one [test] they enjoy doing." (Teacher R)
"When it came to doing the SPaG test they found it a lot less stressful than the others [statutory tests]. And that didn’t necessarily mean they achieved quite highly, they just found it less pressure … It’s so funny. We dread doing it and they really like it." (Teacher A)
Sure, this is just anecdotal evidence, and more research needs to be done, but these kind of thoughts seldom make it into the debate about grammar teaching.
Another positive benefit of teaching grammar is that it is immensely helpful for learning modern foreign languages.
In this Brexit age, it is more important than ever that children learn foreign languages, though the sad trend is that MFL teaching is declining.
Thirdly, because the grammar of English often involves a kind of puzzle-solving – a bit like maths – learning about it helps children to develop sound analytical skills.
Finally, we now find that children’s knowledge of language is having positive effects at KS3-5 in secondary schools. Children have been empowered to speak about language and literature using a newly acquired linguistic metalanguage, in such a way that the terms ‘pronoun’, ‘phrase’, ‘subordinate clause’, and yes, ‘fronted adverbial’, will be as useful as ‘metaphor’, ‘metonomy’, and ‘bathos’ for the study of literature.
Here’s an interesting quote from teacher Mark in Bell’s article:
"The terminology enables you to. . . give them more effective, more constructive feedback on what [children’s] next steps are, and how they can improve."
In this connection, while talking about coaching a student, teacher Elaine says:
"He’d just have a subordinate clause, full stop. . . I remember sitting down with him quite a few times going through a complex sentence, and I was able to articulate to him where he’s going wrong. And we went through subordinate clause, main clause, and I was able to say ‘here’s a sentence, show me the subordinate [clause], show me the main [clause]. Now show me your sentence. Where does it fit?’ And I vividly remember it because it was the only way I could get through to him. Whereas before [I could use this terminology] my favourite line was probably ‘it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t read right.’ And they’d say ‘what do you mean?’ And what do I mean?"
These kind of comments should be eye-openers.
Will learning about grammar improve children’s writing? Safford writes: "On the positive side, teachers reported improvements in pupils’ technical skills as writers and pupils’ pleasure in acquiring and using metalanguage. Teachers who contextualise the study of grammar in the reading of literature and discussions about real-life texts reported a positive impact on pupils’ speaking and writing."
This is in line with the findings of Debra Myhill and her team at the University of Exeter, and also what my team at University College London found when teaching subject knowledge CPD.
However, my colleague Dominic Wyse at the UCL Institute of Education recently published an interesting paper on this topic with Carole Torgerson in which they suggest that ‘traditional grammar teaching’ has no effect on writing.
No right answer?
To my mind, the jury’s still out on that question, partly because the notion of ‘traditional grammar teaching’ is slippery. This is why I’m working with Dominic and his colleagues on putting together a research project to gather more evidence on this issue.
In the meantime, I think that we need a more balanced and nuanced debate about grammar teaching in schools. Grammar is often seen as a sock puppet to be beaten when mention is made of testing, political interference or the Govian curriculum. The danger is that we lose sight of the positive reasons for teaching grammar.
Bas Aarts is professor of English linguistics at UCL. He leads the Englicious project, is involved with teaching English grammar CPD, and has a blog for teachers. For the Department of Education, he’s involved in assessing the GPS tests in Test Review Groups, which involve academics, teachers, inclusion specialists, test specialists, etc. He wrote this article in a personal capacity.