Teaching grammar to elementary school children does not improve their writing, study finds
Dominic Wyse, lead author of the study and professor of early childhood and primary development at UCL, said: “The lack of impact of grammar instruction on students’ narrative writing raises questions on the extended grammatical specifications which are part of the English National Curriculum.
“Currently, English National Curriculum content requires children aged six to seven to learn grammatical terms such as noun phrase, utterance, command and tense.
“Older primary school children need to learn terms such as subordinate clause, adverb, modal verb, active and passive.”
The study also looked at a more interactive approach to studying grammar via an online platform called ‘Englicious’ and although there were some ‘encouraging’ results they again found that it was not there was no statistical improvement in the children’s writing ability.
The children’s writing was tested via a narrative writing test and a sentence generation task.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Prof Wyse said he believed encouraging young children to just sit and write for longer periods could be more beneficial than teaching them “what a name is”.
He said, “My personal view is why do you need to teach young children what a name is? Why do they need to know the definition of a name? I don’t think that’s the most important thing to do at that age.
“There are evidence-based approaches to teaching handwriting that have already been proven to work.
“A very simple solution is to practice writing more, and by that I mean having the ability to sit down and actually write for long periods of time.
“School can often have a lot of exercises and children rarely have the opportunity to plan and write at length.
“Of course they have the opportunity to do so, in history lessons for example. But it would be ironic if in their English classes they didn’t have the opportunity to write.
“Good vocabulary, good imagination”
By the 1960s, the emphasis on grammar was largely dropped from the curriculum and priority was given to “English literature” – the idea being that children would learn grammar as they went.
In 2014, the current curriculum was introduced by Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, and the focus was again on learning grammar.
Debra Myhill, director of creative writing at the University of Exeter, said that in her opinion, the question of whether learning grammar at a young age is beneficial for writing is much more complex. than the study suggests.
She added: “Being a good writer means you need to spell accurately and have grammatical sentences, but it also means you need a good vocabulary, a good imagination and you need to understand narrative structure.
“No single intervention can tackle all of these things at once.”
In the conclusion of the UCL study, the authors write: “Knowledge of language is not entirely synonymous with grammar as currently conceived in the English National Curriculum.
“National curriculum policy makers have selected which curriculum content to cover based on the prioritization of certain types of knowledge at the expense of other types of knowledge.”
The UCL study concluded that the curriculum should focus more on what helps children develop their writing skills at different developmental stages, focusing on teaching approaches such as sentence combination, planning and the emphasis on writing processes.
Professor Wyse said the national curriculum should reflect evidence of the value of teaching grammar in classrooms. He added: “Until a thorough review of the English National Curriculum is undertaken, children are unlikely to receive the optimal evidence-based writing instruction they deserve.”
“Writing for fun”
Adrian Williams, trustee of the Queen’s English Society, said that while learning grammar did not make children “better writers”, it would ensure they wrote “correctly”.
He said, “Let’s see what we mean by ‘better.’
“If we mean ‘more imaginatively, more forcefully, having a greater impact with what they write’, it seems unlikely that learning grammar will improve a child’s ability to to write.
“Indeed, the learning experience may well deter the child from writing for pleasure.
“If, on the contrary, ‘better’ means ‘correctly’, it seems reasonable to expect that children who have learned the grammar and learned the lesson will eventually begin to apply what they have been taught.
“Then they will have the advantage that the people who read what they write will give their writing more respect.
“Or, the other way around, people who write badly run the risk that their writing will elicit scorn from their readers: potential employers, for example.”