How can we support teachers' standards of literacy?

//How can we support teachers' standards of literacy?

Recently, I’ve spent some time talking to school leaders about how to implement and evaluate effective literacy policies in schools. From these conversations it’s clear that one of the main stumbling blocks is concern over some teachers’ standards of literacy. If “every teacher in English is a teacher of English,” unless teachers are familiar with some fairly basic knowledge of the English language they may, inadvertently, be passing on misinformation and bad habits to their students. This is likely to disproportionately affect the least advantaged children, disadvantaging them further. It therefore makes sense to hold teachers to account for the personal standards of literacy.
In the Teachers’ Standards it says teachers must, “demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject”. [my emphasis] This is unlikely to happen if teachers’ personal standards of literacy don’t allow them to recognise when they or their students are making mistakes.
Some people might want to argue that it’s wrong to see non-standard usages as a ‘mistake’ but if students don’t know that certain ways of communicating are deemed incorrect then they will struggle to be taken seriously in an academic or professional setting. It’s not that I want to police anyone’s grammar it’s that if students don’t know the correct use of standard English then their  options are limited and some choices will not be open to them. The bottom line is this: if we want children to be academically successful they need to be fluent in the language of academic success.
This is, I hope, relatively uncontroversial. The next consideration is what precisely represents “high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English”? There’s no official guidance on this and so it falls to school leaders to determine what the standard is. My view is that teachers in a secondary school ought to know at least as much as we would expect of a Year 7 student.
My ambition for every Year 7 student is that they have mastered the following:

How words work

  • Parts of speech (verbs, nouns, articles, adjectives, prepositions)
  • Subject verb agreement
  • Tense

Clear sentences

  • The elements of a sentence
  • Types of sentence (simple, compound & complex)
  • Commas (listing and bracketing)

Coherent texts

  • Topic sentences
  • Paragraphs
  • Introductions & conclusions

This is – or should be – a relatively low bar. 
As with everything teachers are expected to do, the focus should always be on the effect all this will have on children. If teachers do not explicitly understand subject-verb agreement, how likely are they to spot it when students make mistakes? They might model incorrect punctuation usage of and, worse, tell children who are using syntax correctly that they have made a mistake.
The trouble is, through no fault of their own, many teachers are not sufficiently familiar with these concepts. Up until recently, grammatical knowledge was not assessed at any point during a child’s journey through school and so we had several decades in which few schools taught grammar in any kind of systematic way. So, if we want to support teachers in filling this deficit in their professional knowledge, we will need to handle this sensitively and with clarity.
I’ve worked with a couple of schools to help them implement a system for improving teachers’ grammatical knowledge and the procedure we’ve followed looks like this:
1. Audit teachers’ current levels of knowledge of and confidence with basic grammatical principles. 
I would not advise giving teachers a test. Instead I would suggest asking teachers to self identify using a form like this:
This sort of survey can be easily distributed, collected and interpreted using various free tech platforms. Once we have the data, we then need to decide what to do with it. Crucially, we should trust teachers to fill this in accurately and then hold them to account for what they say.
2. Use the appraisal process to set robust targets to focus staff on making appropriate improvements.
This might seem like too much of a blunt instrument, but, human nature being what it is, we need to know that we will be held account for our decisions if we are to be our best. Tying this to appraisal process allows school leaders to have the carrot and stick of pay progressions as a last resort for the most recalcitrant or disorganised. I would advise setting clear but ambitious targets that take account of where an individual is. Most MFL teachers and some English teachers will already be fairly expert and so their target might reasonably be to help provide support for those who haven’t yet reached their level of mastery.
3. Provide a range of appropriate provision to support teachers in meeting their targets 
Choice is essential here. Making teachers attend endless twilight INSET sessions is only likely to cause resentment and will not be appropriate for everyone. We must remember that treating all teachers equally is fundamentally unfair. As such we need to offer a range of support which might include some taught masterclasses but also coaching and, especially for those who don’t want to spend any more of their lives in school than strictly necessary, we need to offer distance learning options. There are several free online grammar courses that might be suitable, but if you would like something more bespoke, I have developed some of my own resources I’d be happy to provide (for a modest consideration.)
4. Allow teachers to take individual responsibility about how exactly they wish to access support and work towards meeting their targets
Over the course of the appraisal cycle, teachers should be given the autonomy to working towards meeting their targets in whatever they feel is most suitable. They should be trusted to act as professionals and not corralled into doing things which they see as pointless or unhelpful. That said, regular polite reminders can provide welcome redirection and focus. Those responsible for the appraisal of others should check in to see whether additional support is needed. Some staff value freedom more than others and some may welcome an element of direction.
5. Hold teachers to account for how they have chosen to work towards meeting their appraisal targets.
At the end of appraisal process teachers need to know that they will be held to account for their choices. Again, I wouldn’t advise giving teachers a test, instead I’d want to have a conversation about how they went about trying to meet their targets. If they have worked hard and made sensible choices that should be enough. That they have not, perhaps, made sufficient progress may be the down the quality of the support the school offered. Possibly some targets will need to be reassigned so they can be worked on further. It may turn out that some teachers have not yet earned the autonomy to choose how to meet their professional responsibilities. If this is the case, we should set tighter, more prescriptive targets. Withholding pay progression really ought to be a last resort.
Although, I’ve worked with a number of schools who have agreed that this a sensible and proportionate way to address a potential gap in teachers’ professional knowledge, I’m always shocked when I hear school leaders claim that this is unfairly demanding and an unreasonable expectation of teachers. My suspicion is that such views are often born out of unease at own lack of familiarity with grammatical knowledge. I really understand that this is a sensitive subject and it absolutely needs sensitive handling. It’s important to acknowledge our own weaknesses and be honest about what we don’t know. No one can be blamed for not knowing something they’ve never been taught, but failure to take responsibility for something once we know it is important is harder to forgive.
If you’d be interested in exploring any of the ideas in more depth, do please get in touch via email.



