The debate about the new format of the KS2 grammar test for this year has recently renewed the uproar amongst teachers, parents and the media about its worth, value and impact on our children. But with a big increase in students taking A-level English Language and taking part in the UK Linguistics Olympiad http://www.uklo.org, is grammar really such a dirty word?
Before I start, I think it’s important to make the point that at no stage during this post am I advocating ‘feature-spotting’ or simply naming parts of language. Language does not exist in isolation, and what fascinates me most about how it works is that the negotiation of meaning happens in the magical space between the producer and receiver. It is absolutely vital that any consideration of language use considers the rich array of contextual information that is required to really understand any interaction or piece of writing.
I wonder whether the real issue is that the debate has conflated a lot of different, and quite complex, issues.
Let’s start with the issue that people may find most difficult – the testing. And I would hazard a guess that it is perhaps this aspect which is clouding judgement on the issue of grammar itself. There has been lots written about the absurdity of the test questions and the level of challenge it demands, and these perceptions seem to pervade the media coverage of the test both in and out of education. Of course testing is everywhere, and we are all aware of the restrictions that this can place on both teaching and learning. And it is not difficult therefore to see that where teachers are perhaps not confident with linguistic content and how useful it can be, that this can lead to simply teaching ‘the test’. But for me it is not a natural step to then draw the conclusion that the knowledge and content of the test ought to simply be thrown out.
I am well aware that using the word ‘grammar’ in the context of the KS2 test can be problematic. The testing of word classes which appears to be causing much of the furore isn’t really grammar at all, but more just basic terminology which is needed to talk about how language is used between people as a way of co-operating and communicating. Think of this as a bit like learning different parts of the heart during a Biology lesson to then be able to explore how the cardiovascular system works.
But why should English terminology be any different?
Every academic discipline has an agreed set of terms which allow those studying it to talk meaningfully about it. I can’t ever imagine a situation where we argue that it is acceptable to be vague when discussing angles in maths, or the names of the bones in the human body. Nor can I imagine a situation where we claim that these things are too ‘difficult’ for children. One of the things that frustrates me most is the discourse surrounding the KS2 test that assumes it is too difficult. To me, this just promotes low expectations. Whilst I accept there is no real agreement about what the content of English is, it is surely important to have a metalanguage which allows students to discuss ideas without resorting to vague impressionism.
But grammar stifles creativity doesn’t it?
The other prominent argument is that teaching grammar doesn’t help writing and reading, and that it actually stifles creativity.
Just as an aside, why should grammar have to impact positively on something else? Isn’t it inherently valuable in itself? Learning about physics may be boring for some and won’t help you in your everyday life, but it is important if you want to study the subject further and I doubt we would hear people dispute so vehemently that it is not interesting or worthwhile in its own right. Since language is a human-specific phenomenon why shouldn’t children learn about something that is singular to them?
There was a body of research from the 50s/60s which claimed that the teaching of grammar was pointless. These studies, however, have been shown to be flawed in their methodologies, choice of the participants and so on – Walmsley%201984.
The work of Debra Myhill and her colleagues at the University of Exeter paper (ref 1) shows that grammatical knowledge can support reading. Furthermore, her work (ref 2) has also shown that grammar teaching which seeks to make tacit knowledge that we all have about how language works into explicit knowledge which becomes up front and available for conscious and deliberate use, can have positive benefits on students’ writing. There are of course caveats to this with teacher knowledge being crucial to promoting this benefit, and it does appear to work better for more able students. Nevertheless it does bring into question the argument that grammar teaching has no use.
Across the continent, there has been a long tradition of teaching around systemic functional linguistics (a functional model that sees language as a system of choice). This work shows how ‘thinking using knowledge about grammar’ can support students in becoming betters users of a variety of registers. For a really impressive application of this see Ruth French’s chapter in this book https://www.routledge.com/products/9780415802659. This is particularly the case when children’s written work is too much like speech and they are unable to understand that written registers need to operate in different ways. In many schools in our area (both primary and secondary phases) we have seen the huge benefit that Talk for Writing has had for exactly this same reason.
The great leveller
So the idea that knowing about language is stifling seems dangerous to me – in fact it can be quite the opposite. In his book https://www.routledge.com/products/9780415709880 which argues for greater teacher awareness of linguistics, Marcello Giovanelli from the University of Nottingham calls knowledge about language, ‘the great leveller’, which can promote a more democratic classroom. In this instance, redistributed knowledge about how language ‘works’ allows all students to access texts and make comments in meaningful ways rather than simply relying on innate intelligence or other types of capital they may or may not have through background, prior education and so on.
Isn’t it better to develop the subject knowledge and confidence of teachers in every phase to equip them to show children of all ages the huge benefit of language knowledge? I am an English Literature graduate but I am absolutely a better reader and writer for the knowledge I have about language. A recent study of A-level English teachers https://www.academia.edu/13429677/Becoming_an_A_level_English_Language_teacher_Linguistic_knowledge_anxieties_and_the_shifting_sense_of_identity shows just what can happen when teachers become enthused by language work and the impact it can have in positive ways on them as practitioners.
Why not give it a go?
- Watson, A., Myhill, D. A. and Newman, R. (2014) ‘Grammar at GCSE: Exploring the effects of a contextualised grammar pedagogy on reading and writing at KS4’
- Myhill, D.A., Jones, S. M., Lines, H. E., and Watson, A. (2012) ‘Re-Thinking grammar: The impact of embedded grammar teaching on students’ writing and students’ metalinguistic understanding’, Research Papers in Education 27(2): 1-28.