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Is the emphasis on Grammar right?

Chris JollyChris Jolly – May 2013

Arguably the most surprising and welcome part of the new National Curriculum for England is its brevity.  At just 43 pages for the teaching of English (albeit with another 36 pages of appendices) it matches the 43 pages of the original National Curriculum of 1990. 

Over the years the government’s advice on teaching English had grown like Topsy.  By the last year of the Labour government on 2010 there were four major documents for the early teaching of English (the Early Years Foundation Stage, Letters and Sounds, the Primary National Strategy and the National Curriculum).  Together they totalled 682 pages, before counting all their CDs, charts and online materials.

Along being shorter, the new Document has a marked change in direction.  This is important not just in England but as part of the trends in education considered around the world.  While the emphasis on phonics was to be expected, it has been the emphasis on grammar that is most notable.

This emphasis has been broad and yet specific.  It requires the teaching of punctuation, sentences, tenses and clauses as well as a strong emphasis on spelling.  Interestingly it does not state that ‘parts of speech’ or ‘parsing’ should be taught, though the individual parts of speech, such as nouns and conjunctions, are mentioned.  Indeed it does not mention ‘synthetic phonics’ either, instead referring to the need for teaching through a ‘rigorous and systematic phonics programme’.

By contrast the original National Curriculum has none of this.  It made no mention of phonics, and effectively none of grammar either.  It had vague references to children needing to ‘write fluently and legibly’ which did not give much guidance, or lend itself to assessment.  While the new National Curriculum is to be applauded for its clarity and focus, is there the evidence to support its recommendations?

For the phonics recommendations the evidence is clear.  The research by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson in Clackmannanshire has been the most influential study on the teaching of reading.  Also very influential was the study by Morag Stuart in London’s Docklands, both studies incidentally using Jolly Phonics.  They showed that children taught systematically with phonics would learn around twice as fast.  The children would have a reading age 12 months ahead of their actual age after one year.  Along with other research they showed that such teaching benefits the most vulnerable most of all.  Boys do as well as girls (instead of worse), while children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, and those who do not have English as their first language, keep up just fine.  Opponents of phonics fear that such teaching may detract from the meaning of text and the enjoyment of reading but the research evidence is not there to support this.

By contrast the teaching of grammar has few detractors.  Yet the evidence to support the teaching of grammar is not strong.  Back in 1998 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority published ‘The grammar papers’ with an excellent summary of the sparse research available then.  It pointed to studies that showed little or no benefit from teaching grammar.  However the studies reflected the thinking of the time, and differed from the recommendations in the new National Curriculum in two ways.

Firstly the studies were overly centred on parts of speech.  Teaching the wider structure of English seems to have been ignored.

And secondly, these studies were on children in secondary school.  In practice however, children are learning the structure of the language mostly in primary school, so that is where grammar should be taught.  For our part, we published the first part of Jolly Grammar in 2000, so many years ago, and specifically for this wider teaching of grammar, and in the primary years.

Nonetheless, the evidence in support of early grammar teaching is still too sparse.  I would welcome and encourage such research.  We need it not just to validate the new direction but so we can quantify the gains to be achieved, and to see if some children benefit more than others.

Chris Jolly – May 2013