Confusing grammar in the Australian and New South Wales English Curricula

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.

Harris writes:

“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.


Fronted adverbials: the bugbear of English grammar teaching

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.

Link: Grammar and writing in England’s National Curriculum

Right and wrong answers in grammar tests

The schools minister Nick Gibb, who is responsible for the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (GPS) tests that UK school children sit at ages 7 and 11, was asked a grammar question in a BBC Radio 4 news programme. The question had previously appeared on one of the GPS test papers. Here’s a snippet of the interview:

Interviewer Let me give you this sentence: I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner. Is the word after there being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition?

Minister Well, it’s a proposition. After – it’s…

Interviewer I don’t think it is.

Minister After is a preposition, it can be used in some contexts as a, as a, word that coordinates a subclause, but this isn’t about me.

Interviewer No, I think in this sentence it’s being used a subordinating conjunction!

The press had a wonderful time pouring scorn on the minister for not being able to answer a question that very young children need to be able to answer by the time they leave primary school.

There has subsequently been some debate over the question of whether the minister may actually have answered the question correctly. Oliver Kamm wrote a piece in the Times with this heading:

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Kamm writes that Gibb was correct in saying that after is a preposition, and there “was no need for the minister to be defensive of his grasp of grammar.”

So was Gibb’s answer correct or not?

Well, that depends on the grammar you consult. The two most influential standard grammars of modern English, namely A comprehensive grammar of the English language (CGEL; by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik) and the Cambridge grammar of the English language (CamGEL; by Huddleston and Pullum et al.) have different analyses of the sentence that was presented to the minister.

In CGEL a distinction is made between the preposition after and the subordinating conjunction after, such that we have the two analyses below:

  • I went to the cinema [PP [P after] [NP dinner]]
  • I went to the cinema [clause [subordinating conjunction after] I’d eaten my dinner]

[In this notation the brackets indicate the grammatical units, called constituents. P = preposition; PP = prepositional phrase; NP = noun phrase.]

So in the CGEL framework after, as a preposition, takes a noun phrase as its complement, but as a subordinating conjunction it introduces a subordinate clause.

By contrast, in CamGEL (which was influenced by the Danish grammarian Otto Jespersen, as Kamm points out) we have this analysis:

  • I went to the cinema [PP [P after] dinner]
  • I went to the cinema [PP [P after] [clause I’d eaten my dinner]]

In the CamGEL framework after is always a preposition which takes either a noun phrase or a clause as its complement. Both after dinner and after I’d eaten my dinner are prepositional phrases. In my Oxford modern English grammar I adopt the CamGEL analysis.

It would be fair to say that the CGEL analysis is the dominant one and in this grammar, along with after, we also find words like although, asbecause, before, if, since, (even) thoughwhile, when, while, etc. within the word class of subordinating conjunctions. Because it is more widely adopted, and because the analysis is conceptually easier to grasp, the CGEL approach was adopted in the National Curriculum (NC) after a process of consultation which my former UCL colleague Dick Hudson conducted to find out what fellow linguists thought about the best way to present particular grammatical analyses for use in schools.

Now, because the National Curriculum adopts the CGEL analysis, we can say that Gibb was in fact wrong in saying that after is a preposition in the sentence I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner.

Some commentators have been saying that we should not be teaching children about subordinating conjunctions because grammarians themselves can’t agree about how they should be defined. This is misguided.

The study of grammar is no different from other fields of enquiry in being replete with disgreements about how we should look at particular phenomena in the world around us. Think of the Expanding Earth Hypothesis in science, or disagreements among art historians about the significance of Renaissance art, or the different ways in which we can interpret the character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. Such disagreements make these fields fascinating, and discussions of them propel our knowledge of the world forward.

But what does all this entail for the teaching of grammatical concepts such as ‘subordinating conjunction’ in primary schools?

One approach is to say that such notions are too hard for 11-year olds. This is what most commentators in the press and social media seem to have been claiming. Some of these comments were along these lines: “I have an English degree from Oxford and do not know what a subordinating conjunction is.” The conclusion that is then drawn is that nobody else needs to know either!

