Using grammar to make meaning

2021-01-19T11:21:19+00:00January 19th, 2021|English, writing|

As a writer I know that I must select studiously the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, etcetera, and by a careful syntactical arrangement make readers laugh, reflect or riot. Maya Angelou, Conversations with Maya Angelou Every human culture has developed a spoken language and, by inference, a system of grammar. No one ever sits us down and teaches us how to speak, we just soak it up from our environment. All children, regardless of their culture, seem to go through very predictable phases of language acquisition: first they learn nouns, then they start to pick up verbs and then start to combine [...]

Handwriting matters

2018-02-13T14:09:04+00:00February 13th, 2018|psychology, writing|

Some years ago, during the interview for a role as Head of English in a secondary school, all the candidates were asked to speak about what we would prioritise if we were to get the job. I have no memory of what I said, but I vividly recall one of the other candidates saying he would focus on improving students' handwriting. My bland inanities resulted in me getting the job; he didn't make the cut and was sent home after lunch. How we laughed. At the time it struck me that focussing on improving students' handwriting as a secondary English teacher [...]

What *does* improve children’s writing?

2019-12-08T14:39:13+00:00December 1st, 2017|writing|

In my last post I discussed evidence that suggests grammar teaching does not lead to an improvement in children's writing. Although it seems implausible that grammar teaching would not be positively correlated with writing outcomes, there's a lot of evidence that is strongly suggestive that what I prefer to believe may not in fact actually be true. I've written enough about cognitive bias to know that I am predisposed to look for evidence that supports my preferences and dismiss evidence that contradicts them. The point of evidence is that it forces us to confront the extent to which our intuitions map [...]

Can grammar teaching improve pupils’ writing?

2017-12-13T09:10:51+00:00November 29th, 2017|research, writing|

Let me begin with an anecdote. The first time I ever really encountered the meta language of grammar was after finishing my degree in English Literature and embarking on a six-week course to qualify to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL). I had to cram a whole host of previously unknown terminology in order to pass the course and it all seemed pretty pointless. Not knowing this stuff hadn't made a jot of difference to my ability to read and write as far as I could tell. After I got my certificate I bounced from place to place using my [...]

5 things every new (secondary) teacher should know about writing

2016-09-03T10:49:22+01:00September 1st, 2016|training, writing|

Academic success is dependent on students being able to communicate their understanding of a subject and, sooner or later, that communication will be written. For many secondary teachers writing is something that just happens; some students do it well, others poorly and there's precious little you can do about it. In secondary schools teachers teach subjects and although some effort will be put into essay writing skills in some subject areas, by and large, the ability to write effectively is left to chance. Back in 2006 I marked Paper 2 of the AQA English Language GCSE and one of the prompts students were given to [...]

The Capital Letter Problem Part 2: Pressure and release

2016-08-28T17:11:11+01:00August 27th, 2016|writing|

In my last post I defined what I'm calling The Capital Letter Problem and set out some of its causes. Briefly, children pick up and embed bad habits when writing and, although they often know what should be done, they'll revert to what's been practised when under any kind of pressure. One solution could be to take a lesson from the world of horse training. Horse trainer Linda Parelli talks about the use of pressure and release. As she explains it, "Pressure motivates, release teaches." ... teaching and training horses really is quite simple, because it involves not much more than the appropriate application [...]

The Capital Letter Problem – Part 1

2016-08-27T23:53:35+01:00August 26th, 2016|writing|

I have almost never met a secondary age child who doesn't conceptually understand how to use a capital letter.* But, you'd never know. Students regularly hand in work liberally sprinkled with missing - or extraneous - capitals and conscientious teachers spend hours circling the errors and patiently explaining why proper nouns and words at the beginning of a new sentence need capitals. In return, students say, "I know. It's just the way I write." It's pointless to give someone feedback about something they already know - lack of knowledge isn't the problem. The problem is caused by practice. Contrary to what [...]

Why study grammar?

2017-11-30T08:44:52+00:00May 12th, 2016|writing|

Trying to express complex thoughts in simple English ... is demanding, challenging and takes time. Terry Leahy There's been a lot of fuss over the past week about whether it's appropriate to assess children's knowledge of grammar at the end of Key Stage 2. Various commentators even seem to take a perverse pride in their lack of knowledge boasting that ignorance hasn't held them back. But amidst all the confusion and vitriol, some people have been asking why, if grammatical knowledge is so important, most people seem to manage without it. This is a reasonable question, and one worth answering. First we need to [...]

On bullshit: the value of clarity, precision and economy

2017-04-04T10:20:39+01:00February 8th, 2016|writing|

"Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear." Ezra Pound I've always been of the opinion that saying what you mean clearly, precisely and without undue verbiage is something of a boon to understanding, but it would appear that to some such writerly virtues actually reduce meaning. For instance in this publication from Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain we're told that Today’s ‘clarity- mongers’ are not attacking metaphysics, as did past empiricist/analytical philosophers in the Anglophone tradition. Now, crudely, they don’t like what they can’t understand... philosophers’ ‘clarity’ might not be clear to others... Well-known analytical [...]

Rubrics warp teaching and assessment

2017-08-16T02:35:38+01:00December 11th, 2015|writing|

Men are more apt to be mistaken in their generalizations than in their particular observations. Machiavelli In a recent blog post, children's author, Michael Rosen has suggested how teachers should teach, assess and share students' writing. He has helpfully broken his thoughts into three areas: teaching & assessment, editing, and sharing. In this post, I'm going to consider his ideas on the teaching and assessment of 'good writing'. Rosen points out that schools teach children to write for exams and that writing for exams is not the same thing as writing well. This is, of course, true; we teach what's assessed and [...]

Essay writing: style and substance

2017-01-15T10:19:18+00:00November 17th, 2015|English, writing|

You have such strong words at command, that they make the smallest argument seem formidable. George Eliot As with most subjects, the step up from GCSE to A level English literature is tough. You can get a pretty good grade at GCSE without developing a critical style or understand much about the art of constructing an academic essay. Students' work is routinely littered with stock phrases such as "I know this because" and "this shows" all of which shift the focus from having to think about subject content in sophisticated ways to simply learning a collection of fail-safe formulas. Of the 4 [...]

If writing is magic, grammar is alchemy

2020-04-17T13:54:42+01:00November 9th, 2015|writing|

I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences. I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves. Gertrude Stein Writing is the technological innovation that has most changed the way we think and how we learn. It allows us the send our thoughts across time and space, and peer back in the past to see how people lived and thought thousands of years before we were born. We have access to all that has been recorded and preserved from all over the world. This is magic, but of a very prosaic [...]