Does traditional grammar instruction improve children’s writing ability?
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 July 2016
Alice Sullivan and Dominic Wyse.
Children in England have recently taken their statutory tests at age 10-11 (commonly known as Key Stage 2 SATs). The results, published today, show that the pass rate has plummeted compared to last year. This is because the nature of the tests changed dramatically in 2016. We focus here on why the new English tests have been so difficult for children to pass – and why most parents would struggle to pass the tests too.
The key change in the English writing SATs is that there is a new focus on formal grammatical terminology. So, for example, eleven-year-olds have been faced with questions such as this:
Tick the option which shows how the underlined words in the sentence below are used.
The insect-eating Venus flytrap is a carnivorous plant.
- as a main clause
- as a fronted adverbial
- as a subordinate clause
- as a noun phrase
In preparation for these tests, children have been spending substantial classroom and homework time on grammar exercises such as the one shown below. This is an example of homework from an eight-year-old child:
If you are curious to know how you would fare on the Key Stage 2 English assessment, you can test yourself with questions adapted from the sample English question papers for 2016 published by the DfE Standards & Testing Agency. The actual grammar paper used in the 2016 test is here.
If you can’t answer these questions, you are not alone. One interesting feature of these tests is that most adults will be utterly stumped by them, including those who write perfectly grammatically. Most of the parents of the eleven-year-olds taking these tests have never learned to use the technical grammatical terminology required, because it wasn’t taught at school when they were kids. So, if people can write grammatically without knowledge of the grammatical terminology that describes what they are doing, why are primary schools now teaching children this terminology?
Traditional instruction in grammar was commonplace in the 1950s classroom, but was largely abandoned by the 1970s, partly due to a research evidence that formal grammar teaching of this sort was ineffective. The consensus was that the grammar of one’s native tongue is best learned by extensive reading and writing practice supported by appropriate teaching, rather than by being taught a set of formal rules and technical grammatical terms. Educators also noted that children found traditional grammar lessons dry and boring.
So, what changed? You might imagine that such a radical shift in the primary curriculum could only have occurred because some new evidence emerged to show that the teaching of formal grammatical terminology is the best way to improve children’s writing skills. You would be wrong. Reviews of the evidence still concur that this is far from the case – see, for example, this EPPI review, a review from the EEF, this study, and this one.
One source for the new thinking on grammar is E. D. Hirsch, a US academic who has had a profound influence on the thinking of former education minister Michael Gove and the Department for Education. There is much that appears commonsensical in Hirsch’s work, but it is not always evidence based. Hirsch states that “Parents and teachers should ignore the “expert” advice that holds that it is unnecessary to teach children grammar.” (p.54 Hirsch 2006 “The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the shocking education gap for American children” Houghton Mifflin Books, Boston). He asserts that, in order to learn to write grammatically, children need to be taught to name the parts of speech. Hirsch’s view appears to be driven by his concern that failing to teach standard English usage to disadvantaged children does them a serious disservice. It would be hard to argue with that. But it does not follow that the best way to teach children to write grammatically is to teach them technical terms such as “subordinating conjunction”.
This matters because classroom practice has changed dramatically in line with the new curriculum. Because SATs are high-stakes assessments, teachers have no choice but to devote a great deal of time to preparing children to pass these tests. Clearly, there is a huge opportunity cost. Time spent on formal grammar is time that cannot be spent on other activities such as reading and creative writing. Even the criteria for teacher assessment, which are supposed to focus on the composition of writing, are dominated by grammar, punctuation, etc.
The stated goals of the primary curriculum place a laudable emphasis on the importance of language fluency for all. We agree that “All the skills of language are essential to participating fully as a member of society; pupils, therefore, who do not learn to speak, read and write fluently and confidently are effectively disenfranchised”. (p.3) The UK has a longstanding problem with poor basic literacy skills. But there is no evidence that formal grammar teaching will ameliorate this problem. No assessment has been made of how this new curriculum will affect children who are struggling with reading and writing. And the research evidence clearly shows a range of better ways to improve children’s writing.
It seems to us that the Key Stage 2 grammar curriculum is an egregious example of non-evidence-based policy. It is important to note that we are not arguing against teaching children to write grammatically, nor are we making an argument against testing in general. We are arguing in favour of bringing evidence to bear on education policy. The alternative is for the ideological fads and fancies of politicians to drive what happens in schools, at the expense of children’s learning.