Grammar in the classroom: not whether, but how

In this blog post, we open a discussion on the one-day symposium “Grammar in the classroom: not whether, but how”, held at the University of Exeter in February 2017. It begins with some introductory thoughts by Mark Brenchley from the University of Exeter, before moving on to a “response” by Ian Cushing from University College London. This will be the first of a two-part “discussion”, with the second part following up on the thoughts voiced here. Reader comments are welcome for both parts. Interested readers might also like to visit the links below, in order to find out more about the ongoing work on grammar education by both groups of researchers.

UCL

Exeter

Opening Remarks

Mark Brenchley, University of Exeter

Thanks so much for coming down Exeter-way for our grammar teaching symposium. I really enjoyed it; and that’s not just because I got a chance to actually talk with actual people for a change, rather than stare at a computer all day. Perhaps the most productive aspect of the symposium for me was a clearer (dare I say even reasonable!) discussion of the role of grammar teaching. That’s not always the case; at least, not in my experience. So I thought we might try continuing the discussion a little further, just to see where it takes us. Let’s hope we’re on a roll, and not pushing our luck.

As far as I can see, there are basically three reasons for teaching grammar to students who already speak the language in question.

  1. It’s the law: Grammar remains a statutory part of the curriculum, and you’ll get fired if you don’t teach it.
  2. Grammar is valuable for its own sake: Children have every right to know about the language they speak, much as they have every right to know the kings and queens of England or how an ox-box lake is formed.
  3. Grammar is instrumentally valuable: We should teach grammar because of its wider impact on student development.

I think we’d all agree that [1], though a perfectly reasonable survival strategy, isn’t especially compelling. After all, we’re much more interested in the question of why we should even have curricular grammar in the first place; and [1] has zero to say here.

[2], on the other hand, is much more interesting, and deserves to be given a more thorough hearing than it has so far. In fact, my only really quibble with a grammar-for-grammar’s-sake approach is the reality of a high stakes, already jam-packed curriculum; a reality that I suspect leaves little time for doing justice to such an approach.

That leaves [3], grammar taught not because it is simply something students have a right to know about, but because it helps students be better at something else. Moreover, here at the Centre for Research in Writing, [3] is very much where we hang our hat. Specifically, we’re interested in grammar for its potential to help students become the best speakers and writers they can be. And what’s more we have the evidence to prove it. Well, substantiate it. Well, make it a reasonable inference to a decent explanation.

I’m happy to go much more into the details of the CRW’s approach in a future post, as well as the underlying research base. But, in essence, our approach construes grammar less as an abstract system, and much more as a rhetorical tool: something always deployed in specific pieces of writing in order to achieve certain communicative effects (intentional or otherwise).

Turning to your own approach, my impression is that, though you’d agree that grammar can help students improve their writing, you have a much wider rationale for grammar teaching. That’s both in terms of [2], arguing for grammar as something valuable in its own right, and [3], with instrumentality construed much more widely in terms of other benefits like improving reasoning skills.

As already noted, I think [2] makes a lot of sense in principle, though I’m not sure there is enough teaching time to do it justice. And I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the wider benefits of grammar (I’m dimly aware of reading something somewhere sometime ago which offered some evidence here, though I can’t for the life of me remember what or where it is!).

But what I’m particularly interested in discussing are the consequences of our respective conceptions; that is, what they actually mean for teachers and students. In particular, whilst there’s likely a great deal of overlap between these conceptions, I’d wager that our separate emphases yield somewhat distinct practices. For example, my impression is that your own approach is keener on the use of grammatical terminology than our approach, which has a lesser interest in terminology, effectively highlighting features only where these are relevant to the particular kind of discourse at hand and only to the extent necessary for students to make better use of such features.

So, with that in mind, I thought I’d pose some questions that we can try teasing out over a couple of blog posts or two. Feel free to pick and choose as you see fit:

  • What’s your impression of our respective similarities/differences?
  • How important do you think meta-language is in dealing with grammar in the classroom?
  • Do you think there is space for grammar to be taught for its own sake?
  • What barriers do you think there are for ensuring grammar is a positive feature of the curriculum, rather than an arbitrary (and often stressful) chore? (And feel free to include linguists as a category here – despite a few honourable exceptions I don’t think the field has especially covered itself in glory here!)
  • Where do we go from here? That is, where do we researchers need to be focusing our attention?

