Primary trainees scared of grammar

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Trainee teachers have trouble with adjectives, says a study presented in Leeds last week. Jon Slater reports.

TRAINEE primary teachers cannot tell their adjectives from their adverbs and are scared of grammar, a study has found.

Many students were "confused and imprecise" about the scope of grammar and attempts to identify abstract nouns such as "heat" and "middle" caused great uncertainty. The findings are based on an audit by Wasyl Cajkler and Jane Hislam between 1997 and 2001 of 503 Leicester University trainees, of whom 167 were English specialists.

The report will reinforce ministers' determination to persist with literacy tests for trainee teachers despite criticism from unions. The Government also introduced grammar guides for primary teachers to improve key stage 2 writing scores which threaten to undermine progress in literacy.

Leicester University introduced tests in an effort to increase students' grammatical knowledge in response to the Government's literacy teaching drive.

Common errors included identifying "quick" in the phrase "quick dash" as an adverb rather than an adjective because students thought that dash was a "doing word" and therefore a verb. Other trainees applied rules of thumb which often did not work. "Peep is a verb because you can put the word 'to' in front of it," one said.

Even when students identified words correctly their decisions were "often coloured by some degree of uncertainty or vague explanation", the report says.

One student was afraid that pupils would show up her lack of understanding. "They know more than me some of them... If I had to teach Year 4 or 5 I would cry," she said.

Students specialising in English. "have slightly less difficulty but this was marginal", the report says.

Grammatical knowledge was largely based on trainees' experiences at primary and secondary school. However, they had little recollection of learning grammar explicitly at school and less at university, even when their first degree was in English.

Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Liverpool's Centre for Education and Employment Research said: "We are in the process of catching up. For almost two decades, we thought that teaching grammar was not important. A lot of people missed out when they went through their own education.

"More could be done in training colleges to fill the gaps in knowledge. But the literacy and numeracy strategies in schools are slowly changing the attitudes in teacher training colleges."

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