The alternative is that we do not shy away from teaching this notion, since it really is not all that difficult to grasp, at least no more difficult than learning about, say, the division rules at KS2. However, if we do decide to teach grammatical notions it’s best to use a particular model of grammar to teach the basic concepts, and to refine the concepts that are learnt in primary school at a later stage, e.g. at secondary or university level. Pedagogically it makes sense to use models, even if they are not agreed on by all specialists in a particular field. In science something similar happens, for example when the acceleration of free-falling objects is taught: we then pretend that there is no air resistance. In the classroom making use of idealisations and models is a very useful and effective strategy.

PS If you want to find out more about Otto Jespersen, have a look here.

PPS The basic concepts of grammar in the NC are all explained on the free Englicious site.

Grammar in schools: some Q&As and a plea

Grammar was reintroduced into the National Curriculum (NC) for UK primary schools in the late 1980s, having disappeared from the curriculum for quite a long time. The curriculum was updated in 2014. Children are required to learn the basics of grammar, including terminology such as ‘noun’, ‘adverb’, ‘subject’, etc., and take tests at Key Stages 1 and 2.

As a linguist I’m very pleased that grammar is back in the curriculum for the reasons I discussed in this post, so I won’t repeat what I’ve said before. The current post is prompted by a flood of negative publicity in the UK media about grammar in schools, more specifically the tests taken in years 2 and 6. Here’s an example from the Guardian:

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Quite a few commentators are pointing out that the tests are too hard, pointless and inappropriate for school children. Others have noted that grammar teaching is no more than ‘the naming of parts’, and does not help children to write well and imaginatively. Teachers have expressed frustration with the tests, especially because they often already feel unsure about their subject knowledge of grammar. Many weren’t taught much grammar in their teacher training.

The Englicious project has been mentioned in some of the discussions on Twitter, especially by Michael Rosen. More about that below.

In what follows I’ll try to address some of the points made in the media about grammar in schools, testing and the role of Englicious.

At the outset I would like to make the following very clear: Englicious is an independent initiative to help teachers teach grammar in schools. It’s a free resource created by an enthusiastic team of people at UCL. The site offers subject knowledge, lesson plans, videos, an extensive glossary and tons of materials for children to use in the classroom or at home. Our aim is for kids to enjoy learning about the language they use every day, to understand how it works, and to use it more effectively both in their formal and creative writing. We hope that we can make a difference in improving children’s literacy.

Here are some questions and answers:

Q: Do you think that the people who have pointed out problems with the curriculum are wrong?

A: No, I agree with them. There are certainly problems with the curriculum, and the recent furore over exclamations is a case in point. Such was the confusion over this that the Secretary for Education  published a letter of clarification in a newspaper, a sure indication that something was wrong. I agree that learning about how exclamations are grammatically defined as a sentence pattern that has either the word ‘what’ or ‘how’ in it is perhaps too difficult for children, and arguably not something they need to know at age 6-7. It must be said, though, that there was also a lot of disinformation about this, because many commentators claimed (and others parroted) that children can now only use exclamations marks after sentences that begin with ‘what’ or ‘how’, and this is simply not what the NC says. But now I’m beginning to sound like a DfE civil servant, which leads me to the following question.

Q: Some people have suggested that Englicious is responsible for the grammar tests in schools. Is it true that Englicious is responsible for devising the test? Is Englicious a mouthpiece for the government?

Here are some examples of tweets posted by Michael Rosen:

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A: No, neither of these is true. The tests are the responsibility of the Standards and Testing Agency at the DfE. As noted above, Englicious is brought to you by UCL, a university whose members have a mind of their own, thanks very much, ever since Thomas Arnold referred to us as that “Godless institution in Gower Street”. We do, however, have a passion for grammar and believe in the benefits it can bring for school children. We’re in favour of good and enjoyable grammar teaching in schools. Tweets like Rosen’s are unfortunate and give the wrong impression of what we are trying to do.

Q: But hold on, I have heard that one of the UCL Englicious team is involved with the SPaG tests. Is that true?

A: Yes, that’s true. I’m a member of a DfE Test Review Group of teachers, literacy advisors, and academic experts who scrutinise the tests before they are used in schools. Draft tests are rigorously and critically examined and discussed, and rejected if they are not fit for purpose. I have also been involved to some degree in giving shape to the NC Glossary. At all times, when taking part in meetings at the DfE, I’m a critical participant and would like to think that my presence helps avoid the appearance of unreasonable, silly or undoable questions on the test.

Q: What is your view of the tests? 

