Breathe some life into the nouns and verbs

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Grammar can enhance children's use of English, but we must avoid the mistakes made by the National Literacy Strategy, says Sue Palmer.

A research review presented to the British Educational Research Association last month has concluded that formal teaching of grammar between the ages of five and 16 has no impact on children's writing (TES, September 24).

As a lifelong advocate of grammar in primary education and one of the authors of the National Literacy Strategy's grammar training, I'm sure they are right - if, by formal teaching, they mean decontextualised exercises, worksheets and pointless naming of parts.

These methods did not have any effect on children's writing the last time grammar was taught in schools, and were one of the main reasons it was abandoned in the 1960s.

This does not mean, however, that grammar itself is a waste of time.

Completing decontextualised exercises about colour is unlikely to improve children's painting ability, but colour is nevertheless an important element in art. For anyone teaching children how to write, knowledge about language and how it works should be extremely useful.

Written language is very different from the one we speak and teachers need the vocabulary to talk about these differences. For instance, it helps children to know that precise nouns (or noun phrases) and powerful verbs give their writing impact.

"The man looked at the book" is nowhere near as vivid as "Sherlock Holmes scrutinised the ancient tome". There is a general rule here which can really improve written composition, and a little grammatical knowledge helps the teacher express it.

However, when the National Literacy Strategy reintroduced grammar in the late 1990s, many primary teachers who had come through the education system during the anti-grammar years found the subject challenging.

Sadly, the strategy did not help. Its over-detailed "sentence level objectives" were not explicitly linked to the reading and writing of actual texts.

Also, grammar training was offered to Years 5 and 6 teachers, when most grammatical territory is actually covered in Y3 and Y4, when children are eight and nine.

The strategy publication Grammar for Writing was awash with complex terminology, which bamboozled rather than helped.

Unsurprisingly, many of the more insecure teachers fell back on published resources - generally decontextualised exercises - and ended up "delivering" grammatical objectives rather than using grammar to inform their teaching.

Perhaps the findings of the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordination Centre (EPPI) study, which found that grammar teaching has little effect on children's writing quality, will focus attention on the fact that we should not merely be teaching grammar but applying it to improve writing style.

Otherwise, another generation of children will waste their time simply underlining words and filling in worksheet blanks - until eventually we abandon grammatical study as pointless and the whole vicious cycle starts all over again.

Read the research review at


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