The history of English teaching



This site is intended to bring together a rather haphazard collection of documents to do with the history of the subject called ‘English’ in our (i.e. the UK’s, and mainly England’s) education system, to match a similar collection of material on the other main part of our language education, foreign languages. If you can suggest or offer other documents, please contact meAnother page brings together various systems that have been used for ‘diagramming’ sentence structure in different countries.

Historical surveys

  • Keith Davidson (formerly examination officer for the University of London exam board): … the subject English” (English, English Studies, English Language, English Literature, Functional English… Keith Davidson reflects on what English is. ) From English, Drama, Media 6, 2006).
  • George Keith, ‘Language study at Key Stage 3’ (In Ronald Carter, 1990. Knowledge About Language and the Curriculum (The LINC Reader). Hodder and Stoughton. Contains lots of examples from old exam papers.
  • Richard Hudson and John Walmsley: “The English Patient. English grammar and teaching in the Twentieth Century” (Journal of Linguistics 41:593-622, 2005)

quote from ‘The English Patient’ relevant to grammatical terminology:

The dominant figure in England at the turn of the twentieth century had been Henry
Sweet (1845-1912). Sweet was essentially a philologist, concerned with the
understanding of texts (hermeneutics) and textual criticism. He offered striking and
original insights into the structure of English, as well as helping to lay the foundations for
the scientific study of language in general, and phonetics in particular. Unlike some of his
contemporaries (and cf. Daunt, below) he believed that the study of language should
begin with one’s own native speech. In the teaching world, Sonnenschein probably
occupied at least as prominent a place in the academic consciousness as Sweet did,
especially as far as the teaching of grammar in schools was concerned. Sonnenschein had
founded the Birmingham Grammatical Society in 1885 with the purpose of promoting
simplicity and uniformity of terminology in the teaching of the ‘school’ languages, and of
encouraging grammatical research among teachers. This work was to develop in two
major directions. The first issued in a series of books covering the most important
languages taught in schools, which were uniform in classification and terminology,
scope, size and type. This series – the ‘Parallel Grammar Series’ (PGS) – covered eight
languages, each with its own printed grammar, and some with supplementary readers as

The second area into which Sonnenschein channelled his energies was the Joint
Committee on Grammatical Terminology (JCGT), – the political arm, it might be said, of
the practical work being done through the PGS. The committee published its
recommendations in 1911 (Anon 1911). There was little danger of them being
overlooked: with seemingly tireless energy Sonnenschein forged links not only with eight
different associations in Britain, who were persuaded to nominate members for the
Committee, but also with like-minded colleagues in the United States, Germany, Austria
and France. However, for all this activity Sonnenschein’s campaign came to little. This
was in part because of the opposition of no less a figure than Otto Jespersen, who took a
different view on both theory and terminology (Walmsley 1989).

For more discussion of the pursuit of a unified grammatical terminology, and the conflict between Sonnenschein and Jespersen and its consequences, see:

  • Walmsley, John (2011). Terminology reform 1928-68. Paper to Henry Sweet Society. Download here.
  • Walmsley, John (2001). The “Entente Cordiale Grammaticale”, 1885-1915. In Colombat, B. & Savelli, M. (eds.), Métalangage et Terminologie Linguistique. Actes du colloque international de Grenoble. Leuven: Peeters. 499-512. Download here.
  • Walmsley, John (1989). The Sonnenschein v. Jespersen Controversy. In Fries, U. & Heusser, M. (eds.), Meaning and Beyond. Ernst Leisi zum 70. Geburtstag. Tuebingen: Gunter Narr Verlag. 253-281. Download here.

For an example of the opposition to unified terminology, see the criticisms by Nesfield.

The early roots of English teaching

  • Derek Gillard’s Education in England: a brief history gives an excellent overview of how our education system evolved since the Romans, including interesting explanations of the changing role of ‘grammar’ and ‘grammar schools’. I have extracted particularly relevant paragraphs here.
  • See Foster Watson’s “The English Grammar Schools to 1660” – published in 1908, but full of useful data based on textbooks and syllabuses from the period. Here’s a juicy extract from p. 247, where he’s discussing the Latin grammar that Henry VIII (yes!) authorized in 1540, a few years before he also authorized the Book of Common Prayer (with similar intent, according to Watson: simply to impose his own authority). This grammar book was called Lily’s Grammar, but it was written by a combination of people, including Erasmus (yes!). You’ll see that the pedagogical strategy in teaching translation into Latin was to start with a grammatical analysis of the English sentence. Here’s how to recognise a verb:



  • 1802, 1809, 1830: The etymology and syntax of the English language. by Alexander Crombie. Very meaty but thoughtful and clear. Recommended for English literature students at the University of London!
  • 1858: English grammar, including the principles of grammatical analysis. by Charles Peter Mason (Fellow of UCL). Went through 106 editions up to 1986!
  • 1878: Grammar-land.  by M.L.Nesbitt, an entertaining story for children about how Mr Noun, Dr Verb and others divide the words of English among themselves in a courtroom, with some intelligent and very undogmatic arguments, and nothing about ‘errors’.
  • A scanned online copy of Sonnenschein’s New English Grammar (1916) in which you’ll find:
    • ‘phrases’ used much as in modern phrase-structure grammar, including noun-phrases and adjective-phrases (but no PPs or VPs).
    • the classification of whole sentences as simple, complex or ‘double/multiple’ (corresponding to the more recent ‘compound’).
    • a system of sentence-analysis using columns (as in Nesfield 1891 ) for subject, verb, indirect object, etc.
    • the five cases of English nouns: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative (but no ablative!).
  • A classic English grammar for schools: Nesfield’s “Manual of English Grammar and Composition” (1916 edition).


Exam papers


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