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A Great Big Grammar Hammer - But What Nut Is It Cracking?

EMC's Barbara Bleiman expresses her love of grammar by calling for sense and restraint in how it is taught to 11-16 year olds.

Let me start with an unequivocal statement. I love grammar. And I love the teaching of grammar. It’s something I’ve always done in the classroom, and supported and promoted in work with teachers. I’ve written resources for secondary English that are all about grammar, and I once contributed a grammar unit to a resource created by EMC for Key Stage 2. If anyone ever says, ‘She’s against grammar teaching,’ please tell them they’re wrong.

Having said that, I’m not keen on all grammar teaching, for all ages and stages. I think some of it is fascinating, important and extremely valuable for students to learn about but some of it is not. And I think some ways of teaching it are more helpful and appropriate than others.

What’s my thinking?

Appropriate for the  Age and Stage – What’s Worth Teaching and When

First, it seems to me that it should be appropriate for the age and stage of the students. We don’t teach nuclear fission/fusion to any (and certainly not all) 11-year olds, however fascinating and important it might be to university students or postgrads and practising scientists. We need to make judgements about what is introductory, rather than advanced or of specialist interest, and therefore of real value to all students of English, aged 4-16, in the compulsory phases of education.

So, one might ask whether working through the whole system of sentence grammar is of value to all students, expecting them to recognise, name and label all aspects of words, phrases and clauses and how they function in different sentences? At the age of 10, 11 or 12, might it not be better to focus on engendering an interest in grammar by noticing significant things in texts and wondering why, rather than getting them to identify and name all the individual elements? Investigative activities like making up an invented language for an alien species, or reading children’s picture books to consider the writers’ choices (both lexical and grammatical) can encourage students to think in a big picture, conceptual way about what grammar is, how it works and what impact it can make in texts. This kind of thinking can fuel a further interest in more detailed work along the way, perhaps more systematically, later on.  Starting with the detail, piling it on, repetitively reinforcing it and testing it, runs the risk of making it an unnecessarily laborious process at this early stage.

Grammar Can be Complicated

Associated with all of this is a major issue about the level of demand. As most advocates of grammar will agree, grammar is complicated; it’s not always clear-cut; linguists have different words for the same things – or the same words for different things. A word is not a verb or a noun or an adjective. It all depends on where and how it’s used. The word ‘jump’ is a verb if ‘I jump in the air’, a noun if I ‘I do a big jump’, a noun/compound word if I do a ‘jump-cut’, an intransitive verb if ‘I jumped up high’ but transitive if ‘I jumped the lights’ or ‘She jumped him and landed a punch’.

At what point do students need to be able to confidently make decisions about labelling which these are, getting to grips with these difficult distinctions? And to what purpose?

In linguistic analysis at A Level, where students have chosen to focus on language in sustained ways and at a higher level, there will be lots of circumstances where this could be useful and they will be mature enough to grapple with the complexities. For instance, a text might use language in inventive ways, perhaps using verbs in a transitive way to break with convention and foreground something e.g. ‘He walked the room. He talked the talk. He danced and sang the crowd. He played them. He won them.’ Here, one might want to say that the repeated pattern of transitive verbs, often using them in ways that are not at all conventional, builds a sense of how this person successfully controls everything in his environment. Nevertheless, it remains debatable whether knowledge of the terms is essential. Someone might be able to make an equally valid and interesting point without using the terms ‘transitive or intransitive’. And over and above that, there might be other ways of framing the discussion of this piece of text, for instance, talking about the repeated pattern of the male subject taking action, in very short, single clause sentences. That might be of just as much interest overall, though expressed in more everyday terms. Clearly here, the notion of the clause is helpful and perhaps the broad concept of clause, phrase and sentence would be worth tackling for all students, even at KS2 or KS3.

Grammar for Writing?

Some would argue that it’s essential to teach the fundamentals of sentence grammar because it is important for the development of students’ writing. The evidence on this is limited and hedged about with caveats and cautionary messages. The best attempts to answer the question of whether knowing about grammar improves writing have been done by the team at Exeter University led by Debra Myhill. As Myhill and colleagues’ research shows, there is some evidence that talking about grammar in texts can be helpful but that the benefits come from noticing, thinking, questioning and talking in order to develop an understanding of what’s going on conceptually, not learning multiple terms and doing labelling of examples. Noticing effects in texts and applying those by choice to one’s own writing does seem to have some impact, especially for higher attaining students but not necessarily for all, and possibly not as big an impact as other interventions in writing. Just knowing the terms themselves seems to have very limited benefits, and an undue focus on them is almost certainly counter-productive.  For lower attaining students in particular, is being able to recognise and/or use a noun in apposition, or an adverbial, or a subordinating conjunction (and knowing how to describe it), time better spent than reading lots of texts, talking about them and writing in a range of ways, with plenty of time for talk, exploration, discussion, playful experimentation, drafting, re-drafting and thinking?

How Much, How Thorough? – Time Costs and What Might Be Displaced

In a world where opportunities for extended writing and creative writing at KS3 have shrunk significantly, where time to read lots of books, either as class readers or for personal reading, is heavily constrained, where the spoken word has taken second place and where media in English has been all but excised, we have to ask whether detailed instruction in the whole system of grammar is really the best use of time.

I have seen over the past decade or more, as well as in quite recent resources, material that seems to me to be very, very thorough and detailed and would take up significant amounts of class time, in chunks of lessons over the whole of KS3. Here again, one might ask whether we need to be so systematic and thorough in our teaching of grammar to students, or can we get by with something a bit more rough and ready, that gives them some key concepts and the language with which to talk about grammatical choices, without covering the whole territory?

