Grammar is the backbone of English and all other languages. The importance of the explicit teaching of grammar, and whether it can or should be successfully taught in schools has been an ongoing debate for many years. So, what is the point of grammar teaching in the classroom and how are children assessed on their linguistic abilities? Does having a good knowledge of grammar, such as being able to identify word classes and dissect sentences, help you to use language ‘correctly’?
Most linguists view grammar as a “central component to language” and it is generally understood that an implicit knowledge of grammar is acquired through the exposure to language we have during childhood (Nelson and Greenbaum, 2013, p. 1). However, the UK government has decided that more emphasis should be placed on the explicit learning of grammar in UK schools as advised through the national curriculum, set out by the Department for Education. Although the government acknowledges that the acquisition of grammar does originate in speaker interaction at an early age, more emphasis is definitely placed on the teaching of “correct grammar” within classrooms (The National Curriculum, 2013, p. 9).
In recent years, statistics have shown below standard results in English reading and writing tests for primary school children. In an attempt to monitor and improve these results, the UK government has introduced the so-called “SPaG” tests (short for Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) into the national curriculum from May 2013. These compulsory tests for seven and eleven-year olds are another way of the government assessing children, but specifically a way to test children’s grammar, punctuation and spelling abilities. For a taste of what questions appear on the SPaG test, the questions range from identifying a word class or sentence type, to placing the right punctuation or choosing the correct affix for a word.
Since the tests were introduced four years ago, there has been some uncertainty around their effectiveness; a BBC News report stated that the new tests would lead to an even more specified curriculum and it is simply another way of “teaching to the test”. Unsurprisingly, many parents and teachers disagreed with the new assessments, concerned that it places more unnecessary pressure on pupils, who by age 11 are already “sick of a diet of practise SATs and drills” (Sellgren, BBC News education reporter).
Thomason and Ward (2009), suggest that grammar teaching would be more effectively taught if it were introduced as a “tool” that children could use to enhance their language abilities. Not all children are able to critically analyse texts, or find it difficult to identify an adjective from an adverb, but does this mean they aren’t able to produce a good piece of writing? Not according to Hillocks Jr and Smith (1991), who propose that grammar instruction does not improve students writing. They state that consistent research over a ninety-year period has shown that teaching grammar to students within schools has little or no effect (in Wyse, Andrews and Hoffman, 2010, p. 171).
Despite the controversy surrounding the introduction of the new tests, there are still benefits to the enforcement of grammar teaching in schools. Test scores have increased annually since May 2015, with 77% of students reaching the expected targets in May 2017, up 5% from May 2016 (Ward, 2017); showing an improvement in children’s grammatical skills. Furthermore, Crystal (2004, p. 24) suggests that the main advantage of learning grammar, is grasping the concept of meaning. The more capable we are of understanding grammar and how it works, the more we can express ourselves and observe how we (and those around us) use language.
Grammar is most definitely an important aspect of English (and any language) and I support any attempt to improve children’s grammatical abilities. However, I don’t agree with the government’s approach to enforcing tests on pupils as young as seven, who are already facing several more years in an education system where you are continuously tested and placed against targets. I believe that rather than enforcing grammar as an abstract set of rules, it could be more beneficial to teach children how to use grammar in context, allowing them to play and explore language and be creative within their writing.
KATRINA KITNEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Hillocks, G., Jr and Smith, M. (1991). Grammar and Usage. In Wyse, D., Andrews, R. and Hoffman, J. (2010). The Routledge International Handbook of English, Language and Literacy Teaching. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.