Grammar teaching in the national curriculum: has it failed the test?

Two academics defend their claims of ‘a significant and persistent mismatch’ between government policy and the techniques proven to work in the classroom in Tes. 

There are a limited number of hours in the school day, days in the school week, weeks in the school year. These are children’s precious years of education, so we have an absolute duty to ensure schooling is the best there is. Schooling requires curriculum content that is motivational for children, appropriate for what they need to learn and based on the best evidence of what works in the classroom.

In addition to more than 150 individually specified elements of spelling, and five pages of detailed specification of grammar (that are statutory), primary teachers in England are required to teach and assess their pupils’ knowledge of the following terms:

  • letter, capital letter 
  • word, singular, plural 
  • sentence 
  • punctuation, full stop, question mark, exclamation mark 
  • noun, noun phrase 
  • statement, question, exclamation, command 
  • compound, suffix 
  • adjective, adverb, verb 
  • tense (past, present) 
  • apostrophe, comma 

Etc, etc….

A few weeks ago there was this headline on the Tes website “Teaching grammar does not improve children’s writing ability, research finds”. The piece was based on a summary of our recent research paper. A significant finding from the paper, and our research that underpinned it, was that England’s national curriculum requirements for grammar teaching, particularly in primary schools, are not supported by robust research evidence in relation to improving children’s writing. By robust evidence, we mean experimental trials that include as a minimum one intervention group (such as grammar teaching) and one control group (such as “business as usual” teaching). And preferably trials where the children/teachers in these studies have been allocated to control or intervention using random allocation. By robust evidence, we also mean basing decisions about effective teaching on multiple studies, not just single studies.

In a response to the Tes piece, Debra Myhill alleged that, “… the article makes other claims that are simply inaccurate and suggest a rather hefty misunderstanding of modern ways of thinking about the relationship between grammar knowledge and reading and writing”.

Not one of the three professors who peer-reviewed our paper prior to submission, nor the three international referees plus at least one editor, who reviewed our paper questioned our understanding about language.

The sharpest allegation in Myhill’s piece is this: “The real issue is the ongoing controversy about school grammar that seems to push people into ideological corners and biased reporting.” Who exactly is doing this “biased reporting”? If this implies that we are biased in our paper then we categorically refute the allegation and ask for evidence to be provided that we are indeed biased. Once again the seven reviewers of the paper did not allege bias, even if they did make a range of recommendations that is a normal part of peer-review.

Finally, an area where we have more agreement with Myhill is the idea of listening “to the voices of teachers”. We were pleased that more than 160 people commented on Adi Bloom’s excellent Tes article that summarised our research. We assume that many of these voices were teachers. And, of course, they bring a different kind of robustness in their reaction to our findings; some views along the lines of “Doh! I could have told you that!”

Read the full article Grammar teaching in the national curriculum: has it failed the test?

What did you think of the original article? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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