If writing is magic, grammar is alchemy

//If writing is magic, grammar is alchemy

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 kind.

Back in the days when literacy was very much a minority sport, being able to read and write really was magical. So much so that grammar – book knowledge – became synonymous with the supernatural. A grammary was a book of arcane lore and glamour, from the same root, is the act of enchantment. And being able to write, to spell out words, was viewed with the same awe and wonder as the casting a charm. Spelling comes from the Old English word for story and spelling is not only the inscribing of such a story, but the act of performing magic.

Grammar teaching conjures up images of rows of unfortunate, becapped schoolboys being forced to joylessly* conjugate verbs and parse sentences in bleak, windowless classrooms. Now, to the dismay of some, grammar teaching is back in vogue.  There are those who see the new focus on grammar, typified by the ‘SPaG test’ as a great evil put in place to crush children’s creativity and innate love of language. Children’s writer Michael Rosen is one such prominent critic. In a recent article he claims the test

…suffers from a severe case of terminology-itis. The symptoms are: a) an assumption that there is universal agreement on all the names, structures and functions of bits of language in this test – there isn’t; b) the best way to achieve coherence and effectiveness in children’s writing comes from getting them to learn these names – there is no evidence for this; c) that the hours of teaching-time required to teach these names could not be better spent helping children to do detailed comparative work on different kinds of texts, investigating, interpreting and experimenting, while keeping in mind the objective of enabling all children to write coherently and interestingly.

Let’s have a think about the weight of these assertions. Firstly, there is no such assumption that there is anything like universal agreement on the metalanguage of English grammar. Instead, the test prescribes a list of terms in order to cut through the thicket of confusing alternatives. We can, of course, take issue with the choice made, but that’s a different argument. The next claim is equally flimsy. I don’t think anyone has said that learning grammatical terms is the best way to “achieve coherence and effectiveness in children’s writing”. Instead, the assumption is that these terms are worth knowing for their own sake. Our language marks the limit of our thought: we cannot articulate thoughts about that for which we have no words. The final claim, one of opportunity cost, is the only one worth addressing at length. Because time is finite we cannot teach everything; we have to make a choice. Rosen is right to identify that time spent teaching grammatical terminology is time that cannot also be spent on comparing different kinds of texts. What we have to consider is what might be most useful.

I for one left school ignorant of most things grammatical and consequently, although I had a pretty good implicit understanding of how to write, my ability to think meta-cognitively about what I was doing when I put pen to paper was severely curtailed by my inability to articulate what I was doing.Although I could “write coherently and interestingly” I couldn’t write precisely or judiciously. I didn’t have the language or the knowledge to think about how I or others constructed the written word.

Without clear knowledge of the forms and ‘rules’ of writing, creativity is inevitably stifled. Ideas become a kitchen-sink soup with everything chucked into the pot with little regard for structure, audience or genre. My experience has been that when pupils arrive in Year 7, they have only the vaguest notion of word classes, sentence structure, punctuation and text organisation, not to mention spelling. What seems to happen is that able writers pick up an instinctive feel for how writing works without being to articulate why, and everyone else labours on in clumsy, inarticulate ignorance.

One of the first things I would always say to a new Year 7 class is, “Who thinks you use a comma when you draw breath?” A forest of hands would sprout before me. This is clearly nonsense, as anyone with asthma knows. Teaching accurate comma usage is trivially straightforward when you know about subject-verb agreement and independent and subordinate clauses. Without this knowledge, we rely on vague approximations which only enable children to mimic the art of writing without internalising why or how.

Rosen then goes on to critique how the items on a particular SPaG test are flawed. To do so he draws upon a though knowledge of grammar and shows off his command of this of the rich, diverse body of knowledge. The fact that he is able to do so is testimony either to being well-taught or to an autodidact instinct to learn. We might take a number of things from Rosen’s virtuoso demolition of the test, but here are the two main conclusions we might draw:

  1. The test is not fit for purpose as it does not allow for the ambiguities and breadth of English grammar.
  2. Michael Rosen does not think children need to know what he is privileged to know.

Firstly, I’m not here to defend the test as such; it may well be flawed, but I don’t feel myself sufficiently expert to confidently say so. What I do know is that a majority of secondary English teachers do not know enough grammar to pass it. This is a direct consequence of being taught, as I was, that self-expression and creativity are all that is important. If children do not know the basics – and know them fluently and automatically – then they will struggle to learn not only the finer points of expert writing but also will be much less likely to intuit that grammar is less a set of rules and more a body of knowledge concerned with meaning. If you ‘just know’ parts of speech, subject-verb agreement, clauses etc. then you can not only think in far greater depth about why writers make choices,  a world of choice and possibility opens up before you too. A test, any test forces a change in curriculum. We might feel it a shame that this has had to be forced upon us, but as is so often the case, what is not assessed, is not taught. Slowly, we might start to undo the damage done through long years of neglecting this precious, magical knowledge.

And of what of the second conclusion? I’m sure Rosen is as well-intentioned as every other education pundit, but in his rush to focus on creativity, he might be guilty of pulling up the drawbridge and kicking away the ladders he used to get to where he is. Naturally, we neither want nor expect every child to become a linguist, but a solid foundation in grammar is one which allows thought to better develop in many areas of the curriculum, not merely the art of composition. He might argue that if children are sufficiently interested they can always do what I (and perhaps he) have done and found out this stuff for themselves. And of course, they can. But few will. Such an argument is similar to Jeremy Clarkson telling students that A levels don’t matter because he didn’t get any and look how well he’s done for himself, but as James Theobold points out, this is a great way to fail.

Rosen concludes his article uncharitably: “But are the people who devised this test really interested in writing? I doubt it.” I’m sure he’s right that the test can be improved, but I think those responsible for designing the test are interested in writing. Unlike Rosen, perhaps they’re interested in rather more than just writing and understand that a sound knowledge of grammar is an investment in otherwise impossible possibilities?

If writing is magic, grammar is the knowledge of how to cast a spell.

*If I hadn’t learned what the infinitive form of the verb was, I wouldn’t know whether I was splitting it out of ignorance or with deliberation. It’s this ability to think with the metalanguage of grammar that allows us to write more creatively and thoughtfully.

2015-11-09T14:44:16+00:00November 9th, 2015|writing|


  1. suecowley November 9, 2015 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    The deliberation to boldly split an infinitive comes from wanting to use the sound it makes when you do so, not from knowing whether or you are allowed to do so within a set of rules. Some people believe you’re ‘not allowed’ to split infinitives because they see grammar as a set of clearly defined rules. However, grammar is often more a case of style and tone rather than of correctness, and as such it changes over time. You can only really break a rule when it exists in the first place.

    My sense would be that we should explore and teach grammar as a way of making sound, meaning and sense with language, rather than focusing on a child’s ability to name the parts. This is not the same as saying that we shouldn’t teach it. Certainly, for non native speakers and children who struggle with Standard English, it is useful to teach the elements to show how they work as a whole. The government’s change of connective to conjunction (or vice versa, sorry can’t remember which one it is now) shows how the technical names can change according to whim. It’s not so much what it is called, but what it does, that matters in the end. The KS2 tests seem to mainly check whether children know what the parts are called, rather than whether they can put those parts together and make their writing sing.

  2. Anthony Radice November 9, 2015 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    I think many of us who have had to teach ourselves grammar have wondered why we were deprived of the knowledge by our school teachers. Having discussed the options with Daisy Christodoulou over the summer, I’ve actually started using ‘The Butterfly Grammar’, despite its being aimed at primary school children. I gave them all a multiple choice test at the start of the year which proved abundantly that they had not learned this stuff at primary school. Then I showed them the book, Ponti Panda and all, and said, “Right, time to sort this out!”

    • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 2:32 pm - Reply

      Below, I give the historical reason why grammar was taken out of the English curriculum. To repeat, it was because the examiners of the old O-level (which I sat in 1962) could find now correlation between the ‘grammar’ question and the ‘composition’ question over a period of some 20 years. As I have also said, there are other justifications for secondary grammar lessons but that was the historical reason for its removal from English. Of course, it suits a particular kind of journalism to explain the removal of grammar as being the action of lunatic trendies who (with the enormous power that lunatic trendies have in our society) just wiped out the grammar from exams. No, it was the examiners themselves. I’ve interviewed one of them on radio 4 where he explained exactly how this happened.

  3. Elaine Sharpling November 9, 2015 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    I completely agree. Grammar is not only the knowledge of how to cast the spell but heavily involved in the wand too!
    I think that the relationships of the ‘subject’ in a sentence is probably the most fundamental aspect of the written language and such a sense of playfulness is used most often by poets, for example, Michael Rosen.

  4. Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    1. I have never said that young people should not be given an opportunity to learn about grammar. 2. I have said that this type of grammar-teaching for this age-group is not appropriate. 3. I have not counter-posed grammar with ‘creativity’. 4. I’m not sure why you typify me or my argument to suggest that I have. 5. In the short space available in my Guardian article, I did find space for a few words on what I think is an alternative – for this age-group- to doing SPaG. 6. As you will see it implies analysis of language in context. 7. If the purpose of SPaG is not to help children write coherently and fluently (nowhere did I say ‘creatively’), and its purpose is to teach children the virtues of knowing abstract terms for what they’re writing, then we need to ask ourselves about the value of the abstract terms on offer, the range of that are offered, the choice that is being made. 8. For reference: in the 1950s, teaching of grammar (as indeed was calculus) was held off until secondary school. At grammar school we were taught grammar in several ways – in English lessons – usually in the form of structure – phrases, clauses, subject-verb, and in language lessons: French, German, Latin in my case. This was a great advantage for anyone learning grammar because it enabled us to make comparisons. 9. You make some assumptions about me ‘showing off’ and/or being an autodidact. 10. You have overlooked the politics involved: the SPaG test was not introduced on linguistic or pedagogic grounds. It was introduced to plug a gap in assessment. It was introduce as an afterthought in the Bew Report between the interim report of April 2011 and the final report in June 2011, on the basis that SPaG have ‘right and wrong’ answers. They don’t. The linguists who advised the minister had their subject (one of investigation, enquiry, hypothesis, comparison and description) hijacked for the purposes of this exam. As a consequence these crucial elements of their subject are not included. Instead, what is on offer are a set of certainties that are not certain.

  5. Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    ps The only problem with your closing quote is that not all linguists think that English has ‘an infinitive’. Linguistics is not a science. It’s a field of alternative descriptions. People argue about these alternatives on the basis of observation. At any given moment, any term, any description is up for grabs. Why should we not tell children this? Why should we not teach the subject as one in which we can observe, describe, compare, investigate? In fact, ironically, there is usually more observation and investigation going on in science lessons than there is in the face of language-use.

    Now, let’s ask why would that be? What reasons might there be for a different status for language-in-use? What reasons might there be for the people in government to think that it’s best to treat language and its descriptors as a fixed bit of knowledge?

    • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 2:15 pm - Reply

      I agree that language is not to fix and said in the posts that grammar is not a mere set of rules. I found Michael Lewis’s book, The English Verb a useful way to frame this debate. And I absolutely believe that children should be taught to dialectically interrogate grammatical knowledge; trouble is, you can’t do this until you know some terminology.

      I assume your final question is an allusion to some sort of sub-Orwellian conspiracy to control the minds of the masses and preserve the status of the elite? To the extent that this might be true, building foundational knowledge we children can then learn to critique may be the best way to tear down the walls from the inside. Ignorance merely begets further ignorance.

      • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 2:23 pm - Reply

        1. Why assume that observation of phenomena can only take place when we have been given the terminology? It is quite possible and helpful to run both processes concurrently. I’ve seen a nursery teacher do this with snails in an aquarium. Posing ‘observation’ as ‘ignorance’ is a false description. 2. I note that whenever I mention that there might be a political element to education policy, you do some reflex about what you imagine is some kind of dull-witted Althusserian interpretation of the world. If you can find me doing that, then please quote it and demolish it. If you can’t or don’t find it, why waste time inventing it in order to do some naff parody of it?

        • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 2:43 pm - Reply

          1. Oh sure, observation can take place amidst a sea of ignorance to be sure. But to be able to marshal and articulate our thoughts we must have language. If I somehow posed observation as ignorance then I apologise – I certainly did not intend to.

          2. I’ve not stooped to calling you dull-witted Michael, I hope you can refrain from similar ad hominem snarkiness. I made an assumption, I said it was an assumption, and I invite you to explain how I’m mistaken. To be clear, I’m not sure how to interpret this:

          “Now, let’s ask why would that be? What reasons might there be for a different status for language-in-use? What reasons might there be for the people in government to think that it’s best to treat language and its descriptors as a fixed bit of knowledge?”

          For the dull-witted, what are you implying?

          • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 2:56 pm

            1. You have made another false opposition: observation and ignorance. In my experience, when we invite children/school students to observe phenomena that are displaying variant characteristics, they are extremely good at it. They will make efforts to come up with terms to describe these differences. We can then offer terms for this, and at the same time, point out exceptions, or indeed invite them to think of exceptions.
            2. In your first article you used the phrase ‘showing off’ and posed an alternative to this that I was an autodidact. These were both ad hominem arguments. Above you typified a position which I don’t ascribe to. You then parodied it. That too, is in the armoury of those who make ad hominem arguments. I have replied that it felt as if you were accusing me of being a ‘dull-witted Althusserian’ for ascribing to these views that I don’t ascribe to. Yes, you have stooped to accusing me of holding dull-witted ‘conspiracy-theory’ views. Your call.
            3. We could pose that problem in terms of who owns language? A SPaG test and the huge tailback into extremely rigid practice that it has already caused, sets up a model that ‘correct language’ belongs to people who set exams in language and not to us all, children included. This is exacerbated by a number of highly formulaic methods being used to teach children how to write fiction and non-fiction. The consequence of this, I would suggest, is to imply to children that they don’t have much that’s interesting to say, and they don’t know how to say it. I have a ten year old. I can see it in his writing – streams of sentences all beginning with a ‘time connective’ which the SPaG test says is not a ‘time connective’ but an ‘adverb’ in a ‘fronted adverbial’. Three terms for the same feature ‘taught’ in Year 6, with the outcome of producing crap writing.

          • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 3:10 pm

            1. Add it to the list 🙂 But my experience is at odds with yours I’m afraid.
            2. I thought I was being fair-minded in proposing an alternative way in which you might have learned grammar. I certainly didn’t mean autodidact as an insult – in fact, I see it as the greatest of compliments. Showing off = demonstrating, but I accept that it’s a less neutral term. But how boring would your open letters be if the language was neutral? And sorry that you feel I unfairly caricatured your opinion – what is the opinion I said you typified that you don’t hold? Is that the creativity one? I genuinely thought that was what you believed, sorry. And finally I don’t get your views on the evils (?) of the current government. I accept ‘conspiracy theory’ is pejorative, but unless you explain what you meant I really don’t know what else to think.
            3. I agree that teaching children about fronted adverbials results in some horrible mimicry. This is not the fault of the fronted adverbial but is the results of teachers, who through no fault of their own, are largely ignorant of any nuances in grammar. The answer is better subject knowledge and better teaching.
            4. Ownership of language is, I think, a blind alley. If history is written by the victor, language is created by the most literate. If we want children to be academically successful we need to teach them the language of academic success. We also need to teach them to critique that discourse, but not until they know it.

          • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 3:28 pm

            Just to clarify, there are two positions you have ascribed to me which I don’t ascribe to: 1. That I purely and simply pose as alternatives: grammar and creativity. (Below, you can see John Hodgson giving examples of books that do indeed engage with grammar at secondary school. Ron Carter has gone on to produce text books for schools on the basis of investigating language in use. John Richmond wrote one many years ago called ‘Resources of Classroom language’ I think. 2. That I think in terms of some kind of Orwellian conspiracy.
            As I’ve said, I’m not sure why you feel it’s necessary to do this.

