Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | May 11, 2008

Teachers ‘struggle with grammar’

And this news from BBC is even more depressing:

English teachers who went to school when grammar was not on the curriculum struggle to teach it, research shows.

A review of international studies on the effective teaching of complex writing says there is a need to improve the teachers’ own skills.

The work was done by Exeter University for the Department for Children, Schools and Families in England. […]

The study concludes: “For English teachers, who themselves attended schools when grammar was not part of the English curriculum, there is a significant issue of lack of assurance in grammatical subject knowledge, leading to difficulties in addressing grammar meaningfully in the writing classroom.

“In particular, effective teaching requires a secure understanding not simply of grammatical terminology, but of applied linguistics and an awareness of the ways in which grammatical constructions are used in different texts for different communicative purposes.” […]

Another study described a “significant knowledge gap” in terms of teachers’ pedagogical knowledge.

One piece of research on the linguistic subject knowledge that teachers and trainee teachers bring to their teaching of writing found “a persistent theme in teachers’ attitudes to grammar is hostility to anything that makes formal structure the central object of study”.

What can I say? Grammar is an expression of the intrinsic logic of language. Non-teaching or poor teaching of grammar directly affects students’ capacity of logical, and, therefore, mathematical thinking. “Teachers’ […] hostility to anything that makes formal structure the central object of study” is hostility to logic. It is a seed of future math phobia in students.



  1. ““a persistent theme in teachers’ attitudes to grammar is hostility to anything that makes formal structure the central object of study”.

    A century ago, a typical British school education would have consisted of large dollops of Euclid’s Elements, Latin and Greek languages and literature, and the rules of English Grammar. How far our sociey has changed in 100 years!

  2. Perhaps I am wrong, but I think in fact a typical schooling of 100 years ago would have ended at 13 and consisted almost entirely of the “three Rs” (as established by the Education Act of 1870). A typical British public school education would, of course, have been as you said.

  3. I am seventy years old. When I was in college in the 1950s and 1960s, I found especially useful the books of Paul Roberts, who was a member of the English Department at San Francisco State University.

    The first book I read by Roberts was “Patterns of English.” It is targeted toward high-school students and takes a structural-linguistics approach.

    His book “Understanding grammar” takes a lucid approach to teaching traditional grammar.

    His book “English Sentences” is really good. It starts out with about a half dozen kernel sentences and builds up from them to the major features of the architecture of the language. (The approach is sort of like studying the different kinds of atoms after starting out with the major subatomic particles.)

    His book “English Syntax” takes a linear programmed-instruction approach to teaching a fairly early version of Noam Chomsky’s transformational grammar.

    Roberts has (had?) great expository skills, and I found his books to be very useful. No doubt they are out of print. But I expect that an English teacher who went through school with little or no exposure to English grammar will find them quite useful.

    It is understandable that grammar studies were abandoned in many schools. Traditional grammar is often badly taught and enshrines artificial constructions that no native speaker of English would be caught dead using outside of classes emphasizing traditional grammar.

    Teaching grammar on a sound empirical basis can greatly increase a person’s skills in manipulating the language. It is unfortunate that many people have been turned off to studying the mechanism of language by faulty Latin-based grammars and really rotten instruction.

    I would like to conclude with a couple of remarks by a Miss Candida Fidditch, a stout defender of traditional grammar. Once she said to one of her classes that prepositions are words you must never end sentences with.

    Next, after emphasizing that “It’s me” is bad English and insisting that one must always say “It is I,” she went to the principal’s office and knocked on the door.

    “Who is it?” said the principal.

    Speaking quickly and automatically, she replied, “It’s me, Miss Fidditch.”

    One final note: I am sure that Paul Roberts is not the only academic that has produced fine pedagogical grammars of English. I hope, however, that if I had not run into his works I would have been lucky to find someone else who did the job of describing the mechanism of English as well as he did.

    hkyson > Harleigh Kyson Jr.

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