  1. Katie Stafford November 18, 2017 at 11:11 am - Reply

    Hello David, teaching English as a second language within first language qualifications is an increasing challenge. Syntax is the key issue- do you have any suggestions for supporting this, for non specialist teachers?
    Many thanks

  2. chrismwparsons November 18, 2017 at 11:26 am - Reply

    I agree with all of this David, but I’m struggling with this otherwise quotable sentence: “One of my suggestions was that if “every teacher in English to be a teacher of English” unless teachers are familiar with some fairly basic knowledge of the English language they may, inadvertently, be passing on misinformation and bad habits to their students.”
    I’m guessing there’s a mistake somewhere, but I can’t quite be sure where!

    • David Didau November 18, 2017 at 11:30 am - Reply

      That’s what comes from redrafting without rereading! Corrected.

  3. Michael Rosen November 18, 2017 at 11:42 am - Reply

    I notice that you don’t include an examination or exposition of how speech differs from written language. Given that speech is where students ‘perform’ non-standard forms but it is in writing that they ‘perform’ (or should perform) the written form, then wouldn’t it be useful for students to examine the differences? In actual fact, no one speaks written Standard English. Even those speaking educated English, hesitate, repeat, interrupt themselves, use irregular forms, don’t finish sentences, use ‘broken’ utterances and a good deal of ellipsis. Meanwhile, the written form of extended prose uses structures unique to that form e.g. front-loading of sentences with expanded noun phrases, relative clauses, and fronted adverbials; and avoids the use of imprecise or ambiguous pronouns, and ‘block’ writing or non-finite structures that you see in headlines, ads, poetry and songs.
    Quite often, we can learn new stuff (if it is new for some or many of the students) by showing differences between what is familiar to them (in this case their own speech) and what is less familiar (in this case the structures of extended prose writing).

    • David Didau November 18, 2017 at 1:48 pm - Reply

      You gotta start somewhere. This is, I think, the best place

  4. […] 8. How can we support teachers’ standards of literacy?, by David Didau […]

  5. […] 8. How can we support teachers’ standards of literacy?, by David Didau […]

  6. dipintothefuture November 18, 2017 at 6:36 pm - Reply

    In Secondary school English lessons, teachers do work with learners on the differences between spoken and written English. All Michael Rosen’s examples of the characteristics of spoken English, and more, are covered. The other subjects also have their own characteristic forms of written expression, which English teachers are often not fully aware of, and which it would be very useful to share. David Didau’s suggestion is wonderful – I just can’t believe it’s still NEEDED – I’d extend it to a constant awareness of self expression throughout Secondary and Tertiary etc levels – making oneself understood, and understanding the vast sea of communication coming at us daily, is vital for our development as sentient beings (whatever that means lol!).

