neon letters grammar jumble

Grammar… friend or foe?

Let’s talk about the G-word: grammar. It’s a bit of a Marmite subject. People seem to love it or hate it, and for some it is a trigger word. When I mention that I like linguistics, people can get a bit defensive and ask if I’m going to correct their apostrophes. There is, it seems to me, a conflation of linguistics with the ‘naming of parts’ and subjects, verbs and objects. Grammar can be a real bone of contention in education too, and even cause ripples in politics. 

To untangle the issue of grammar teaching in school, I spoke to Dr Ian Cushing from Brunel University in London, where he is a Lecturer in Education, previously Teaching Fellow in English Linguistics at UCL  and leads the English PGCE programme. He has research interests concerning language policy in schools, grammar in schools and teachers’ knowledge about language.

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Grammar teaching – where are we now?

When I was at school in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t really learn explicitly about grammatical terms in our English lessons. I’ve heard from other people my age that they ‘discovered’ that verbs were a thing in English once they started learning French or other foreign languages at school. And yet, grammar is now a significant part of teaching in primary schools. How do teachers feel about this? Are we feeling confident and qualified?

Before we dive in too far, Ian asks us to question what we mean when we use the word ‘grammar’, since we can define it in different ways. Do we mean the study of ‘clause level’ grammar, such as identifying parts of speech? Or are we talking about ‘discourse level’ grammar, and how linguistic patterns contribute and shape meaning? And then there are the ideologies about grammar, and the differences between spoken and written codes. It is a big subject, so we begin with some contextualising of what we mean when we say ‘grammar’ and how the cycle of grammar teaching has returned to quite a prescriptive approach.

German and English are closely related. Knowledge about the history of English can shed light on some of the eccentricities of English grammar.

Teacher knowledge about grammar

Rather than discussing ‘knowledge about grammar’, Ian suggests we use the phrase ‘knowledge about language’ or language awareness. There can be quite a lot of pressure on teachers to get their pupils through the SATS at the end of primary school. Pedagogies can often (not always!) be written in response to the spelling, punctuation and grammar elements of these tests. In secondary school, teachers have a little more freedom to move beyond the prescriptive approach of clause level grammar. We can investigate ‘discourse level’ approaches to language, looking at meaning, contexts, patterns and language choices. Below A Level English Language, however, there could be more space in the curriculum for talking about attitudes, linguistic variation, accents, dialects, history of language, language change, ideologies, and standardised/non-standardised Englishes. It’s all really helpful to get pupils interested in language, and the way we use it. Teachers could be supported to develop a more critical, political and sensitive approach to language teaching. Connecting linguists and teachers could be a good way forward for this kind of collaboration.

Grammar rules

Different theories and frameworks for talking about grammar and language all come with different metalanguage (language about language). It’s not surprising that teachers can sometimes feel overwhelmed when googling a grammatical term, as different approaches explain the same things in different ways. We might clutch at the ‘rules’ because they seem solid, when in fact language is more diaphanous and vague. What we do have, however, are conventions about how we use language in different contexts and for different purposes. Thinking about grammar conventions is a bit more helpful in terms of avoiding the ‘right/wrong’ approach of talking about language.

Language is a bit messy, and doesn’t always conform to these so-called invented rules.

Ian Cushing on grammar ‘rules’

As Michael Rosen said in episode 10, language is always ‘language in use’. Talking about grammar in a very abstract way suggests that it conforms to a set of rules, but it is much messier than that. There are conventions and patterns which we apply in a context and for a purpose. To find reliable resources for teaching language in use and knowledge about language, Ian suggests looking at Deborah Myhill’s work at the University of Exeter here and to the Englicious website, which Ian worked on during his time at UCL.

Why study ‘grammar’ at all then?

Some knowledge and understanding of the metalanguage allows us to discuss language in use in a critical way, and apply ourselves to dissecting attitudes and approaches to language. Whilst knowing the names of grammatical terms does not improve pupils’ writing, if our language lessons are a rich environment for talking about talking and writing, I think this would empower pupils to think about language more critically. Language is something we do, choices we make to reach goals we want to achieve, not something that is done to us. Grammar in context is an exciting approach with a focus on the writing, and what is happening with language, rather than simple labelling and identification of grammatical features. David Crystal talked about this as well in episode 8. Linguistic possibilities, creativity and meaning and choice underpin this approach.

There’s absolutely no research that suggests that explicit knowledge of grammatical terms equates with improved writing.

Ian Cushing on whether ‘clause level’ grammar knowledge improves writing

‘Better’ English

We finish off part 1 of our discussion by thinking about some of the words we put in front of ‘English’ such as ‘better’ or ‘standard’ or ‘articulate’. Who gets to decide what is better or standard? Do teachers have a responsibility to focus on ‘correct’ notions of language when teaching? Join the discussion on Twitter by following @langrevolution and @ian_cushing. Are you a student or a teacher? What do you think about current approaches to ‘grammar’?

Listen to Ian Cushing on The Language Revolution podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon etc. or here:

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