Response

Ian Cushing, University College London

We would very much agree with your three reasons for teaching grammar, and the symposium gave us a chance to reflect on a number of things related to grammar and pedagogy. It was great to see so many people there from different institutions, positions and backgrounds – and very encouraging hearing about some of the fantastic work being done.

Much of the debate and discussion focused on points 2 and 3 of your “three reasons for teaching grammar”: [2] (Grammar is valuable for its own sake) and [3] (Grammar is instrumentally valuable). We’ve always argued that [2] is something that “justifies” grammar being on the curriculum, though we feel it’s often a position and an argument that is overlooked. Although the wider benefits of learning grammar are evident (as is the case in Exeter’s research findings), we advocate that learning about how language works is an inherently interesting thing to do by itself, regardless of the impact this might have on reading and writing development.  To take your five points:

What’s your impression of our respective similarities/differences?

Our approach adopts the position that there is some value in learning about grammar for its own sake; your approach adopts the position that learning about grammar is especially valuable for its capacity to further enable reading and writing development. I think we would stress that we don’t disagree with you here – it’s just that there’s a slightly different focus and motivation. Indeed, our two CPD courses that we offer (English Grammar for Teachers and Teaching English Grammar in Context) try to address both approaches.

How important do you think meta-language is in dealing with grammar in the classroom?

Meta-language and grammatical terminology is often the thing that teachers and students feel “frightened” of. To us, that’s understandable – there’s a lot of it, and grammatical terms are not always particularly intuitive or self-explanatory. That’s one of the reasons why we built the extensive language glossary section on Englicious, especially given that the 2014 National Curriculum glossary is brief (although it is certainly the most comprehensive NC glossary to date). We believe that meta-language is crucial to understanding how grammar works, and see it as an affordance, not a constraint. Meta-linguistic knowledge is enabling and empowering for students, and gives them the tools to talk about language in a systematic and accurate way. Having said that, if students want to avoid the pitfalls of “feature-spotting” when exploring grammatical choices in texts, they must be exposed to high quality talk about how language works and be encouraged to explore how grammar works as a meaning-making resource. Meta-language is useful, but it is not the only thing required for good language analysis.

Do you think there is space for grammar to be taught for its own sake?

Yes, if it’s taught in a way that’s engaging and focused. By focused, we mean taking one particular aspect of grammar (for example, noun phrases) and exploring that in detail. So, a lesson activity on noun phrases might cover a range of things: the difference between a word and a phrase; how to judge the head and dependents; the various internal structures of noun phrases; the mapping of grammatical form to grammatical function, exploring how noun phrases can fulfil the function of Subject, Complement or Object; the various meaning potentials of short and long noun phrases – and so on. This kind of grammatical knowledge can then be further “applied”, such as by looking at noun phrase choices in fictional writing (e.g. to describe characters or locations).

What barriers do you think there are for ensuring grammar is a positive feature of the curriculum, rather than an arbitrary (and often stressful) chore? (And feel free to include linguists as a category here – despite a few honourable exceptions I don’t think the field has especially covered itself in glory here!)

It’s probable that “traditional” grammar pedagogy has a lot to answer for here. For many teachers, their schema of “grammar” triggers dry, boring, somewhat mechanical naming of parts and sentence parsing. It’s our feeling that this type of pedagogy is what most teachers think of when they think of “decontextualized” grammar teaching. That’s not the only way of learning about grammar for its own sake, and that’s what we’ve tried to demonstrate in Englicious. At the same time, many teachers don’t feel secure in their own grammatical knowledge, which is why they might revert back to using the traditional methods (or just try and avoid it altogether), using artificial sentences that present a rather inaccurate picture of how real language works. We want teachers to see that knowing about language is empowering and will help them to teach different texts, rather than being a “bolt on” afterthought. Universities and teacher-training providers must also work to increase grammatical subject knowledge provision on their teacher-training courses, knowing that the majority of teachers do not come from linguistics or language related subject background.

Where do we go from here? That is, where do we researchers need to be focusing our attention?

Good grammar teaching requires two things: subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. In our view, an ultimate aim would be for teachers to have a secure combination of both. That means teachers having access to training materials, resources and ideas that are research-informed, and driven by classroom actualities. We believe that research should be conducted in collaboration with practitioners – a blend of a top-down/bottom-up approach, using our best knowledge of language and education. If we can challenge perceptions that grammar is a dry and boring subject, and demonstrate that knowing a bit about how language works is interesting in itself, then we’ll be on the right track to making progress.

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