A: The tests are designed to test the curriculum, and as such they are part of how education works. The tests are by no means perfect and subject to improvement, which is why I have agreed to advise the government. I hope that over time the curriculum and the tests can be improved. This is not the place to discuss the efficacy of the tests, their usefulness or the politics surrounding them. There are valid questions to be asked about any of those issues.

Q: The grammar that is used in the NC is full of holes and linguists can’t agree on the terminology that is used.

The tests are based on a particular model of grammar which was designed by linguists as a useful ‘school grammar’. It is important to have a model because it eliminates (or at least reduces) confusion and the problem of teachers using terminology that is not fit for purpose, such as possessive adjective, or connective. In linguistics, as in any other area of study, there are differences of opinion on how we analyse certain phenomena. This situation is no different from any other discipline. For example, historians will disagree about the significance of historical events or individuals. Andrew Roberts recently wrote a biography of Napoleon, the upshot of which is that he was a misunderstood military genius. For others he was a war-mongering tinpot dictator, responsible for the deaths of thousands. Do we stop teaching history because of these disagreements? Or think of the multiple ways in which we can interpret the character of Hamlet. Do we stop teaching literature because of that?

The criticism levelled by Michael Rosen at the grammar model used in the NC is therefore misguided. He writes on his blog: “Please, please, please don’t be kidded into thinking that the stuff the DfE are dishing up as ‘grammar’ IS grammar.” I agree. As noted above, the grammar used in the NC is a particular model of grammar, agreed by a group of linguists. It is by no means a perfect model, but I think most people would agree that you do need a model to teach grammar. Most subjects use some kind of model and and associated terminology. Compare the first passage below from Rosen’s blog with my re-written version:

So, if I say, something is a ‘conjunction’ – all that tells us is that it con-joins two things. It doesn’t tell me anything about the resultant meaning or why I would want to conjoin anything.

So, if I say, something is a ‘metaphor’ – all that tells us is that it compares two things. It doesn’t tell me anything about the resultant meaning or why I would want to compare anything.

Michael, would you wish to argue that nobody should teach school children about metaphors? Presumably not. Learning about conjunctions or metaphors is a first step towards understanding how and why they are used by authors in their writing, and once you’ve understood this you can use them yourself effectively in your own writing.

Q: What is your view of some of the test questions that have surfaced online?

A: Some of the test questions that have appeared online are taken from commercially published books that have been marketed to ‘help’ children practise for the tests. The problem with some of these books is that they have been written by people who don’t know grammar well enough, or haven’t looked at the NC teaching specifications and/or test framework. This has resulted in questions appearing in these books that would never appear in the tests, because the questions are wrong and have not been scrutinised by experts. Michael Rosen posted one such query in a recent blog post:

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He then asks: “wouldn’t both example 3 and 4 be subordinate clauses of time, both headed by subordinating conjunctions?” The answer is ‘yes, both are indeed subordinate clauses’. Now, the problem here is not the NC, but the person who wrote this question, because they clearly don’t know enough grammar to be writing practice books for school children. There’s no problem with the grammar itself because in the NC both those clauses are subordinate clauses, and therefore this question would not appear on a test. Rosen goes on to ask “how is any teacher supposed to teach this so it makes sense? how is any child supposed to remember it? how is any parent supposed to know how to help a child to do it?” All good questions, but he fails to spot the real problem, which is that the government has not provided reliable resources to help teachers teach grammar. If teachers continue to turn to badly written books, or to use Google to help them with grammatical terminology, then confusion will ensue. I’m told that money was made available when the first NC came out to help teachers with their subject knowledge. This time round, there is no money available, which is causing many problems.

Q: What is your view of the NC Glossary?

The Glossary is an attempt to create some support for teachers with grammatical terminology. Again, nobody would claim that it is perfect, but the DfE is to be given some credit for consulting on this and listening to experts. The Glossary is, somewhat oddly perhaps, non-statutory, which means that not all the terminology in it needs to be taught in schools. The Englicious team has enhanced the Glossary to offer further explanations and support for teachers. It can be found here.

Q: What about subjunctives? Do kids really need to know about them?

No, they don’t. As is by now well-known, linguists advised the DfE to remove the subjunctive from the NC. Michael Gove insisted that it remain(s) in the NC. My views on the subjunctive can be found here.

Q: Some parents and teachers have said that kids hate learning about grammar.

