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Jim McDonagh and Jeff Wilkinson

Grammar

GRAMMAR GRIEF: A DISCUSSION OF THE STUDY OF LANGUAGE Jim McDonagh and Jeff Wilkinson
Faculty of Development and Society, Sheffield Hallam University Grammarians are guilty of flogging the minds of English children with terms and notions that are essential to the understanding of Greek and Latin syntax, but have no bearing on English. Fowler, H.W. (1926) Dictionary of Modern English Usage Our approach to teaching grammar Student teachers on primary routes, as well as secondary English specialists, are at different starting points in their understanding of the English language, and, from our experience of training them, are least confident in teaching grammar. On our courses we need to establish what student teachers need to know about grammar, as well as what pupils need to know. Given the constraints of time, particularly on oneyear routes, our intention is to develop an understanding of the complexity of grammatical description, the interrelatedness of the terms included in glossaries that accompany curriculum requirements, and to challenge prejudiced notions about language variation and speakers of non-standard varieties. Of course, some student teachers, when told that they will be teaching ‘verbs’ on their school placement, want simple, ready-made solutions and will latch on to the off-the-peg published materials and decontextualised exercises which are readily available. Unfortunately, they may well turn to textbooks where language terms and functions are explored in isolation from ‘real’ texts. Not only is there a lack of context; there is also an over-reliance on simplistic, traditional definitions of terms e.g. a verb is ‘a word that indicates an action or a happening’. Inevitably, grammarians over the years have shown that language is usually much more complex e.g. verbs can essentially be seen as having three functions (action/state/mental); and that different texts make use of different types (e.g. adventure stories; descriptions of places/characters; and emotional romances). Many of these published materials in the English-speaking world still rely on traditional grammar definitions. Referring to a North American context, Hoffman comments that Very little pedagogical infrastructure exists for teaching modern grammars. However, a plethora of resources exist for traditional grammars (Hoffman, 2003). In New South Wales, despite the adoption of a systemic functional grammar approach in schools (identifying a focus of language in use), many teachers still hold traditional notions of grammar which affect the way they teach it to pupils (Horan, 2002).

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ITE English: Readings for Discussion
http://www.ite.org.uk/ite_readings/grammar_grief_20071130.pdf

November 2007

Whilst encouraging student teachers to see that grammatical description is complex and traditional grammar definitions are sometimes inadequate, we need to be careful not to make the less confident even more insecure in their teaching of grammar. We are, after all, training teachers of English, not linguists. What is important for student teachers is the understanding that it is not how terms like ‘verb’ may be defined, but what a verb does in a given text. One activity we have adopted from Bain and Bain (1996) demonstrates how a word such as ‘shop’ needs to be seen in context to establish its grammatical function. (Many traditional exercises ask pupils to pick out nouns or verbs from decontextualised lists.) This activity encourages student teachers to see that words exist in relation to other words paradigmatically (as choices) and syntagmatically (as positioning) and can shift class. Of course, this approach goes against the tendency to see grammar terms in isolation or to teach items such as ‘noun’ or adjective’ at different stages in the curriculum without considering continuity or progression. Covering grammatical terms should not take precedence over understanding how to use them. Meyer (2003) writes that, rather than definitions of terms, it is more useful to consider their characteristics. He employs the analogy of a chess game, and asks students to define a ‘pawn’. It is not what the pawn looks like that is important, but how it behaves in relation to other pieces in the system of chess. A pawn only has meaning within this system. Similarly, a noun only has meaning within the system of language. Meyer finds this analogy a useful entry point to discussing parts of speech. Of course, chess is a closed system and pawns can only act in given ways. An essential characteristic of any natural language is that, although systematic, it also demonstrates variation. Some student teachers have difficulties in recognising that grammatical rules are not immutable and that their own views of non-standard varieties may be prejudiced. We attempt to question these misconceptions through demonstrating the rule-governed nature of non-standard varieties and show how these are appropriate to particular contexts. Student teachers need to understand that when pupils make errors through their use of a non-standard variety, these ‘errors’ may be systematic and rulebased. A deficit model of grammar teaching in the past has led to a concentration on identifying errors in pupils’ writing. For student teachers, new to the assessment of written work, it is easier to spot and name errors than it is to recognise well-developed and effective syntax. As Dunn and Lindblom point out, ‘Effective writing is not effective due to an absence of error’ (Dunn and Lindblom, 2003, p.44). What is grammar? ‘Grammar’ can be defined in a number of ways. Lay definitions include: notions of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ grammar, bound up with social attitudes and the relative status of different varieties of English; a view that grammar only involves written language; or that there is a fixed, immutable set of rules that should apply to all. Just as there are lay definitions, linguists differ over models of grammar in the literature on the subject. In some models, grammar encompasses all aspects of language including semantics and phonology. Other models focus solely on syntax and morphology, although inevitably, reference to

