This short piece was written in July 2005 for the NATE (National Association of Teachers of English) Newsletter.
Grammar and writing
by Richard Hudson
Professor Hudson queries the relevance of the EPPI Research Review of the effect of grammar teaching on the quality of writing (reported by John Mannion in NATE News 32 March 2005, and in English Drama Media 4, June 2005).
Can the teaching of grammar improve children's writing skills? The Literacy Strategy is based on the assumption that it does, and yet there is a good deal of ‘expert' opinion to the contrary. The team headed by Professor Richard Andrews at the University of York has surveyed the vast research literature and concluded that grammar teaching has no positive effects on writing. And the media, always on the look out for an educational fracas, have fielded some celebrity famous writers on this one.
So, is the York Review the last word? I still believe that grammar-teaching can improve writing skills, and I am grateful to NATE for this opportunity to explain why:
- Firstly, the Review largely misses the point of grammar-teaching in the government's ‘English strategy'. Yes, the grammar-teaching in the research didn't work, but the English strategy is different, avoiding the weaknesses of earlier approaches to grammar teaching (some going back to the 60s and before).
- It ignores some important research projects which show very clear benefits of focussed grammar teaching. For example, ten-year old children used apostrophes better after a lesson about apostrophes. And, as described in Jane Hurry's English 21 ‘think piece' (reprinted from the Primary English Magazine , October 2004), a term's study of word morphology gave a class of 11-year olds significantly better spelling than a control group.
- It misclassifies the activity called ‘sentence combining', in which the teacher writes a number of simple sentences on the board and invites the pupils to think of ways of combining them into a single sentence. The report shows that this does indeed improve writing, but says it isn't grammar-teaching – why not?
The key innovative features of ‘grammar for writing' in the English strategy (as in the NATE Grammar Books ) are these:
- Every point of grammar is linked as soon as it is taught to a writing activity which is designed to exploit it – very different from teaching grammar on Monday and hoping that it will affect writing on Friday.
- Grammar is taught systematically so that it is cumulative, rather than taught ‘as needed'.
- Grammar-teaching has the positive aim of language-expansion rather than the negative one of eliminating ‘errors'.
These are the main reasons why I believe that ‘grammar for writing' in the English strategy is something we should all celebrate, and I spell them out in more detail at www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/kal/top.htm.