16. From Parsing to Politics: A Brief History of School Grammar Teaching

This Position Paper examines the historical context of grammar teaching. It considers the influences which have shaped current attitudes to grammar in schools, including the approach of the English Language 5-14 Guidelines, and outlines current trends which are likely to influence developments in the immediate future. These are not merely academic questions, but important dimensions of our professional awareness about what we teach in Language and why. They also raise quite serious issues, as we shall see, concerning politics, empowerment and ideology.

The thinking behind traditional views of grammar in schools has its roots in the work of the prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century, notably Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray. They tried to ‘fix’ the language by prescribing exactly what constituted correct usage and, by implication, saw language as unchanging and any deviation as error or corruption. This prescriptive tradition is to be distinguished from the descriptive or analytical approach to grammar. The latter can be traced from such 18th-century grammarians as William Ward through the late 19th and early 20th-century work of Otto Jespersen and others, up to the research of modern descriptive linguists such as Michael Halliday, which is influencing the school language curriculum in Britain and in Australia at the present time.

The prescriptive approach, however, held sway for some two hundred years. It was based on fixed attitudes, on forms and rules derived from Latin and on exercises on the correction of sentences. Such exercises set up many of the shibboleths about usage that still remain (for at least some people) the essence of ‘correct’ grammar. The avoidance of prepositions at the end of sentences (as in ‘To whom did he give the book?’ rather than ‘Who did he give the book to?’) or the use of ‘It is I’ rather than ‘It is me’, or avoidance of the so-called ‘split infinitive’ (now immortalised in the Star Trek injunction ‘to boldly go’) are all examples of the kinds of usage taught to school pupils for many generations which still cause anxiety among people anxious to observe ‘correct’ grammar.

Most of these prescriptions, and their accompanying rules (‘It is wrong to split infinitives’) were based on analogy with Latin, even though English forms of language patterning are very different from Latin. For instance, English clearly has more than one word in the infinitive (‘to go’) unlike Latin, and therefore one is hardly ‘splitting’ the infinitive by introducing a related word. Also ‘It is I’ is based on the practice in Latin to have ‘nominative’ or Subject forms after the verb ‘to be’, even though English is very largely an uninflected language and does not normally indicate Objects by means of ‘accusative’ endings at all, far less make exceptions for the verb ‘to be’. The rule about avoidance of prepositions at the end of sentences, similarly, derived from a stylistic tendency in Latin to have verbs at the ends of sentences.

Such prescriptions about English grammar were reinforced through countless exercises on the correction of sentences, where pupils were expected to identify the ‘correct’ form of usage, which was frequently the one they did not use in their normal speech! Such rules often seem to run counter to natural usage in English, certainly in the much less Latinate and less formal English that most of us now write, even in fairly formal circumstances. Moreover, an over-concern with whether pupils can employ these extremely formal usages seems an odd priority, when they may well have a very shaky command of Standard English as a whole, even in situations where it is appropriate.

These prescriptive attitudes were based upon two central assumptions:

  • that there is a correct standard form of the language, normally only found in writing
  • that the development of pupils’ abilities in written English depends upon their being taught this grammar explicitly and being trained in its use.

The first of these assumptions is contradicted by modern policy and practice, which focus more than ever before on the nature of spoken English and its differences from Standard written English. The second assumption, that skill in writing depends upon formal grammar teaching, was seriously called into question by the findings of a number of research projects (e.g. Macauley 1947, Harris, 1963); more recently the work of Elley and his associates (1999) seems to prove the case beyond any doubt. Using a longitudinal study, involving traditional grammar, modern transformational grammar (associated with Chomsky), and a control group, they showed that ‘English Grammar teaching, whether traditional or transformational, has virtually no influence on the language growth of typical secondary school students.’ (Elley, W.B. et al. 1975,

‘The role of grammar in a secondary school English curriculum’. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies 10: 26-42. Quoted in Elley, 1999.)

