What has grammar ever done for writing?
Nothing, absolutely nothing. Ok, I admit that is something of an exaggeration, but traditional grammar teaching in schools has certainly done almost nothing to improve writing. Which makes the emphasis in England’s national curriculum for schools rather unfortunate. I’ll come to that in a moment.
Grammar is of course an essential part of writing. It is not possible to communicate in written language without sufficient understanding of the grammar of a language. But ‘sufficient understanding’ begs a series of questions. For example does it help you to write better if you understand what the term subordinate clause means? Not really. Does it help you to write better if you understand what the term word means, probably. But does it help you to write better if you understand that communication is the driving force of writing, for which grammar is specially crafted according to the author’s intentions and the context of the writing? Definitely.
These questions are related both to the study of linguistics and the study of education. Linguistics has a multitude of research, theories, and practical applications for the knowledge it generates. But not all linguistic knowledge is useful to education in schools. Linguistic analysis of language use in real life is useful because if used appropriately it can enable teachers to give accurate examples and correct explanations about how writing works. Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) is a grammar that was constructed by M.A.K. Halliday to account for language in use. It includes the important idea of Instantiation which emphasises the system of language as a meaning-making resource based on ‘texts’. However as you can probably appreciate, the relationship between theories of language, such as SFG and the work of teachers in school classrooms is not a simple relationship.
Although linguistics has some potential use for teaching it needs to be evaluated in the context of schools. Educational research using the methods of experimental trials has clearly answered the question, does traditional grammar teaching help primary school pupils’ writing? And the answer is, no it does not. In fact the only approach to grammar that has shown robust evidence of a positive impact on primary pupils’ writing is called sentence combining. This is an approach that encourages pupils to experiment with combining simple sentences to form more complex sentences. It’s essence is the manipulation of real examples of language, without a focus on technical terminology.
So, if the evidence about grammar teaching is so compelling then why does the national curriculum in England require pupils to learn the technical terms such as ‘adverb’ when they are about age six; ‘subordinate clause’ when they are age seven; ‘determiner’ when they are eight, and so on. The reason is that the curriculum was not built on evidence of what works in the teaching of English, language and literacy, it was built on politicians’ ideology.
Research on writing has traditionally lagged behind research on oral language and on reading but we now have a wealth of evidence from multiple sources, including linguistics, to inform a much better approach to teaching across the life course, for novice writers and expert writers alike (and a much better national curriculum in England). In my book How Writing Works: From the birth of the alphabet to the rise of social media I examine philosophy, history, creativity, great writers, and novice writers (children and adults) in an attempt to recommend the most appropriate ways to improve writing across the life course, for every day writing and for professional writing includes fiction. And in a novel approach I use the composition of music as a comparison with the composition of written language. My conclusion is that it is not things like traditional grammar that help writing, it is developing the special attributes that constitute the ear of the writer.
Dominic Wyse is Professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education at the University College London (UCL), Institute of Education (IOE). The main focus of Dominic’s research is curriculum and pedagogy. Key areas of work are the teaching of writing, reading and creativity. Dominic has extensive experience of funded research projects which he has disseminated in numerous peer-reviewed research journal articles and books. Dominic’s recent major contribution is published in his book How Writing Works: From the Invention of the Alphabet to the Rise of Social Media (Cambridge University Press).
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