  7. Blah November 18, 2017 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    Teachers must have achieved at least a grade C in GCSE English and progressed to a degree and postgraduate qualification as well as passing the literacy test which is part of the GCSE. They have had at least six years post compulsory education. If you’re suggesting that teachers can’t be relied on to have the sort of literacy skills you’re assuming that the average year 7 pupil should have, why on earth not? It is not the job of other teachers, schools or the education system in general to educate teachers to ensure they have the standards of literacy expected in an 11 year old. Schools are supposed to be educating children. Also, if the teachers have not picked up how to use a paragraph or topic sentence after all their years of education and with all their qualifications (really? we’re saying they can achieve a GCSE, let alone a post-graduate qualification without knowing how to use a paragraph?) then they’re unlikely to pick up these skills by being taught it yet again? If adults who are so highly qualified and professionally committed to educate children cannot use a paragraph then they may well have significant literacy difficulties themselves or a major problem with their own motivation and learning such that they will probably need significant levels of individual support to develop. But also what are we saying about our education system either that adults are getting to this level without basic literacy skills and that we are providing pupils with such people as teachers.

    • David Didau November 18, 2017 at 10:44 pm - Reply

      Students are now explicitly taught grammar in preparation for the KS2 SATs. Many teachers were never taught grammar whilst at school. As a result students in Yr 7 really do know more than their teachers. Often even their English teachers. This is an uncomfortable truth. Being able to sort of know how to use a paragraph does not equip anyone to explain their use to someone who doesn’t share this implicit knowledge. The children who are least likely to share an implicit understanding of grammar are likely to be the least advantaged children. Complacency about teachers’ knowledge is one sure fire way to widen the gap and damn these children with low expectations.

      • Blah November 19, 2017 at 10:16 am - Reply

        But all the research tells us that ‘explicit teaching’ i.e. being able to identify and name a fronted adverbial doesn’t make you any better at English. Kids can get 100% in the KS2 grammar test and be unable to write a story. They certainly don’t understand and can’t use dialogue any more – don’t ask me why story writing or using dialogue is now considered less important than being able to spot a subordinate clause. I also think there’s a problem with motivation or attitude. The vast majority of people KNOW how to use a paragraph and capital letter, they just somehow don’t always see it as important. With the internet education has never been more accessible. If teachers really don’t know this stuff it is perfectly easy for them to find out. Why don’t they care? As I say, yet another lesson isn’t going to do what 20 years of education hasn’t managed.

        • Michael pye November 20, 2017 at 4:25 pm - Reply

          The research tells us teaching grammar explicitly in isolation doesn’t work. The usual suggestion is to use grammatical analysis alongside reading and writing generally.
          My own limited reading does not seem to confirm if this approach works (and if it is worth the opportunity cost), however it is very different to what you described.
          I am currently, painfully, upgrading my knowledge, by studying a English language AS, and it will be interesting to see if this helps me understand and model writing. By the way, as a member of the lost generation of grammar, I found your idea that it doesn’t need to be taught to teachers amusing.
          Ps: if you think I am lazy, and unmotivated, I am happy to communicate with you, identify your gaps in knowledge, which I possess, and engage in some some reciprocal teaching.
          Pss: am I using comas correctly?