The early prescriptive approach assumed, falsely, that the forms and structure needed to describe the grammar of English are simple, all-embracing and essentially unchanging. It took over the eight ‘parts of speech’ from Latin, and took essentially the same approach to syntax, without trying to modify the system to suit English or to reflect the complexity of the language. Some philosophical grammarians of the 18th-century did attempt to describe the language accurately and devised analytical systems to do so; the serious grammarians of the 19th-century, such as Curme, Poutsma and Jespersen, tried to describe it comprehensively; and the linguists of the 20th-century, such as Chomsky and Halliday, devised new systems to account for the phenomenon of language in all its detail.

Yet it is the prescriptive, dogmatic approach that has dominated school grammar, and it still influences the views of many adults who pronounce on the subject as amateurs. And of course it still affects the attitudes and even the approaches of many teachers today, although some teachers in Britain, America and Australia have, since the 1970s and 1980s, been introducing their students to a more enquiry-based approach to language, including grammar. The former view sees the theory of grammar as simple, comprehensive and unchanging, whereas the latter sees it as a complex, speculative undertaking, constantly being honed by grammarians striving to describe accurately the complexity of the English language as it changes over time and space (into American or Australian or indeed Scottish English).

For most school children, however, change came slowly. British pupils at the end of the 1950s were drilled in grammatical analysis of sentences and parsing of ‘parts of speech’ from upper primary until the final stages of compulsory schooling, and this grammatical prowess was tested in British public examinations at ages 16 or 17. In 1975 the Bullock Report said of the GCE O-level examination papers established in the early 1920s:

Forty years later, in the early sixties, they had changed little. There was a précis, letter-writing, paraphrase analysis and other grammatical exercises, the correction of incorrect sentences, the punctuation of depunctuated passages, and, of course, an essay.

Parsing and analysis were taught in Scottish primary and secondary schools, using such comprehensive and scholarly textbooks as The Approach to Standard English (Barclay and Knox) and The Study of Standard English (Barclay, Knox and Ballantyne). These books and others like them provided pupils with an education in traditional school grammar which embraced all the practices and assumptions discussed above. While scholarly, and no doubt comprehensible to the ablest pupils, they created a detestation and fear of English for many generations of adults.

It was probably this response from pupils, born out of their inability to understand ‘grammar’ or its purpose, together with the fact that it clearly did not transfer to an increased ability to write continuous English, that led most teachers in England and (rather later) in Scotland to reject the teaching of traditional grammar and to look for an alternative approach.

One such approach was the growth of interest in ‘creative writing’. Here the child’s potential for creativity was to be fostered through a series of motivating experiences involving talking, reading, and writing. Fluency was to be encouraged; consequently, teachers were careful to avoid attempts to correct or improve the child’s creation, either during or after the act of writing. This doctrine clearly ran counter to the traditional approaches to grammar outlined above, although they did survive within O-level examinations in England and Wales. ‘Creative writing’ never really took root in Scottish schools in the 1960s, although a modified version, focusing on the importance of what James Britton called transactional, expressive and poetic functions of writing, did become prominent here in the 1970s and 1980s. Britton's categories, of course, became the types of writing termed ‘functional’, ‘personal’ and ‘imaginative’ in the 5-14 Guidelines.

In England, ‘creative writing’ approaches and ‘Leavisite’ views of the central importance of literature as a force for moral and linguistic development held sway throughout the 1960s, coupled with an extreme antipathy to anything remotely connected with grammar teaching. Two other approaches to language teaching which developed in the 1960s became more prominent during the 1970s and 1980s. The first was associated with the work of Britton, Barnes, Dixon and Rosen. This approach saw the development of the child, as language user and mature human being, as being rooted in ‘exploratory talk’ and ‘expressive writing’, as the child strove to find his or her individual voice and in the process developed as a person. Its proponents saw literature and language study as equally important in this process but they took a stance against the explicit and systematic use of terminology from linguistics. They concentrated instead on developing their own eclectic approaches to how meanings are made in talk and writing. In Barnes’ words:

Discussion of the audience’s needs and whether they are being fulfilled is often valuable, but this is discussion in terms of content or style. Such discussion, though it necessarily refers to particular features in texts, need not demand that pupils first master an extensive generalised system for describing those features. (1988: 37-38)

A more explicit approach had its genesis in the Programme in Linguistics and English Teaching, directed by M. A. K. Halliday at University College London, from 1964 to 1969. This drew directly upon the insights of linguistics and considered their implications for mother-tongue teaching. The Language in Use materials which emerged involve pupils in investigations into a wide range of aspects of language as it is used in society: the relations between spoken and written language; language in social situations; patterning in language, and so on. The focus is not upon ‘teaching grammar’ but upon creating knowledge about language as pupils meet it in daily life, and upon their using a range of registers as they investigate these concerns. Thus Language in Use instituted the broad approach which has become the Knowledge about Language aspect of both the Scottish 5-14 Guidelines and the National Curriculum in England.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s there was considerable discussion of the methodology of teaching grammar, as opposed to the actual form of grammar taught. In 1972 the Scottish Central Committee on English published their Bulletin The Teaching of English Language. This put forward a view of the role of grammar in language teaching which was essentially to be advocated by all the Language reports of the next twenty years (Bullock, Kingman, 5-14 and Cox), at least up until the revisions of English in the National Curriculum by the Department of Education and Science from 1992 onwards. The view of the SCCE Bulletin could be summed up in the following quotation :

The sorts of language work described here will be facilitated by the use of a suitable grammatical vocabulary, some of which will have been acquired earlier by means of ‘mention’.... The vital point is that grammatical terminology should be produced only in response to need. The grammar to be taught should be limited only to what pupil and teacher require.

Grammatical concepts and terminology may be drawn upon by teachers as they discuss with pupils what meaning is being created in written texts, and how it is being created, but this is not the same as teaching grammar on the assumption that the pupil has to be taught the forms in order to be able to use them. In fact, they potentially know most of the grammar already. What they have to be taught is how to utilise this knowledge appropriately. In such teaching it may be beneficial for teachers to draw upon grammatical terminology, if they consider it appropriate.

The Bullock Committee, perhaps surprisingly, took a broadly similar stance to the Scottish Central Committee on English on explicit rules and facts about language, saying that these have direct practical value to pupils when they solve particular problems in the tasks they are engaged on, or when pupils are able to reconstruct for themselves the analysis that led to the rule:

What we are suggesting then, is that children should learn about language by experiencing it and experimenting with its use. There will be occasions when the whole class might receive specific instruction in some aspect of language. More frequently, however, the teacher will operate on the child’s language competence at the point of need by individual or small group discussion. As a background to all this activity, he should have in his own mind a clear picture of how far and in what directions this competence should be extended.

A very similar view of the process of grammar teaching was advocated some fifteen years later by Carter (1994), who suggested that Knowledge about Language ‘requires a methodology which is not transmissive and teacher-centred but investigative and project-based’. Thus the emphasis in grammar teaching should not be upon the teacher instructing pupils about concepts and terminology that they do not know, but upon helping them to discover explicitly what they already do know unconsciously about language. The process of making such knowledge explicit

should not be imposed or engineered but rather fostered and supported as naturally as possible, as needed in specific contexts and in ways which reinforce the process as one of positive achievement with language. There can be no return to decontexualised exercises or gap fillings or to the deficiency pedagogies in which such procedures are grounded.

Such an approach to the role of grammar as terminology introduced at the point of need is clearly established in the English Language 5-14 Guidelines:

…there is still a need for the teacher to help pupils with word choice, with a turn of phrase, with sorting out the meaning or punctuation of a sentence. In doing so the grammatical terminology of the sentence, the word (noun, verb, etc.) and punctuation should be introduced as the technical terms by which teachers and pupils discuss such matters.

