Tools or rules in schools? KATRINA KITNEY explores the pros and cons of grammar teaching.

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

References

Crystal, D. (2004). ‘A twenty-first century grammar bridge’. In Davison, J., Daly, C. and Moss, J.  (2010). Debates in English Teaching. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Department for Education (2013). The National Curriculum in England: Key Stages 1 and 2 framework document

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.

Nelson, G., & Greenbaum, S. (2013). An introduction to English grammar. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Sellgren, K. (2012, May 6). Heads oppose new punctuation and spelling test. BBC News.

Thomason, T., & Ward, G. (2009). Tools, not rules. Durham, CT: Eloquent Books.

Ward, H. (2017, July 4). Sats: 61 per cent of pupils reach expected standard in three Rs. TES

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5 thoughts on “Tools or rules in schools? KATRINA KITNEY explores the pros and cons of grammar teaching.

  1. Matt says:

    Hi Katrina. Thanks for providing some insights into these SPaG tests. I was wondering whether you could give an example or two of any of the kinds of questions that seven year-olds would get in the grammar element of these tests? I remember reading somewhere something about the ‘subjunctive’. I am not even sure if I know what that means! Could you clarify this for me and perhaps explain the government’s justification for having to be able to spot one?

  2. Francesca Williams says:

    Hi Kat. Great blog! It gave me a good insight into these “SPaG” tests. I am interested to know more about the teachers’ perspective. Are the majority of teachers in disagreement with these tests or are some in favour? If they disagree, then surely as teachers are the ones having to test children, then their opinion should matter more. If so, why do you think it is that the government are ignoring teachers’ judgement and carrying them out anyway?

    I am also in total agreement with you when you say it is ridiculous putting pressure on children as young as 7 to take these tests, especially when they have only just begun their schooling life!

    I also agree with the approach that Thomason and Ward (2009) suggest, that if grammar were to be taught as a tool for children, then it would be most effective. I agree, like you said not all children are able to “identify an adjective from an adverb”, but I am sure they can produce good, imaginative pieces of writing. Children being good at writing also comes with practise and whether they enjoy writing or not. If a child enjoys writing, then it’s simple. They do not enjoy writing and are able to do it because they have learnt how to put the correct affix onto a word.

    On the other hand, I cannot agree with what Hillocks Jr and Smith (1991) say, about grammar teaching and instruction doesn’t improve writing, this just seems absurd! I am not in agreement with the tests like yourself, but surely some teaching of grammar will improve some part of writing, even in a small way!

  3. Stephanie Meadows says:

    This is a great blog post Katrina! I could not agree more with your opinion on the ‘SPaG’ tests. As I really do feel strongly about them putting way too much pressure on children at such a young age. It seems you’re leaning towards SPaG tests as being a bad thing, however you do state that you think it is important for them to learn about grammar. Your blog post is such an interesting read, especially when you were discussing the statistics showing that children in the UK have actually improved their grammar.

    However in 2017, Mansell reported that multiple academics also argue that SPaG tests do not demonstrate children’s understanding of grammar, in his article the ‘battle on adverbials front: grammar advisers raise worries about Sats tests and teaching’ from the Guardian (2017) These academics had similar views to Thomason and Ward’s (2009) argument. He reported that a former professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education, Dominic Wyse, strongly commented against SPaG tests, as he believes that teaching subordinate clauses has no benefits to children’s writing (Guardian, 2017). However, I do not fully agree with this claim as some form of grammar teaching must help children to a certain extent.

    Lastly, have you considered where the UK lies in comparison to other countries in terms of grammar? How good are we compared to them? Because even though our statistics are rising I think it is known that the UK has bad literacy ratings compared to other countries. So do you think we should apply the same techniques of other countries who have better ratings than us?

    Reference list:
    Mansell, W. (2017, May 9). Battle on the adverbials front: grammar advisers raise worries about Sats tests and teaching. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/may/09/fronted-adverbials-sats-grammar-test-primary

  4. Kate Munsch says:

    Hi Katrina, I enjoyed reading your blog post. I found many of your points very interesting. I agree with your opinion about these new tests putting too much pressure on seven year olds. I believe that the use of ‘correct grammar’ should not be enforced onto children who are just beginning to fully explore their language. I could not agree more with you that these children have their whole educational life to be tested and placed against targets.

    I really liked your point about how it would be more constructive if children were taught how to use grammar in context. However, do you believe that a child can learn and apply the complicated rules of grammar simply through playing and exploring English?

    As teachers and parents do not agree with the new assessments put in place, you would think that the government would listen to the opinions of the people who are most involved in a child’s education. Do you think that these assessments should be outright demolished, or rather change these assessments to make them less serious, and more to see what stages the children are at?

    I understand that the new assessments do slightly improve the results, but do you think that the pressure on the children, and the disputes from the teachers and parents are worth the 5% improvement?

    Overall, your blog post gave me a better understanding of SPaG tests and the opinions concerning them

  5. Bethany Howard says:

    Hi Katrina, your blog was a very interesting read! I completely agree with your views on the SPaG tests. Do you think SPaG tests were really introduced to check a child’s knowledge and understanding of grammar or do you think the government introduced SPaG tests as way to collect more data on schools? Also, do you think that identifying the correct word class or picking a correct affix proves that young children fully understand grammar in a given context?

    7 – 11 year olds are put under enormous amounts of pressure to hit target grades and perform well in a range of tests at school. I agree with Sellgren’s (BBC News education reporter) point that primary school children are “sick of a diet of practise SATs and drills”. Although I do wonder, if parents and teachers disagree with this type of rigorous testing, why has little action been taken to prevent these types of tests from taking place?

    However, it is important for children to learn how to use grammar correctly. As you indicated, the test scores for SPaG tests have risen significantly with a large proportion of children reaching their target grades in May 2017. Although SPaG tests may put extra pressure on students, the test results clearly show that there has been an improvement in children’s grammatical skills since the introduction of these tests.

    One thing is I disagree with is Hillocks JR and Smith’s (1991) view that teaching grammar to students “has little or no effect”. Although I do not agree with SPaG tests, I do believe that children need to be taught about grammar in schools. If children were not taught the basics of grammar in primary schools, surely this would make the rest of their time in education more difficult?

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