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A: That’s a real shame. Kids needn’t have this kind of experience. We created Englicious to help teachers to make learning about grammar fun. This teacher agrees about the joys of learning about grammar:

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A plea

I finish this blog post with a plea. There has understandably been some disquiet about the grammar tests in the media. Some of the problems signalled by commentators are indeed problems; others weren’t really problems, but turned into easily gobbled-up, eye-catching tabloid-style headlines.

And here I turn to you, Michael Rosen. As a person who has enormous popularity and influence, why not channel your admirable, seemingly inexhaustible energy into working with Englicious and other stakeholders, who essentially want the same thing, namely to improve literacy, and instil in kids a joy for language and literature.


I’ve realised that Michael Rosen is not interested in constructive dialogue. On Twitter he continues his cynical sniping. And my plea above fell on deaf ears, witness his blog response, which you can read here. I hope that readers will make up their own minds.


Statements, questions, commands and exclamations

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle in the UK press over how the notion of exclamation should be taught to primary school children. Several newspapers have been saying that the guidance published by the Department for Education (DfE) is too hard, and that it is nonsensical or even Orwellian. I am not a spokesman for the DfE, and it’s not my job to defend government policy, but since the KS1 test is a reality I thought it would be useful for teachers if I made a few things clear about exclamations.

So what is the fuss about?

The  DfE published guidance last year about how the terms statement, question, command and exclamation should be understood in the National Curriculum:

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We find some further guidance and some examples in the National Curriculum Glossary:

The form of a sentence’s main clause shows whether it is being used as a statement, a question, a command or an exclamation.

You are my friend. [statement]

Are you my friend?

Be my friend! [command]

What a good friend you are! [exclamation]

It’s important to be clear that ‘statement’, ‘question’, ‘command’ and ‘exclamation’ are defined as sentence patterns which means that they are defined grammatically.

A statement is defined as having a structure in which there is typically a Subject, followed by a verb and then a further unit such as a Direct Object. For example, Jimmy loves his dog, The government will make an announcement at noon, She reads two newspapers every day, etc.

Questions can have two patterns. Some can have ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as an answer. For example, Do you like Paris?, Can you speak Russian? Will you marry me?, etc. Alternatively, they have a pattern that asks an ‘open’ question which can have any number of answers, e.g. What did you have for breakfast?, Which newspaper do you read?, Who is your favourite actor?, etc.

Commands also have a special structure in that they typically lack a Subject. Examples are: Eat your dinner, Be quiet, Open the door, etc.

Exclamations grammatically have a structure that involves the words what a or how, as in What a nice person you are! What a beautiful painting!, How clever you are!, How wonderful that is! (Notice that the Subject goes before the verb in How clever you are!  If this were a question we would have How clever are you?)

The DfE marking guidance notes say:

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This is causing confusion, but it needn’t. Let’s look at some examples.

If someone writes He is a great story teller! or I love scary movies! then these sentences conform to the grammatical pattern for statement, so they are not technically exclamations, despite the fact that they are used to exclaim something, and have an exclamation mark at the end. I don’t think that in the DfE guidance there is an implication that exclamation marks should not be used here; it’s just that these sentences are not exclamations, defined as grammatical patterns.

What about this example: How do you travel to work? Is this an exclamation? The answer is ‘no’. It’s grammatically a question, despite the use of the word how.

Should kids know about this at KS1? The short answer is ‘yes’, because it is part of the National Curriculum, and hence part of the new KS 1 test in May 2016. However, those who say that it’s perhaps too early to teach children aged 5-7 this kind of thing have a point.

Incidentally, you might be interested to know that sometimes we have a mismatch between the structure of a sentence, and how it is used. If I say to you at dinner Can you pass me the salt? then this is technically a question that has ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as possible answers, but in fact the pattern is used here to tell you to do something. It’s because of these possible mismatches that linguists prefer to use two sets of terms to describe the phenomena above. For the sentence patterns they use declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamative. Corresponding to this are statement,  question, command and exclamation to describe how these patterns are used. The National Curriculum has conflated the two sets into one.

Is the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test for Key Stage 2 too hard?

