Helen Norris, PhD student, Institute of Education, University of Reading
Ever since the revised National Curriculum and the Spelling Punctuation and Grammar, (SPaG), tests were introduced five years ago debate has raged over the wisdom of teaching formal grammar, (for example: ‘subordinating conjunctions’ and ‘relative clauses’) to native speakers.
A central question has been whether teaching formal grammar benefits writing, (see Myhill, 2018 for a helpful review).
But is this even the only question to ask? Does teaching grammar benefit reading comprehension? Does the impact depend on a child’s reading ability and experience? And how…?
What can the research literature tell us about these questions?
Well, very little in fact.
We have a fragmented research base with a limited number of intervention studies looking at grammar teaching and its impact on children’s writing. Often the grammar teaching is a subset of a broader writing intervention and what is meant by ‘grammar’ is variously defined. There are no studies specifically investigating the benefits of teaching formal, SPaG-style grammar for native speakers’ literacy. Two large randomised controlled trials (Myhill et al., 2012, 2013) taught functional grammar, an approach which focuses on how constructions make meaning with limited emphasis on formal grammatical terminology. One found that there is a small benefit to more able students’ writing at KS3, but as teachers in the comparison group devised their own writing programmes we can’t be sure that no grammar was taught. The Educational Endowment Foundation reviewed the other study and concluded that it is unclear whether the benefit to the students’ writing was driven by the grammar intervention itself or the small teaching groups in which it was delivered. Problems of control are inevitable in long term intervention studies.
I have been wondering whether there is a different way to approach the question.
First of all, would it be helpful to see whether explicit teaching of grammar has any additional benefit over incidental exposure? Incidental learning is the term generally used when vocabulary or grammatical constructions are acquired through encountering them as a by-product of reading. Is it more beneficial to have the constructions explicitly taught, even if that involves complex formal grammatical terminology or metalanguage? Or is that only useful if you have high reading ability? Or perhaps, the reverse is true, and explicit teaching can help those with weak awareness of how constructions work?
I am proposing a series of experiments to provide clarity on these questions.
Firstly, I want to do what has not been done before and conduct a tightly controlled experiment with native speakers of English, where I control their previous exposure to a novel grammatical construction and look at whether explicit or incidental exposure achieves better learning. Does it make a difference if you’re a skilled reader? Does it make a difference to your understanding of how a construction works or how accurately you are able to use it if you are able to name the construction? Do the children who have had the rule explained do better? Or is there no difference?
But how does that relate to learning the names for the actual constructions that SPaG requires, you may ask?
Well, it’s only a part of the picture.
A key way in which our first language differs from second language is the degree of exposure, both to oral and written language.
The children who are being taught the SPaG curriculum are developing readers. Both their reading ability and the degree of print exposure will influence how they process complex grammatical constructions.
We know that written language differs greatly from spoken language in terms of the complexity of sentence constructions. Is it the case that better readers have no need of explicit teaching of formal grammatical constructions? They may not be able to give you the formal grammatical terminology or define the grammatical rule, but they may have perfect control over the construction. They may well be able to process it fully in text and can produce it correctly in writing.
A second phase will require me to look at the constructions that children of different ages are typically exposed to as part of their reading experience and then use these in grammar learning studies.
Is there a difference in learning between explicit and incidental exposure? Is it the case that for skilled readers, there is no additional benefit of explicit teaching? Do they already have active control? Or is there perhaps a benefit to struggling readers, provided they can cope with the complex formal grammatical terminology?
The point is that we don’t really know the answers to these questions and so many more around the role grammar might play in literacy. Teachers and children are spending so much time on this, it’s about time we started trying to find out.