Teaching grammar does not improve children's writing ability, research finds

Academics reveal 'a significant and persistent mismatch' between government policy and the techniques proven to work in the classroom

Adi Bloom

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The way that grammar is taught in schools reveals “a significant and persistent mismatch” between government policy and academic evidence showing what works, according to a research paper.

The paper says that evidence shows that teaching children technical grammatical terms such as “subjunctive” or “subordinate clause” does nothing at all to improve their writing ability.  However, the national curriculum places a strong emphasis on teaching traditional grammar.

Dominic Wyse, from the UCL Institute of Education, and Carol Torgerson, of Durham University, analysed the evidence revealed by randomised controlled trials testing the effectiveness of teaching grammar in school.

The study concludes that current evidence from randomised controlled trials “does not support the widespread use of grammar teaching for improving writing among English-speaking children”.

Ignored by politicians

Yet, Professor Wyse said, this evidence has been ignored by politicians.

“The main claim is that [teaching traditional grammar] helps pupils to learn to write,” Professor Wyse told Tes. “But of course the evidence just does not show that.

“Ministers and politicians claim that they want to know what works. I think there’s plenty of really strong evidence around what works with teaching writing. I just don’t think we’re benefiting from it.”

The academics’ paper, published in the latest edition of the British Educational Research Journal, finds that the most effective way of teaching grammar is to discuss its use in relation to the overall purpose of a writing task.

“The necessity to use technical terms with pupils, such as ‘subordinate clause’ or ‘subjunctive’ remains a question open to research, but it is doubtful that attention to such terms is beneficial,” the paper states.

“It is probably that adopting everyday language to discuss improvements in the use of grammar in writing will be more beneficial.”

Meanwhile, other teaching practices have been proven by research to improve children’s writing, particularly at primary school. These include increasing the amount of time spent writing, developing pupils’ planning skills and knowledge and using assessment-for-learning techniques.

“All of these could have been the driving force behind the national curriculum,” Professor Wyse said. “But they weren’t.”

'Persistent mismatch'

In fact, the academic paper concludes that there is “a significant and persistent mismatch between national curriculum policy in England and the robust evidence that is available with regard to the teaching of writing.”

And it argues that better policies would be made in future if ministers were informed by multiple robust research studies. The academics also advocate that curriculum policy should change only slowly and incrementally – because an accumulation of evidence from multiple studies would be required to justify any such changes.

“If I’m being really kind, I’d say current policy is well-meaning, but nevertheless ideologically driven ideas about how children should be taught,” Professor Wyse said.

“I don’t think these things are ever about people not caring. But there’s a risk that young people won’t learn to write as well as they could do – and that’s quite bad, isn’t it?”

Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We want every child to fulfil their potential, and this means ensuring all pupils can read fluently by the time they leave primary school.

"Our new demanding primary school curriculum has seen almost a third of pupils reaching the higher standard in the challenging grammar, punctuation and spelling test, while over three-quarters have met the expected standard.”

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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