In the Times Educational Supplement Mary Bousted, writes about the Key Stage 2 (KS2) Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling  (GPS) test under the heading:

Take this absurdly difficult English test – and see why this generation of students will be alienated by education

She cites a number of questions from a sample test published online by the Department for Education (DfE). Here are a few examples:

  1. Underline all the determiners in this sentence: “Two apple trees screened the open windows on one side.”
  2. Complete this sentence so that it uses the subjunctive form: “If I ____ to have one wish, it would be for good health.”
  3. Identify the verb form that is in the present perfect in this passage: “Rachel loves music and has wanted to learn how to play the piano for years. She was hoping for piano lessons, and was delighted when her parents gave her a keyboard for her birthday.”
  4. Is the phrase “where my father works” in this sentence a preposition phrase, a relative clause, a main clause or a noun phrase? “My baby brother was born in the hospital where my father works.”

She writes:

It may surprise you (it horrifies me) to learn that these are sample questions for the key stage 2 Spag test, to be taken by 11-year-olds.

She also says:

While I have absolutely no objection to learning grammar – indeed I think it is helpful for children to understand the basic building blocks of a sentence (on which fluency in writing is based) – the level and range of grammatical terms outlined above are daunting and counterproductive.

As a linguist I never fail to be surprised at the constant bashing of grammar teaching in schools, whereas nobody ever feels the need to be critical of mathematics teaching. Everyone agrees – and rightly so – that it’s useful to have a basic knowledge of maths. The reason for this is that it is all around us, and it would be hard to live our lives without being able to use maths competently. For this you need to be taught about number, place value, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, percentages, ratios and proportions. This is a wide range of concepts, all of which are quite abstract, but they are nevertheless part of the KS2 specifications for maths.

What about the structure of language, i.e. grammar? This is also all around us, and arguably it would be even harder to live your life without language and knowing something about how it works. So doesn’t it make sense that children are taught some basic grammar terminology? Bousted uses very negatively charged words to talk about grammar teaching:

The pitfalls of grammatical drilling are well known, and well evidenced. An obsession with describing language takes teaching time and attention away from children developing their own language abilities. They need opportunities to read widely and to write stories, because stories are our way of making sense of the world – of sequencing time, of understanding emotion, of learning how to describe what we see and feel in ways that are powerfully affecting for other people – our readers.

Learning about the language you use every day can only only be called ‘grammatical drilling’ if the teaching you receive is unimaginative and unengaging. This is the way that grammar was taught in the early 1960s, and one of the reasons why it was scrapped from the curriculum. (See Hudson and Walmsley’s article ‘The English patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century’; available here.) However, as I have argued before, things have changed and the concepts that are part of the KS2 specifications can be taught in a fun and playful way, without ‘obsessing’ about describing language and without resorting to ‘drilling’ of any kind. Taught in the right way grammar can enhance children’s problem-solving skills, help them to write stories and to describe their responses to what they read. But for this they need a toolbox, just as they need a toolbox to talk about literature, maths, or geography. Like any other subject taught in schools grammar makes use of concepts that are useful to any educated person, and we should not shy away from teaching these concepts.

Oh, one more thing: the first question that Bousted cites was discussed on this blog. This question on the sample test was inappropriate because it is not clear from the National Curriculum specifications whether or not the numerals two and one should be regarded as determiners. However, the sample test that Bousted cites from had not been seen by the usual panel of experts that scrutinises the GPS tests before it was published online by the DfE, so the question shouldn’t have occurred in the sample test.

Michael Rosen on possessive determiners and pronouns

In the comments section of his piece in the Guardian on the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar test Michael Rosen has been getting some flak for his way of talking about possessive determiners and pronouns:

Children and teachers will be entitled to be muddled if they’ve been taught that “my”, “your”, “her”, “his” and “their” are also “determiners” because in question 46 they turn up as “possessive pronouns”. (Both terms are right, but this double terminology is confusing for 11-year-olds.)

Here’s an example of a critical comment:

“My”, “your”, “his”, “her”, “our” and “their” are not possessive pronouns. Pronouns take the place of a noun, so the corresponding pronouns are “mine”, “yours”, “his”, “hers”, “ours” and “theirs”.

And here’s Rosen’s response:

In the thread above, this matter has been addressed about twenty times. Some grammarians refer to ‘my’ etc as ‘possessive pronouns’, some don’t. You have illustrated one of the points of my article: viz., there is disagreement on this matter of terminology. Please google ‘possessive pronoun’ and see how long it takes you to find the two alternative ways of using that term.

