Mini paper review: Experience, aptitude and individual differences in native language ultimate attainment

Welcome to our new series of blogposts, each providing a brief and accessible review of a recently published academic paper relating to language and literacy development. For our first review, Helen Norris, PhD student at the Institute of Education reviews a recent paper on grammar learning in native speakers.

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I recently came across this fascinating article while reading around the context of the vexed question of whether formal grammar teaching is necessary to support the literacy development of native speakers of English at primary school, (for a review see Myhill, 2018).

Second language learning research has often focused on learners’ ability to understand, acquire and gain mastery of the grammatical rules of a language.

But the question of whether people vary in their ability to learn grammatical rules of their native language has largely remained unconsidered for native speakers.

To some extent, Dabrowska points out, this depends on whether you favour a ‘universal grammar’ explanation of language acquisition: the idea that there is one coherent body of grammatical knowledge that all humans possess innately. This theory would predict that there would be little difference between humans in their grammatical knowledge and ability to use it.

Dabrowska, on the other hand, leans towards a usage-based theory of language, which says that our knowledge is shaped by the input we receive and the experiences we have with language.

What did the study involve?

90 adult native speakers of English took part in the study. They were measured on their non-verbal IQ using a block pattern test and their language aptitude, specifically their ability to infer linguistic rules from the input. Here a novel language test was used where learners had to infer novel grammatical rules. Notably, this is a test commonly used to explore second language learning ability.

Two input factors were also measured: their print exposure, measured by author recognition test, and their education level. Finally, in addition to measures of vocabulary and collocations knowledge, their

grammar knowledge was measured using a picture and sentence test: participants were shown a series of pictures and had to match the correct sentence. The sentences included basic grammatical constructions that are commonly found in speech, (eg simple locative: ‘The spoon is in the cup.’) and more complex constructions, (eg passive: ‘The girl was fed by the man.’)

What were the findings?

Dabrowska found that there were significant individual differences in how well participants knew the constructions in the grammar tests, which provides some evidence that incomplete grammar acquisition exists. How much they had read predicted some of the variance in how they performed in the grammar test. There was a relationship between the language aptitude test and the grammar test, which is interesting because this was a test used to research second language learning ability and performance!

What can we conclude?

That native speakers differ in how well they know and use the basic grammatical constructions of their native language. These differences are related to both the input the speakers receive and their cognitive abilities.

And what are the wider implications of this?

We know that children differ in reading and writing ability and vocabulary knowledge. But how much do we know about how children differ in their grammatical knowledge and their ability to learn grammatical rules? The answer is very little. This study looked at grammatical knowledge in adults, using constructions that are commonly found in speech. Had the study included more constructions that are more commonly found in written text, the author speculates that she would have found even greater individual differences. Would she have found the same pattern of results if she had looked at children’s grammatical knowledge? These questions are all the more relevant right now because of the amount of complex formal grammar that children are being taught at primary school in preparation for the Spelling Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG) Test. Who benefits most and how does their mastery of grammar relate to their reading ability and experience?

Full reference: Dąbrowska, E. (2018). Experience, aptitude and individual differences in native language ultimate attainment. Cognition178, 222-235.


What does good EAL teaching look like?

Naomi Flynn, Associate Professor of Primary English Education, University of Reading

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We know from research, and from our practical experiences, that children with EAL need vocabulary-rich classrooms and opportunities to speak in their new language. But that can be hard with our assessment-driven curriculum and it’s not always obvious how to make our lessons talk-based in ways that suit children with differing levels of English proficiency. A recent trip to the US has given me some insights into how things might work.

My current research activity involves a pilot project in which a group of us interested in teacher education and the teaching of children with EAL have been observing good teaching in the US, the UK, Germany and Finland. Using a tried and tested observation rubric we have had the great privilege of sitting in classrooms where teachers are doing wonderful things.

Analysis is still in its early stages, but I tell everyone I meet about two particular US primary school teachers whose lessons were vibrant with rich discussion and high expectations of English language learners.

Teacher 1 had a class of 26 5th grade (Year 6) children of whom 19 had EAL. As we walked in the children were totally engaged in active, small group discussion of novels they were reading together. The lesson – based on Literature Circles – demanded: that children spoke using the features of Socratic dialogue; that they came to their group having read a chapter in which they had used sticky notes to make annotations about interesting vocabulary and raise questions; that they taught each other something new; and that they set homework for next steps together. Teacher intervention was restricted to reminding one boisterous group to keep interaction respectful and the level of discourse between the children, some of whom were still developing proficiency in English, made our jaws drop.

