The teaching of grammar

August 10, 2006

More talk of ‘failure’ in The Australian today.,20867,20077692-2702,00.htmlThis time the focus of attention falls on the NSW English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA), which students in Year 7 complete. Data from ELLA is reported as indicating students’ knowledge of grammar and spelling is deficient. In the absence of a valid historical comparison showing that these results do not match those achieved by students of the same age in past decades, the suggestion in the headline that students are now ‘failing’ is injudicious. Further, before the idea that NSW Year 7 students are ‘failing’ in their knowledge of grammar is bandied around too much, mention should also be made of the fact that ELLA has a writing component. Student result data that I am aware of suggests that while some students might not be able to correctly name certain parts of speech in a particular test item (such as the untypical use of ‘water’ as a verb quoted in the report), the great majority of Year 7 students are certainly using verbs and adjectives correctly in their writing. If grammatical understanding is tested through the use of language by students, rather than their ability to label parts of speech in a test that is designed to “distract” a certain percentage from the correct answer, then a different picture of students’ knowledge and understanding develops. Consideration should also be given to the fact that extensive research over the last century has been unable to establish a link between formal teaching of traditional English grammar and improved student writing. 

The Australian report on the English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA) in NSW also highlights how changes in language usage within the broader community are certainly having an impact on students. It is hardly surprising that some Year 7 students were unable to correct the sentence, “Then Ron and me had lunch”, when this usage is now commonplace in everyday speech. The fact that more than four out of five students were able to correct this mistake suggests that standards in schools in fact remain high.

The issue really comes down to this: if the formal teaching of grammar does not improve students’ writing, then what place does it have in the curriculum?
Wayne Sawyer, writing about such matters in Only Connect (published by The Australian Association for the Teaching of English),

cites Green, Hodgens and Luke (1994, Vol. I), whose work he suggests shows that literacy crises in this country consistently appear to act out social fears about wider moral and social values. Sawyer describes how these authors demonstrate that ‘literacy’ has become a code word for many things, including: allegiance to the Crown and Commonwealth; Protestant religious values; discipline and obedience to authority; mastery of British ‘proper speech’; innate intellectual gifts; monocultural Anglo/Australian nationalism; scientific and technological competitiveness; mental and physical health and employability and job competence. Teaching grammar through drilling, then, might be understood as a process of disciplining students (in mind and body) rather than helping them to become better writers.

Ken Watson, an English educator of international repute, reflected on the place of grammar in the English curriculum at last year’s English Teachers’ Association (NSW) Annual Conference. Here’s part of what he had to say.

The study of rhetoric, the art of effective speaking and writing, was a central part of education from classical times, and in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the study of rhetoric was part of the trivium (rhetoric, grammar and logic). The grammar studied was, of course, Latin grammar. Centuries later, as Latin gave way to English as a key subject in the curriculum, rhetoric could easily have become the central part of the new subject, but unfortunately grammar won out, and the focus in language study became the sentence rather than extended passages of prose and poetry. Even worse, the prescriptive grammarians having been at work in the interim, English was analysed in terms of Latin, though it is hard to think of two languages farther apart, since English, an analytic language, is based on word order, and Latin, a synthetic language, on inflection. ‘Homo mordet canem`means the same thing in whatever order you place the words; the meaning of `Man bites dog`, on the other hand, changes dramatically if one changes the word order. This reliance on Latin grammar has distorted language teaching ever since: recently I was surprised to hear a former English teacher turned author speak of the importance of avoiding split infinitives (a bogey forced on generations of kids on the basis that in Latin the infinitive is a single word and therefore can’t be split).

 At this point I offer you my reply to those who, at parties and in pubs, tell me that it impossible to write well unless one has a sound knowledge of traditional grammar. Yes, I say, one really has to feel sorry for such writers as Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Plato. If only they had been lucky enough to be born after Dionysius Thrax wrote the first Greek grammar (c.100 BC), how much better would have been their chances of immortality.  If this fails, I fall back on the well-known analogy that one does not need a thorough knowledge of the mechanics of a car in order to drive well. 

