What’s the best approach to grammar?

As with most of the current government’s educational policies, the drive to teach and test grammar and spelling at Primary school has come under fire from many a credible source. True to form, Michael Rosen has been very vocal in his criticism of the new Year 6 ‘Grammar SAT’, as has Professor Debra Myhill, the very expert consulted by the government on the grammar and writing elements of the new English programme of study in the first place.

It is not so much the teaching of grammar that these experts are arguing with, but seemingly the testing of it. Both are clear that grammar is taught best when it is taught in an embedded way, in the context of language, rather than just as a set of rules and terminology to be learned by heart. In that the format of the SAT tests children’s recall of the rules, and not their ability to use the grammar in composition, it does somewhat fly in the face of what the experts recommend. Indeed, this is typical of the shift in focus of the Primary curriculum as a whole to learning facts over learning soft skills such as research, experimentation and analysis.

At a glance, this emphasis on the formal teaching of grammar is fairly daunting. As the mother of a child starting in Reception this September, my interest in the changing curriculum goes beyond professional and firmly into the personal. I find it hard to imagine my child (Summer baby, boy, very active) learning complex grammatical concepts by heart. And only too easy to imagine him needing help with his homework and struggling to provide it: “Mummy what’s a frontal adverbial?” “Ummmmm….”

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling a little bit sorry for Mr Gove on this one. The intention seems good. We all know how important good language skills are when it comes to the world of work. Bad spelling and grammar can be a real impediment to progress: a nation of confident, fluent communicators is a noble aim.

The question is still whether it is necessary to teach grammar explicitly in order to achieve this. Debra Myhill, who is arguably Britain’s foremost expert on this exact subject, says yes. Professor Myhill’s research has shown categorically that grammar teaching is most effective when it is embedded. However, she is also very supportive of teaching children the terminology to talk about their language choices.

For me, one of the most compelling arguments in favour of teaching grammar more formally came from my father. From a relatively deprived background, growing up in the East End of London, my father gained a scholarship to grammar school and ‘made good’ – becoming the first in his family to go to university, and going on to be a teacher himself. Discussing the new ‘grammar curriculum’ the other day my father declared that it was learning to ‘parse’ a sentence as a child that unlocked language for him – enabling him to have more control of it and ultimately helping achieve academic success.

I keep reading that teachers are scared about grammar because many of them were never taught it explicitly themselves. While I don’t know how true this is, or what proportion of teachers this applies to, I can well imagine it. It’s almost a question of not knowing how much you don’t know, and of course there’s a kind of intellectual pride issue attached to it: a secret shame that you can’t describe what the subjunctive is or does.

My feeling is that the pain will be short-lived. Teachers, being in the main a fairly bright bunch, will soon develop fill in the gaps in their knowledge and move into a position where they can teach grammar confidently. They will find ways to teach grammar dynamically, start making it a more integral part of their Literacy Hour, and adapt to use the terminology in their formative observations. They will not let their classrooms become dull wastelands devoid of creativity but instead will find ways of making grammar and spelling fun.

But at what cost? Is Gove trying to change too much too fast? Are teachers going to be pushed to the limits of their sanity trying to adapt to new programmes of study and a tidal shift in the whole approach to Primary education?

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