Only a few years ago grammar teaching was deeply unfashionable. Nowadays it is resoundingly back on the education agenda. How long will it last this time, and what can history show us about the status of grammar in schools? More compellingly, what can we predict of the future of grammar teaching?
First, a few historical facts. The teaching of grammar has been with us for at least four thousand years. Nearly two thousand years BC Babylonian scribes learned to write with the aid of word-lists which were organised in grammatical patterns. The words were in Sumerian and Akkadian and their materials were clay tablets, but what they had to learn wasn't so very different from learning to spell "walked" with an "ed". More recently and more relevantly, Aristotle (4th century BC) persuaded the Greeks to teach their children the grammar of Greek, and eventually grammar was recognised, along with rhetoric and dialectic, as one of the three literary arts (the "trivium", known to their detractors as 'trivial'). A primary teacher was a "grammatistes" and any secondary teacher was a "grammatikos", both containing the same root as our "grammar": "gramma" , 'letter of the alphabet', in turn derived from "graphein", 'to write'. Grammar and writing were inseparable. The Romans took over this tradition of grammar teaching and applied it to Latin, and so education went on through the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, when grammar was so important that schools were called 'grammar schools'.
Now for a little surprise. In the Middle Ages writing was a specialised skill, like shoeing a horse or tanning leather, and one of the main uses (or misuses) of writing was in black magic, also associated with flashing lights. It was this combination of gleaming, glittery glows with grammar that gave birth to our word "glamour".
In the following centuries grammar teaching continued, except that English replaced Latin just as Latin had replaced Greek; but the teaching was becoming more and more irrelevant to the needs of both the pupils and the language - not to mention the poor grammarian (think of Browning's grammarian "grinding at grammar"). For one thing, English is a very different kind of language from Greek and Latin, so the grammar was often simply wrong. For example, English has only two tenses (past and present: "walks" and "walked"), not the larger list of tenses found in Latin. Next, the eighteenth century - the so-called Century of Enlightenment turned grammar into a highly prescriptive enterprise. The idea was to change English in the hope of bringing it into line with Latin and logic, while also consolidating the prestige of upper-crust English as Standard English. This was the source of our 'rules' about stranded prepositions and split infinitives (anti-Latin), double negatives (anti-logic) and agreements such as "we was" (anti-standard).
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the twentieth century saw the slow death of the old tradition of grammar teaching, and by 1980 it had disappeared from most English classrooms and, soon after, from foreign-language teaching. Until recently most schools, both primary and secondary, were more or less grammar- free zones. Much the same has happened, for similar reasons, in other parts of the old English-speaking world - the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Some other parts of northern Europe have also followed the Anglo-Saxon lead. But the old tradition is alive and well throughout eastern and southern Europe (Russia, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal) and South America. Our history, however, is not the history of the world. There are many countries which have avoided the decline of grammar. In France, for example, grammar is still an important part of the syllabus, and the same is true in all the other 'Romance' countries whose language is descended from Latin, such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and Brazil. The same is true of many countries in Eastern Europe. In these countries there is no pressure to abandon grammar teaching as too academic, too irrelevant or too boring.
What, then, is 'normality', in the light of history? From a historical perspective, the last thirty years in the UK have been an aberration. Normally, in our educational tradition, schools teach grammar. This of course is just a statement of fact. It does not in itself prove that grammar should be taught. We might find, for example, that physical punishment was
also a normal part of our tradition, but so what? We now think the tradition was wrong. Perhaps we should take the same view of the role of grammar teaching?
No, there are good reasons for teaching grammar which still apply. The problem with old-fashioned grammar was not that it was grammar. It was to do with both content and methods - with what was taught and how it was taught. The new grammar of the National Literacy Strategy and the National Curriculum is very different. Gone is the emphasis on tiptoeing up to the shrine of great writers and worshipping their sentence formation or adept use of adverbials. That was the implicit assumption of much school grammar to learn from the masters without ever really internalising their methods. It was a grammar based largely in reading. A different development, as formal grammar teaching evaporated from many English classrooms through the 1980s, was the notion of 'teaching grammar in context'. This approach assumed that because all pupils were different, they all had different grammatical needs. Pupil A might need help in punctuatijng direct speech. Pupil B might still need to conceptualise what a sentence was. Small-group work and individualised feedback on written work were supposed to provide this level of differentiated response, with each child gaining the grammatical knowledge that was relevant to her or him.
The reality was that it proved impossible to achieve this level of customised response, and little of the feedback could be described as genuinely grammatical in nature. More seriously, the approach left pupils without any overarching understanding of grammar, no template upon which to work. Whilst for some educationalists this was held up as liberating the analogy being that you don't have to be able to service a car in order to drive one grammar couldn't be marginalised from English for long. You might not need to know how to service the car, but you do have to know the difference between a door, a clutch and a steering wheel. A grammar suited to the practical purposes of communication was required.
Hence the latest incarnation of grammar teaching, the national literacy strategy's NLS emphasis on rapid-pace, whole-class learning, with a systematic underpinning framework of grammatical and other knowledge. The grammar of the National Literacy Strategy NLS is embedded in a realisation that whilst pupils need to understand grammatical terms and concepts, thesey must also be made relevant in their own writing. This explains the emphasis at key stage 3 on f defining language objectives, demonstrating writing, and sharing the composition process.
We might, for example, start a lesson by focusing on how a writer uses short sentences to build suspense. The aim is active exploration of grammatical conventions at word-, sentence- and text-level to investigate the way writers write and then, crucially, to explore that process practically through writing. Grammar is presented as a central method in the expression and refinement of thinking, not as something to be undertaken purely for passive pleasure. Pupils might therefore write and rewrite sentences, tinker with specific word choices, alter the tense, change the sentence types, explore the impact of different connectives. All the time, grammar is linked to effect, in an ongoing process of collaboration and discussion.
The early evidence is that the NLS approach has significantly raised pupils' capabilities in investigating language, talking more confidently about features, and in reading. The focus of the KS3 strategy aims to place more emphasis on developing their writing competence. This, then, is where grammar is in English schools today, apparently healthier and more central to English teaching than any of us might have predicted a few years ago. We should not be too surprised. One lesson of history is that grammar teaching, whilst prone to surges of fashion and educational methodology, is rarely absent from the classroom for long. The other lesson is that an understanding of grammar remains central to any genuine development in our capacity to communicate effectively, whether through speech, traditional forms of writing, or the new interactive forms of the twenty-first century.
Geoff Barton is Vice-Principal at Thurston Community College, Suffolk. He also writes English textbooks. Richard Hudson is Professor of Linguistics at UCL and has advised the NLS team on grammar issues.