            A further ‘knowledge about language’ that is hardly ever considered comes under the heading ‘narratology’. So, for example, it’s not less ‘useful’ to know about, say, ‘free indirect discourse’ than it is to know about ‘fronted adverbials’. The latter is taught as if it’s not possible to be a productive citizen. F.I.D. is used every day in fiction, TV drama and film. Students can imitate it from at least Year 6. It is also how ideas about who we are are passed on to us, and yet the first time students come across it (if ever) is in 6th form. The ‘knowledge about language’ is based on choices.

          • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 3:34 pm

            The problem with ‘fronted adverbials’ is not whether they exist or not but the fact that yr 6 children are being confronted with three separate terms for what may well be the same thing: ‘fronted adverbial’ (the general family) ‘adverb’ one of the specifics, ‘time connective’ – another classification altogether that has come to rule the roost in terms of language descriptions in primary schools. There is a mix of terror, confusion, irritation and contempt for this sort of thing coming out of the mouths of advisers, Ofsted, consultants and implied by what’s necessary to do what’s necessary for the SPaG test and the Reading Writing SATs.

    • Chris WIldman December 8, 2015 at 11:34 am - Reply

      Comparing English with German, French and Latin, I am happy to regard English as having infinitives (present, perfect, active and passive – anyone think of more than 4?), as long as we teach children that these are in fact now nouns and not verbs.

    • cabogutierrez December 1, 2017 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      Linguistics has a range of tools to explore language, commutation and permutation being the obvious and more playful ones. Students could use these tools to describe, compare and investigate language easily if they knew some basics of grammar, at least the “labels” (or technicisms, as a linguist would call them). As it is now, with many teachers of English not knowing the basic tools of grammar, students have to hear about “to exit” being a more “impressive” or “effective” word that “to go out”, and similar ad hoc explanations that leave students not knowing the difference between “that doesn’t make any sense” and “that is not grammatically correct”.

      Explaining register without using linguistic labels also becomes a rather arbitrary and judgemental activity, as descriptive linguistics would be beyond the understanding of the students. There is a set of technical words that are very useful to analyse language and experiment with it. The reason why “fronted adverbials” became a stick to hit grammar with is probably because this is not the most useful label to know and practise.

  6. Clare sealy November 9, 2015 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    I’ve no problem at all with teaching grammar- indeed it is really important. The spag test is an abomination and a massive waste of time. There is no correlation in my experience between getting a high spag score and writing well, or vice versa. However, getting a very low score is a pretty good indicator that your writing, spelling and speaking are terrible. But you can tell that anyway from looking at pupils’ writing. I was educated in formal grammar and learnt Latin at school. I still find it hard to remember which words are, and are not, determiners. Or understand why that knowledge is important for anything other than passing spag tests.

    • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 2:08 pm - Reply

      With respect, if you’re not sure which words are determiners you don’t really understand what the term means. My contention is that this knowledge is important for being able to discuss, think about and act upon aspects of language which are otherwise hidden and mysterious. This particular test may be flawed, but the fact that it means grammatical knowledge is, finally​, being taught is a very good thing.

      • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 2:18 pm - Reply

        1. ‘is being taught’ obscures the crucial question of age of child. 2. As there isn’t agreement on what constitutes ‘grammatical knowledge’, how do we know if it is of itself a ‘good thing’? 3. Assuming that you’re referring to secondary education, why should this ‘knowledge’ involves less observation, enquiry and experiment than science? 4. In 20 years or more of ‘O’level exams in which there was a grammar question and a ‘composition question (late 1940s to early 1960s) during which grammar was taught, why was there no correlation between the grammar question marks and the composition question marks? That was the sole reason that grammar teaching came to an end. The examiners couldn’t justify it. I think it can be justified at secondary level but on the basis of that set of results, they couldn’t.

        • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 2:30 pm - Reply

          Some questions:
          1. If year 6 is too young to be assessed on grammatical knowledge, what would be a more appropriate age?
          2. Are you contending that because there isn’t a settled body of grammatical knowledge that there cannot therefore be any grammatical knowledge?

          Some thoughts;
          3. It shouldn’t. We should be build on foundational knowledge by introducing uncertainty and ambiguity, as with every subject.
          4. The lack of correlation you mention sounds fascinating – I’ve not heard that before and would be very interested to read any research which contains more on it. Iw onder if there’s a similar lack of correlation between grammar knowledge and comprehension ability? That said, we would hardly point to students’ current literacy levels at age 16 and view it as a golden age, would we? On that level, there does appear to be some correlation between reading and writing now and the fact that neither teachers nor students know much if anything about grammar.

          • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 2:38 pm

            1. I think this question is wrapped up in when we think that children are best able to get hold of abstract concepts – and, more than that, abstractions based on those abstracts. All I can say to that is that in my experience that the first time this sort of thing kicks in with young people is around 12. I don’t think I’m saying anything more contentious here than what is said by mathematicians in choosing not to teach calculus in the primary school. That said, of course some limited terminology is appropriate but not the vast amount that is involved in the SPaG test and always in context in passages of writing that interest them, so that the grammar is seen to have a purpose and an outcome that engages them.
            2. I am suggesting that we share with children (I would suggest year 7 upwards) some of the indeterminacies…
            3. I can’t direct you to any research on this. It came from the once head of one of the English exam boards. He said that the evidence sits in the exam boards’ reports. They collectively scratched their heads and said, ‘There ought to be a correlation but there isn’t.’.

      • Lal Dhillon November 9, 2015 at 2:46 pm - Reply

        Sorry, but when did we decide that grammatical knowledge isn’t being taught? When children produce writing in the classroom, the general tradition according to my own experience would be that the teacher would read it, analyse it, and then discuss the writing produced with the pupil. This discussion would cover the pupils intentions for the text, the reader’s emotional response, and the structures of language that created or facilitated that response and helped or hindered the communicative process. Included within this discussion would be the consideration of grammar, which would be purposefully contextualized in relation to the intentions of the writer, presenting it as a tool to be used for communication rather than a list of rules to be constrained by. I appreciate that explicit teaching of grammatical knowledge may not naturally occur within this process, but that does not in any sense mean that grammatical knowledge is not being taught.

        • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 2:58 pm - Reply

          Yes, this is how I was taught. Like most other people taught like this I left school with only the sketchiest of understanding about what the terms meant and certainly couldn’t apply them to my own writing. It is exactly the teaching you describe that has been such a tremendous failure.

          • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 3:21 pm

            How then did you manage to do well enough at: exams at 16, 18, end of degree and teacher-training? How did you manage to construct sentences, paragraphs and reports? How did you manage (if you chose to) write any other forms of written language? According to success-in-society criteria, you’ve done very well, and yet you did it without, you say, formal grammar. How come? I heard an interview on radio with the guy who heads up the ‘Bad Grammar’ prizes: he could hardly finish a sentence. He kept interrupting himself and tailing off.
            Some people in government are expert at describing Latin but may well not be good at describing English.
            I think teaching grammar at secondary can be justified on grounds of the kind of knowledge it is, but I don’t think it can be justified in terms of any obvious life-outcome or writing-outcome.

          • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 3:37 pm

            That is a very good question. I got by (and I use that term advisedly) partly because no one ever held me to acccount for my ignorance and partly because, like most able children, I inuited enough to be able to read & write with enough precision that most mistkes went unnoticed (especially by me). After finishing my degree I trained as a TEFL teacher and taught in Portugal, Holland, the Czech Republic and Japan. I bought a (now much dog-eared) copy of Michael Swann’s practical English usage and did bu best to feild questions on aspects of language about which I knew lamentably little. I learned quickly. In all the tim I spend as an TEFL teacher I never met a students who didn’t knowthe grammar of their own language inside out and started wondering why this wasn’t the case of most native English speakers I know. The answer, as far as I can see, is an ideological decision made that children educated in comprehensive schools would not need this knowledge. It may be incidental to my ‘doing very well’ that I taught myself the grammar I was not taught in school, it may not. The point is that my ability to think about language and my ability to write have both blossomed as a result of what I now know. I would hardly say that’s ‘doing without’. I’m fortunate. Most of the children I’ve taught do not share my advantages. Leaving the development of their ability talk about language to chance by not explicitly teaching metalanguage would be, in my opinion, an unforgiveable lapse.

