Teaching grammar in the 1960s and 1970s was abandoned largely because an unpublished PhD thesis submitted to London University in 1962 said it did not improve children's writing.
This extraordinary tale appears in The Grammar Papers, six discussion documents on the teaching of grammar published last week by the Qualifications and Assessment Authority.
They trace the history of grammar teaching and tell teachers how they can meet the requirements of the national curriculum. But one examines a review of research on the subject by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the QCA's predecessor. It concludes that most of the studies of the 1950s and 1960s that were perceived as showing that grammar teaching was of little benefit to pupils showed nothing of the sort.
"The evidence was less extensive, less conclusive and less reliable than generally assumed," it says. "It had gained credence . . . by being frequently referenced, but rarely closely examined."
In particular, the studies tended to show that tests asking pupils to recognise parts of speech in isolation were of little value. The influential PhD study by R J Harris, for example, compared two groups of pupils over two years, one of which learned grammar from a textbook while the other spent the time writing. He concluded that the first group did learn more grammar, but that their writing was no better than the other group's.
However, the QCA points out that the writing group was in fact being taught what would now be counted as grammar; their teachers drew attention to such features as paragraph structure, and picking up errors and correcting them by example and imitation.
The safest conclusion to draw from this research, says the QCA, is that practice in writing that routinely draws attention to language features is more likely to improve pupils' grammatical range and competence than formal grammar teaching unconnected with pupils' use of language.
The Grammar Papers also contains guidance on how to teach grammar for the generation of teachers who, largely as a result of this misunderstood research, learned little or none.
A survey of nearly 140 teachers in 10 local authorities included in the guide showed that the teaching of grammar was "patchy" and often not covered explicitly. Only just over a third of primary schools included phrase, clause and sentence structure in their schemes of work, and only just over half of English departments in the early secondary years included it.
The Grammar Papers - Perspectives on the teaching of grammar in the national curriculum (QCA98052) can be ordered from QCA Publications, tel 0181 867 3333.