Grammar is an irrelevant "pit of doom", belonging in dusty old classrooms, say English teachers. In fact, one teacher described grammar lessons as "dry as a camel's arse in a sandstorm", according to Annabel Watson, a doctoral student at the University of Exeter.
Education secretary Michael Gove recently emphasised the importance of grammar lessons, calling for all pupils to be taught the correct use of the subjunctive mood by the time they leave primary school. But Watson's research, which appears in the journal English in Education, reveals that few English teachers share his unequivocal enthusiasm for the subject.
Watson conducted qualitative interviews with 31 English teachers in secondary schools across England. The participants ranged from newly qualified teachers to heads of department, and all but eight held degrees in English literature or language.
Almost half the teachers expressed negative feelings about grammar. And an additional 10 of the respondents confessed uneasiness or lack of confidence when tackling the subject.
'No one wets their pants over it'
Many of the respondents felt that it was irrevocably associated with traditional, old-fashioned teaching. Grammar "is a really loaded word", one teacher said. Another added: "It makes me think of confusing terminology and dusty old classrooms."
Others associated it with effort and suffering. "Any child that's ever been in my classroom, or any teacher I've ever spoken to, if you say the word 'grammar', their face drops," said Lydia. This was echoed by John, who said that his pupils "don't have that level of grammatical evidence that I've had to suffer".
Indeed, many saw grammar as inherently uninteresting, even when their own pupils appeared to enjoy it. Grammar teaching is as "dry as a camel's arse in a sandstorm", said Claire, who has been teaching for eight years. She added: "I've never seen anyone, you know, wet their pants in excitement over the use of an ellipsis. Your grammar rules, they're rules."
Grace, another interviewee, drew a comparison between literature - which she finds interesting and relevant - and grammar. "I'm more literature than language," she said. "For me, the mechanics of language and how it's shaped is irrelevant, and it's more about how it makes me feel."
She was not the only teacher to refer to the irrelevance of grammatical rules. "I'm from a generation that wasn't taught it," one teacher said. "And I consider myself a successful reader and writer. So I don't believe it's necessary."
This viewpoint was particularly common among more experienced teachers. "I've got away without knowing what a noun phrase is for 20 years," remarked Olivia.
More than half the teachers also expressed fear, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy around the teaching of grammar. This, Watson believes, reveals the ways in which grammar challenges teachers' perceptions of themselves as competent professionals. One feared that she might "expose" herself to the rest of her department "as some sort of grammar heathen".
More than a quarter of interviewees said that lack of confidence led them to avoid teaching certain aspects of grammar. "I just teach them what I feel comfortable with," one said.
Others admitted that their lack of confidence or simple dislike of the subject was sometimes evident in their teaching. Olivia, who referred to "this horrible grammar bit" during a lesson, explained pupils' resulting attitude: "Miss is finding it hard, so therefore this must be hard."
However, seven teachers expressed very positive feelings about teaching grammar. One of its strongest advocates was Sophie, who was herself a product of "free expression" language learning, with its disregard for formal rules.
Feelings of shame
"There seems to be this concept in people's imagination that you say the word 'grammar' and it's sort of like the pit of doom you've just thrown them into, and it's hell," she said. "And it's not. Actually, to me, it's where freedom lies."
This was echoed by Gina, who confessed that, when a university lecturer criticised her writing for its lack of possessive apostrophes, she had no idea what he was talking about. "I can remember just standing in the library blushing and feeling so ashamed," she said. "I felt quite angry that the school had let me down in that way. Look, I even feel like I'm starting to blush now, thinking about it."
Grammar is a subject that provokes great emotion, Watson concludes. It can, she says, undermine professional confidence to the extent that some teachers feel the need to hide their lack of grammatical knowledge. And, she adds: "More alarmingly, the fact that teachers' dislike is sometimes communicated to their students could create a legacy of anti-grammar sentiment.
"However ... many teachers can disentangle themselves from negative discourses, and approach grammar with renewed enthusiasm and vigour."
Watson, A. "Navigating 'the Pit of Doom': affective responses to teaching grammar" (2012). English in Education, 46 (1), 22-37.
English in Education.
Annabel Watson, University of Exeter.
TEACHERS SAID ...
"I hate grammar teaching."
"The word 'grammar' has got a really bad name."
"I see it as being quite old-fashioned."
"I feel completely lost when anybody mentions grammar to me."
"I feel inadequate a lot of the time because I don't really understand my own language."
"Punctuation, grammar - all the boring, tedious jobs that we need to teach."
"Meaning and imagery - it's almost inherently interesting. Whereas grammar features - there isn't that much that's different or exciting or creative."
"I've always shied away from the nitty-gritty of prepositions and adverbs because I've been under-confident about them myself."