            Your final sentence sentence may be true. Maybe there really is no justification for teaching grammar in terms of enhancing life outcomes (although I don’t believe so) but then I’m with Housman “all knowledge is precious whether it serves the slightest human use.” Thanks for taking the time to debate these ideas.

          • Lal Dhillon November 9, 2015 at 3:33 pm

            Except here we are as language lovers, who have studied and continue to study language and have studied and continue to study the world through that language, debating the best means of helping others to learn that language through the use of written language. I wouldn’t call it a failure, although I agree that there is always more to be aspired to.. This mode of teaching inspired me to write and to continue writing, it showed me that I could use writing to make people laugh and cry, and to influence their opinions. I knew this was what writing was for because this is what I was tested on, and therefore I aspired to do well at it. Were I assessed on my knowledge of grammatical terms, I may well have valued them as an end in themselves rather than a means.

          • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 6:57 pm

            Well, that would be fine if ‘we’ were typical. We are, I reckon, the exceptions.

  7. Lucy November 9, 2015 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    Following one of the comments above: In year 7, children were given a multiple choice grammar test. This enabled the teacher to diagnose that they had not learned what they needed to at primary school. Presumably, the Spag test did not do this already then? Why would you test what had already been tested?

    This is precisely what concerns me about the spag test in that it appears to be based on the unfounded assumption that primary schools do not teach grammar currently and this is a way of forcing them to. It highlights the point that secondary schools are unaware of how to use the information the test could provide formatively to inform their teaching. Whilst this mismatch continues, one assumes the test may well be a political ‘show’ of how a government intends to ‘reinforce the basics’.

    My experience as a classroom teacher is that whilst some children have rote learnt definitions and can identify grammatical terms, they are not always secure in using and applying this within their writing. My experience as a classroom teacher also tells me that for our most able students, the test is a waste of their time and one that frustrates them. For those struggling to enjoy ‘writing’, doing badly in it damages them more than it informs us.

    • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 2:33 pm - Reply

      Are you claiming that primary schools were routinely teaching children grammatical knowledge before the introduction of the SPaG test? My experience suggests this is not the case. I do of course accept that the broad ignorance of most secondary teachers – English teachers included – compounds the problem. At the moment we have a generation of children arriving at school in Year 7 knowing stuff and that knowledge is withering on the vine because their teachers know less than they do.

      • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 2:44 pm - Reply

        I really think you need to start discriminating between kinds of grammatical knowledge. I might have, let’s say, grammatical knowledge of the historical development of grammar (e.g. when and how we started inverting an auxiliary instead of the main verb) and not very much on comparative linguistics. I might have the kind of grammatical knowledge which is good at ‘naming parts’ but is not very good on describing the variations of written language ‘out there’, particularly when the naming of parts doesn’t do the job. I might also be very knowledgable about one form of grammar e.g. Halliday’s grammar and not about Mr Gwynne’s form…and so on. I might be very hot on pragmatics and not so good on Chomsky. I might think that all language is determined by social context and not according to internally derived rules. As I’ve said, grammar is not a universally agreed body of knowledge.

        • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 2:56 pm - Reply

          I’m very interested in Halliday’s functional grammar and am fascinated by the Pinker’s discussions in The Language Instinct. But all this depends upon knowing some basics, doesn’t it? By this logic we wouldn’t teach number facts, geometry or Newton’s laws because mathematics turns out to be broader and more complex than all that.

          As with most things, when we start with the basics we have a foundation for further thought. Depriving children of language can only hold back their development.

          Instead of arguing about whether or not I was talking about pragmatics or other linguistic aspects which are usually and appropriately first covered at A level, wouldn’t it be more interesting to see where are thoughts converge?

          If you agree that children should be given an opportunity to learn grammar, what grammar would you have them learn? And how much? How would you go about teaching it? My point is that until the SPaG test, for all its faults, children didn’t know enough, quickly enough. I’ve written before about why I don’t think contextualised grammar teaching works, how would you address those points? https://www.learningspy.co.uk/english-gcse/glamour-grammar/

          • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 3:02 pm

            I don’t think the analogy of maths with language holds. We learn language in immense complexity through being around others doing it. We don’t need to be taught how to talk. This places us in a very different relationship to the subject ‘language’. We are all already doing it.
            I think that the most productive grammar to do in primary schools is close detailed textual comparisons talking with children about how authors of fiction and non-fiction, construct sentences and paragraphs whilst also creating examples themselves through working imitations and variations.
            Some terminology comes into it, but a good deal of it, can be done through ‘compare, contrast, invent’.
            The problem arises if the assessment tail wags the knowledge dog. This is that has happened, as you know. Knowledge about language is not the same as a high stakes SPaG test introduced in order to grade children and grade schools.

          • Benjamin November 10, 2015 at 4:27 pm

            Surely you’re special pleading Michael? The fact that we learn how to speak without being formally taught should have no bearing whatsoever on whether the formation of language (which I would add is a completely different subject so spoken language) should be taught as a discrete subject. Whilst there are differences in opinion, where grammar is concerned, the basis on which those are discussed are fairly stable, as far as I am aware – enough so to ensure a coherent and consistent teaching of grammar in primary and secondary schools. In terms of grammar and composition correlation, I think it can be made analogous to music – you can be taught all the music theory in the world (as much as that also varies), but can you write music after? Not necessarily. Does that mean music theory shouldn’t be taught, as the ones who are able to compose can do so without the rules, and those who cannot, cannot do so even with the rules?

  8. Lucy November 9, 2015 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    I am claiming that before the introduction of the SPaG test, grammatical knowledge was being taught as effectively as it is today with as much variation as it is today in the course of KS1 and KS2. We just have children who have done an extra test in it, for which they were highly prepared for in the last part of their primary school career. This is a cost.

    • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 2:59 pm - Reply

      It is a cost. And there is an associated benefit. I believe the benefit to be worth the cost.

    • rllivesey November 9, 2015 at 3:26 pm - Reply

      I left the classroom in 2008 to care for my first son. I spent 6 years in year 2 and then went into reception, prior to leaving. Although back then the SPaG wasn’t in place, my training took place just as the literacy hour was born and then, as I started teaching, I saw it repeatedly modified and thrown out. I saw how formalised english teaching was, with little time for reading books for enjoyment, a background against which my experienced and brilliant colleague in the other year 2 class and I decided we would fight and we found time in a crowded curriculum just to read to our classes. We did this knowing that it was a great thing to do for them, because many of our children had few books at home and many never spoke english outside of school, so sharing our language with them was vitally important.

      As a teacher who had to administer year 2 SATs papers, then latterly used teacher assessment, I was very much immersed in the national curriculum levels. It was with great interest that I looked back at my own books from this age group and read them. What was striking was that my work ticked boxes for level 3, yet my teaching at primary school for English was much less formal. Actually, in many ways it was quite poor. However I learnt to write with interesting content and correct grammar without any formal learning and just by writing and critically just by having been immersed in lots of stories, poems and non-fiction. I’m not advocating a return to how I was taught, because I think we can do better. I’m just remarking that the key to writing comes from enjoyment of books and hearing language, in the first instance. Children are having to take apart their writing before they’ve even had a chance to form work consisting of more than a few sentences. They haven’t been given a chance to let their writing just flow naturally before they are bombarded with taking it to pieces and it is really damaging. You can take language apart and name all the elements, but at young ages, I think children need to enjoy stories, and enjoy language without getting bogged down in the detail, which can be saved for secondary school. At the age of just turning 4, my son once dictated a story to me – this was a year before he started school. We read to him, and he listened to story CDs and the quality of what he dictated was phenomenal. He couldn’t read or write. But he could form his ideas orally and you could see the influence of what he had listened to in that story. He had transposed ideas and phrases and made them his own. 4 years on, with 3 years of school to his name (he is in year 3 now), he is not writing anything like as well as he could formulate 4 years earlier. His reading age is through the roof and he can spell well, so he has the tools to write well, but he is just never given the opportunity to let his ideas flow and write well, because he is constantly being forced to include certain aspects of grammar into a certain piece of writing, which is contrived!

