Grammar still matters – but teachers are struggling to teach it


Do you know what a suffix is, or how to distinguish adjectives from adverbs? If you have a six or seven-year-old, the chances are they do. Or at least, the UK government now says they should – by the end of year 2, to be specific.

In year 3, primary schoolers turn their attention to prefixes and conjunctions. By the time pupils head to secondary school, they are expected to know what determiners and adverbials are. They should be able to recognise a relative clause as a special type of subordinate clause. And their creative writing should showcase modal verbs and the active and passive voice.

Obviously, for all this to happen, teachers need to be comfortable with these terms and the concepts they cover. And if you went to school before 1960, you probably are. However, between 1960 and 1988, English – in England and Wales – was taught in a virtually grammar-free manner.

While grammar made a comeback in 1988, with the introduction of the national curriculum, many teachers today feel ill-prepared to teach it. And that’s because, as I and other language experts have pointed out, they themselves were never taught much, if any, grammar. And appropriate teaching support and materials are lacking.

Of course, grammar at school often becomes a political issue, with liberals rejecting a more conservative insistence on so-called correct grammar. But as a Dutch linguist, my perspective is that learning grammar isn’t about speaking properly. It is about gaining a broader understanding of one’s own language and how to use it creatively. It’s also a useful tool for learning other languages.

Grammar-free teaching

Before 1960, the way in which British schools taught English grammar was based on Latin. Categories that had been developed for Latin grammar were imposed on English. That frequently made little sense because English is a very different language.

From the 1920s, this Latinate approach was highly criticised, and the argument against English grammar in schools gathered force in the 1940s and 1950s. Studies in Scotland and England in the middle of the 20th century claimed that the subject was essentially too difficult for children.

Research suggests the disappearance of grammar from the English school curriculum in 1960 is also due to an increased emphasis on English literature. The idea was that children would pick up the needed grammar more or less as they went along.

The 1970s marked a turning point. The government published several critical reports, citing in particular high levels of illiteracy in England and Wales. This led to a U-turn in policy, with grammar gradually returning to the classroom from 1988.

Research in the years that followed showed that student teachers didn’t have the knowledge they needed to teach it, though. The authors of a 1995 study of 99 student teachers in Newcastle noted –- and subsequent researchers concurred – that without significant input during training, teachers would struggle.

Why grammar matters

Teachers’ knowledge about grammar remains problematic. A 2016 case study of a primary school in the north-west of England (which was rated “good” by Ofsted) analysed data collected over ten months from June 2014 to March 2015 on what teachers knew.

When questioned about the terms specified in the national curriculum, including adjective, conjunction and determiner, the teachers only got about half of the questions right. Teaching-support staff fared even worse.

Why should we care about whether our teachers are well equipped to teach grammar? In the first instance, we should because they have to. It is crucial that teachers have the knowledge and confidence to support pupils through statutory subjects, on which, in non-pandemic times at least, they will be formally tested.

A growing body of evidence also shows that teaching grammar may enhance students’ writing development. This is because knowledge about concepts such as active and passive voice may allow for more precise and productive conversations between teachers and students about textual effects and possibilities. And it may enable students to shape their prose more consciously.

It can also help them learn new languages. If learners already have a conscious awareness of linguistic features such as tenses, that helps them to recognise and discuss what is the same or different in another tongue. And though more research is needed, some scholars have even suggested that grammar teaching may improve general thinking skills.

Many publishers have stepped into the gap left by the government and have produced support materials to help (student) teachers master the grammatical terms the curriculum specifies. But publishers operate in a free market without oversight from the Department for Education. Also, the materials have generally not had any input from academic grammarians. As a result, they often contain mistakes.

These are not just typos. For instance, one book aimed at teachers analyses “have” as a modal verb, which it is not, and suggests that modal verbs form tenses, which they do not. Another grammar book categorises “don’t touch!” as an exclamation, while it is actually a straightforward example of a command. Such errors are not dissimilar to the suggestion that seven times seven is 48, when all year 4s are of course taught that it is in fact 49.

Furthermore, it is well known that teachers experience more job stress than other professionals. In this context it may not be reasonable to expect them to have to independently procure and work through professional development materials in a subject area of such importance.

Our baseline argument is that when it comes to recognising the importance of grammar, the curriculum is on point. However, the government should equip its teachers to teach it. It needs to commission research into the exact nature of the gaps in their knowledge. And it should get academic grammarians on board in developing appropriate support materials and training.

Author Bio: Willem Hollmann is Professor of Linguistics at Lancaster University