All write and proper

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Consensus on how to teach English grammar is still sorely lacking. But, as Alastair West explains, schools are about to receive explicit guidance on the subject

The debate about grammar teaching is characterised by confusion, polarisation and prejudice. And while support for grammatical education has grown over the past few years, teachers remain divided about how best to provide it, according to a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority survey.

The Grammar Papers, to be published and sent out to schools later this term, provides a revealing snapshot of teachers' attitudes to the subject, and draws together work carried out over the past few years in an attempt to address the problem. The detailed survey of English teachers' confidence, knowledge and practice at key stage 3 (and generalists' at key stage 2) covers 10 local education authorities. It shows that teachers pay a good deal of attention to language at the whole-text level, but much less to sentence grammar, including phrase and clause structure. Of all the aspects of language, sentence grammar gave key stage 3 teachers most problems. Indeed one in four schools made no explicit reference to phrase, clause and sentence structure in key stage 3 schemes of work, and teachers rarely commented on these aspects of pupils' writing.

The reasons are not hard to find. For decades, conventional wisdom has discouraged the explicit teaching of formal grammar. Traditional methods in which parsing and clause analysis took place in isolation from pupils' reading and writing have long been discredited. But the gap this has left is proving difficult to fill. The problem has not been helped by post-war developments in linguistics, which have led to distracting disputes over what grammar and which terminology to teach.

The topic arouses strong passions, but the teacher's dilemma is clear. How can grammar teaching be systematic and progressive if it is taught only when it arises, naturally or by chance, in pupils' work? On the other hand, how can a systematic treatment of grammar avoid becoming an arid study of form?

The Grammar Papers will recommend a way forward for key stage 3 teachers, by clarifying the grammar requirements of the national curriculum and identifying key issues in planning, teaching and assessing the subject. They will also review what can be learned from research.

The central message is that understanding of sentence grammar will come only through systematic, progressive and explicit teaching of grammatical knowledge. This is because familiarity with terminology helps pupils move on from simply seeing difference in patterns of language to being able to analyse them in terms of their function and effect on the reader.

For example, a common task in key stage 3 reading involves comparing the opening paragraphs of two narratives. Detailed work at sentence level might focus on the opening sentences or the length and variety of structures in the first paragraphs. To do this, pupils must know how to recognise simple and complex sentences, various types of co-ordination and subordination, first and third-person usage and direct and reported speech. One text might be written in the third person, the other in the first. Identification is not an end in itself, but it is the starting point in increasing pupils' critical awareness and independence as readers.

Grammatical knowledge also contributes to speaking and writing skills. Take a familiar exercise on the topic of a public enquiry into a local issue. Written tasks might include a letter from an outraged resident and a brief report by the enquiry chair of the views of local groups.

In oral work , pupils will draw readily on their stock of implicit grammatical knowledge. They will already have some idea of how the chair will address a public meeting and of the differences between an angry protest and a reasoned case. Discussion of these differences should focus on identifying linguistic features of register, vocabulary and organisation.

To write their official report, pupils will not only have to read some examples of that kind of writing, but will also need to be familiar with the specific grammatical features of the genre. These might include use of passive and impersonal forms, effective linking of subordinate clauses in a complex sentence or how recommendations are phrased for maximum impact.

Departments will need to decide how much detail to teach in the light of pupils' prior knowledge and the overall scheme of work for the key stage. Three factors will help: la policy stating which technical terms are to be taught explicitly and systematically, and used by all staff in their assessment and response to pupils' work lvaried teaching methods, including teacher exposition, pupil investigation, focus on individual pupil needs and reference to previous teaching lunits of work that identify grammatical features and technical terms, and provide opportunities for pupils to use and reflect on newly-acquired knowledge.

The Grammar Papers will flesh out some of these elements. In a parallel exercise, the QCA is this summer piloting tests that integrate the explicit assessment of grammar, spelling and punctuation with reading and writing skills. These will be evaluated for their potential impact on future key stage 3 English tests.

Alastair West is a principal subject officer for English at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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