Grammar in the National Curriculum
May 10, 2009
Last week, The Australian newspaper again set its sights on the teaching of English, particularly grammar. In its usual manner, the paper made inaccurate comments about the use of Functional grammar in the classroom. The paper’s sentiments were echoed in a letter to the editor on Saturday 9 May. By coincidence, the letter was written by my former, Senior English teacher. Printed below is the response I sent off to that letter. (At the time of posting, The Australian had not chosen to publish my response – but, then, given that they don’t like people disagreeing with their own, misinformed educational views, I would have been surprised if they had).
“Enid Duncan (Letters, 9-10/5) claims that traditional grammar is the most suitable for schools as it is simpler than one of the alternatives, functional grammar. Now, Enid (or should I say Mrs Duncan!) was my Senior English teacher in 1978 and 1979. Since then, I have gone on to a 26 year career as an English teacher. Regretfully, I can only give my former teacher’s letter 11/20. While I also welcome a renewed emphasis on teaching grammar, like most critics of functional grammar, Enid has her facts wrong.
Numerous research projects over many decades have demonstrated consistently that traditional teaching of grammar does NOT raise literacy standards. For example, the 2007 WritingNext report commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York concluded that the “teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences had a negative effect [on student achievement] which was small, but…statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing…However, other instructional methods, such as sentence combining, provide an effective alternative to traditional grammar instruction…a recent study (Fearn & Farnan, 2005) found that teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing…produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing” (p21).
Enid states that traditional terms such as ‘noun, verb, adjective and verb’ (sic) are better compared to the functional grammar terms ‘ideational, interpersonal and predicator’. However, despite the impression given, these terms are completely unrelated to the traditional set; they do not refer to the same aspects of language. In fact, all of the traditional terms listed are found in functional grammar textbooks. Moreover, I have never heard any proponent of functional grammar suggest that ideational, interpersonal and predicator are suitable terms to use with young students. As with any specialist field, knowledge of grammar must be introduced in age appropriate ways, often using simpler terms and definitions initially.
Thanks for the kind offer to act as a ‘valuable resource’, Enid, but you’ll be happy to hear that, despite very real gaps in grammar knowledge for some teachers, there are also many very skilled and knowledgeable English teachers. The bottom line? A functional grammar can do everything traditional grammar purports to do, but also a great deal more. I hope that those of us who are literacy experts and have used a functional approach to grammar very successfully for many years will not be hamstrung by requirements to use inferior methods dictated to us by the well-intentioned, but mis-informed traditionalists.”