Why and how we should teach grammar

Take a look at this piece of work.

This is a level 3c piece of work, taken from an Ofsted report. You can see the rest of it on page 19 of this document. From my experience of teaching English in secondary schools, I find the mistakes that are made here only too typical. Essentially, the problem here is that the pupil has an extremely weak grasp of sentence structure. When I first began teaching, I used to mark work like this by saying ‘Add more full stops’ or ‘Use more punctuation’. This is of course useless advice. The problem isn’t that this pupil isn’t using enough punctuation. The problem is they don’t know where and how to use the punctuation.

Firstly, I want to argue that weak sentence structure like this is a problem. In a perfect world, it should be apparent to everyone why writing like the above is a problem, but we don’t live in that perfect world and I am fully expecting some one to pop up and say ‘well, who is to say that correct sentence structure isn’t just the totalitarian imposition of arbitrary and meaningless rules?’ Correct sentence structure matters because it is about ordering and sequencing thought. If we want pupils to be able, eventually, to express complex ideas about complex topics then they need to understand the principles of sentence organisation, sequencing and subordination. Sentence structure is probably the clearest example of how form and content are inseparably intertwined. Writing complex ideas about complex issues is not possible without a strong command of sentence structure. Reading complex ideas about complex issues is probably also not possible without an understanding of sentence structure.

So, if we accept that correct sentence structure is important, and we know that many of the pupils we educate start secondary school with writing like the above, how do we get them to write correct sentences? I have struggled with this issue myself, and here are my tentative conclusions.

We have to start with the basics. There is no point starting a lesson explaining to pupil M above the punctuation needed when using ‘however’ or ‘nevertheless’. They might start to use the correct punctuation for these words, but they will still not be constructing proper sentences. We need to get them to appreciate, first of all, what a sentence is. And to understand what a sentence is, you have to know what a verb is and what a subject is.  How do we get pupils to know what a verb and a subject are? These are not simple concepts. We could get pupils to memorise that a verb is a doing word, of course, and I do think it is helpful for pupils to know that. But that definition is slightly misleading. Look at these two sentences:

I went for a run.

I run to the shops.

Give those two sentences to most pupils who have learnt that a verb is a doing word and they will tell you that ‘run’ is a verb in both of them.

But actually, I wouldn’t introduce the first, more complicated sentence at this stage. I would begin with very simple and patterned sentences like ‘I walk to the shops’, ‘I eat lots of chocolate’ and get pupils to identify ALL of the parts of speech in them. I would start with the following five parts: verbs, nouns, adjectives, articles and prepositions, in that order.

If you begin by introducing these five parts of speech very simply, then, when you introduce a complicating sentence like I go for a run pupils might not instantly be able to tell you that go is the verb and run the noun, but they might at least pause and realise something odd is happening here. Then you spend time looking at words which can be nouns and verbs, creating sentences with those, and making that concept secure.

Then, hopefully, you’ve secured a fairly basic understanding of the verb. In doing this, you’ll have implicitly touched on the idea of a subject, and now you will need to make that implicit understanding explicit. Then, it’s on to plural and number – the different types of subject. It’s probably worthwhile spending some time conjugating verbs, and explaining the difference between regular and irregular verbs.

When you have done all that, you are probably ready to explain what a simple sentence is.

If you look at the sheer amount of stuff that is necessary just for a basic understanding of a simple sentence, you will see firstly that you need to spend quite a lot of class time on this, and secondly that pupils will need to memorise a lot of the rules and processes. They will need to memorise the rules and processes in order to free up space in working memory so that when they come to write their own simple sentences, the process is as automatic as possible. They also need to memorise the rules and processes because grammar goes on to get a lot more complicated than this, and they need the basic rules well established in long-term memory so that the more advanced rules can build on these without taking up too much space in working memory. Here’s a concrete example: pupils need to memorise what the independent clause is and be able to write examples of it automatically. Then, when I teach the semi-colon, I can say: ‘the semi-colon is used to link two independent clauses’ and that will make sense to pupils instantly. They won’t have to go back through their books and remind themselves what the independent clause is. They don’t have to go on Google and look up what an independent clause is. They know.

So how much class time would all of this take? Remember, because I am not saying that we should just memorise rules, you are going to need an awful lot more time.  I would say about ten-fifteen one hour lessons. And remember, this is just to get to an understanding of the simple sentence. More advanced sentence structures, clauses, conjunctions, the comma, the direct object, the active and passive, the apostrophe – all these will take hours more. Not only that, but as things get more complex you will need to build in a lot of time for review and revision. And weaker students with poorer working memory will need more time even than this. In total I think maybe 30-40 hours a year of explicit grammar instruction of the sort I have outlined above would be of immense value in getting all pupils to write complex and advanced texts.