      My own books were filled with much longer pieces of work than you will see in books these days, with none of the short bitty tasks often set now. There seemed time to develop your own fledgling ideas, whereas now children are pushed from one bitty task to another.

      17 years ago, I received a mark which lay in the top category of marks for my MA in music, although of course the arts will stifle my life chances according to Nicky Morgan (Telegraph today). I also gained a first class honours degree for my Bachelor degree. To gain these highest marks, you have to be able to write correctly. In order to get my writing up to scratch for my MA, I read journals, papers and books as part of my research and absorbed the tone of writing expected. I didn’t learn by having to pass a SPaG test and a great number of grammatical terms remained a mystery to me at that time! I am certainly not saying that this means we shouldn’t teach grammar. I’m saying that there is a balance to be struck between being immersed in language and formally studying it. I think at primary level, children should be immersed in it, not passing contrived tests and it can be formalised at secondary. Grammar can still be taught at primary level without the need for testing it. Also grammar, as Michael Rosen points out, is ever evolving and isn’t always “universally agreed”.

      In general testing is very damaging to primary pupils and it is stifling their progress. Testing is not the way to raise attainment.

      • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 3:39 pm - Reply

        “In general testing is very damaging to primary pupils and it is stifling their progress. Testing is not the way to raise attainment.” This is an enduring and powerful myth. It’s absolutely not testing that’s the problem it’s what we do with the information the tests produce that is the problem.Read this for some perspective on the benefits of testing: https://www.learningspy.co.uk/assessment/afl-have-we-been-doing-the-right-things-for-the-wrong-reasons/

        • David Barclay November 9, 2015 at 5:14 pm - Reply

          Interesting use of the word “absolutely”, given the somewhat polarised nature of the debate. I’m sure it’s used here for emphasis rather than to mean that there are no problems whatsoever with the nature of the tests.

          Have you seen the KS1 SPAG exemplar testing materials for 2016 ? I wonder whether you have a view as to whether their domain content and format will influence the teaching of writing in KS1, and whether it will do so for the better ?

  9. John Hodgson November 9, 2015 at 3:07 pm - Reply

    As Peter Trudgill and others pointed out many years ago, almost everyone knows the rules of grammar because we use them all the time to form utterances in speech and writing. People differ in their explicit knowledge and in the frameworks they have learned or been taught. During the years when grammar was supposedly off the curriculum there have been several projects to enable young people to discuss and understand language, Doughty’s ‘Language in Use’ and Carter’s Language in the National Curriculum being notable – and of course A level English Language. The problem arises when a prescriptive approach to grammar is used to discriminate between who is ‘good at English’ and who isn’t. As the examiners who decided to drop testing grammar at O level realised, young people’s use of language is best assessed by exactly that – how they use language.

    • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 3:36 pm - Reply

      And implied in Trudgill’s comments is a pedagogical one: do we build on what children and students already know? Or do we assume they know nothing and/or what they know is ‘wrong’?

  10. Lucy November 9, 2015 at 3:49 pm - Reply

    ‘do we build on what children and students already know? ‘
    Which is exactly the whole problem with the SPaG test- the scores are not passed on to secondary schools in any meaningful way which allows them to have a picture of what ‘grammatical knowledge’ children have, or don’t have, any more than looking at a story they have written. (And at least they might enjoy writing the story). This leads me back to the conclusion that the test is a ‘sop’ to parents/voters who think this is about standards. It isn’t.

  11. Ian Halstead November 9, 2015 at 3:59 pm - Reply

    Regardless of the subject being taught, the primary requirement to effective learning is to have a teacher who can impart demonstrably useful knowledge, with the sort of cunning required to portray watching drying paint as more akin to a rocket launch.

    English lessons at both primary and secondary schools were a trial, a soul-sapping descent into foul waters inhabited by beasts whose only intent was to snare and belittle you. My interest in the English language was drowned for a long time.

    In contrast, the physics teacher took every opportunity to create loud bangs, noxious gasses, and controlled mayhem. Well, if control can exist on a knife-edge. It stuck.

    Fortunately, and despite my schooling experiences, a love of words has somehow bourgeoned over the decades. Being forced to attempt to learn grammar however, very nearly killed that love of words for good.

    • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 6:58 pm - Reply

      The argument here seems to be that because you had a crap English teacher no one should be taught grammar?

      • Ian Halstead November 10, 2015 at 8:42 am - Reply

        Not at all. I’m illustrating that there is a sequence that ideally has to be followed. It’s no good attempting to teach grammar until you have teachers who can impart that knowledge without boring the class to death. The result is otherwise catastrophic, and the reverse of that intended. Getting good teachers comes first. Everything else hangs on this I feel. This in turn depends on having a great headteacher who values their staff, as well as the children.

        Until teaching is seen as a worthwhile profession, where you are allowed to be professional and not micro-managed as if you were a robot acting on instruction without the inconvenience of allowing thought, a proportion of grammar teaching will fail. A proportion of all teaching will fail.

  12. Harry November 9, 2015 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    Where can I find this test? I’d like to try the idea (using the very unscientific sample of one) that secondary English teachers don’t know enough grammar to pass it .

    I might then encourage the rest of my department to give it a whirl

    • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 6:55 pm - Reply

      Michael links to the test in his article, which I linked to

  13. de Brúner November 9, 2015 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    Personally, I’m delighted to see such a debate. I’m an English teacher (based in Ireland) and while teaching English is very enjoyable and rewarding, it is also very difficult. We teach people how to read, write and think; we teach them about language; we teach them about literature; we teach them about films; we teach them about media studies and visual literacy and a lot more. The level of content is astounding. I spent the summer teaching EFL and, naturally, teaching grammar. Every year I do it I am amazed at the difference in teaching English in secondary school and English as a foreign language. Obviously there has to be a difference but what I can’t seem to get my head around is that, in my case, the Spanish students knew so much about the grammar of their language and this helped them make connections while learning English. So I asked myself: “why do we not teach such knowledge to our native speakers?” For me, that question is still unanswered. During my research over the summer, I came to the conclusion that teaching grammar explicitly was something that went out of fashion in the 1970’s and perhaps the Cultural Turn (Sociology) had something to with this.

    Nevertheless, I am a firm believer that students should leave school with a good knowledge of grammar. As the majority of contributors say above, language is always in flux. In light of this, is it not beneficial for students have a good level of grammatical knowledge?

    For me though, the real question is how it should be taught, and pedagogically, what methods are effective? But we also have to ask: for what purpose are we teaching grammar? If, for example, we are teaching it to improve writing, one study I came across (Hillocks Jr, 1984) found:

    “The study of traditional school grammer [sic] (i.e., the definition
    of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect
    on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction
    examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar
    and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing.
    In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking
    every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards,
    administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional
    school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of
    time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that
    should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching
    of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage
    and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of
    real writing problems” (1984; 160).

    Furthermore, Wyse (2001) found:

    “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” (2001; 422).

    As David says, we can always be wrong, so I don’t take these as gospel. But it is worth examining (and I will continue to explore this area) in the context of this debate.

    • richardhudson370431780 November 9, 2015 at 8:37 pm - Reply

      I’m one of the academic advisors to the DfE team who build the SPaG tests, so perhaps I could add a few facts to this discussion (where I’m entirely on the side of David Didau).

      1. The SPaG tests are intended to test children’s knowledge about language (KAL), and specifically their knowledge about grammar, including their ability to think analytically about words and sentences. Since knowledge in any school subject is expressed in terms of that subject’s standard terminology, the same is expected of grammar.

