For some years now, with the regularity of clockwork, opinion pieces appear in the press about grammar teaching. The dystopian language used in these articles might lead you to think that children are subjected to unspeakable suffering: a recent piece laments the “full horror of the primary grammar curriculum”, another talks about the “Kafkaesque grammar system” used in our schools which “kills the English language”. The writers of these pieces often pride themselves on being successful writers or journalists, and on not knowing what a fronted adverbial is.
Why is there so much resistance to the teaching of grammar in schools?
Well, one answer is politics. Grammar was brought into the national curriculum by Michael Gove in 2014 with the aim of bringing some rigour back into teaching and the use of language. The curriculum for Key Stages 1 and 2 specifies a range of grammatical concepts that children need to learn. Some of these are very basic, such as ‘noun’, ‘adjective’ and ‘verb’; others are less well known, such as ‘determiner’. Children are tested at the end of Year 6 in the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (Spag) exam. Many teachers feel, with some justification, that the tests are unimaginative tick-box affairs, and are designed to test them, rather than their charges, and to rank their schools. Some parents feel that the terminology isn’t particularly appropriate for very young children and stymies their creativity. Labels that have been singled out as being particularly objectionable are ‘subjunctive’ and ‘fronted adverbial’. The latter has become the bugbear of English grammar teaching.
What is a fronted adverbial? To explain this, let’s look at this simple sentence: Ben met Jo last night. You can conceive of this sentence as a miniscule play in which there are two actors: Ben and Jo. We can’t do without actors in a play, so in English we can’t say *met Jo last night or *Ben met last night. (Linguists use an asterisk to indicate an ungrammatical sentence.) In grammatical terms the actors Ben and Jo carry the functions of subject and object in this sentence. But what about the phrase last night? This phrase is not an actor in this sentence, but it provides some further background information about ‘when’ Ben met Jo. A phrase or clause in English that gives information about ‘when’, ‘why’ or ‘how’ something happened is called an adverbial. This is also a grammatical function label. Typically, these are optional and occur at the end of a sentence, as in my example. However, we can also put this phrase at the front of the sentence: Last night, Ben met Jo. We now have a ‘fronted adverbial’. The idea isn’t hard to grasp, but the label is admittedly off-putting for young children.
Why is it useful to teach young children about fronted adverbials? Well, one answer is that it helps children to write better. After all, if you don’t always put an adverbial at the end of a sentence, but sometimes at the front or in the middle, your writing will become more varied and potentially more interesting. Linguists study how language users can convey information effectively under the heading of ‘pragmatics’.
Many teachers see the point. In a thread on Twitter one of them writes in Twitterese (which has a grammar of its own!):
“There are things I’d change about the National Curriculum. About what we teach/what fits into the school day. But. Fronted adverbials. Learning what type of words can be used where and how. I see the point, right there. In the stuck child going, ah ha, LATER THAT DAY! SNEAKILY! BEHIND THE SHIP! And writing on. For the way they can help unlock the gate, I kind of like ’em. I know I’m out of sync with most of Writer Twitter. But. Here I am.”
Read the full thread here.
But hold on, I hear you say, are you not one of the authors of a recent UCL report that found that teaching young children English grammar doesn’t benefit their narrative writing? Yes, indeed, I was one of the investigators – in fact the only grammarian – on the project Grammar and Writing in England’s National Curriculum. This involved a randomised control trial in which Year 2 children in London schools were taught 10 grammar lessons, while pupils in a control group were taught their regular (‘business as usual’) grammar classes. We asked children to do a writing test before and after the intervention, and we found that there was no measurable improvement in their narrative writing. We did, however, find some improvement in what is called ‘sentence combining’, i.e. putting together two or more separate sentences to form a single new sentence (for example, We went to the park. The weather was great. > We went to the park because the weather was great), though the effect was not statistically significant.
I cannot deny that the outcome of the research was disappointing. I lead a team of linguists at UCL who created the Englicious website with free-to-use English language resources that aim to teach grammar in a fun and engaging way. The 10 grammar lessons I mentioned above were specially created on the Englicious platform. My hope had been that teaching grammar using a dedicated set of lessons would result in students using more varied sentence structures. For this age group (6-7 year olds) we did not get a positive result as far as narrative writing is concerned.
However, unlike what some of the newspaper headlines suggested, we cannot conclude from this research that grammar teaching is without value. We need much more research to find out whether perhaps grammar teaching should start in a later year, perhaps Year 4, and has a more direct effect on that age group and later ones. Importantly, as with all subjects taught in schools, it’s crucial that the teaching of grammar is engaging and fun, and that it is made relevant to young children by making reference to stories, poems and songs.
The qualitative part of our research, which didn’t make the headlines in the papers, showed that the teachers and pupils who took part in the intervention valued the interactive teaching resources that we made available for them, and that they had a positive impact on the children’s progress. Teachers noticed their pupils’ enjoyment of learning about grammar and speaking confidently about it, and this included lower ability and ‘reluctant’ learners. As part of the project I visited several primary schools and witnessed some wonderful, brilliant and imaginative teaching fully engaging the pupils, for example when they were asked to ‘act out’ an adverb in the classroom: “Walk across the room sadly”, “Wave your arms slowly”. We need more of this.
Learning about grammar is no different from many of the other subjects that are taught in schools. We teach them because they are relevant to us. Language plays a crucial role in all our lives, and hence knowing something about how it works is very valuable. This is especially true when we set out to learn other languages. The intentions of the linguists who designed the curriculum were focused on improving children’s literacy by introducing knowledge of grammar into schools. There is no doubt that some of the specifications of the curriculum need to be revised, especially with regard to some of the terminology, and the testing regime is also in need of overhaul.
But those who have been saying that they have become successful individuals despite never having learned about fronted adverbials miss the point entirely.