But I know of no official government publication which suggests spending anything like the amount of time on grammar, or using anything like these methods. Here are three recent reports on English teaching by Ofsted – from October 2011, May 2011 and June 2009. Not one mentions teaching grammar in the way I have outlined above. Most of them don’t mention teaching grammar at all; when they do mention it, they make such laughable errors as claiming that alliteration and onomatopoeia are grammatical features. The methods that they suggest for improving the writing of pupils like Pupil M are ones that have never worked in my experience and which you wouldn’t expect to work given our understanding of how the brain works.

There are three main problems with the way they suggest teaching grammar in these documents (which is pretty much the same way I was taught to teach it). Firstly, there is simply not enough time or attention given to it. It is barely mentioned in comparison to things like persuasive techniques or speaking and listening. Secondly, it is never sequenced. It is suggested that you can pick out any aspect of grammar and teach it whenever. That is, you could drop in a lesson on adjectives when you were teaching a poem that used lots of vivid adjectives, or you could drop in a lesson on the semi-colon when you were writing a persuasive letter. This approach misunderstands how these grammatical features work. I don’t think you should be teaching adjectives until pupils are clear about what a noun is, and you shouldn’t be teaching the semi-colon until pupils are clear about what an independent clause is.

Thirdly, it is often taught as a starter, not as a lesson in its own right. I find this ineffective as the topics above are quite complicated. If you only have 10-15 minutes at the start to introduce them, you have barely introduced the topic before it’s time to move on. By the time you’ve reviewed what you’ve done before, there’s little time to explain the new topic. Also, if you do a starter on grammar and then move on to reading the class reader, you’ve got a split objective and can potentially overload students’ working memory. What was the purpose of the lesson – to remember what happened in the class reader? To write about how the character felt? To use evidence from the text? Or to understand what a verb is? I prefer to spend one lesson solely focussing on a small aspect of grammar and making it secure. Then, when doing lessons on the class reader or whatever, you can drop the grammatical term in briefly in a small activity or even just a reference. That way it works to refresh memory.

One note on this post: one of the problems with writing anything about grammar is that people love to try and find a grammatical mistake in what you’ve written and post a ‘gotcha’ comment. I had one of these on something I tweeted about my previous post. I wrote ‘If Ofsted don’t understand grammar, what hope have the kids got?’ And someone called James De Vile tweeted

‘Technically it’s “If Ofsted doesn’t understand”. Companies are singular #irony #justsayin

I had actually thought for a while about whether to put ‘Ofsted don’t’ or ‘Ofsted doesn’t’. In British English there is some flexibility on this. For example, we say ‘England are a good cricket team’ but ‘England is a great country to live in’.[i] Likewise, it is civil service convention for ‘the government’ to take the plural verb. My rule of thumb is to ask myself – what pronoun would you use? In this case, I would clearly have said: ‘Ofsted: they don’t understand’, not ‘Ofsted: it doesn’t understand’. So I went for the former. Of course I realized as I did so that I’d get some smart alec trying to correct me. Lo and behold, James obliged. There are other ‘mistakes’ like this that people love to pick you up on. If you are thinking of correcting me for starting a sentence with a conjunction, ending one with a preposition or splitting an infinitive, please take the time to read about these issues first.

Whilst that tweet most certainly was not an error, of course I am not perfect and like everyone else I make mistakes. Of course I want people to let me know if I make mistakes so I can correct them. The above is a long post and I don’t have the money to have all my posts professionally proofread. I am confident from reading it a couple of times that it is a coherent piece of writing. I wouldn’t want to put money on it being completely perfect. If you spot a mistake, please do let me know in the comments at the bottom and I will correct it. Do not conclude that my making the mistake is in some way ‘ironic’, or that it somehow negates my entire point about the importance of correct grammar. If whenever you read a post about grammar your sole purpose in reading it is to try and spot an error and gloat, then you are really missing the point.

[i] Whereas in Australian English, to make the obvious joke, they will say ‘England is a terrible cricket team’ and ‘England is a terrible place to live’. They will take the singular verb in both instances.

21 responses to “Why and how we should teach grammar”

  1. Daisy, I think your analysis of the problem is spot on: most secondary students have very poor grammatical knowledge. But your solution seems unworkable – how would we cover the content the NC insists on?

    Also, isn’t it fair to say knowledge of grammar is often implicit? I go through school knowing absolutely nothing about it. Everything I know I learned from working as an EFL teacher. I’m not for a moment suggesting that students shouldn’t have or don’t need this meta language but this isn’t something that English teachers can just pick up in Year 7 – if your approach is to work students must start learning this stuff much earlier.