Teacher 2 had a mixed mono and multilingual class of 25 2nd grade children (Year 3) and we loved her use of the ‘fishbowl technique’ to get her young learners to reflect on their lesson. Using multiple sentence starters and other ‘listening behaviours’ that were brightly displayed, and which they had been trained to adopt, children sat in a circle with three ‘fish’ at the centre. The fish pursued an independently managed conversation around what they learned and what they had found difficult which had them building sentences and making meaning together in ways we would be happy to see in much older children.

Seeing these two teachers made me reflect on how liberating life might be without the phonics screener, SATs and SPaG. However, these teachers also had strict state-imposed assessment criteria to meet and the children’s targets were focussed around the sorts of things we see in England’s grammar curriculum. They had just made a choice to do things differently, and in doing so were maximising their pupils’ prospects before our eyes. So good EAL teaching is about a vocabulary-rich classroom but it’s also about having the confidence to give children time to talk in ways that are genuinely life-enhancing.

Teaching formal grammar at KS2. What do we know?

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.

pexels-photo-301926.jpegA 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.

Does using a special font help children with dyslexia to read more fluently?

Holly Joseph and Daisy Powell, Associate Professors at University of Reading


Who wouldn’t love a miracle cure for dyslexia and other learning difficulties faced by thousands of children everyday? In recent years, a number of specialist fonts have been developed which claim to help people with dyslexia to read more easily and fluently. The main idea is that by increasing space between letters and designing letters that are distinctive in terms of their height and shape, letters will be less confusable (for example letters such as b and d which are identical when reversed) and therefore reading can progress more easily. Sounds plausible, doesn’t it?


Well, perhaps not. Many researchers argue that focusing on letter form is missing the point. There is now a large body of research that supports the view that for most people with dyslexia, their core difficulty lies in their phonological skills, and in learning the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent. This can prevent young readers learning to alphabetically decode, or “sound out” words, a skill essential for independent reading. This means that the most effective form of remediation for those with dyslexia lies in a targeted phonics-based intervention. This is not an easy answer, and as many people with dyslexia and those supporting them will testify, such interventions are hard work, often frustrating, and take time. It is tempting to think that changing a font, or using coloured overlays, can provide immediate relief but sadly it is usually not that simple.

A number of studies have shown that while increasing spacing between letters can help some people with dyslexia to read more quickly, the font itself is not important (see recent TES article for a comprehensive and accessible summary), and so it is not worthwhile investing in an expensive specialist font when it is easy to increase spacing in any standard font. We know that resources are more stretched than ever in schools at the moment, so using existing evidence-based phonics interventions is a sensible first step. Fonts may be appealing but the evidence shows that they are not the answer if we want to do our best by struggling readers.

Workshop: Language, Literacy and Learning in EAL children

DSC_7254On 21st March 2018 we hosted another successful research to practice event for teachers and education practitioners working with children who speak English as an additional language.

The event focused on four areas of research and practice with EAL children:
• Policy (Emily Waddilove and Naomi Flynn)
• Assessment (Katherine Solomon and Claudine BowyerCrane)
• Vocabulary, language and literacy (Kay Clarke and Holly Joseph)
• Home language and literacy (Jamie Earnshaw and Hamish Chalmers)

All slides are available here 

The first part of the afternoon consisted of presentations on all four areas from academics, policy makers, and expert practitioners. For the second part of the afternoon attendees attended a marketplace forum to find out more about research, practice and policy in relation to EAL children. We had representatives from The Young Interpreter SchemeBilingualism Matters, the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism, NALDIC, and many more.

Thank you to all our wonderful speakers and presenters for a great day!

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Our first research into practice event!

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Thank you to everyone who came and made our first ‘research into practice event’ on 26 May 2016 such a success! The event brought together practitioners and researchers interested in EAL, reading development and primary languages, with a keynote speech by Professor Victoria Murphy (University of Oxford) on the latest research on EAL children’s vocabulary and literacy development. Delegates found it inspiring to  hear what research goes on at the University of Reading, and they appreciated the chance to reflect on research-informed teaching and to forge new partnerships between the university and schools. Some of the presentations are available for download via our workshop and materials page; we will add more as we receive them. 

If you attended the workshop and did not get round to filling in the short feedback form, we would really appreciate it if you could do it now by clicking here. Please do also leave feedback in the comments section below – this means that other people can see and respond to your thoughts and it would be great to use the space below for exchanging ideas and discussion.  If you’d like to take part in our research or to contact us about anything else, please click here. We’d love to hear from you! Thank you! 



Language(s) and Literacy at Primary: A Free Research into Practice Event

Free CPD workshop on Thursday 26th May 2016, Institute of Education, University of Reading:

We are would like to warmly invite teachers and local authority staff to our first “Research-into-Practice” event (free of charge), which brings together practitioners and researchers interested in primary school children’s language and literacy development. The event presents a great chance to hear about what is going on at Reading, to reflect on research-informed teaching and to forge new research partnerships between the university and schools. To find out more about this event, download a flyer and register, please click here.