Teachers at Work

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New Approaches to Teaching Grammar in British Schools

We recently learned of a fascinating new project in the United Kingdom entitled "Teaching English Grammar in Schools," and we were pleased to see that Dan Clayton, a researcher working on the project, had spoken highly of the educational resources of the Visual Thesaurus. We got in touch with Dan to find out how the project, part of the Survey of English Usage, is promoting new approaches to the teaching of grammar based on real usage examples pulled from a corpus of texts.

VT: Could you describe the project you're working on?

Dan: The project is called "Teaching English Grammar in Schools," and we're developing an interface between the classroom and our corpus. At the Survey of English Usage, we've got ICE-GB, which is the British branch of the International Corpus of English. That's a corpus that has been parsed and tagged, and you can do grammatical searches on it.  What we're trying to do is develop an interface between that and grammar teaching in English secondary schools, age groups from 11 up to 18. 

What we're trying to do with the corpus is create something that's more flexible and dynamic in its interface. When you've got a textbook, you might have examples plucked out of the ether by whoever's sitting there pondering upon a grammatical concept they want to explain. And so the traditional The cat sat on the mat examples crop up.  What we're trying to do is to use our corpus to pull out living, breathing examples of English.  Of course, that poses its own problems.  When you're calling up nouns from the corpus, you end up with some fairly bizarre ones as well as ones that serve to illustrate a point quite well.  So we're working on the readability of certain examples in the corpus, and where these would fit into different types of teaching.

VT: Is the idea that teachers would be able to use this interface as they build their lesson plans, in order to fit the National Curriculum requirements on grammar?

Dan: That's right. There's a degree of planning that goes into it in the first place where you work out, let's say, "Where does this grammatical concept fit into a teacher's coverage of a set text in literature?"  We're trying to integrate some of the work on grammar into the things that teachers already do, so we've looked at lots of lessons, seeing what teachers really do. 

We're also trying to put together an outline for teachers, showing them how they could work their way through certain units in the material we're doing, and assemble various activities and tasks that would fit together well into a coherent overview for a particular grammatical concept, or just insert particular activities into lessons that they may want to do off the cuff when they're doing something else. There's a big focus on "starters" these days in English classrooms. You have to have quick 10-minute starters, to get your class warmed up. 

VT: So the teacher could be working with the class on a particular work of literature, and then they might use this as a supplement to their lesson on that piece of literature?

Dan: You could, or an alternative might be to actually start with what we're producing.  I've been working on trying to incorporate bingo cards into games with grammar.  So I'd be looking at a poem line-by-line, identifying noun types, adjectives, verbs.  And that could then lead into the same approach being used on other poems that a teacher has to do with that class.  So it would be offering them a ready-made lesson to begin with, but also a template for an approach that might work with other areas.

VT: Could you describe what the National Curriculum actually says about the teaching of grammar and how you see your project as fitting into that?

Dan: It's a complicated picture because it's changed quite a lot.  There's been a lot of good work done by linguists in trying to influence the National Curriculum. In the 1980s, when the National Curriculum first appeared, there was input from linguists then into the knowledge about language material that would feature in there.  There was work done by the LINC [Language in the National Curriculum] project, which got stymied by the government at the time. There were various other initiatives to try to get language as a focus and particularly working on developing teachers' grammar knowledge. 

But there's also been a countercurrent, a movement away from grammar from the 1960s until fairly recently, where we've had an almost absolute disappearance of grammar from the curriculum in any kind of recognized way.  This is a movement towards personal response – in the broadest sense, creative responses to text rather than the kind of analytical approaches that grammar lends itself to. More recently, the rapid growth of A-level English Language from about 10 years ago has created a slightly more specialist team of English teachers at that age group, 16 to 18, who have worked very hard on introducing research from language study and linguistics into their teaching.  But lower down the school, there's not been that kind of knowledge around. It's very rare to find secondary-school teachers in this country who have got any background in linguistics or language. 

The actual stipulations for what kind of grammar knowledge you need to pass are very vague, so it's a mixed bag. There are some schools where they see grammar as very important and they try to embed that into all their teaching of English, and there's others that are absolutely horrified by the prospect of teaching anything to do with grammar and see it as a dead-end.

VT: Would you say there's been a return to grammar for students of that age that had been fading away in past decades?

Dan: I think there has been, and I think A-Level English Language is partly responsible for that, but I think there's also been a lot more popular discourse about grammar and redefining what it is. English grammar is constantly being discussed in the media. There's a certain degree of interest in it because there's a worry from a particular generation that they weren't taught it. 