  2. Joe Kirby says:

    The diagnosis that grammar is taught with insufficient time and attention, in a piecemeal rather than sequenced way, and as an add-on rather than as a dedicated lesson, resonates with my (limited) experience of teaching English at KS3&4.

    It suggests a solution of a frontloaded, sequenced, dedicated grammar foundation unit at the start of Year 7 for at least one half-term.

    If all students have secured a sound knowledge of word-level grammar and simple sentences by the end of their first term in secondary school, that knowledge can be applied, consolidated and reinforced afterwards. But if they have not, targets like ‘add more punctuation’ prove impossible for them to act on.

    One question on the extent to which is grammar a whole-school issue. Other departments seem rarely to take responsibility for marking, correcting and improving grammar, but students spend only one in five lessons in English. What can or should other departments be doing to improve students’ grammar, and how can the English department support them?

  3. […] Why you can’t rely on pupils being able to look things up. Why project-based education fails. Why and how we should teach grammar. Why Ofsted are awful. Why Shirley Valentine has the […]

  4. taviaallan says:

    I completely agree with your views here. I teach A level English and often still need to teach the students what a verb is, using very much the same approach as you. When I ask students about learning grammar in high school they tend to report exactly the bitty approach you describe.

  5. An excellent analysis of the grammar deficit for many young people in our schools today Daisy. As you say, it’s a thorny issue. As soon as you start to write about it you are aware of the grammar police breathing down your neck, checking to see whether your own grasp of language is anything less than perfect. I tend to agree with David, however, that your solution is unworkable, both for the reason he suggests – an overcrowded curriculum – and for another, pragmatic reason. Unless you provide people with a good reason to develop a better understanding of grammar, whether that is to improve their own writing or to enable them to read and understand more sophisticated texts, then it is highly unlikely they will do so. Exams, sadly or otherwise, don’t cut it for most people, and even if they did it is too late by then. The enthusiasm for speaking, reading and writing has to come first.

  6. Hi Daisy
    I learnt my grammar from studying Latin at school. Not only did I find it enjoyable, it gave me confidence in other subjects such as English, French and German. Whilst I would welcome a good reason to teach more grammar explicitly, I agree with others’ comments about it being tricky to fit in. Whilst your approach would suit me, it does conflict with the latest research by Debra Myhill and her team at Exeter University, which concluded that grammar is learned most successfully when taught in context. This is reflected in the work done by @Edutronic which he has kindly posted on the Internet for use by anyone.

    I can only agree, however, with your analysis of the problems faced by the student whose work you have included.

  7. […] For me, the point about cultural capital is that it isn’t subjective, or at least, not very subjective. It’s based on the body of knowledge which collectively and over time we have decided is worthwhile. Knowing what is considered to useful and important is powerful. In English, it follows that knowing about so-called ‘Great Literature’, or the cannon, is important. This view is often attacked on the grounds that teaching students to revere the works of Dead White Men is reactionary and bound to burden them with thoughts and ideas that are irrelevant to their lives and circumstances. And so, perhaps, it would be if that were what I was advocating. Knowledge is power. This isn’t really a debate: the more you know, the better equipped you are to think, and no one is seriously arguing against the idea that pupils should be taught to think. The curriculum I would design would seek to encourage pupils to critique the cannon, to explore the contexts in which it texts were written and to examine how our views have developed over time. To that end, my ideal English curriculum will be led by the study of the cannon, but will also focus on criticism of it. Grammar But cultural capital isn’t just about being able to reel off passage of Shakespeare or Keats; it’s also about our ability to think and communicate. This means that knowledge of grammar is particularly powerful. I’ve come to believe that knowledge of grammar is foundational and transformative for two reasons. Firstly, if we want to be taken seriously we need to know and understand the rules of communication. If we know what they are we can then break them knowingly. I wasn’t taught much in the way of explicit knowledge about grammar at school and while I implicitly picked up quite a lot about how to get my thoughts across coherently, I did not have the knowledge to be able to think meta-cognitively about writing. This meant that my ability to write creatively was hampered; I wasn’t able to make informed choices. I was left with doing ‘what felt right’. But grammar is also important in helping us think analytically. Grammar is concerned with meaning and if we want to give our pupils the freedom to think and succeed academically, we need to teach the language to do so. In English we need to teach pupils to ‘think like an essay’. Daisy Christodoulou explains this with reference to one of her student’s work: […]

  8. […] Why and how we should teach grammar (Daisy Christodoulou) […]

  9. […] Why and how we should teach grammar February 5, 2012 […]

  10. Daisy – you are a sports fan, right? You must have noticed how foreign footballers – particularly the Dutch – often seem to be able to speak better English than homegrown players.