      2. Are primary children too young for grammatical analysis? The fact is that in most of Eastern Europe (especially Russia), grammar has long been an important part of the primary curriculum, and every first-year (i.e. 7-year old) is expected to know the basic word classes, while every second-year child is expected to be able to recognise the main parts of a sentence (subject, verb, object, etc). And of course Shakespeare started learning the grammar of both English and Latin at the age of 7 – and we even know what book he learned from (so-called Lily’s Grammar of Latin).

      3. The reason why grammatical analysis died in England in the 1960s (when the last O-level grammar question was set) was that it was being taught so badly. That’s why there was no correlation between composition and grammar, but that’s not the only bit of evidence – there was a flurry of research in the UK and the USA in the 1970s and 1980s (reviewed well in a report by Richard Andrews in 2004) which showed that grammar teaching had no positive effect on the quality of writing. Why was it taught badly? Because English teachers were teaching what they could remember from their own childhood, without any top-up input at university; and that in turn was the result of our university English departments having very little interest in language in general, and even less in grammar. That was generally so since our universities created English departments in the 19th century, but especially so in the first half of the 20th century. (If you want more you’ll find it at http://teach-grammar.com/history.) But the good news is that that has all changed: our universities are world-leaders on grammar research (and grammar-writing) – though it has to be said that our English departments are still pretty uninterested, so it happens in depts of English Language or Linguistics. Better still, we now have really good evidence that if grammar teaching is well planned and presented, it does in fact improve writing (see http://dickhudson.com/education/#g4w). But of course, there are other educational benefits of being able to talk about grammar, not least foreign-language teaching.

      • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 10:44 pm - Reply

        1. Dick, you talk about ‘intention’. I’m afraid your intention and the government’s are not the same. Your intention arises from your love of grammar. The government’s intention arises from their love of grading children and schools, within an agenda of forced conversion – which they don’t think is happening fast enough.

        2. You can teach some children anything. Your ‘fact’ about Russians or Shakespeare just tells us a) what’s taught (not what’s learned) and b) what Shakespeare – a tiny minority of children at the time, were taught. (We don’t actually know what Shakespeare did with his learning apart from taking the mick out of Holofernes. He may or may not have been helped by grammar teaching. French children are taught loads of grammar from quite a young age. If you receive letters from people who didn’t go to college or were not educated after the age of 16 in France, you can quickly spot that their letters are full of what are technically ‘grammatical’ errors. Why would that be?

        3. The ‘taught badly’ scenario is problematic. First of all, most people in secondary modern schools (which was the majority of those at school anyway) didn’t have any education beyond 15 during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Those of us at grammar school were taught (in most of our cases) by English teachers who were passionate to ‘get us through’ the grammar test. They gave us tables and matrices to help us learn our ‘adverbial clauses’, how to distinguish main clauses from subordinate clauses from our phrases. They told us how to spot our tenses, our active and passive and they were particularly good, I thought, in helping us to construct paragraphs and ‘essays’ – whether fiction or non-fiction.

        The key reason for the abolition was the lack of correlation between scores on the grammar question and scores on the composition.

        However, behind this issue is one of expertise. Who knows best how to write coherently and interestingly? And is this expertise harnessed by those concerned with pedagogy? My own view (it would be wouldn’t it?) is that professional writers (fiction and non-fiction and poets) know a lot about writing. However, this expertise is hardly ever harnessed by pedagogy. Instead, there is a professional caste who claim to know what good writing is, mark children highly for what is deemed to be good, and produce text books or guides on the matter.

        When I see the writing that is rewarded (in marks terms) for what is deemed to be good writing, again and again I see writing with ludicrous shoe-horning in of lists of adjectives, adverbs, embedded clauses, and fronted adverbials of time (so-caled ‘time connectives’. I have sat in parents evenings while teachers have told me that this is ‘good’ writing when everything I know about writing tells me that it’s absurd. It can only be called good if people who actually write are kept out of the loop. I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know that I will be convening a conference of writers and teachers to remedy this. We will produce a book based on our discussions.

        4. More technically speaking, Dick, you missed out your story that you were overruled on the subjunctive by ‘the minister’. Can you think of a minister doing this with science or maths? Why would that be? Why would a minister think that he or she has the expertise to overrule you? For no other reason than that ‘grammar’ is seen by a particular strand of those with power as their toy. Again, grammar ( a subject equally dear to you and me) is the victim.

        • richardhudson370431780 November 10, 2015 at 8:26 pm - Reply

          Hello again Michael. Thanks for your comments.
          #1. “The government’s intention arises from their love of grading children and schools, within an agenda of forced conversion”
          Well, if you look at the “test framework” document you’ll find this:

          The main purpose of statutory assessment is to ascertain what pupils have achieved in relation to the areas of the national curriculum (2014) describing grammar, punctuation and spelling. The main intended uses of the outcomes as set out in the Bew Report and the Government’s consultation document on primary assessment and accountability are to:
          • hold schools accountable for the attainment and progress made by their pupils
          • inform parents and secondary schools about the performance of individual pupils
          • enable benchmarking between schools, as well as monitoring performance locally and nationally

          Whatever the government’s real intention might be, this document is what controls the contents of the test, so any hidden agenda isn’t relevant.

          #2. I was simply arguing that primary children can learn to think analytically about grammar. If you know that the teaching in Russia doesn’t work, do share your evidence. Your French point isn’t about analysis but about prescriptive rules.

          #3. I’m pleased to hear that you had such good grammar teaching at school, from teachers who were passionate about it. I did too. But I think it’s pretty clear that most English teachers didn’t like it, and did it badly. One of the findings of the early research was that teachers were pretty bad at grammatical analysis, so they didn’t have much to teach; so it’s easy to understand why English teachers were so enthusiastic about the idea of giving it up. When I taught grammar to English teachers in the late 1960s, on the course that Halliday taught with your dad and his colleagues, I met enormous hostility to grammar from most English teachers. They loved to describe it simply as the naming of parts.

          #4. Re the case of the subjunctive-loving minister who sees grammar as his toy, I don’t have insight into ministers’ minds, but I agree that grammar gets special treatment in education – not surprisingly, perhaps, given its very peculiar (and untypical) history in the UK. To be fair to him, he was the same minister that appointed Debbie Myhill to write the appendix on grammar, and allowed her to pick her own team; and who allowed us to include determiners and a number of other non-traditional ideas.

  14. Adam November 9, 2015 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    Thank you for offering these challenging thoughts, and for the debate with Michael Rosen below, which I found equally thoight-provoking.

    I’m a primary teacher and, although I agree with you 100% that children need to know some of the correct terminology (and it does improve their ability to write creatively when they actually know why they are using particular words and sentence structures), the kind of teaching (and learning) required to prepare children for the previous and new SPaG tests does, in my experience, stifle creativity because of the emphasis on testing as the end result and the amount there is to learn. On the points in your discussion with Rosen, about learning terminology first vs. children discovering and forming their own understanding, there is an approach to teaching maths that has come from Singapore whereby children are asked to explore a problem and develop their own ideas for how it could be solved before even discussing it with the teacher. Ideas and potential problems/pitfalls with they theories are then discussed with the teacher before the teacher plugs any methodological gaps. This approach, although it means that children get it wrong a lot before they find the most helpful method, has proven (by test results) to improve children’s learning and ability to apply methods abstractly. This would, perhaps be a good way forward for teaching grammar? (in fact, I’ve just talked myself in to trying it)

    However, for me the main issue isn’t the emphasis on learning grammar, but what 10/11 year olds are expected to be able to learn, understand and then use in a test. I only have my own practice to base my thoughts on here, but for many children the amount of terminology they need to not only retain, but understand and use, is beyond them. This is my main concern.

