Call for national curriculum to include complex grammar

Change would ensure disadvantaged children are not left behind, Oxford University academic argues

conditional tense

Children should be taught to use complex grammatical forms, such as the conditional tense, as part of the national curriculum, to ensure that disadvantaged children are not left behind, an academic has recommended.

Jane Mellanby, from the University of Oxford, said her research had shown that, in areas of high deprivation, nearly one in three children has poor acquisition of complex grammar. By contrast, only one in 10 children in areas of low deprivation struggles with complex grammar.


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Dr Mellanby, who researches the reasons behind children’s underachievement, was addressing a seminar held by the exam board Cambridge Assessment. She said that understanding a particular type of complex grammar – the conditional tense – was vital for progress in a number of academic subjects, as well as in life more generally.

She gave as an example the sentence “If Hitler had not invaded Poland, the Second World War might not have happened.” For pupils to debate this issue successfully, she said, they needed first to understand the hypothesis indicated by the conditional “might”.

However, during the course of their research, her team had spoken with one school where a significant number of A-level history pupils did not understand the concept of the conditional tense.

“If you don’t understand this conditional structure, how can you understand hypotheses about cause and effect in history or science?” she said. “It’s quite worrying.”

She added that teachers and nursery staff could help improve young children’s acquisition of such grammatical forms by reading aloud from books that include the conditional, and by using the conditional tense in conversation.

Her team is therefore creating a book, Who Would I Be, If I Weren’t Me?, that features extensive use of conditionals, as well as the subjunctive mood in the title.

But later on in primary school, Dr Mellanby said, complex grammatical structures need to be formally taught. And teachers should focus particularly on any pupils who are delayed in acquiring understanding of the conditional tense.

“Could we improve general academic attainment by increasing complex language acquisition in early years?” she said. “I believe we could.”

Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment’s director of research and development, agreed that the conditional tense should be included in the national curriculum.

“This is really important stuff,” he said. “We have a small window of time for young children to acquire complex grammar automatically, from exposure. For those who have not acquired it then, it needs to be taught explicitly in school.”

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