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Should we be teaching grammar at all?

I feel sorry for grammar. It has far less research about it than reading, writing as a whole, or oracy, and much of the research community has a clear bias against grammar teaching, where researchers continually produce articles which confirm that out of context grammar teaching does not work (not exactly groundbreaking or surprising). Many of these articles are fundamentally flawed and so we are getting an incomplete picture of how and when grammar can be taught effectively. Where studies are carried out comprehensively and actually use proven pedagogical approaches, the research shows that grammar teaching is important when trying to improve literacy. What what does the rest of the research tell us and how can we use it to inform our teaching?

What does it matter if students are more proficient at using grammar?

For decades, we have seen an education system where learners learn grammar through osmosis, rather than being explicitly taught it. Since the introduction of National Curricular in many countries, the teaching and assessment of grammar has crept back in, giving an impetus to researchers to study whether this explicit teaching of grammar is having the desired effect on learners’ writing.

Australian Universities are amongst the most active of institutions that examine approaches to literacy teaching. They also have one of the most detailed assessment programme of literacy, in the form of National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). In 2017, a study by Tessa Daffern et al. found that not only could grammar be used as a predictor for the quality of overall writing composition, but data analysis of NAPLAN indicated that students who scored higher on grammar tests also scored higher on writing assessments. Although the authors acknowledge that the reasons for this are not clear, it is an interesting conclusion to break down. Is this because children need to be ‘better’ at grammar to become more effective writers? Whilst we are looking at these results, we also need to consider that these are writing assessments and do not necessarily reflect writing in a context and for a real purpose. We also need to remember that grammar is not a fixed entity and cannot always be defined as correct or incorrect. Lobeck and Denham (2013) describe grammar as a flexible entity that cannot be tested in its entirety. After all, to readily split an infinitive if often viewed as ‘wrong’, even though there is no actual reason why we shouldn’t do it (see what I did there). Grammar pedants will often try to say that these concepts are ‘wrong’, but this view is diminishing, as this Victorian view does not reflect the actual story of language, which is ever-changing and evolving. Because of this flexible nature of grammar, testing it is incredibly difficult.

Limits, flaws and shortfalls

What I find fascinating about many studies into grammar teaching, is that the authors themselves acknowledge that there are significant limitations to their research. It baffles me that researchers feel that they can draw conclusions about grammar teaching, whilst in the same article admit that their research has design flaws or is insufficiently accurate. Teachers are going to read articles that either reference this research and draw conclusions, and so academics need to be careful about what messages they are giving to the education system as a whole.

Graham et al (2012) analysed writing interventions in order to determine the impact of explicit grammar teaching on the quality of writing. Their initial conclusions determined that teaching grammar had no statistical impact on the quality of overall writing. However, the authors recognise that grammar was used as a control group, rather than being the focus of the study, and so this may have skewed the results. Moreover, they acknowledge that the methods used were limited and themselves suggest that more work is needed to ascertain the impact of grammatical teaching. This report does suggest that there may be limitations to the impact of teaching grammar on overall writing, but with the amount of flaws that they admit to, it’s not exactly a piece of research that we can confidently draw conclusions from.

A study published this year from the University of York (Wyse 2022), cast doubt on the impact of explicitly teaching of grammar. The results are all over academic journals and educational publications, but yet again, the research focussed on an intervention programme (Englicious), where grammar was not taught in a context where the students understood why they were learning this grammar, and seeing it being used in authentic contexts. Why are studies still focussing on this type of grammar teaching, where research after research paper shows us that this is ineffective? To make this into a far more useful piece of research, they should have also conducted a study where they analysed the impact of teaching grammar as part of a learning journey. And this where part of the issue lies with grammar research. Too many studies still focus on teaching grammar out of context. Where studies do look at in context, there is clear evidence of impact.

The flipside of the research

I am an absolute advocate for the explicit teaching of grammar, I’ve never hidden that. I’ve seen first hand how, when it’s done right, grammar can be an instrumental tool in raising standards of writing. Should I decide to do my PHD (getting more and more likely), I will no doubt look at different approaches to grammar teaching and how they impact on overall writing standards. It’s a travesty to our education more of this research does not exist, so I’m just going to have to crack on and do it myself.

The risk of explicitly teaching grammar is discussed by Ryan and Barton (2014) who found that some students perceived writing as putting together words and sentences to meet the teacher’s objectives, rather than considering the reader and the overall piece of writing. This research is important as it often reflects the grammar teaching that is seen in schools: taught out of context and without authentic purpose. It is clear from Ryan and Barton’s results that this form of grammar teaching just doesn’t work. When planning grammar activities, starting with the end product in mind can create a series of activities that have a gar greater impact. For example, rather than knowing that I have to teach relative clauses in year 5, start with the genre. If I want to write a biography, I need to be able to expand on the information in the text, and this can be achieved using relative clauses; so relative clauses should be taught in the build-up to the biography writing.

The explicit teaching of grammar is supported by Collins and Norris (2017) who corroborated an earlier study by Fearn and Farnan (2007) who found that explicit teaching of grammar could achieve significant results in a short period. Supporting what Ryan and Barton (2014) found, they do add a caveat, that these results were not seen when workbook exercises were used. The technique used, Embedded Grammar Instruction (EGI), used discussion, minimal resources and visual aids to introduce and develop the students’ understanding of grammatical concepts, such as word classes, rather than written exercises, although written exercises did follow the EGI. In a future blog post, I will be looking at EGI in detail, as it can provide a clear way for schools to structure their grammar curriculum, without resorting to schemes.

So the evidence of whether teaching grammar can improve standards in writing is a complex issue and the limited and often flawed research reflects this. But what is emerging is that when grammar is taught explicitly, in context and with a clear purpose, it can support students improve their writing. We don’t need any more studies telling us that our of context grammar teaching doesn’t work, we know this! Worksheets and schemes just won’t cut it and if schools falls into this trap, they might as well not even bother teaching it. 

Further Reading

Collins, G. and Norris, J, (2017) Written Language Performance Following Embedded Grammar Instruction. Reading horizons, 56(3), p.16.

Daffern, T., Mackenzie, Noella, M. and Hemmings, B. (2017) Predictors of writing success: How important are spelling, grammar and punctuation?, The Australian Journal of Education, 61(1), pp.75–87.

Fearn, L. and Farnan, N. (2007) When is a verb? Using functional grammar to teach writing. Journal of Basic Writing, 26.1, pp.63–87

Graham, S., Mckeown, D., Kiuhara, S. and Harris, K. (2012) A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of educational psychology, 104(4), pp.879–896.

Lobeck, A, and Denham, K (2013) Navigating English Grammar : A Guide to Analyzing Real Language. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.

Ryan, M. and Barton, G. (2014) The Spatialized Practices of Teaching Writing in Australian Elementary Schools: Diverse Students Shaping Discoursal Selves. Research in the Teaching of English, 48.3. pp.303-29.

Wyse, D. et al (2022) Grammar and Writing in England’s National Curriculum: A Randomised Controlled Trial and Implementation and Process Evaluation of Englicious. UCL Faculty of Education and Society: London, UK.

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