There's now a unit on the GSCE [General Certificate of Secondary Education] which focuses specifically on spoken language, which is a real move forward considering what we do most of the time is speak rather than write. Certainly blended forms like texting and e-mail are probably moving more towards spoken than written forms. Students can look at those things at a younger age and actually critically analyze some of the language around them.  They can look at Facebook; they can look at Twitter; they can look at text messaging. There's a usual kind of "to hell in a handcart" discourse in the popular media about that.  But at the same time, I think there's a degree of maturity that this is the kind of thing that people should look at, and that's made an appearance now in the GSCE specifications. 

Younger kids are now going to be looking at an introduction to spoken language — different types of conversations, and some of the structures and the unwritten rules of spoken discourse.  I think that's very positive.  Whether or not grammar is foregrounded in that is a different matter.  There are different opinions on that, and it's only really beginning to be taught now. We'll have to wait and see what happens there, but it could be a really exciting way of opening up English language to new areas of study.

Next week in part two of our interview, Dan talks about how the project is encouraging students to launch their own investigations into how language works.

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Monday October 25th 2010, 6:52 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
Looking forward to the second installment. My question would be, "What do we talk about when we talk about grammar?" The wisdom for a while was that students who get it are the ones who would be fluent readers, speakers, and writers anyway and that no matter how diligently they try to memorize rules, most students have no idea how to transfer them to their own speech or writing. As a person in her sixties who endured year after year of the same boring lessons in elementary, junior high, and high school, never getting to exotic animals like gerunds or subjunctive cases because most of the class was stalled on identifying subjects and predicates, I KNOW the old way of teaching grammar does not work. I LOVE language, and I HATED English class. So what will a classroom that incorporates grammar look like? Are we talking about going back to diagramming sentences? That's what many readers of this article will assume (and possibly approve). I truly enjoyed parsing sentences (descriptive rather than prescriptive) and making tree diagrams in a college transformational grammar class with Richard Veit. But I already love words and analysis. I saw many others struggle. For a while, sentence combining was a fad, and it is useful to have a students take sentences they have generated in their own writing and have them rearrange them in various ways to find the one that best communicates their ideas. But do any of them do that on their own, unless they already have the gift and passion for language? After teaching a workshop for graduate students struggling to write their MA theses, I realized the need for teaching students how to write, revise, and punctuate good English sentences, but the only way I have found that works is to talk with them one on one, pointing my finger at the offending sentence, analyzing it together. We need a vocabulary for talking about syntax and diction, and linguistics offers that. When a college student tells me, "I've always been bad at grammar," she usually means that she's seen a lot of red marks on her papers, centering around spelling and punctuation. What DOES grammar teaching look like in the classroom? What specifically do we mean when we use the word "grammar"?
Monday October 25th 2010, 7:46 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I started feeling warm and toasty as soon as I saw that there is a project called Teaching English Grammar in Schools! Three cheers for Mr. Clayton and all the teachers involved in this. It's been troubling to me for a while that well-educated young people do in fact speak and write grammatically correctly for the most part, but they are at a loss to explain how they do it. Hooray for getting grammar back into the curriculum -- I hope some of his crosses the Atlantic.
Monday October 25th 2010, 1:30 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
The project called Teaching English grammar Schools is a good , well project but diificult to fit it.
So how important is to find best sentences, parsing sentences when you change with someone, specially when your own language is different from English language.
What struggle when you use an adverb after a verb, you completly change the meaning of it.
How to ponctuate good English sentences? For me I try I must try a bit harder for them.
But do you imagine learning a new language without studying GRAMMAR?
I don't kow!!!!
Thursday October 28th 2010, 6:25 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
Thanks for the comments about the project we're doing at UCL.

In answer to Joyce H above, who asks "So what will a classroom that incorporates grammar look like? Are we talking about going back to diagramming sentences?", the answer is "probably not", or at least "not straight away".

What we're trying to do is introduce some explicit discussion about grammar through students looking at their own language usage, be it in the form of the Standard English they encounter in the set texts they read, the language they use when they text, update their Facebook profiles or use Twitter, and also in the spoken language varieties they use in different contexts. That's the starting point anyway.

Part of the plan is to get them thinking about the grammatical differences between the standard and the non-standard forms and why these might exist. Giving them (or reminding them of) the metalanguage - the nouns, verbs, subject ellipses, subordinate clauses etc - is part of it too, but the key thing from our point of view is on linking grammar to real usage and, of course, to meaning, rather than treating it as just an abstract system.

I'm sure the second instalment will give more of an idea about how we're approaching this, but we're exploring ways of using grammar to draw attention to stylistic choices writers make and how these can then be considered as part of a repertoire for the students themselves to draw from. The fact that we're using ICE-GB as a source for language data is also allowing us to encourage students to investigate language themselves. An area that has grown in English schools is A level English Language, a course that encourages students to set up their own investigations in to topics like male and female communication styles, youth slang and political rhetoric, so we're using the corpus to help scaffold investigations into areas like these, while underpinning them with some solid grammatical focus.

That's the plan anyway... ;-)

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