Reframing grammar so teachers will want to teach it

iStock_000014592789XSmallGrammar, once a dusty and fusty subject, is enjoying a renaissance. Many administrators want to see more emphasis on teaching grammar in the classroom, but students aren’t the only ones who have a bad attitude about it. For a variety of reasons, ranging from a lack of confidence in their knowledge to a feeling that it is boring and old-fashioned, teachers also approach the subject with dread, according to a recent study in English in Education.

What can be done? Researcher Annabel Watson of the University of Exeter offers a few suggestions in her study, based on multiple interviews of 31 British secondary school teachers as they implemented a revised national curriculum.

One suggestion is to support the teaching of contextualized grammar, that is, teaching grammar that is embedded in the teaching of writing, and another is to help teachers reflect on their attitudes toward grammar. Negative attitudes obviously affect teachers’ desire and willingness to teach grammar, Watson writes.

One often-overlooked obstacle for teachers is that many of them were not taught grammar when they went to school because the subject was out of favor in many curricula. For that reason they feel very unsure about themselves in this subject.

“Traditional grammar teaching largely disappeared from schools in the UK in the middle of the twentieth century, following studies and reviews that reported no benefits to students’ writing (such as Elley et al. 1975), alongside arguments from advocates of the personal expression approach that the process of learning grammar interferes with writing,” she says.

An initiative to bring back the explicit teaching of grammar in the English national curriculum in the 1990s was not successful, according to Watson. Now, the revised “Framework for Secondary English” assumes that grammar will be embedded in the teaching of writing, she says.

In her study, Watson explores the feelings and attitudes of teachers implementing a revised curriculum. Half the teachers, the intervention group, worked with detailed lesson plans that contextualized grammar teaching. The comparison group was given outline units which addressed NLS objectives but which did not require them to teach grammar.

In order not to compromise the study, the researcher did not inform teachers of the existence of a comparison or intervention group and that the project was focused on grammar. During semi-structured interviews, teachers were asked to: 1) reflect on the lesson they had just taught, (2)discuss their confidence and beliefs about teaching narrative fiction, argument or poetry and (3) discuss their beliefs about writing in general. In the last interview, teachers were asked what they understood by the term “grammar teaching,” what value they placed on it and how they approach teaching grammar.

Teacher reactions

During the interviews, a majority of teachers expressed negative attitudes toward grammar. The following statements are typical of teachers’ reactions:

“I see it as being quite old-fashioned”

“I feel completely lost when anybody mentions grammar to me”

“I feel inadequate a lot of the time….because I don’t really understand my own language”

“I worry that I pass on this fear to my students.”

“Meaning and imagery…it’s almost inherently interesting, whereas grammar features….there isn’t that much that’s different or exciting or creative.” Some teachers’ dislike stemmed from their perception of themselves as literature specialists.

However, a minority of teachers had positive emotions about grammar and engaged in an “oppositional discourse.” These teachers found teaching grammar “inspiring rather than frightening, fascinating rather than boring, and empowering rather than reactionary, ” Several expressed anger and disappointment that they had not received more training in grammar when they were in school as seen in this comment by one teacher:

“I remember being at university and a university lecturer saying to me…I’d have given you the A if you’d have put in some possessive apostrophes, and I’d never heard of them, and I sent to the library and looked them up and was devastated and thought well why did I never spot those in my reading? …I can remember just standing in the library blushing and feeling so ashamed…I felt quite angry that the school had let me down in that way.”

Another teacher said:

“It was perceived that grammar was an inhibitor to free flow, and that self expression was what was really important….I have a completely, a different and opposite view because of my experiences of not knowing why I wrote the way I wrote….there were rules and regulations that were out there that I didn’t understand and I couldn’t play with them.”

Watson says the teachers in the intervention group who expressed positive emotions may have been changed by their experience teaching embedded grammar. Others may have simply experienced a change as a result of reflecting on grammar and their feelings about it.

“For at least one teacher, change was accompanied by a process of reconceptualization which moved away from seeing grammar as superficial and related to accuracy, towards an understanding of how grammar ‘can change the meaning of what you’re trying to get across.'”

Both the intervention and control groups taught three 3-week units focused on writing: fiction in the autumn term, argument in the spring term and poetry in the summer term. The intervention group was given detailed lesson plans with contextualized grammar teaching. The comparison group was given outline units which addressed NLS objectives, but which did not require them to address grammar. Participating teachers were observed teaching the units and then interviewed following the observation.

“‘Navigating ‘the pit of doom’: Affective responses to teaching ‘grammar’,” by Annabel Watson, English in Education, Volume 46, Number 1, 2012, pps. 22-37.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)