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Does traditional grammar instruction improve children’s writing ability?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital5 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.
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Is the new SPaG test for 11 year olds the best way to improve grammar, punctuation and spelling?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 May 2013

Julia Douëtil
Grammar, punctuation and spelling matter! Whether we like it or not, they influence the way we are perceived in speech and writing. Actor Alexander Armstrong complained recently of unreasonable prejudice against people with posh accents and he is right, we shouldn’t judge people by the way they sound. But we do. And if Mr Armstrong thinks he suffers prejudice, it is nothing compared to the negative assumptions made about a person whose speech is peppered with poor grammar or whose writing is littered with spelling mistakes. Children who do not learn to present themselves well in speech and writing will be severely disadvantaged when applying for university or for jobs.
As I write I am acutely conscious that representatives of Pedants Are We will scan this piece for any hint of an error in grammar, punctuation or spelling that will enable them to dismiss my entire argument as the work of an ignoramus. So I can understand the imperative to ensure that our children become skilled in the use of grammar, punctuation and spelling. But is the new SPaG test the best way to achieve that?
My ears pricked up this week listening to the wonderful Michael Morpurgo talking about his early delight in the stories read to him by his mother. He then described falling among teachers who “turned stories into trials”. “Everything became a test, whether it was punctuation, spelling, handwriting or learning a poem, and you either succeeded or you failed.” The joy and magic of stories vanished, to be replaced by fear. “Words and stories became a threat and I turned my back on them.”
The model SPaG test presented a checklist of all our favourite pitfalls in written English. It is designed to catch children out, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which it disadvantages children learning English as a second language and those with a robust regional dialect. Practice SPaG tests, even a SPaG boot camp, have spread like a virus. Schools have spent weeks preparing their children for this high stakes assessment. Where is the joy, the magic, in that?
Research exploring the most effective teachers of English* found that those who taught the rules of grammar and punctuation in a meaningful context achieved the best results for children. Understanding how this language structure or that punctuation helped the writer to advance their ideas was more effective than teaching rules in isolation. Isn’t that the point, that knowing the rules is only half the job? It’s knowing how to use them (and when to break them) that really matters.
Both grammar and spelling change, perhaps more rapidly than we may imagine. What is beyond the pale today may be mainstream tomorrow and vice versa. The split infinitive, once considered the hallmark of a poor education, is now widely accepted; no doubt influenced by the determination of Star Trek to boldly go where none had gone before. The influence of the internet has made American spelling close to ubiquitous. I wonder if assessment in extended text, writing for a purpose, would be a more effective means of enabling children to demonstrate their ability to use grammar, punctuation and spelling in ways which are accurate, dynamic and in tune with modern usage?
* Wray D.; Medwell J.; Fox R.; Poulson L., (2000), The Teaching Practices of Effective Teachers of Literacy, Educational Review, Vol 52, No 1, 1, pp. 75-84(10)
Julia Douëtil is Head of the European Centre for Reading Recovery at the Institute of Education.

The primary English curriculum: command of language or language of command?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital25 July 2012

Dominic Wyse
Primary children should develop a “love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment”, according to the Government’s proposed new English curriculum. I couldn’t agree more. An early introduction to the wonderful range of children’s books will enrich their lives forever. Children who love to read and relish a wide range of texts are more likely to succeed at school and enjoy their time there. As the Programme of Study says: “for pupils, understanding language provides access to the whole curriculum.”
But is the proposals’ encouraging use of the words love and enjoyment mere rhetoric or does it signify a rich seam weaving its way naturally throughout the Programme of Study? Unfortunately not the latter, because at every turn pleasure, love, and meaning appear to be secondary to the mechanics of phonics, spelling and grammar.
This over-emphasis on mechanics fails to reflect advances in research and scholarship over the last 25 years. For example, we know that phonics teaching is an important part of helping children learn to read. But we also know that too much phonics of the wrong kind can have a negative effect by narrowing the curriculum and by risking a lack of attention to other important parts of learning to read. The decontextualised phonics programme set out in the Programme of Study is not the only effective way to teach phonics. Research has shown that learning about the alphabetic code is effective when set in the context of whole texts (such as stories, poems, and songs: Peterborough headteacher Christine Parker and I have shown ways to do this in our new handbook).
Grammar, too, is better learned in context, so that it supports children’s use of language — for example teaching children to craft their use of language in relation to the intended audience for their writing — rather than through learning terms such as “subordinate clause”. Have we not learned anything from 10 years of explicit grammar teaching in the National Literacy Strategy, and its failure significantly to improve primary pupils’ writing?
Importantly, any new curriculum needs to take account of the real world that 21st century children are living in and recognise the value that children’s languages, dialects and vernacular bring to the classroom. Multi-vernacularism is the daily reality for all pupils and teachers in England. In urban and rural settings pupils speak, hear, and engage with accents, dialects and multiple languages.
Linguistic misunderstanding is also seen in the absence of talk in the draft Programme of Study. Following the hard fought battles to have talk as an explicit part of the national curriculum the limp exhortations for pupils to “discuss what they are learning and to develop their wider skills in spoken language” is simply not enough. Careful re-drafting of the curriculum for language will require clear understanding of the difference between talk as part of pedagogy (e.g. dialogic teaching), and elements of pupils’ talk that can be enhanced through direct teaching.
I would argue that this Programme of Study needs a complete rewrite, guided by the following principles:

  • It should be informed by a coherent interdisciplinary research perspective. Part of this requires a foundation in the daily reality of the many types of English (and other languages) children use.
  • Developing pupils’ motivation for learning should be an explicit element throughout. Opportunities for pupils to choose texts to read and write is a vital part of this.
  • Expressing meaning and interpreting meaning should be the driving forces of the Programme of Study. This means that comprehension and composition should come first and foremost in any relevant sections.
  • The teaching of mechanics such as phonics and spelling should be closely related to comprehension and composition, not excessively decontextualised.
  • The “subject” should be titled Language, not English, as it is in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to recognise its breadth. It should also be part of a single developmental integrated curriculum from the early years through to the end of schooling.

For more on multi-vernacularism and other issues raised see Wyse, D. (Ed.) (2011). Literacy Teaching and Education: SAGE Library of Educational Thought and Practice. London: Sage.