        • David Didau November 20, 2017 at 5:14 pm - Reply

          When you say “all the research tells us that ‘explicit teaching’ i.e. being able to identify and name a fronted adverbial doesn’t make you any better at English” what research is this?
          Being able to identify and name a fronted adverbial gives you the ability the think about fronted adverbials. Obviously, if someone teaches you that being a sentence with an adverb = creativity then that is unlikely to work. That’s not what I advocate.
          You’re right to say that the vast majority of people conceptually understand how to use a capital letter. I’ve written here about why they don’t:
          If, however some people don’t think paragraphing or punctuation is important then they haven’t tried reading material that doesn’t contain these innovations.
          I’m not really sure what you’re arguing against. Are you suggesting that it doesn’t matter if some teachers don’t meet the Teachers’ Standards? Are you saying all teachers do in fact meet these standards and that my suggestions are unnecessary? Or are you saying you don’t see how it’s possible for graduate professionals to learn something we now expect children to have mastered by the end of KS2?

          • Michael Pye November 22, 2017 at 7:29 pm

            I think he has paraphrased the research that says teaching grammar in isolation doesn’t work, that it needs to be applied in actual language use.
            This seems obvious, or else students would not learn how to think with the newly learned concept. Blahs example show this, being able to name a grammar concept doesn’t mean you have learnt how to apply it.
            Seems like a variation of the idea that explicit=knowledge=facts=no use rather then accepting that both banal facts and processes can be explicitly taught (and should be).
            Least that’s how I interpreted it.

    • dipintothefuture November 19, 2017 at 12:29 am - Reply

      ‘Schools are supposed to be educating children’… That sounds odd: as if that is ALL schools do. Teachers are learning all the time. The idea that teachers can’t go on learning is pretty weird. And Didau makes the point that nowadays teaching is explicit – a lot of teachers may have missed out on this. Being Mr Astounded about English usage and teaching skills doesn’t get us anywhere. Didau has identified a problem, sees it’s tricky, and sets out to discuss and maybe offer solutions – good call.

      • Blah November 19, 2017 at 10:08 am - Reply

        Of course teachers are life long learners but I’m sorry, if after approximately 18 years of education, you haven’t worked out how to use a paragraph then yet another lesson is unlikely to help. And it really shouldn’t be the job of schools to teach such basic literacy to teachers.

        • chrismwparsons November 19, 2017 at 10:28 am - Reply

          So are you suggesting that we give them up as a lost cause? Because the truth is that they do exist, and the grammatical knowledge of children coming through the system now is greater than for decades.
          Perhaps once they get children pointing out their grammatical errors more, teachers will feel motivated to learn things which they were simply never taught or required to learn at that age. And since the onus here is on them being responsible for their own development (unlike perhaps during their 18 years of schooling), it might just be different this time. Particularly if at school they wanted to be a pop star, and now they realise they want to be a teacher (and one with credibility).
          I’ve re-taught myself all sorts of skills and knowledge areas since becoming a teacher, which were either faulty or left out during my school years.

          • Blah November 19, 2017 at 12:06 pm

            ‘I’ve re-taught myself all sorts of skills and knowledge areas since becoming a teacher, which were either faulty or left out during my school years.’
            Exactly. You have taught yourself. And teachers, especially English teachers, MUST be able to teach themselves surely? Imagine if you felt you had to go back to school every time specifications changed or you had to teach a new text? That’s not to say we don’t benefit from training and constant updating of skills but paragraphs? Come on!
            If teachers cannot teach themselves paragraphs then it is the barriers to their learning that need to be addressed – yet ANOTHER lesson on paragraphs (I cannot believe that there has ever been a school ever in any period of history which has not taught paragraphing again and again and again) is clearly not going to cut it.

  8. Blah November 18, 2017 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    Sorry, that should say literacy test that is part of the PGCE. Why are these literacy difficulties not being identified and dealt with there?

    • David Didau November 18, 2017 at 10:46 pm - Reply

      As someone teaching on a PGCE course, I’m working hard to do something about it.

      • ruthdavies382 November 23, 2017 at 11:26 pm - Reply

        Please do so. My daughter’s high school Enlglish teacher has just taught them all that the Comma Splice is an effective use of the comma.