The uses and abuses of educational research

August 8, 2006

What follows is the complete discussion of the spelling research by Bissaker and Westwood quoted in The Australian last week. Given the seeming determination of this august journal of record to create a sense of ‘crisis’ in education in Australia, it will come as no surprise that the measured language in which the authors of this study discuss their findings does little to support the interpretation provided by the journalist concerned. The first sentence of the researchers’ Discussion is particularly telling.    A reference is: Westwood, P. & Bissaker, K. (2005). Trends in spelling standards, 1978-2004. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 22, 65-78. 

 Discussion  The results from this study suggest that we should not be unduly concerned at this time about the overall standard of spelling exhibited by students in South Australian schools. As the graph (Figure 1) indicates, there are no indications that spelling standards have declined significantly since the previous testing in 1993; and there are even signs that spelling performance in the early and middle primary school years is somewhat better now than in 1993. While standards in the primary years have not quite returned to the level of 1978, they are moving closer to that level. 

The reason for the slight improvement in the primary years is not immediately clear. One is tempted to point out that by the mid 1990s most countries using whole language methods were swinging back gradually toward a more balanced approach to literacy teaching. A ‘balanced’ approach includes the best features of whole language practice together with some explicit teaching of phonics, spelling and comprehension skills (e.g. Freppon & Dahl 1998; Hoffman & McCarthey 2000; Pressley 1998; Reutzel 1999). The extent to which teachers in South Australia followed this trend to a more systematic teaching of spelling in the past seven or eight years is not known at this time. The introduction of the School Entry Assessment and the Literacy and Numeracy Assessments (LAN), together with additional professional development options on literacy in the early years, may have supported some teachers in their understanding of essential links between early language and literacy development and success in spelling. Within some of the in-service training workshops for teachers in South Australia over that period there has been greater emphasis placed on the value of teaching young children phonic strategies for reading and spelling ― for example, through the intensive training sessions introduced for teachers using the phonics-based THRASS program (Davies & Ritchie 1996). If there has been a return to more direct teaching of spelling skills in primary classrooms, the test results from the lower primary years obtained in 2004 would give some support to the value of such an approach.  

In the secondary school years spelling standards have remained remarkably consistent over the period 1978 to 2004. However, it is important also to point out that this finding may, in part, be a feature of the test material. While spelling ability grows quite rapidly during the primary years from age 6 to 12 years, by age 13 years most students have acquired their ‘basic’ spelling skills and their core spelling vocabulary (Westwood 1999). From that age students are usually simply adding to their vocabulary the new terms arising in specific school subject areas, from world news, and so forth. In other words, for the average student, spelling growth tends to plateau at about 13+ years, and it is difficult to construct spelling tests that will provide adequate differentiation and separation at each successive age level. This difficulty in test design is immediately evident if one studies the norm tables for students in the age range 13.5 years to 16 years.  Where some small deviations from the general curve of spelling growth have occurred in 2004 (Figure 2), it is likely that they reflect slightly biased sub-samples of students at these particular age levels. It is possible, by chance, for students of higher or lower ability to be over represented in a particular sample. Although schools were asked to provide data from all age and ability levels there is no way for the researchers to ensure that results from any particular age group are a true representation of the normal distribution of ability. To deal with these very slight deviations from the curve in Figure 2, the line has been smoothed manually when developing the norm tables for the full age range 6 to 16 years. For this reason, a few of the mean scores shown in Table 2 above may not be identical with the figures provided in the norm tables.  

Finally, it is important to remark that at each age level there were students who were remarkably competent spellers. For example, we found a female student of age 11 years 6 months and a male student of age 11 years 8 months who both scored 70 words correct out of 70 in SAST Form B. There were several students in secondary school age range who scored maximum possible marks in both forms of the test. However, at the other end of the scale there were students across the age range that were struggling to spell even the simplest of words in the tests. These students do require additional instruction and support if they are to improve, and it is hoped that schools will use SAST and other methods of assessment to identify students falling in the bottom 10%.  