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Jim McDonagh and Jeff Wilkinson

Grammar

semantics needs to be made as there are ‘fuzzy’ boundaries between these areas (Crystal, 2004). Linguists also differ in their use of terminology. Documents such as the National Literacy Strategy (DfEE, 1998) include terms common to traditional grammar. These terms are more accessible to teachers and are expected to be introduced to pupils as they progress through school. A glossary of terms does not indicate a model of grammar, however, and there is no indication of how the different parts that teachers are expected to know relate to the whole. Our assumption when teaching awareness of grammar to student teachers is that the terms need to be seen as part of a whole, each part linked to other parts in a coherent way. Language is essentially used to create meaning, to exchange and convey information, to express opinions, feelings and attitudes. It is able to do this because it works according to a set of systems that are understood by people who speak and write the same language. There are other complementary systems that are less fixed and less well-defined that are also important for understanding the constructing and conveying of meaning; these operate at the level of the whole text, interacting with grammar at sentence level and choices at word level to create the ’impact’ of the text. Grammar is usually taken to mean how the units of language, such as sentences, are constructed; and is popularly seen from two contrasting perspectives: prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. A prescriptive grammar is based on the notion that one type of language use is superior to another; it sets out rules of how language should be used and determines ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ use (essentially out of any situational context). Its written-based rules are applied equally to both spoken and written use. For example, it is ‘incorrect’ to begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’; to end a sentence with a preposition; or to split an infinitive. Such grammatical rules are based on how a language is written. It is to be noted that recent obsessions with language use still convey a populist notion of linguistic ‘correctness’ and ‘falling standards’ (Truss, 2004; Humphrys, 2004). A descriptive grammar seeks to describe how any language is used as accurately and as comprehensively as possible. In this approach, the superior status of any language form is likely to be arbitrary and may be the result of social or historical change, rather than related to linguistic factors. Language is viewed from both spoken and written perspectives and from various ‘combinations’ of the two e.g. speech that has written characteristics (a political debate); writing that has spoken characteristics (a report in the popular press). Spoken and written variations are acknowledged. For example, sentences beginning with ‘and’ and ‘but’ are found in many texts (advertisements and religious texts); sentences ending with prepositions and split infinitives are found in spoken texts (both formal and informal) and are increasingly being used in written texts as the language changes. Student teachers need to develop an awareness of this important debate. Essentially, the viewpoint you have of a language determines your approach to teaching it.