  15. Pat Stone November 9, 2015 at 8:20 pm - Reply

    You write with perfect grammar, David. Nobody would ever know you were not posh. I was never posh either. I was get-the-violins-out poor but can express myself in writing, and like you, I didn’t learn formal grammar, although I went to grammar school. My English teacher was a snooty blue stocking who just about combusted spontaneously when a word she gave us to look up was in my cheap dictionary but not in the expensive recommended ones that the others all had.
    Do we write so grammatically because we know the metalanguage? I think not.
    Children at school – primary, anyway – are full of fragments these days.They know a million phonics and grammar terms but hate reading and can’t think what to write. This is not because their teachers are crap. Believe me please.
    I have been shell-shocked all day after last evening’s Twitter exchange about grammar. Eric (from Minnesota – you know who I mean) gave a brilliant talk at the literacy conference at the weekend, in which he said that improving text comprehension would include background knowledge of the work’s milieu, and not drills of comprehension skills. I agreed with every word Eric said. But you got quite cross with me for suggesting that grammar has something to do with comprehension, so that if we are dropping comprehension in isolation, we also drop the intrinsic grammar lessons. The understanding includes the use of grammar – not its terminology.
    Had we but world enough and time, students could have infinite numbers of grammar lessons, study thousands of wonderful texts and write millions of words in every genre. But we don’t.
    Can I write without knowing grammar metalanguage? Yes.
    Can I read without knowing grammar metalanguage? Yes.
    Can I do grammar lessons without reading and writing? No.
    I know which one I’d drop if time was limited.
    We need to learn to read, write and speak well. Grammar metalanguage is not necessary for any one of them. Otherwise, how would you yourself be able to read, write and speak so well, when you had no formal grammar teaching?
    And as for the political implications of knowing this or knowing that, do you really think an army of grammar freaks are going to rise up and wrest power from the establishment?
    You’d be better off demanding lessons for all in Economics and, yes, wait for it, Media Studies.

  16. Jo Ince November 9, 2015 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    Why do secondary teachers always seem to think that everything should be taught in primary? The grammar knowledge you describe is much better suited to the secondary curriculum, allowing primary school educators to focus on reading and spelling, numeracy and social skills, set in the context. I sat with some children who needed rest breaks in last year’s SATs. The SPAG was dry and endlessly repetitive, it kept asking for the same information again and again. Having said that, a lot of my antipathy is based on calling it SPAG, it conjures up images of 1950’s school boys saying, ‘Blast it, I’ve got double SPAG after Latin.’ I am launching a campaign to call it GASP! because you can punctuate it.
    PS if you write a piece using a pick list of grammatically diverse sentences in order to please examiners, you end up with unreadable drivel.

    • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 9:11 pm - Reply

      Hi Jo – would you like a list of things I don’t think should be taught at primary school? 🙂 I reckon they ought to be able to handle parts of speech, subject-verb agreement and clauses, no?

      And, you’re quite right a rattlebag of sentence-type hoopla please no one. Let’s actively teach children not to do this 🙂

      • Pat Stone November 9, 2015 at 10:20 pm - Reply

        We are going through all this for a few bits of ‘parts of speech, subject-verb agreement and clauses’?
        If only.
        Have you seen the KS2 SPAG for 2016?

        • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 10:21 pm - Reply

          I have. Next?

          • Pat Stone November 9, 2015 at 10:41 pm

            It includes way more than ‘parts of speech, subject-verb agreement and clauses’. If all you want is that people can write prose with verb-subject agreement, nobody will disagree. But when you say ‘Grammar’, that includes everything; the whole caboodle of metalanguage getting more and more esoteric by the day as in SPaG 2016. Is that that you want?

  17. EPHS Literacy (@EPHS_Literacy) November 9, 2015 at 9:35 pm - Reply

    Nobody seems to be talking about how the teaching of grammar should be differentiated. Does every child need higher order grammar training?

    • Pat Stone November 11, 2015 at 10:54 am - Reply

      In other strands of their didacticism, Mr Didau and his colleagues don’t believe in differentiation.
      That’s probably why he has not responded to this point.

  18. fish64 November 9, 2015 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    As an MFL teacher, I do wish pupils were taught English tense classification in their English lessons, so that they could identify simple and continuous tenses for example, or the difference between the present perfect and the past perfect. I spend 2 lessons with my year 10 German class doing English tense classification, as they are only aware of the terms past, present and future. This is a massive over simplification and does not help them when it comes to learning other languages

    • Michael Rosen November 9, 2015 at 10:49 pm - Reply

      So, you can do what my teachers did: which was teach us through comparison of languages. Thus: technically speaking there is no present continuous or past continuous tenses in French. So our teachers explained how the simple present and the ‘imperfect’ carried that sense but if you wanted to make a point of it you had to use ‘en train de’. In a stroke we learned some English and French grammar at the same time. I don’t think it’s the job of one ‘subject’ to be the handmaiden of another.

      • fish64 November 10, 2015 at 6:35 pm - Reply

        That’s exactly what I do – but I do find it curious that English pupils don’t learn the classification of English tenses in English grammar.

  19. Sue Taylor November 9, 2015 at 10:59 pm - Reply

    You guys are talking about the what, not the who. At the end of my 40 something year career in teaching I’ve recently completed 5 years of utter pleasure teaching grammar and writing to a mixture of dual (and often many more) language Y6 children – they ‘got’ grammar. They needed it to assist their understanding about how the mega-language that is English works. Their background knowledge of grammar in other languages only served to compound their understanding that English was the granddaddy of all languages, vaster in every direction. They had fun with grammar, inventing all kinds of silliness, most of which was a joy to read. Now that I’ve switched schools I’m with a (100% mono-language) group of children who have none of the basics; sadly neither does their mainstream teacher. I agree teachers need to know about grammar. Here’s a thought – If the teachers were tested on subject knowledge would we have better educated children?

    • David Didau November 9, 2015 at 11:03 pm - Reply

      Great comment Sue. Thanks

      “If the teachers were tested on subject knowledge would we have better educated children?”

      Yes, I think we would 🙂

    • Michael Rosen November 10, 2015 at 9:29 am - Reply

      This seems to be more of a comment about the ‘substrate’ than the pedagogy. I absolutely agree that bilingual and trilingual pupils have a particular experience in relation to language. At several levels of understanding (cognition?), they ‘know’ more about grammar than we monolinguals. In fact, what they know is a stunning among about language-in-use at the levels of semantics, phonology, morphology and lexis. I’ve watched a Sylheti speaker aged about 7 translating what a nurse was saying to her mother. The school curriculum does not have a space in which this achievement is recognised or rewarded. The SPaG test of itself certainly doesn’t either. Apart from anything else, the languages that the children speak have features which English does not, and vice versa.

  20. DomH November 10, 2015 at 12:07 am - Reply

    I thank Michael Rosen and you for igniting such a heated debate about testing grammar at primary school, particularly with the huge step up in difficulty facing current Year 6 pupils. I’ve been wondering when we primary teachers were going to take our heads out of the sand and face the arrival of this multi-headed beast that is threatening to overwhelm English teaching and learning in the last couple of years of primary. It’s taken a secondary teacher and a poet to do it for us, but anyway… Perhaps I am being melodramatic but the new test is incredibly difficult, as Michael Rosen explained in his article. I found it more difficult than recent Level 6 papers, and, though I am admittedly no grammar guru myself, I am left wondering and worrying how on Earth most 11 year olds will fare in the summer. More depressing still is the grim prospect of teachers who have had little time to digest the turgid content of the new curriculum for Year 6 (which only came into force this year for Year 2 and 6) having to force feed children new grammar terminology and concepts over the coming months in the hope they will sink in before the summer. Some of the knowledge expected is so abstract and removed from normal language use that it appears to be at best a waste of time, at worst an attempt by a nostalgic, elitist, traditionalist minority to drag us back through the mists of time to a 1950s grammar or public school classroom.  I mean, does the average 11 year old really need to understand the use of the subjunctive, verb inflexions, the present perfect tense or the difference between a prepositional phrase and a subordinating conjunction? These are things most high functioning, literate adults do not know. Children in Year 6 have only had one year of the new curriculum and are now having to tackle this beast with little preparation. Teachers have had even less time as SATs was based on the old curriculum last year. This can only be detrimental to engagement in learning and in raising writing standards.

  21. Michael Rosen November 10, 2015 at 6:54 am - Reply

    Pat Stone raised a very important issue about grammar. Is it a sealed system with its own protocols created by and for itself, or is it a system that is part of a wider process of making meaning…which itself is part of a wider system of human behaviour.?