Was Rosen right to say that my, your, her, his, our and their are determiners and pronouns at the same time? The answer depends on whether or not you follow the   National Curriculum (NC). If you do, then the answer is ‘yes’. However, the only way to find out is to look at the (non-statutory) NC Glossary. Here are the entries for ‘pronoun’ and ‘determiner’:

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How does this show that my, your, her, his, our and their are determiners and pronouns at the same time? Well, because examples involving these words crop up in both glossary entries. The conclusion must be that they belong to two word classes at the same time. The same is true, incidentally, for the ‘demonstratives’, e.g. this/these, that/those, and some other items. Other linguists have described this area of grammar differently, but the National Curriculum’s approach seems to be a sensible compromise. (Though perhaps a better word class label for these items would be determiner-pronoun, as has been suggested by some linguists.)

Rosen has a point that all this can cause confusion. If you do as he suggests and google ‘possessive pronoun’ you will indeed find many different answers, many of them not written by experts, and you’ll be overwhelmed by what you read. Don’t use Google to look up grammatical terminology. Try the Englicious Glossary instead. It’s linked to the NC.

Whatever you may think of the National Curriculum, one of its advantages is that it tries to bring some order to grammatical terminology. To my mind we need more: a National Curriculum Grammar in the shape of a concise overview of the grammar of English which makes issues like the one discussed here more explicit.

To find out more about determiners and pronouns have a look at these short videos, which you can use in your classroom. They are available on the Englicious YouTube channel (

So what exactly is Englicious?

As the ‘About’ section of this blog will tell you, the Grammarianism blog is linked to the Englicious website.

So what exactly is Englicious?

Englicious is a web-based resource (a library, if you will) of all kinds of resources that teachers can use at primary and secondary schools throughout Key Stages 1-5.

Englicious will help your students:

  • learn about English grammar in a fun way, using interactive online resources, including exercises, projects and games, all of which can be projected onto an interactive whiteboard
  • develop their literacy skills, with a focus on spelling, punctuation and writing
  • stimulate their enjoyment of (using) language, both in spoken and written form
  • enhance their confidence
  • improve their test scores, especially the Year 3 and Year 6 SPaG tests

What kind of materials does Englicious offer?

  • a year-by-year overview of the new programmes of study and attainment targets in the 2014 National Curriculum
  • hundreds of fully prepared lesson plans, including everything from bite-sized starters to larger projects, for use in the classroom
  • assessments for evaluating student attainment and progress
  • a complete and rigorous overview of English grammar
  • the entire National Curriculum Glossary, enhanced with new terminology enabling teachers to use terminology consistently throughout the Key Stages. There’s no more need to google grammar terms or to feel confused about terminology!
  • CPD materials for teachers to brush up on their own knowledge

The site is fully compatible with the specifications of the UK National Curriculum (NC), so that you can be sure that the materials that you find there link directly to what you need to teach your students.

Have a look at two short videos on grammar on the Englicious YouTube Channel.

Finally, what the best bit about Englicious? It’s entirely free!

Read more here and click through to find out about finding materials in Englicious.

‘Connective’: why it’s best to avoid the term

In the new National Curriculum terminology has been dropped that teachers have been using for a long time, but it isn’t made clear why this has been done. An example is the term connective that has been widely used by teachers to group words that can connect units of information in various ways. These include words like however, so and nonetheless, and because, although and after. In most contemporary discussions of grammar, and in the 2014 National Curriculum, the term ‘connective’ is not used. Instead, we distinguish between subordinating conjunctions, coordinating conjunctions and certain types of adverbs. Subordinating conjunctions place one clause in a lower (subordinate) relationship to another.

  • He is only six years old, although he is very tall.
  • They devoured the cookies because they were hungry.

On the other hand, coordinating conjunctions link two units of an equal status:

  • novels and plays
  • fast but unsafe

Finally, words that connect sentences or clauses more loosely in terms of their meaning are called (linking) adverbs:

  • Everyone loves vacations in Hawaii. Nevertheless, I would never want to go there myself.
  • I have lots of friends, so I’m very happy.

Note that the adverbs above can be omitted, and the result would still be a grammatical sentence. The conjunctions in the first two examples cannot be omitted without the result becoming a ‘run-on’ sentence. This is just one very good reason why these two types of connective words (conjunctions and adverbs) are not part of a single grammatical category.

You may find that the term connective is useful as a general notion that encourages students to think about how they might connect one piece of information to another. However, it is not considered a word class in the 2014 National Curriculum, and we would strongly encourage teachers to avoid it. (From the Englicious Glossary ‘connective’).