Prompted by a piece on grammar teaching by Christopher Harris in the Sydney Morning Herald I had a look at the new English curriculum for New South Wales, which builds on the Australian Curriculum.
Harris reports that:
“Grammar experts say English teachers will struggle to teach the subject when a new curriculum is rolled out in schools next year unless they are given refresher training, as most were never taught it at school themselves.”
This is reminiscent of the situation in England after the National Curriculum was rolled out here in 2014.
I had a look at the NSW English syllabuses for the primary level (Kindergarten to Stage 6), secondary level (Stages 7-10) and senior level (Stages 11 and 12), which can be found here:
I looked for the keyword grammar in the syllabus documentation, and found references to general teaching aims such as the following:
- Identify and use nouns in simple sentences, including in own writing GrA1
- Identify and use verbs in simple sentences, including in own writing
- Know that a simple sentence makes sense by itself and is a complete thought represented by a subject and verb
- Experiment with writing compound sentences and recognise that each clause makes meaning by itself GrA4
- Write a simple sentence with correct subject–verb–object structure to convey an idea
- Incorporate extended sentences (simple, compound, complex) during dialogue SpK3
I also found this in the Syllabus Support document for teachers (page 22):
Teaching sentence-level grammar and punctuation
Explicitly teach the concept of a sentence. Explain that a sentence is a group of words that make a complete message.
Through explicit teaching, demonstrate a range of sentence structures, variability of sentence length and sentence beginnings to show how these can impact the effectiveness of the message being communicated.
The NSW syllabus documentation makes reference to particular areas of grammar that need to be taught. Here’s an example from page 92:
- Use adjectival clauses with noun groups to add information to subjects and objects
|Example(s): ‘Rice paper rolls (subject), which most people love (adjectival clause), are usually healthy.’|
This entry greatly worries me, because it uses the label ‘adjective clause’, instead of ‘relative clause’, which is unfortunate, for two reasons. First, the latter term is far more commonly used in grammar books than the former. Secondly, and more importantly, the label ‘adjective clause’ fundamentally confuses grammatical form and grammatical function. The clause which most people love in the example above functions grammatically as a modifier, and presumably it is called an ‘adjectival clause’ because adjectives can also have this function when they are placed in front of nouns. However, that’s where the resemblance ends. A relative clause does not carry any of the other typical defining characteristics of adjectives (e.g. comparative and superlative forms, being able to be modified by very, appearing in attributive and predicative position, etc.), so claiming that the clause in question is ‘adjectival’ is misleading and will confuse many teachers and students.
Here’s another highly problematic example from the syllabus (page 92):
- Use adverbial phrases or clauses to add information to the verb or verb group of the main or other clauses, to provide reasons for or circumstances
|Example(s): ‘If you don’t hurry (adverbial phrase – condition), you will miss the sale (independent clause).’ At midnight (adverbial phrase – time) he rose slowly (independent clause: adverb – manner) from the chair (adverbial phrase – place) and went upstairs (independent clause: adverb – place).’|
In the first example if you don’t hurry is not an adverbial phrase; it is a clause which functions as an adverbial in the structure of the sentence. (See also here.)
In the second example at midnight and from the chair are not adverbial phrases; they are preposition phrases which function as adverbial.
“The head of English at Ravenswood, Stella Re, said she had bought grammar books for her staff to help bring them up to speed ahead of the change next year.”
I was not able to find an overview of the grammar model adopted in the NSW syllabus, so this raises the question which grammar books Stella Re bought for her teachers, and whether they are compatible with both the Australian Curriculum and the NSW Curriculum.
An overview of grammar also does not exist for the National Curriculum in England, but what we do have here in England is a glossary of grammatical terminology which offers teachers support for the understanding of grammatical terms. In addition, teachers can use resources published by non-government organisations such as the UCL Englicious website with a complete grammar of English, extensive CPD support, lessons plans and an extended grammatical glossary.
The NSW website also has a glossary, but the range of grammatical terminology is very limited.
Some of the entries will again cause a huge amount of confusion among teachers and students.
Take the following example:
This entry again confuses grammatical form and grammatical function: the strings with brown curly hair and in the vase are preposition phrases, not adjectival phrases, which grammatically function to modify the head nouns girl and flowers, respectively. The term ‘adjectival phrase’ is meant to convey that this phrase is ‘like an adjective’, but this is again highly misleading. There is no entry for ‘preposition(al) phrase’ in the NSW glossary.
Apart from the kind of problems signalled above the NSW glossary is out of sync with the national Australian Curriculum (which can be downloaded here). The latter does have an accurate entry for prepositional phrase, but has its own problems, e.g. by defining the subject of a sentence as follows:
This definition will make it hard to identify the subject in clauses that do not express any kind of action. Compare this with the NSW glossary entry:
With misleading, confusing, inadequate and contradictory government resources at their disposal, teachers in Australia, especially NSW, can be forgiven for feeling daunted and worried at the prospect of having to teach the new curriculum from next year.