Researching Grammar in the Curriculum

Professor Debra Myhill (University of Exeter) began her ESRI seminar by thanking us all for not being put off by the title of her presentation Researching Grammar in the Curriculum.  Grammar is interesting and important but not exactly sexy, she noted.

Part of the interest in grammar is that it is one of the classic sites of left versus right, progressive versus traditional educational ding-dongs.  For those on the right, grammar is an educational obsession. As Philip Pullman (2005) adeptly described the,

“common sense [view of grammar]. That particular quality of mind, the exclusive property of those on the political right, enables its possessors to know without the trouble of thinking that of course teaching children about syntax and the parts of speech will result in better writing, as well as making them politer, more patriotic and less likely to become pregnant.”

Opposite this ‘grammar as birth (population) control’ is the lack of concern in professionals and academic circles.  Although tests lever teacher compliance around teaching grammar there is no coherent rationale for the inclusion of grammar in the curriculum or schooling.  So, how should we consider the importance of grammar?

In the rest of the discussion Debra described how she and her colleagues sought to investigate grammar and meaningfully engage in practitioner and policy discourses, with a particular emphasis on methodological choices.  There are good and bad quantitative and qualitative studies but the current obsession for Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) in education policy the team decided to adopt a mixed-methods RCT approach with qualitative research used to explore the ‘black box’ of the intervention.

The study was based on an approach to teaching children grammar in contextualised ways that made sense, were not arbitrary or contrived.  If you would like more information on the study, read these slides.

There were interesting insights into the role of performativity in education in relation to grammar teaching.  The researchers found teachers whom taught in formulaic ways by saying if you want to get a good mark use a complex noun phrase.  Leading to one exchange between a pupil and a researcher,

Pupil – I want to write complex sentences

Researcher – What are you trying to say?

P – I don’t know

R – Why do you want to write a complex sentence then?

P – I don’t know, my teacher said that complex sentences are best and so I need to write one.

James Duggan

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