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Why we don’t teach grammar

Ask a lot of teachers to describe what they teach in literacy, and I bet one thing will be missing: grammar. And yet, it’s such a fundamental part of our spoken and written language. Even in England, where grammar is incredibly (perhaps too) prescribed, it’s often taught in isolation and has little impact on the final piece of writing. What has happened to remove grammar so far away from the writing process that it has almost become something that we do on the side, just to get higher scores in test results? Although the tides are turning and more teachers are embracing the importance of grammar, the damage of research by academics in the middle and early part of the 20th century is still being felt today. So what’s the picture looking like today, should we be teaching grammar, and if so, why?

If any of you, like me, have colleagues or parents older than 60, who went to Grammar or Secondary Schools, they’ll most likely remember being taught grammar. I doubt they’ll remember it fondly, where memories of the lessons being repetitive and boring are commonplace. But one thing is sure to come out of it; they DO remember it! So why have the last 2 generations avoided teaching grammar and grown up not having a clue about clauses, split infinitives, or subject-verb agreement? Well, there are a few theories bandied about, but it’s generally accepted by researchers such as Hudson and Walmsley (2005) who theorised that the decline in the teaching of grammar in the 1970s to 1980s was due to the lack of research into grammar in universities, which led to a lack of understanding of the importance of grammar when teaching writing. Research at the time, also found that ‘grammar study’ had no impact on standards of literacy. And that’s where some people washed their hands of grammar. But delving into it, much of this research was based in a limited number of settings, where grammar was taught in a very insular way, with no links to writing in other literacy lessons that were taking place. We might be almost 40 years on, but this type of research created such a negative view of the teaching of grammar that I wonder why there wasn’t more of a critical view. If it had been a balanced study of different schools, with insular and context-based learning, then it could be excused, but the studies were narrow and not fit for purpose. These narrow studies have impacted millions across the English speaking world, but was it the right decision and did their findings have merit? My opinion is no they didn’t and current research shows that when taught in context and in the right way, the teaching of grammar has an incredibly important role in the teaching of writing.

The story doesn’t stop in the 1970s … well it did for grammar teaching for a while. Talking from personal experience, I was never taught grammar. Somehow, you were supposed to magically know how to conjugate verbs, how to use commas to demarcate sentences and understand the difference between your and you’re (something we know didn’t happen, just by looking at social media, or my boyfriend’s texts…). So now we have a whole generation of teachers who (like myself) left school lacking much of the basic knowledge of grammatical concepts and terms and many of whom have incredibly low confidence in teaching it. A study in England in 2019 by Ian Cushing found that most teachers saw grammar as a list of technical terms and are not sure how to embed these into critical reading or writing. I consider grammar to be the lifeblood of writing. In mathematics, we’d never dream of teaching addition without a basic understanding of place value. As grammar is essentially one of the building blocks of writing, why on Earth would we not teach it, whilst teaching writing? On a broad scale, it changes a whole genre, such as the fundamentals of the grammar transforming a story into a genres, and on a narrow scale it can refine a piece of writing to provide that extra fear in a horror story that makes the reader’s skin crawl. So why on Earth wouldn’t we be teaching grammar explicitly. Yes, there might be talented writers out there who know this stuff innately, for most of us, knowing how grammar impacts our writing can help us make conscious decisions about how to improve the piece of work.

In contrast to the research of the 1970s, research by Debra Myhill (2021), in particular, has shown that the teaching of grammar DOES have a tangible impact on standards of literacy, but only when taught in context and in particular ways. What is clear is that the teaching of grammar, when taught correctly makes a huge difference, and why wouldn’t we want that for our children. Let’s not make the same mistake as the 1970s and throw out grammar, just because of a few narrow studies, that have now been widely debunked anyway.

Further Reading

Cushing, I. (2019) Grammar Policy and Pedagogy from Primary to Secondary School., Literacy (Oxford, England), 53(3), pp.170–179.

Hudson, Richard and Walmsley, John (2005) The English Patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century. Journal of Linguistics, 41(3), pp.593–622.

Myhill, D. (2021) Grammar re-imagined: foregrounding understanding of language choice in writing. English in Education, pp.1–14.


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