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ITE English: Readings for Discussion
http://www.ite.org.uk/ite_readings/grammar_grief_20071130.pdf

November 2007

Prescriptivism looks at concepts of ‘correctness/incorrectness’ in language use. In contrast, descriptive approaches focus on notions of ‘appropriateness’: A better understanding can sharpen teachers’ appreciation of children’s achievements with language and help them to understand the nature of difficulties or partial successes. It can guide them in their interventions in children’s learning, in which delicate judgements about what to make explicit and what to leave implicit in children’s knowledge are so important (Language in the National Curriculum, 1992, p.1). Despite many student teachers’ lack of confidence in teaching grammar, it should be recognised that they may well hold strong opinions on the subject, and conflict might well emerge in discussions; such alternative viewpoints should be allowed to co-exist and to be developed through textual investigations. Such investigations may raise some of the following points: There are many reasons for ‘errors’ in pupils’ writing; frequently, these are nothing to do with grammar (Myhill, 2001) Knowledge of grammar can help student teachers appreciate pupils’ strengths and problems Texts that do not read well or where there is ambiguity may contain language features that do not relate to the grammar of the text (e.g. sequencing and discourse structure may well be major factors) Spoken forms often persist in many different ways in pupils’ writing, often creating the impression of written grammatical ‘errors’. It is important to realise the range of features available in spoken/written/spoken-written texts Grammar is concerned with the structure of sentences and clauses, but also accounts for inter-sentential relationships. Explicit and implicit knowledge of grammar The following questions form a focus for our student teachers on language study in general, but on grammar more specifically: Why do student teachers need a knowledge of terms to describe language? Why do pupils need this knowledge? What terms do they need? Is there any relationship between having such knowledge and developing effective language skills? Such questions form the basis for a discussion on the use of technical terms to promote effective language use: Someone who knows about the forms of the English language can reflect disinterestedly and illuminatingly on a range of questions, observations and problems which crop up in everyday language use (DES, 1988, p.19).

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Jim McDonagh and Jeff Wilkinson

Grammar

In order to consider this further, the following classroom observation might serve as a starting point for discussion: Two seven-year olds have finished the first draft of a story about the adventures of a pig which escapes from a farmyard. They have been working directly on-screen and have now printed off this version. The teacher has asked them to re-read their text and change any part of the text that does not seem right. They start to read the text together. Karl stops at the following sentences: The pig ran across the yard. Suddenly she heard the noise. ‘That’s not right’, he says. ‘What’s wrong with it?’ asks Michael. Karl answers, ‘It should be Suddenly she heard a noise. Michael is still puzzled. Karl answers, ‘Because if it was the noise the pig would have been expecting it’. It is clear that Karl can discuss language use effectively without an explicit knowledge of the use of the definite and indefinite article. But would that explicit knowledge have helped Michael to appreciate the difference? And, more importantly, would an explicit knowledge have helped the teacher to create effective situations to explore this use further? Ultimately, discussion about the usefulness of subject knowledge revolves around two principles: 1. The usefulness of explicit (rather than implicit) knowledge for developing a discussion of textual features: Like spelling, grammar is easier to teach because correction relies on implicit knowledge, whilst teaching demands explicit knowledge (Myhill, 2000). 2. The value of having a language to talk about language: Strangely, we do not hesitate to teach literary criticism; we are prepared to offer pupils the metalinguistic tools of metaphor, simile, alliteration, and so on to help them engage critically with text. Yet we often ignore the linguistic features of texts which also contribute powerfully to their effect on readers (Myhill, 2001). Official government documents – most obviously the National Literacy Strategy – include lists of one sort or another of the technical terms teachers should know. A valuable exercise for student teachers is to ask them to compile a list of technical terms thought to be useful for teachers to explore texts with pupils; and one thought to be useful for pupils. This activity is in no way designed to produce a fixed, definitive list of terms; but observations on why some terms might be useful and why some might not should start to raise contexts for language study in both primary and secondary school situations. Discussion, therefore, might well focus on:

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ITE English: Readings for Discussion
http://www.ite.org.uk/ite_readings/grammar_grief_20071130.pdf