How Best to Teach It

And then, assuming we want to teach some grammar – which I do – there’s the huge question of how. How is it best taught in the compulsory years of education, so that it generates genuine interest and is well-remembered and made use of in future life? As suggested earlier, it seems to me that an investigative approach, one that involves noticing interesting things, speculating about them and then trying to work out what exactly is going on, is the key to making all students ‘grammar-aware’, not only in English but in their lives as a whole. Having conceptual awareness and the ability to notice does not necessarily ‘require’ knowledge of a lot of terminology to describe it. Terms can, of course, be useful. But the noticing and the conceptual thinking should come first. The reverse risks foregrounding labels and terms at the expense of exploration and ideas. And when those labels are so complicated, and so contested, all the more reason for not getting too ‘hung up’ on them.

Here's an example from a book one might read with Y7s, The Wolf Wilder, by Katherine Rundell.

Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl. 

The girl was Russian, and although her hair and eyes and fingernails were dark all of the time, she was stormy only when she thought it absolutely necessary. Which was fairly often.

Now, there are multiple fascinating things going on here, which are a blending of grammatical, generic, semantic and other elements. Grammar, of course, always blends into other things. But of the grammatical elements perhaps the most interesting is the break in the conventional sentence structure with ‘Which was fairly often.’  Why does the writer do this? That’s what’s most interesting to me, not whether I can label it as the separation of the relative clause from the main clause, in a new sentence. As I read on, I see that the writer does this quite often. And it seems to me that it’s both a form of humour – saving something up that makes us laugh a bit, as we get to know this unconventional, quirky heroine – and later, it’s a way of shifting us into the protagonist’s own thinking and head, in the context of a third person narration. If a student notices this, and can talk about it without the terms ‘relative and main clause’, which I think they can, I’d be delighted. I’d rather be spending the time in Year 7 on a book like this and discussion like this, than teaching and testing knowledge of what a main and a relative clause are. I’d rather be teaching the blending of grammatical and other elements as they appear in actual texts, drawing out what’s of interest along the way.

Beyond Sentence Grammar

As all of this suggests, for me, that grammar should always be taught in the context of texts – texts written by students, read by them and, crucially, spoken too. (This is something that Myhill and colleagues stress very strongly and I can’t agree with them enough.)  Grammar is not just words and how they are arranged in sentences. It is also sentences and how they are arranged in paragraphs (or verses, or dialogues and spoken utterances), and paragraphs or verses etc and how they are arranged in whole texts, and how whole texts fit into genres. Already, in this paragraph, it’s clear that to talk about sentences excludes both poetry and the spoken word. So, the way I might talk about grammar will differ according to the genre I’m discussing. The grammar of poetry is, because of the nature of the genre, already very different from that of prose. If I say that something is interesting grammatically in poetry, I need to be aware that poetry often/always plays with sentence grammar. An individual poet like Langston Hughes choosing to say ‘I, too, sing America’ might be an example of that transitive/intransitive verb issue I raised earlier and well worth discussing – can you ‘sing’ America rather than ‘about’ America and what does this then imply? What is ‘America’ here? A place, an idea, a cultural identity, not being sung ‘about’ but something more integral to himself? But a poet saying ‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance’, inverting the order of the verb in ‘I saw’, is not necessarily doing anything special. That’s what poets often do, though, by contrast, perhaps the inversion of ‘Ten thousand’ might be more worthy of comment!

Noticing what’s odd, or unusual or special is what’s most important of all for me – not being able to label the fact that ‘I sing’ is being used as a transitive verb, omitting the preposition ‘about’ or that ‘saw I’ is an example of inversion.

For a lot more on an ‘embedded’, contextualised approach to the teaching of grammar, in which it is seen in relation to whole texts and blended with other elements of language, as well as being focused on ideas rather than labels, Debra Myhill and her team’s sustained work is essential reading. In particular, the LEAD principles provide an excellent structure for thinking about pedagogy in relation to grammar, to root it in the reading and writing that students are doing, and to avoid it becoming lots of ‘mini-lessons’ explaining aspects of sentence grammar. 

Foregrounding Spoken as Well as Written English

Here’s one other thing I can’t stress strongly enough. The study of grammar in schools must involve a major focus on spoken language as well as written language, and non-standard as well as standard-forms. If not, it risks omitting huge areas of our linguistic experience. It also risks becoming damagingly focused on ‘correctness’ as opposed to choices and on hierarchies of right and wrong – written above spoken, standard above other forms. It risks codifying in ways that solidify prejudice and linguistic injustice. So, teaching about grammar needs to teach broader knowledge about the nature of dialects and their status, as well as the key ways in which the grammar of all speech differs from the grammar of writing. That might avoid the situation in which schools put up posters exhorting students to ‘Talk in full sentences’ or not use fillers or hedges like ‘like’ in their speech.

The Big Picture – Grammar in Broader Knowledge about Language

Rather than regular sessions or chunks of lessons, spent on explaining, recognising, labelling, using verbs, adverbials and so on, and testing that knowledge, I’d be arguing for big, meaty units in KS3 on ‘Spoken and Written English’, on ‘Different Varieties of English’, where students learn about the history of the language, the debates about the language, ways of collecting and analysing speech and comparing it with writing and so on. This to me is the essential, big picture, conceptual background to any detailed knowledge of sentence grammar. Without this, sentence grammar is like train-spotting without any sense of how the network operates, who runs it, the control mechanisms and so on.

So, yes please to grammar. Let’s do it. Let’s even have more of it. But let’s make sure that the grammar learning that we offer to students is at an appropriate level, takes up a sensible amount of time and, above all else, allows students to observe, notice, judge, think, question and be aware of how grammar works in a whole system of language in the texts they read, as well as the ones they write and speak.

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Barbara Bleiman on 31 October 2023