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Teaching Technical Grammar Terms Doesn’t Improve Pupils’ Writing

There’s no reason why we shouldn't be ditching determiners, says Professor Dominic Wyse...

  • Teaching Technical Grammar Terms Doesn’t Improve Pupils’ Writing

Helping children learn to write is one of the most important things that primary teachers do. Writing is also an opportunity for creativity that many children and adults crave. Being able to write well gives children access to the whole curriculum, and progress through the education system requires increasingly sophisticated understandings about writing.

We now have the benefit of a significant amount of research to inform the ways in which writing can, and perhaps should, be taught. I have recently contributed to this research in two ways.

Firstly, I’ve undertaken an analysis of the research evidence on whether the teaching of formal grammar helps writing.

Secondly, I’ve also undertaken a four-year study of writing from a range of perspectives including philosophical, historical and empirical research studies addressing writing across the life course.

Composition vs transcription

The national curriculum in England states that one of the purposes of the English curriculum is to ‘teach pupils to speak and write fluently so that they can communicate their ideas and emotions to others and through their reading and listening, others can communicate with them.’

Communicating ideas should indeed be at the heart of any curriculum for writing, but this requires pupils to have opportunities to think about the ideas that they want to convey.

However, the national curriculum programme of study for writing at KS1 emphasises first and foremost the ‘transcription’ aspects of spelling and handwriting.

Knowledge about the alphabetic code and learning how to spell words are two aspects that are essential in learning to write. But it is communicating ideas that should drive the learning and teaching of writing.

So composition of writing should be first and foremost, with the transcription aspects seen as important but subservient to the creation of meaning.

If communication of ideas does not feature in the transcription aspects of the programmes of study, you would expect at the very least for it to be explicitly part of the requirements for composition. Yet the very first requirements listed are these:

Pupils should be taught to write sentences by:

  • saying out loud what they are going to write about
  • composing a sentence orally before writing it
  • sequencing sentences to form short narratives
  • re-reading what they have written to check that it makes sense

Generating ideas

Of course the ability to pen sentences is necessary for writing, but the writer has to have something to write about: they have to have ideas to communicate.

And preferably they should have some choice in these ideas, from time to time, so that they exercise the thinking that is required to generate ideas for writing.

It is also important that ideas for writing are realised in an appropriate whole text form, with a clearly understood purpose, including who the intended readers are.

But as we know from the history of English teaching, too often there is a risk that writing activities become decontextualised ‘drills’ in spelling or grammatical terms.

In addition to more than 150 individually specified elements of spelling and five pages of detailed specification of grammar (that are statutory), primary teachers in England are required to teach and assess their pupils’ knowledge of a range of terms, including compounds, suffixes, determiners, cohesion, ambiguity, ellipsis, modal verbs and lots more.

It is presumably intended that the learning of these terms will help children to write better because they are included in the programme of study for writing, yet the evidence is clear: traditional grammar teaching does not lead to improvements in children’s writing.

The only approach to grammar teaching at primary education level that has been shown to benefit children’s writing is sentence combining. This is an approach that, for example, involves children taking simple sentences and combining them to create more complex sentences.

The essence of this kind of approach is the manipulation of language in ways that are clearly understood by children. This can be demonstrated by teachers, and by children, using projectors or whiteboards to show real examples of writing, and discussing how these examples can be changed and improved.

Importantly, this needs to be linked with activities and classroom processes that emphasise that editing, however simple, is a fundamental part of writing well.

Focus on editing

This reminds me of one of the interviews with great writers, Ernest Hemingway in this instance, that I analysed for my book, How Writing Works. When asked how much rewriting he did, Hemingway said, “It depends. I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms … 39 times before I was satisfied.”

When asked what had stumped him, the author replied, “Getting the words right.” A focus on editing is perhaps something that has been neglected in primary classrooms over the last decade.

Another reason why approaches like sentence combining work is because they involve meaningful manipulation of language to create different meanings.

There is no need for the teacher or the children to use technical terms beyond everyday language such as letter, sentence, word, comma, full stop, etc.

It seems to me this is a very different kind of language from examples such as subordinate clause, modal verb or preposition which are not everyday language.

What does help?

If formal grammar teaching does not help children’s writing, what does? Fortunately we have a range of evidence about this, including significant numbers of robust experimental trials.

In important areas of writing we are now benefiting not just from single research studies but analyses of multiple research studies that have looked at the same aspects of writing.

As a result of reviewing this kind of research I have arrived at a series of evidence-based principles for teaching writing, derived from Steve Graham’s work (see panel, right).

Given that exploring creativity in writing is a valuable part of developing pupils’ skills, strategies and knowledge, this raises a question about how creativity might be supported more generally.

As recent neuroscientific work has shown, ‘task-unrelated thoughts’ (perhaps something akin to daydreaming) do appear to be an important part of thinking that supports creativity. Finally, if as a result of my research I had to say one thing that most of all helps writing, it is developing the ear of the writer.

7 evidence-based ways to improve your teaching of writing

  1. Increase the amount of time children spend writing in the classroom and emphasise the processes of writing.
  2. Create a supportive writing environment in your classroom and show enthusiasm and positive feedback for writing. Create clear goals and have high expectations. Scaffold learning, model ideal texts and make time for both teacher support and pupil independence.
  3. Develop your pupils’ skills, strategies and knowledge. Emphasise creativity and things like imagery. Teach planning for writing, revising and editing.
  4. Teach your pupils about self-regulation. Encourage them to reflect on how well they are using writing strategies. You need to teach composition and transcription elements but children also need encouragement to reflect on how well they are being used.
  5. Use ‘assessment for learning’ techniques and feed this back into your teaching. Encourage children to self-evaluate and peer-evaluate.
  6. Dedicate time to teaching keyboard use as well as handwriting and use word-processing software for first drafts, not just to improve presentation.
  7. Teach writing across your curriculum and explore the structural aspects of writing for different purposes.

Dominic Wyse is professor of early childhood and primary education at UCL. His book, How Writing Works: From The Birth of the Alphabet to the Rise of Social Media, is published by Cambridge University Press. Get 20% off by using the code WYSE2017 at cambridge.org/howwritingworks.

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