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 TEFL qualification as fairly easy way of making enough money to live in a variety of different countries for months at a time. Over the years I taught English to children and adults in countries as varied as Portugal, the Czech Republic and Japan and in that time I made one interesting observation: I never met a native speaker of any of these languages who did not know the grammar of their own language. This meant that they were able to ask me very specific questions about points of English grammar with which they were confused. The would say things like, “What is the present participle of to have?” or “What other phrasal verbs contain the word off?” Initially, I had to look up the terms they used to be able to answer my students’ questions, but over time I became increasingly familiar with the language of grammar and found it not improved my ability to handle queries, it also made my teaching much sharper.

When I trained to be a ‘proper’ English teacher I quickly found that much of my TEFL experience was useless. English children appeared to be unique in that they hadn’t the haziest idea what any of these terms meant. I wasn’t able to refer to a subordinate clause without spending extended periods introducing the terminology, so – when it became clear that none of my colleagues thought it mattered all that much – I gave up.

Over the last few years I have come to the conclusion that this was a mistake and that being taught traditional grammar can make a big difference to children’s ability to write effectively. I found that if children mastered grammatical knowledge to the point where they knew it so well that they didn’t even have to think about it this gave them an enormous advantage when trying to write about complex ideas. I’ve written about what and why grammar should be studied here.

But, it would seem this belief is contradicted by the evidence. In a new study examining how receptive policy is to evidence, Dominic Wyse and Carole Torgerson have taken the case of grammar teaching to show that despite the current government’s infatuation with grammar teaching, research indicates that there is “a significant and persistent mismatch between national curriculum policy in England and the robust evidence that is available with regard to the teaching of writing.”

In an earlier paper, Wyse argues the following:

The findings from international research clearly indicate that the teaching of grammar (using a range of models) has negligible positive effects on improving secondary pupils’ writing. Of further concern is the negative impact on pupils’ motivation. In the [National Literacy Strategy] Framework for Teaching the move towards the teaching of grammatical ‘technical vocabulary’ such as adjective; noun: collective, common, proper; pronoun: personal, possessive; verb, and verb tense to six and seven year-old children in England is highly questionable. It is regrettable that there is not more evidence about primary pupils; however, the developmental arguments that such teaching is inappropriate at primary level are persuasive. (Wyse, 2001, p. 422, emphasis added)

This finding – that being taught grammar has “negligible positive effects” and a “negative impact on pupils’ motivation” is apparently supported by two systematic reviews undertaken by Andrews and colleagues. (here and here)

What the research suggests appears, on the face it, somewhat implausible: that knowing more about English grammar a) does not improve our ability to write and b) makes us less motivated to write. If this is indeed true we would need to address two important questions:

  1. Why would neither of these claims hold true for other languages?
  2. Why would neither of these claims hold true for any other domain?

To consider the first question first, it might be the case that English is unique or possibly I’m mistaken in my belief that children in very many other countries have a firm grasp of the grammar of their own language and yet also appear both more motivated to write and better at writing than children in Anglophone countries. These are empirical questions which I think would benefit from study, but before anyone rush to conduct a review of the evidence I think we should begin by trying to work out a plausible mechanism whereby knowing more about a subject made you worse at it.

And that leads us to the second question. In no other domain of knowledge (as far as I’m aware) does greater knowledge not translate to greater skill. The more you learn about the technicalities of cooking, the better you get at cooking. The more you find out about horticulture, the more motivated you are to tackle a spot of gardening. This is because building up schematic connections in long-term memory increase our capacity to think about what we know. The more we know, the better we think; the less we know, the less we are able to think.

Imagine if research found that being taught the Highway Code made was making no impact on driving ability. What we conclude? That the Highway Code was a load a rubbish and that drivers shouldn’t be burdened with it? Or that, perhaps, drivers were not actually learning the Highway Code because it was being taught ineffectively? For my money, the problem with research that suggests that knowing more about grammar does not translate to better writing is at once obviously right and obviously wrong.

It’s obviously right because why would being able to identify a subordinate clause in a multiple choice question make you better at writing stories? To take a well-worn example, being able to identify a fronted adverbial and then being told to begin sentences with fronted adverbials can lead to some horrifically poor writing! Being taught to identify subordinate clauses and use fronted adverbials instead of doing something more meaningful and interesting might very well be demotivating. But this, I would argue, is a poor substitute for good grammar teaching. No one would argue with the statement that being taught grammar badly has “negligible positive effects” and a “negative impact on pupils’ motivation”. But being taught anything badly is a mistake. What kind of idiot would judge the effects of ineffective maths teaching and conclude that all maths teaching is a waste of time?

The finding that being taught grammatical knowledge does not affect the ability to write is obviously wrong because there’s no plausible explanation to explain knowing more about grammar and syntax wouldn’t improve your ability to write. If we at least tentatively accept that the problem is unlikely to be with children knowing more, this indicates we ought to consider how grammar is taught. The point of good grammar teaching is that the focus is on mastery rather than familiarity. Grammatical knowledge is – like times table knowledge and number bonds – the sort of knowledge that we should seek to automatise. If you have to think about subject-verb agreement or conjugation then you have less working memory capacity to think about more interesting things. If you know these things well enough, you no longer have to think about them, you just know them. I can parse most sentences fairly instantaneously because I have automatised a good bit of grammatical knowledge. I never have to think about what class a word is, I just know. This means I have more space to think about meaning, impact and structure. If I do want to think analytically about a phrase or clause, I have explicit knowledge to bring to bear on my analysis, making it easier to chunk information into already memorised vocabulary items.

In this post I explained the crucial “difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” Just knowing a grammatical term is mostly useless: I know many people who understand so little about the term ‘verb’ that they define it as ‘a doing word’. This lack of understanding leads to obvious problems when children are asked to identify the verb in a sentence like, “I went for a run.”

If the ambition of grammar teaching is for children to know these terms so well that they don’t have to think about them, then it’s hard to believe that any research could ever show this to be undesirable. Further, those children who are most disadvantaged are the ones most likely to come to school lacking an implicit knowledge of grammar. By refusing to teach grammar explicitly we will privilege the already privileged and further disadvantage the disadvantaged.

In a TES interview, Professor Wyse says this:

If I’m being really kind, I’d say current policy is well-meaning, but nevertheless ideologically driven ideas about how children should be taught… I don’t think these things are ever about people not caring. But there’s a risk that young people won’t learn to write as well as they could do – and that’s quite bad, isn’t it?”

To paraphrase: If I’m being really kind I’d say that the objections to grammar teaching offered by Professor Wyse are well meaning, but nevertheless ideologically driven ideas about how children should be taught. I don’t think these things are ever about people not caring. But there’s a risk that young people won’t learn to write as well as they could do – and that’s quite bad, isn’t it?