    This shouldn’t be a surprise: foreigners learn English as a foreign language, i.e. with reference to English grammar. Appreciating grammar enables you to order and express your thoughts more clearly and logically.

    I learnt more about English grammar from one month doing a TEFL certificate than from the previous 13 years of formal education. That knowledge helps me every day in my job (publishing).

  11. Rhoda Henson says:

    I am a qualified Further Education Teacher, currently working as a classroom assistant in a Welsh language school. My daughter is 17 and has Asperger’s Syndrome (recently diagnosed). When she was small she had a Statement for Special Educational Needs due to a severe language disorder. I taught her English in much the same way as we teach Welsh to children form non Welsh speaking homes. She has learnt to a high standard – she lost her statement at 8 years and is now studying 3 A levels and applying to university.

    We have hit a stumbling block in her ability to express her knowledge of Psychology and Biology (and sometimes her comprehension of questions). She is very knowledgeable and yet her sentences frequently do not mean what she wishes to say because the grammar is incorrect. My daughter would have benefited greatly being taught grammar formally because she is good at following rules. For all those pupils with mild autistic tendencies, teaching grammar formally is essential.

    I have reasonably good grammar thanks to an Oxford graduate of the old school who is my father. Yet, I was never taught it formally and therefore do not know how to explain the mistakes. I would appreciate the recommendation of a good grammar book which I could work through with my daughter.

  12. I totally agree that more formal grammar teaching is needed. I have concluded that I need to dedicate roughly one lesson a week to teaching it explicitly, beginning with the parts of speech. I’m going back to grammar books from some time ago for my source material, because they really cover it thoroughly. There are lots available for free online.

  13. […] length a half term is. What you will also see is David Didau’s English threshold concepts and Daisy Christodoulou’s decontextualised grammar drill in the teaching sequence she suggests.The latter is not something […]

  14. howardat58 says:

    When I started at secondary school (ok, it was a grammar school) in the 50’s we spent the whole of the first term Latin class doing English grammar. When my son, now 36, finished his schooling he told me that he learned much more about English grammar in his German class than he ever did in English class.

    • I learned my English grammar in French and doing a TESOL and linguistics course – not at school. I finally understood the distinction and use of its and it’s – which is unforgivable of my school, really. I still have difficulty with some sentence structures, which limits some of my writing, and writing is my passion.

  15. I learned my English grammar in French and when doing a TESOL and linguistic course – not at school. At last I understood the difference between and use of its and it’s – which is unforgivable of my school, really. I still find difficulty with some sentence structures, limiting the way I can write, and writing is my passion.

  16. Diarmuid says:

    OFSTED both is and are.

    It’s an acronym that serves as a collective noun.

    Other such nouns: family, police, army, committee, council etc.

    #irony, #justsayin #HoistByHisOwnPetard

  17. Philip Duval says:

    You’re absolutely right to emphasise the importance of a good command of grammar. I teach English as a Foreign Language and I had to teach myself an explicit understanding of English grammar because I had not been taught it properly at school. To this day there are ”progressives” who believe that grammar is useless… I really do wonder what they want children to learn. Anything which doesn’t support capitalism or the nation, it seems…

  18. jonlgore1 says:

    Hello Daisy. I am an ex-management consultant recently retrained as a primary teacher, and father of an 9 and 6 year old. In an environment where many high profile authors are arguing against children talking about grammatical techniques, and as someone concerned with the advanced, uncontextualised content of the KS2 grammar test and the effect it will have on my children’s and pupils’ schooling, I’m keen to understand the research that supports the rationale and content of the test.

    I contacted the DfE to find out more and they cited Prof. Debra Myhill’s Grammar for Writing research. I’m aware of the criticisms of it, but what concerns me is that it doesn’t seem to support what the DfE are claiming it supports, namely that children should be taught to label grammar terms out of context. I contacted Myhill and she confirmed that her research has been misrepresented. This sort of labelling exercise seems completely different to being able to understand the grammar and use it effectively in speaking and writing.

    Perhaps there are other arguments outside the field of writing, for example that labelling grammar terms in one language helps you learn another. I have tried to investigate these arguments further but can find nothing.

    Can you help here? Do you know where there is any research that supports the DfE’s claim and the validity of the grammar test?

  19. […] situation is similar with grammar. On the one hand, some teachers (including Daisy Christodoulou here) believe that grammar can and should be taught in a decontextualised manner. On the other, there […]

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