  9. Blah November 19, 2017 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    I repeat the problem is about barriers to learning, motivation or attitude. Why is it that teachers, even older teachers, don’t seem to need lessons in how to use email or, increasingly, even spreadsheets? Because there is an understanding that basic digital literacy (and what is considered ‘basic’ is ever more sophisticated) is now essential to communication and employment in the modern world. Teachers and most adults in the work place get this. Of course they do. So why is it different with paragraphs or capital letters? Either they don’t see these as necessary to modern communication as they are struggling with literacy at a fundamental level in which case they’re going to need much more support then a refresher on paragraphs and I repeat, how on earth have they got through their degree and PGCE literacy test? On the other hand maybe it is the case that paragraphs and apostrophes ARE no longer necessary for communication. I certainly don’t think that being able to identify or define a noun phrase is.

    • chrismwparsons November 19, 2017 at 12:32 pm - Reply

      Is this an argument against the curriculum, or against trying to do anything with teachers that they don’t already see the point in doing?
      Why were paragraphs and apostrophes ever necessary? That situation hasn’t actually changed. I do agree however that certain grammar knowledge is largely equivalent to most other subjects; i.e. how the world and society works, and not directly related to improvements in writing quality.
      Are we to let social evolution guide the knowledge and ability levels of all teachers? Are you saying that we can never give children a better education than the one we ourselves received at school plus what we’ve picked-up from popular culture? Or is this just an argument about “old dogs”?

    • David Didau November 20, 2017 at 5:23 pm - Reply

      1. My finding is that few teachers understand how to spreadsheets beyond the basic of data entry. If you want them to use them more effectively then they would benefit from instruction.
      2. I’ve already addressed your point about capital letters above.
      3. I don’t believe many teachers actually do have a solid understanding of paragraphing. Many merely know that leaving a space every few sentences seems to be a good thing.
      4. Teachers get through their PGCEs because, quite frankly, many PGCE tutors don’t know any more than their trainees. I’m currently teaching on an English PGCE and am appalled at some of the gaps in my trainees knowledge. These gaps are being addressed.
      5. I think all graduate professionals are perfectly capable of teaching themselves what they need to know to be an effective professional. You seem to think I’m advocating giving teachers lessons on paragraphing. I’m not. I’m suggesting we hold teachers to account for whether they meet Teachers’ Standards. If as part of that process they would like a lesson on paragraphing then I think schools should offer it to them.

  10. Blah November 19, 2017 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    I’m not sure whether you’re addressing those questions to me chrism. And I’m not sure what my ‘argument’ is. I suppose I’m in despair that anyone would think it necessary or useful to ask a qualified teacher with 18 + years of education if they are ‘proficient’ in using paragraphs or the key elements of a sentence. These are the most basic building blocks of communication –
    it’s not like reading up on ‘Hamlet’ or quantum physics (which, of course, they are expected to do as a matter of course). Surely it would be like asking a doctor about to perform surgery whether he or she is confident in distinguishing a bone from a muscle. Teachers HAVE been taught and tested on all of this again and again. If not at primary school then at GCSE and A Level and degree level and postgraduate level. And, for that matter, in their job application. If they cannot write an introduction, use a sentence or a paragraph how and why have they been given the job or achieved a degree? Do we also need to provide support sessions to teachers in counting and telling the time?

    • chrismwparsons November 19, 2017 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks Blah – (yes, I was addressing you – sorry if you’re waiting for a response from David!).
      I still think some of your argument still sounds a bit like you’re saying “there shouldn’t be a problem, therefore there’s nothing to address”, and I do think that there is a distinct difference between a teacher’s ability to use grammar correctly (and spot bad grammatical constructions), and their ability explain to someone why they were incorrect (perhaps simply correcting is sufficient without explanation?)
      Nevertheless, I do think there is a significant point buried within the other things you’re saying: Namely, is any of this going to change anything other than building resentment amongst experienced teachers who are statistically more likely to feel offended than they are likely to be capable of improving the quality of they’ve always done.
      As with any CPD, it is that which we embark on because we are interested in it that stands the best chance of having an effect, and perhaps this whole post needs to fit-in with a discussion as to whether there is a purpose to any development targets which are imposed from above in the first place. I do think that David has indicated a need for choice in the process, but I sense you feel that too many teachers would take a dignity hit just being asked to do the initial questionnaire. This is quite possibly the case!

