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Grammar matters and should be taught – differently

We need to bring back teaching grammar, but not how it used to be Shutterstock

I’m going to put it out there - most teachers don’t know enough about how the English language works [aka grammar], and this inevitably impacts upon student literacy outcomes.

There are grammar pundits who love their knowledge about the language for the haughty power it affords them: the ability to write corrective letters to the editor and the certain belief there is one right way to write and speak - their way.

This group gives grammar a bad name.

Grammar isn’t about linguistic straight jackets and rules; it is how creativity manifests itself in language. Grammar is how we organise our words and sentences to communicate with others and to express ourselves.

With grammar knowledge you know what is possible in English; you know how you need to speak and write to get the job done in different situations. You know when you can push the envelope with language, and how to do that.

Speaking and writing are not the same

What we can do with written language is very different from what we can do with spoken language. When we write, we have time to hone and craft our language, and so the grammar of our writing is very different from the grammar of our speaking.

When we don’t teach grammar we stifle creativity and limit possibilities for many children. We leave them to fall back on what they intuitively know about language, and as a consequence they simply write like they speak.

Subsequent teacher comments on their writing are vague and unhelpful - ‘too informal, too colloquial, too chatty, rambling, repetitive’. Kids need more direction than this; they need someone who can show them what is possible in written language and how to achieve it.

All children deserve to be able to use language with intention and effect, for any purpose and in all circumstances. Indeed their capacity to do so is what they are assessed on everyday at school, so if teachers don’t teach what school is assessing we are being negligent.

If the only language resource kids have is what they hear in their everyday lives, then we leave behind the children who need us most.

So - why don’t teachers teach grammar?

If you went to school any time from the 70s onwards, you probably didn’t get much grammar instruction at school. Some large scale research studies in the 60s, replicated over the decades, concluded that grammar instruction didn’t have much impact upon reading and writing, so why bother with it.

But the problem wasn’t grammar, it was the way it was being taught. Grammar was a standalone subject where random sentences were divided into their constituent parts (parsing or diagramming) - grammar teaching was not a means to an end (improved literacy), it was just the end.

The disappearance of grammar from schools - and most teacher education faculties - for decades means many of today’s teachers have no subject knowledge of grammar, nor any idea of how to teach it effectively. And publishers have stepped in to fill the gap.

Teaching grammar

Publishers also have no idea how to teach grammar, but are happy to sell hundreds of thousands grammar workbooks to insecure teachers and parents - tedious, out-of-context grammar exercises that urge children to underline the adjective and circle the noun on page after page of pointless, time-wasting work.

This work doesn’t uncover the beauty of the English language, nor does it it unleash creativity in our children. It does the opposite. These workbooks are the epitome of bad writing; writing that serves no expressive or communicative purpose.

The best way to teach grammar is through exemplary literature. This is where grammar is real. This is where we understand the ways in which we can play with language to achieve our intentions.

In great writing we can notice how the author uses their language knowledge and how they organise their words and sentences to make us notice, feel, see or imagine something.

But for that kind of teaching to happen, teachers need grammar knowledge.

Building teachers’ knowledge about language

Many great writers probably have little explicit knowledge of how the language works, but intuitively they play with grammar all the time. They can dip into a broad repertoire of implicit language knowledge, and make deliberate choices in their writing.

For example, they know when they start their sentence with words about where (adverbial phrases) rather than who, that their reader will be pulled into the setting rather than focused immediately on the character. They know that describing a character through their actions (adverbials) can sometimes be more evocative than describing their appearance (adjectivals).

Most of our kids neither know these things, nor how to organise their writing to achieve them.

So whilst great writers can get by with an intuitive understanding of English grammar, teachers need an explicit knowledge. They need to able to understand how effective writing works, so they can notice language and teach it to their students.

Testing teachers won’t build this language knowledge. What is required is carefully considered pre-service and in-service professional learning for teachers where language knowledge is built inside great teaching - rather than some disconnected sideshow.

Reading is a good way for kids to learn grammar Shutterstock

Time for a grammar revolution

If we are happy with the status quo - where the power of writing is enjoyed by the intuitive few, or those from very specific home backgrounds, then we could do what we’ve been doing since the 70s.

If we want to return to the ‘good old days’ of the 50s and 60s where grammar instruction thrilled a few, bored most and made no difference to reading and writing outcomes then we could continue down the current track of meaningless grammar teaching from workbooks.

Or if we’d like to do something powerful for our children - and close the achievement gap whilst we’re at it - we’ll ensure all teachers have grammar knowledge and fill our classrooms with great literature where the power of sophisticated language knowledge is both evident and inspiring.