And, as has been suggested in our LILT Booklet A 5-14, pupils’ awareness of relevant concepts and terms can also be reinforced effectively through games or the discovery of meaningful patterns in texts.

The question of explicit knowledge about language being imparted to pupils leads to the related issue of the teacher’s own linguistic knowledge. The SCCE Bulletin claimed that the teacher

…must be in possession of a much more explicit knowledge (than his pupils) about language in general and about his own language in particular. He should have some acquaintance with modern ideas about the nature of language and some understanding of the way in which language is acquired by children in order that they should be informed. The teacher needs this knowledge in order to provide himself with a steady framework of reference in pointing out deficiencies in his pupils’ writing and utterances, or in discussing choices of language in relation to situation and effect.

It is partly in response to this stated need among Scottish teachers that the LILT project has been undertaken. Our approach to grammar has been to retain as far as possible the grammatical concepts and terminology with which many teachers are likely to be familiar, but to make modifications and suggest activities which take account of current developments, particularly the need (stated in the Cox report) for a form of grammar

  • which can describe language in use
  • is relevant to all levels, from the syntax of sentences through to the organisation of substantial texts
  • is able to describe the considerable differences between spoken and written English
  • is part of a wider syllabus of language study.

Thus we have stressed the relevance of grammar for meaning in language, and have tried to show how the approach can be relevant for spoken as well as written English, and, within writing, to various types of texts and genres. Overall, we wish to see this approach as an integral part of a wider syllabus of language study – within the English Language Guidelines 5-14 as well as within Higher Still arrangements.

Almost the last word in this discussion of approaches to English grammar can be given to Carter, the director of the LINC Project, who neatly sums up the way forward:

It is unlikely that the return to grammar will restore the kinds of codes and values old-style grammar is believed by many people to symbolise if not to uphold. But it will mean that language in the classroom is not to be encountered wholly by unconscious, implicit and indirect means. Grammar is a fundamental human meaning-making activity which can be investigated as a fascinating phenomenon and explored from the powerful basis of the considerable resources of existing knowledge possessed by the very youngest of children. In this respect, a study of grammar should always be rooted in children’s positive achievements, that is, in what children can already do with grammar. Knowing more about how grammar works is to understand more about how grammar is used and misused. Knowing more about grammar can impart greater choice and control over language as an expressive and interpretive medium. Knowing more about grammar, as part of Knowledge About Language, is to be empowered to respond to and to use grammar as central to the creation of textual meanings.

Such notions of empowerment, of positive achievement, and of investigation of the uses and misuses of language, make up what has been called a ‘critical language awareness’ approach, now regarded by many linguists and teachers as an essential component of any worthwhile approach to language study. Critical language awareness highlights how language conventions and practice may conceal power relationships which people either tacitly accept or are often unaware of. Reading the quotations above from the Scottish Central Committee’s 1972 Bulletin, for example, many readers in the 21st century will have been uncomfortably aware (30 years on) just how male-dominated the language is – or was.

A heightened awareness of how language works in terms of power and influence can enable young people to become more aware of the forces of control and exploitation in our society and therefore, to some extent at least, it empowers them to cope with such forces.

Grammar teaching not only has a history, therefore, but is also implicated in the very ideological struggles that shape history. The development of claims for the study and use of Scots language in the Scottish curriculum, as well as our rich heritage of literature and song, is also intriguingly present among the Specific Issues in the English Language Guidelines, which new generations of teachers and pupils in Scotland are bound to address in years to come. One of the reasons that the teaching of grammar was so politically contentious in the latter half of the 20th century is precisely that it raises such issues of identity and self-determination. Who claims to own and regulate this language that is such an intimate part of all our daily lives? And yet without its accepted structures and shared meanings, how could social life continue to exist?