  11. Blah November 19, 2017 at 2:44 pm - Reply

    Yes, I’d be very interested in how many teachers would admit to needing support in paragraphing or writing introductions or conclusions or the elements of a sentence. Actually, I couldn’t care less whether my colleagues in science or maths know what a preposition is and I’m even struggling to see how this is necessary for the teaching of history or geography. I think it probably only became necessary for English teachers when the government decided that English teaching is about the naming of parts and answering ridiculous questions about the ‘structure’ of an extract of text when it been extracted and therefore structured by an examiner and not a writer (yes I’m thinking of Question 3 of the new English Language GCSE). When I went to school in the 70s, I wasn’t taught grammar ‘explicitly’ in the sense of fronted adverbials or prepositions (although I maintain there has never been a school ever anywhere that didn’t teach the ‘elements of a sentence’ or paragraphing), but I was taught to read and enjoy whole texts. Now the only whole texts that seem to matter are by Shakespeare, Dickens or Stevenson (yes, I know Austen is on the specification but really who is going to teach her when she’s at least 200 pages longer than the other choices?). There’s an argument that this approach to English is entirely counterproductive and we might see the reducing numbers of pupils taking up English at A Level as evidence of this.
    I’m not saying there isn’t a problem – if really, truly, there are teachers who have got through a degree and PGCE without being ‘proficient’ in paragraph use or the basic literacy of a year 7 pupil – but I don’t think this is our problem. Or rather it’s part of a much bigger issue (and maybe not a problem at all) in terms of how traditional forms of writing are no longer valued or considered necessary. If teachers, committed professionals, don’t know how to use a paragraph it’s because they can’t be bothered to learn or because there is a barrier to their learning or because they don’t care. It’s not because they haven’t been taught. And teaching them again isn’t going to address any of those issues.

    • chrismwparsons November 19, 2017 at 3:32 pm - Reply

      Thank you Blah – I think that is well argued.

      • Naomi November 20, 2017 at 10:36 am - Reply

        It’s well argued in the context of boring lessons. If, however, experienced teachers are presented with a great lesson dealing with how to write great paragraphs, which is indeedy a fascinating skill, and which does significantly improve the expression of ideas, then those ‘barriers’ or ‘can’t be bothered’/’don’t care’ attitudes (hahaha sounds just like my Year 10s!! Before – not after, when they recognised they were a cut above their peers) – those issues, can be addressed, to benefit teachers and their students.
        Didau teaches great lessons. I remember being a jaded teacher at an inset session way back, when he came to teach old dogs new tricks. Totally won me over 🙂
        Lucky his PGCE classes!
        This thread is nothing without that understanding of the power of a great lesson, especially after years of mediocre ones.

    • Michael pye November 20, 2017 at 9:53 pm - Reply

      Blah, would you consider looking up the Dunning-Kruger effect? You previous argued that teachers should already know this, but now you argue that it is not necessary, as sentence and paragraph level literacy is sufficient. You may well be right, but equally you could be dismissing knowledge, simply because you lack it.

      • Blah November 26, 2017 at 2:02 pm - Reply

        Hi Michael, to clarify, I personally think all teachers and ideally all people should already know how to use paragraphs and sentences. They should know this by the time they leave primary school and I struggle to understand how they can get to post-graduate level without being able to use sentences or paragraphs or indeed explain to others how to do this. If they can’t, the very serious problems that need addressing are to do with the education system which has not managed to teach them some of the most basic blocks of literacy in over fifteen years, but has also presumably allowed them to gain qualifications e.g. a PGCE (which now includes a literacy test) and before this GCSEs in English Language (where surely paragraphs and sentences have always been required to get a grade C). It may well be that students without an understanding of these literacy fundamentals have learning difficulties or other barriers or that they simply lack the motivation to learn or apply these skills. In all these scenarios it is categorically not the responsibility of other teachers or schools to teach these basics to qualified teachers any more than it is their job to teach counting, multiplication, how to send an email or how to make a packed lunch. Competent teachers should have already learned and if they haven’t they should teach themselves – God knows, there are enough resources, entirely free and instantly accessible, out there to help. If they are not motivated or competent enough to do this then as with a teacher who is unable to tell the time and arrive punctually to school etc, etc, then I really would question their competence or motivation to teach any child anything. They shouldn’t be teaching.
        The nitty gritties of grammar is different. Does the inability to use a sentence or paragraph make you a less or ineffective communicator? Yes. Does not being able to spot a fronted adverbial or a preposition make you a less or ineffective communicator? Absolutely not. Is there really any reason why colleagues in maths or even RS should know these terms? Not really. Michael Rosen has just written about exactly this issue here
        In fact, it has been widely understood that this ‘naming of parts’ approach to English teaching can too often act as a barrier to writing or indeed reading meaningfully. I despaired when marking a set of essays from A Level students on a wonderful passage from ‘The Tempest’ where my highly intelligent students could have taken their pick of themes, imagery or aspects of character to write on but several instead chose to write an entire paragraph on ‘the definite article’ i.e. the word ‘the’. I’m not kidding. Several of them also wrote about the possessive pronoun ‘my’. I’d rather they hadn’t been taught any grammatical terms at all but had the confidence to read a passage and pick out what is interesting about it.