November 2007

what terms student teachers might find it useful to know and why this might support teaching what terms pupils might find useful to know to reflect on language use in context what other terms might be used and why. Spoken and written language Even in comprehensive and oft-cited descriptive grammars such as Quirk et al (1985), there is an emphasis on written language and many of the examples provided are from written corpora or are based on the authors’ intuitions. In recent times, technological advances have allowed the gathering and analysis of a great quantity of spoken language data and it is through examination of spoken data in corpora such as COBUILD (the Collins/ Birmingham Corpus of Discourse in English), CANCODE ( the Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Discourse in English) and the Brown Corpus of Standard American English, amongst others, that the grammar of spoken English can be studied. Through their investigations into a large corpus of spoken English, Carter and McCarthy (1995) claim that there are features of spoken language that are not recognised in descriptions based on written grammar. For our student teachers, an examination of the distinctive features of spoken language challenges their thinking about grammatical ‘correctness’, Standard English or the notion of what a sentence is. Corpus linguistics has meant that descriptions of grammar are now data-driven and allow us to see language in the cultural context in which it occurs. de Beaugrande (2001) sees a shift in thinking about language away from a static system of units such as morphemes, phrases, sentences, to recognising a more dynamic system of relations within a text. The notions of grammatical combinations and lexical combinations and the relationships between meaning and patterns of grammar have been researched through corpus studies and the pedagogical implications have found their way in to the teaching of English as a foreign language (e.g. an increased focus on lexical approaches to teaching). They have still to be addressed in the teaching of English as a first language. Traditionally, the description of English grammar and its properties has focussed on written language. Correct grammar has thus, by definition, come to mean the grammar of the written language. Recent research into the spoken language (Carter, 2004) has drawn our attention to the forms of language not so far described in grammars, for example: It was good that book/It was a good film that one – in which a pronoun or a noun phrase is repeated as a co-reference The women they all shouted/The man over there he said it was OK – in which a noun phrase is immediately followed by an ‘emphasising’ pronoun There’s a few problems are like to crop up – in which the main verb is repeated That house on the corner, is that where you live? – in which an ‘anticipatory’ phrase precedes the question.

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Jim McDonagh and Jeff Wilkinson

Grammar

These examples illustrate the essentially interpersonal nature of the spoken language, with the structures often serving to clarify, contextualise or to establish shared knowledge and frames of reference in ways which are neither possible nor necessary in the written language. Taking it further: classroom implications The National Curriculum for England (DfEE, 1999) places the teaching of grammar at primary and secondary level in the following three contexts: that pupils be given the opportunity to discuss and identify grammatical differences in texts (both spoken and written) that pupils focus on the grammatical features of the English only when directly investigating the meaning of spoken and written texts that any approach to describing grammar should be concerned with the ways in which words are combined into meaningful units; and make use of this knowledge in their writing. It has been emphasised throughout this discussion that the linguistic approach adopted to analyse a wide variety of texts (both spoken and written) should include the following: language is seen as a means of conveying meaning the concept of grammar is not viewed exclusively in a narrow sentence-bound way, but is also seen as operating across clauses and sentences the situation, audience and purpose of a text determine the specific grammatical choices that are made to create distinctive meanings all analyses work typically from larger to smaller units (a top-down approach), initially engaging with the overall meaning of a text which can then be related to all aspects of discourse, sentence and word level features. It must be noted that such analyses can be used for two distinct, yet complementary, purposes: individual reading and student teacher discussion evaluating current practice (as a means, for instance, of giving them a more precise method of making an informed evaluation of pupils’ use of language and its subsequent development) giving opportunities to create classroom materials and activities for pupils (placing them in situations, for example, where they can make an informed understanding of their own, and others’, language uses). Conclusions Descriptions of the grammar of the English language, and its teaching at primary and secondary levels, have had a long and complex history, both in changes to approach (i.e. different kinds of grammar); and in terms of how it is taught (and, in some instances, whether it should be taught at all). Our discussion has highlighted the following aspects: Grammar, and its teaching, must be systematic and responsive to language change

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ITE English: Readings for Discussion
http://www.ite.org.uk/ite_readings/grammar_grief_20071130.pdf