    The SPaG is based on the former – that it is a sealed system with its own protocols. These protocols, under this theory, can be ‘spotted’ and, by implication, explained, by observations of grammar itself in tiny units of written language. Under the second theory, grammar can only be fully demonstrated and, by implication, explained, on the basis of making meaning in much longer passages of language in use (including speech), which themselves are dependent on what producers of language and their receivers (writers and readers, speakers and listeners) want to say and mean.

    If you reduce language to the little sentences of a SPaG test and then ask children to produce passages of writing which include features from the test for little sentences, you get crap writing. How do I know? I have a ten year old. His homework last night could well have been an instruction on how to produce crap writing about fireworks night. He had to include certain grammatical features. This is precisely what I’m referring to as the fallacy of the ‘sealed system’. It’s assumed that sticking the grammatical feature into some writing will lead to satisfactory meaning-making.

    The further problem of this way of teaching and testing language is that grammar can’t take the strain. The harder people try to make grammar fit the straitjacket of ‘right and wrong’ answers, and the sealed system of thinking, the less able is the grammar to take it. The test becomes littered with false distinctions, (see subordinating conjunctions and prepositions as an example), highly disputed categories (see subjunctive), and questions which are supposed to have one answer but which have more than one right answer. Last year, children were not allowed to write ‘The sun shone bright’ because, the word ‘bright’ was ‘not an adverb’. David Crystal told the examiners they were talking cock. He was overruled. What does he know about language? The devisers of the KS1 draft SPaG couldn’t even sort out how to describe our means of asking questions. They got their auxiliaries and main verbs in a muddle. In trying to make the micro-grammar ‘right’, they end up being ‘wrong’. We all know how to ask questions. We do it every day all day. Struggling to find right and wrong ways of describing this, in sufficiently simple terms for seven year olds ended up with them being ‘wrong’ by their own criteria – not mine.

    There is yet another problem which none of us has commented on: to make the sealed system approach work, you have to exclude everyday speech. So, the language that the children are actually using themselves everyday and all day is excluded from this classification system. There is a powerful body of theory that investigates speech – from sociolinguistics to psycholinguistics to pragmatics. To take one tiny obvious example: two of the most used words (or non-standard dialect versions of them) are ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Will ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and their many subtle ways of being used be in the SPaG test? I very much doubt it. That’s because it is much harder to squeeze the ‘grammar’ of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ into the sealed system model. They are so clearly part of ‘meaning-making’ and human behaviour and not part of rules that can be derived from writing (other than drama).

    To return to the issue of the possibility of a ‘comprehension-grammar’ this then raises a pedagogical point: how might we best teach ‘grammar-for-meaning’? I would suggest that this is where the compare-contrast principles come in,and it’s where we might pose problems for children in terms of ‘how might we best write ‘x’ kind of writing for ‘y’ kind of purpose?’ not, ‘how might we stick this grammatical feature’ into any old bit of writing?’!!!!

    That’s the alternative way to teach grammar whilst paying respect to how grammar works in language: humans invented it in order to make meaning within out human needs, desires and activities.

    • Michael Rosen November 10, 2015 at 7:06 am - Reply

      ‘our’ not ‘out’ in last sentence.

      • John Hodgson November 10, 2015 at 8:30 am - Reply

        One of the fascincating features of words (indeed of any signs) is that less means more. (At this point someone might object that I should say ‘fewer’ rather than ‘less’ because I’m referring to countable nouns. That would be ‘grammar’ as conformity to social rules, not as language analysis.) The second paragraph of ‘Bleak House’ begins with a two word sentence: ‘Fog everywhere’. We could discuss with students how the meaning would have been changed and reduced if Dickens had kept to the rules of sentence-construction and written ‘The Fog was everywhere’ (we could say, if we wish, that ‘the’ is here a determiner, but in any case they’ll get the difference in meaning). Michael has pointed out somewhere that the word Stop in relation to a bus has a complex yet commonly understood meaning (e.g. ‘Press here to tell the driver to stop the bus at the next stop’) which depends not only on linguistic rules and conventions but on a wider system of meaning-making (sometimes called social semiotics). But neither of these examples of literary and everyday language would be used in a SPaG test, because they appear not to conform to the rules of the sealed system (e.g. that a sentence must have a verb and a verb must have a subject). But how interesting and creative this kind of ‘grammar’ analysis is!

      • Mike Simpson November 10, 2015 at 9:21 am - Reply

        I think the magic is being replaced with the mechanical.

        Unfortunately so many of the mechanics don’t understand the language themselves. They see it as nuts that should only fit with certain bolts and while they gleefully point out those attempting to use the *wrong* bolts they miss the beautiful things that could be created by using nuts and bolts differently or flexibly.

        The current system doesn’t aim to inspire young writers. Instead it teaches children how to be little English Teachers with heads crammed full of English Teacher jargon. For many I expect that writing will remain as alchemy, while others will become competent mechanics but wish they’d made it as magicians.

  22. MG Harris November 10, 2015 at 9:45 am - Reply

    I wonder how much of the deconstruction of teaching English is about making the marking more objective. It’s always difficult to score a subject where the emotional response of the examiner is a factor. Good writing produces that. In fact, you might say that a emotional response in the region reader is the main aim of writing, even persuasive writing.

    But how can you teach people how to create such a response? Maybe you can’t. Some people say that you can’t teach great writing and storytelling, that it’s too much a factor of an individual’s personal neurology. So much easier to break down language into rules. Fairer to those whose brains aren’t wired for compelling narrative.

    I was OK at English at school, but I’ll admit that I ditched it for A level. I needed a shot at A grades and I wasn’t prepared to risk missing out because of an examiner’s subjectivity. The current system of rules and a well defined mark scheme, openly available to all, would have been right up my street.

    It may not produce the best creative writing but it will give a better shot to students who can’t easily imitate good writing, who need the implicit made explicit. And there’s a definite difference. You can talk to my SPAG-tested 13 year old about language, and critique her writing using the terms of grammar. Whereas my 23 year old graduate daughter needs a different approach.

    Funny thing is, they’re both pretty good writers. Go figure.

  23. tonyparkin November 10, 2015 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Perhaps I should amend my original suggestion of grammar as alchemy? Maybe it is alchemy in reverse, converting golden creative writing into leaden prose? #endoflightrelief

    • John Hodgson November 10, 2015 at 1:15 pm - Reply

      Perhaps it depends on what is meant by ‘grammar’: the golden study of how language works, or the leaden application of rules of propriety …. #creativegrammar

  24. Grammar and Writing - Joan Vinall-Cox November 10, 2015 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    […] is important. I found David Didau’s article on grammar made a lot of sense – https://www.learningspy.co.uk/writing/writing-is-magic-but-what-about-grammar/ I especially like his decription of writing as magic, and spelling as casting a […]

  25. […] Here is a thoughtful post by David Didau: https://www.learningspy.co.uk/writing/writing-is-magic-but-what-about-grammar/ […]

  26. Pat Stone November 10, 2015 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    Maybe there should be Grammar GCSE and A Level? Some people really love this messing about with words stuff, just as some love messing about with numbers, atlases, computers and paint. The grammar freaks have been denied long enough. Give them/us their/our own exams on option. And then leave the yawners alone to enjoy their own specialisms.

    On another outside the box type tack, there is a TED talk from ? Cochrane about the types of skills, specialisms and jobs that are dying out and those that are coming on-stream as we speak. Also thrilling. Our phones will read and write for us in about 5, 10 years time. Reading and writing will become crafts like knitting and carpentry. We will need to be able to compose, create and understand, not fuss about metalanguage (unless that’s what we are interested in). These so-called innovative secondary school edubloggers are actually quite far behind the times.

  27. Education Digest | Pedfed November 29, 2015 at 10:19 pm - Reply
  28. […] you have to know the rules – explicit knowledge of grammar matters. I’ve written about this here and […]

  29. […] If writing is magic, grammar is alchemy […]

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