  12. Michael Pye November 27, 2017 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    That was much more useful, thanks. It was more specific and much easier to understand. Your concerns about grammar seem to be a reasonable, well supported view shared by others.
    An earlier response laid out my current limited view on grammar, and it shares a lot of your points though our conclusions are not the same…
    Would you reconsider how you are using the concept of paragraphing and sentence writing?
    It is trivially true that all teachers should have competency in writing, an absence would indicate that their degree level training (at a minimum) was not sufficient. This is because while different subjects use different styles, competency in at least one of these styles should be a necessary product of higher education.
    Teaching paragraphing and sentence writing is a different thing however. Firstly there is the need to recognise different styles, including those outside of your subject, and being able to direct students to modify their writing to accommodate the context. Shared language vocabulary facilitates this. Students may or may not need this information.However teachers are far more likely to find the vocabulary useful when: communicating with peers, reading online, using textbooks, identifying errors and providing guided feedback etc:
    Secondary we must consider how we model and teach the concepts of paragraphing and sentence writing to students. This is pedagogical knowledge and would not normally be taught in anyone’s degree, even a PGCE. This is something David is trying to change with his course.
    In my experience this is normally developed on the job ,either by coping and sharing writing tasks, or by upskilling one’s own knowledge of language. Developing grammar is one option for achieving this, in my opinion the most practical one, as it has a clear structure and plenty of available learning materials.
    I read the link to Rosens blog. Be careful with his reasoning, it seems to me to use a lot of strawman arguments and weak examples. The conclusion that fronted adverbials are an unnecessary term for young children is likely valid though. Like you a feel a focus on the paragraph/sentence level is likely to be more useful, especially in a secondary/FE/HE and across subject areas.
    Ideals like passive/active voice, subject verb agreement, complex sentences and subject-object seem like fairer concepts to consider. If any part of grammar is going to be useful at that level these would be my candidates (David feel free to jump in here, still struggling with these ideas myself).
    A great example I have come across is nouning (called nominilisation which seems less helpful) This is changing a verb into a noun, for example analysis becomes analysis.
    The plain English campaign dislikes them as they make reading harder, and they are frequently used in bureaucratic texts as blather. However scientific writing uses them to create a sense of impartiality, to focus on the science not the scientist (this style can still be criticised as opaque).
    This is an example of a concept (word) that is directly useful for analysing texts, but it is not widely known or used, even by scientists.
    Thanks for reading.
    P.s were your students marked down for using grammar or was it a valid lens for analyzing the text? Am have just started my AS in English Language so the information would be useful.

  13. […] – benefit from knowing some stuff. The bare minimum I think every student – and, by implication, every teacher –  should know is as […]

  14. Anne-Marie Firmin November 30, 2017 at 5:45 pm - Reply

    Really interesting article. I run a tutoring agency and one of our sister agencies in Cardiff has recently partnered with a local University to tackle this issue at a training level. They work with PGCE students to ensure they have adequate English language skills and pass/re-take their English GCSE’s to achieve a higher grade where neccessary. This is before they teach though – quite a challenge to seek change and improvement from already-employed (and likely overworked) teaching staff. Moving forwards I think tackling this important issue at the training stage is a good way to go…!

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