Secret to knocking grammar for six

9th September 2011 at 01:00
`Playing' with language boosts written skills, says research

Pupils who are taught to "play" with grammar perform significantly better in written exercises, according to research published this week.

The paper found that pupils who are encouraged to experiment creatively with grammar and language improve their writing grades almost twice as much in a single year as those who are not.

Academics from Exeter University examined 750 Year 7 pupils from 31 comprehensives. Half the schools followed a grammar-teaching plan drawn up by the researchers, while the other half were given grammar lessons devised by their own teachers. The findings were presented this week at the annual British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference.

The researchers' lessons involved play and experimentation, studying the way in which punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence. For example, pupils looked at how punctuation removes the ambiguity from cricket commentator Brian Johnston's famous radio declaration: "The bowler's Holding; the batsman's Willey."

And children were encouraged to talk about language and its effects. They looked at how nouns and verbs - rather than adjectives and adverbs - can be used to add character and setting to their compositions. They also experimented with poetry, writing verbless and one-word sentences.

The teacher-devised lessons, meanwhile, tended to follow approaches that have been common in English classrooms for the last 15 years. Pupils were asked to learn and identify grammatical terms, or to "write complex sentences".

All pupils took a writing test at the beginning and the end of the experiment. This assessed the quality of children's sentence structure, punctuation and overall imaginative effect. By the end of the year, the pupils who had been taught through the researchers' method had improved their marks by 20 per cent. The control group had improved by only 11 per cent.

Pupils taught using the researchers' lessons now understood the significance of word choice. One teenager commented that words helped "create a picture in your mind"; another talked about "words that are going to sink into your heart".

However, teachers' own ability affected the impact of the scheme: pupils whose teachers were not linguistically confident fared worse in the tests than those whose teachers were secure in their grammatical knowledge.

Professor Debra Myhill, who led the research, said: "Accuracy is really important, but it's not sufficient. You can have a really accurate, but dull, piece of writing. This is about using language creatively: giving children power over its use."

The resources will be available in the new year from the National Association for the Teaching of English.

Research: Successes and falsifications

- The Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) grade, introduced in 1998 as a way of recognising and rewarding the best teachers, has been a success, according to a new paper. Academics from Reading University surveyed 849 AST-graded teachers from across England. They found that 78 per cent felt they were making a difference in their schools. The same number felt their skills had been more appreciated in school since they achieved AST status.

- The pressure to achieve improved pupil performance results in teachers "falsifying" the marks they award to give the impression of continual progress, new research from the University of Birmingham has found.

- Children living in rural poverty do worse at reading than their counterparts who live in similar economic circumstances, academic research published to coincide with BERA has found.

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