It’s something of an understatement to say that glamour and grammar are not usually closely associated in many people’s minds. One of the 100 words David Crystal uses to tell The Story of English is ‘grammar’. It turns out that grammar and glamour come from the same root. Grammar originally meant the study of everything written but, as reading must have seemed like an almost magical skill to your average medieval peasant, grammar became synonymous with supernatural or occult knowledge. ‘Grammary’ came to mean magical or necromantic learning. And this leads us to ‘glamour’ which first meant a magical spell or enchantment and has since travelled on to arrive at its modern meaning which is about as far from the study of grammar as one could imagine.
Daisy Christodoulou argues that the best way to teach grammar is through decontextualised drill. The alternative, typified by Deborah Myhill’s Grammar for Writing approach is problematic. If you want to teach grammar in context, you have two choices. You either give them feedback on their writing which concentrates just on the grammatical knowledge which you are engaged in actively teaching at the time, or you give them feedback on all the grammatical mistakes in every piece of work. If you take the first approach you will be forced to ignore certain mistakes and allow pupils to embed bad habits. Practice makes permanent and pupils become skilled at what they practise doing. If on the other hand you pick them up on every mistake you run the risk of overloading their working memory with the result that they will fail to learn anything. But if grammar is taught systematically and out of context then pupils will be able to master each item grammatical knowledge before moving on to the next step.
But, problematic as Myhill’s approach appeared, there was some annoying evidence from the education giant Pearson supporting the fact that it appeared to work. It therefore came as a bit of a relief to read this post on the need for caution when looking at evidence in education from Alex Quigley without which I might have completely missed the report from the Education Endowment Foundation which found that “Grammar for Writing is not effective in improving general writing among Year 6 pupils when delivered as a whole class intervention over four weeks.” This led to the conclusion that “The evidence for Grammar for Writing from this evaluation is insufficient to recommend widespread adoption among Year 6 pupils.”
We all believe we’re right, even when we’re wrong. Whatever your views of grammar teaching, I’m sure they’re sincerely held. I should imagine this must have come as a blow to Myhill – an academic who has done excellent work on literacy and for whom I have nothing but respect – but I have to say that these findings are satisfying on a personal level. Schadenfreude is an ugly thing, but it’s always nice to have one’s bias confirmed.
We all seem to agree that grammar, and by that I mean both the meta-language of verbs, clauses and participles and the practical knowledge of the function of words and sentences, is important, but we’re no nearer a definitive answer on how best to teach it. For what it’s worth I recommend the following two-step process:
- Decontextualised & discreet grammar lessons are a tremendously useful way of getting pupils to master the fundamentals
- This then needs embedding across a whole school with every subject teacher expecting pupils to apply the grammatical knowledge they’ve acquired within the naturally occurring contexts of their subjects.
As always, my understanding is of course incomplete and I’d be interested to hear how your opinions might diverge from mine.