November 2007

Grammar should be seen within the context of conveying meaning, operating across discourse, sentence, word boundaries Grammar is essentially approached through a ‘top-down’ rather than ‘bottom-up’ process Grammar, linked to text notions of situation, audience and purpose, should be viewed in terms of continuity and progression, not as a ‘coverage’ of technical terminology. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) survey of teachers’ confidence, knowledge and practice in the teaching of grammar at Key Stages 2 and 3 (QCA, 1998, p.7) showed that teachers were uncertain about: the meaning of the word ‘grammar; the relationship between implicit and explicit grammatical knowledge; the terminology to use when teaching grammar; realistic expectations of pupils’ grammatical knowledge; planning for continuity and progression; and the relationship between grammar requirements, learning objectives and teaching activities. It would seem realistic to assume that student teachers have similar uncertainties. References Bain, E. and Bain, R. (1996) The Grammar Book Sheffield: NATE. de Beaugrande, R. (2001) ‘Text Grammar Revisited’, Logos and Languages – special issue, http://www.beaugrande.com/Revisited.htm (accessed 19.11.07). Carter, R. (2004) Language and Creativity: the art of common talk London: Routledge. Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. (1995) ‘Grammar and the spoken language’, Applied Linguistics, 16 (2) pp. 141-158. Crystal, D. (2004) Making Sense of Grammar Harrow: Pearson Education. DES (Department of Education and Science) (1988) Report of the committee of enquiry into the teaching of the English language (The Kingman Report), London: HMSO. DfEE (Department for Education and Employment) (1999) English: The National Curriculum for England Norwich: HMSO. DfEE (Department for Education and Employment) (1998) The National Literacy Strategy: Framework for Teaching English at Key Stage 3 London: DfEE http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/secondary/keystage3/respub/englishframework/forewo rd/ (accessed 19.11.07). Dunn, P.A. and Lindblom, K. (2003) ‘Why revitalize grammar?’, English Journal 92 (3) pp. 43 – 50. Hoffman, M. J. (2003) ‘Grammar for teachers: attitudes and aptitudes’, Academic Exchange Quarterly 7 (4) http://www.rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/dec2501.htm (accessed 19.11.07). Horan, A. (2002) English grammar in schools – proceedings of the 2002 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society, http://au.geocities.com/austlingsoc/proceedings/als2002/Horan.pdf (accessed 19.11.07). Humphrys, J. (2004) Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language London: Hodder and Stoughton. Language in the National Curriculum (the LINC project) (1992) Materials for Professional Development (unpublished).

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Jim McDonagh and Jeff Wilkinson

Grammar

Meyer, J. (2003) ‘Living with competing goals: state frameworks vs understanding of linguistics’, English Journal, 92 (3) pp. 38-42. Myhill, D.A. (2000) ‘Misconceptions and difficulties in the acquisition of metalinguistic knowledge’, Language and Education, 14 (3) pp. 151-163. Myhill, D.A. (2001) Better Writers Westley: Courseware Publications. QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) (1998) The Grammar Papers London: QCA. Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language London: Longman. Truss, L. (2004) Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero tolerance Approach to Punctuation. London: Profile Books. Further reading Cameron, D. (2007) The Teacher’s Guide to Grammar Oxford: Oxford University Press. Crystal, D. (1989) Rediscover Grammar Harlow: Longman. Keith, G. (1997) 'Teach Yourself Grammar' in The English and Media Magazine, 36 pp. 812. Ross, A. (2006) Language Knowledge for Secondary Teachers London: David Fulton. Useful websites A series of articles on the teaching of grammar can be found at: http://education.waikato.ac.nz/research/journal/view.php?view=true&id=10&p=1. Debra Myhill’s ‘Cybergrammar’ site: http://www.cybergrammar.co.uk/. Links with other areas of the ITE English website Language Study at Key Stages 2 and 3 http://www.ite.org.uk/ite_topics/language_study_key_stages_2_3/001.php Language Study Post-16 http://www.ite.org.uk/ite_topics/new_tutor_support/001.php

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