Gradgrind versus the flower children

August 5, 2006

Interesting skewering of feel-good ‘edubable’ associated with outcomes based education by Kevin Donnelly in the Weekend Australian.,20867,20019599-13881,00.html

Donnelly has a strong case. Much of the language of US academic William Spady, at least as it is reported by Donnelly, does grate. Its rapturous echoes of the Age of Aquarius tend to run counter to a more phlegmatic Australian sensibility. Other points made by Donnelly also strike a chord with me. Certainly, as an English teacher I- like Donnelly – believe in tradition and continuity. It is my firm belief that students should learn to value the best that has been thought and said. (It’s at the point of how we are to understand the best way for students to learn to do this that I take issue with Donnelly.) Students in my classes this year have studied, amongst others, Socrates, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Orwell, and Huxley.

Donnelly’s critique of Spady’s language and outcomes based educational philosophy (OBE in the shorthand of The Australian) inevitably focuses attention on the alternatives he puts forward. And the critical examination of these is my theme today.

The issue I want to explore is whether Donnelly’s ideas can withstand the same sort of scrutiny he gives Spady’s. Reversing the ‘framing’ of Donnelly’s piece – namely that Spady’s language indicates how far his ideas are from common sense- I will apply Donnelly’s approach to his own  writing and thinking, with the intention of asking just how close to ‘common sense’ is Donnelly’s educational philosophy?

Donnelly states his opposition to Spady’s ‘transformational’ approach to student learning. What exactly then is Donnelly’s curriculum about: stasis, or even regression? Given his stated view that it is necessary for some students to be labelled ‘failures’, this suggestion does not appear to be so wide of the mark.

Donnelly advocates the rational and logical over the emotional, also criticising Spady’s idea of a ‘learning community’. This fails to give due regard to the importance to learning of psychic engagement on a number of different levels: teachers making students feel safe and secure – or comfortable with them as an authority figure, as well as the curriculum being offered – and the fostering of a sense of connection amongst students to both the ‘group’ (class, school etc.) and the curriculum content. Interestingly, most mainstream thinking on ‘intelligence’ and learning gives due regard to both the ‘heart’ and the ‘head’. For example, Gardiner’s idea of multiple intelligences delineates both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences
and Bloom’s taxonomy specifies an ‘affective’ domain.

Donnelly makes much of Spady’s emphasis on a spiritual element in education. Yet, at a time when depression is a profound social problem, and too many young lives are lost to suicide, is Spady’s call for an increased focus on spirituality such a bad thing? We certainly do not need schools to be placing more emphasis on the importance of material acquisition, or encouraging the idea that what we own will necessarily bring us fulfilment. Australian sociologist John Carroll, a conservative thinker in the best sense, elegantly captured the fact that there is a malaise at the heart of our rationalistic and consumeristic culture when he wrote in The Western Dreaming that ‘the western world is dying for want of a good story’.

[It strikes me as odd that Donnelly does not acknowledge that his own emphasis on the power of great literature to help us to transcend our immediate material circumstances and connect to something ‘larger’ is not so far removed from Spady’s notion of students coming to understand their “intuitive connection to universal wisdom.” Sure, Spady’s language is ‘hippy trippy’, but the sentiment is much the same as Donnelly’s.]

Donnelly apparently favours a traditional, pre-1990s curriculum that emphasises rote learning above all else. Donnelly’s curriculum would have no mandated outcomes, meaning no definable results for teachers to work towards and no overarching curriculum standards and accountabilities for teachers. This late 19th century, Gradgrind-like view of schooling is hardly going to wash with the community given the demands of life and work in the 21st century. Donnelly’s anachronistic emphasis on a print based, individualistic and competitive curriculum runs counter to widely accepted thinking within business and government on what is required to equip students for the workplace of the modern knowledge economy. Such thinking emphasises skills in ICTs, self-management, team work, problem solving, critical thinking, flexible network building, flat management structures, initiative, goal setting and lateral thinking.

So, does Kevin Donnelly have a monopoly on ‘common sense’ in educational thinking? Hardly. The alternatives he puts up against the supposed extremes of OBE will do little to prepare students for life and work in the twenty first century. Nor will they foster social stability in Australia, in what are, on a global scale, divisive and troubled times.

There’s more in heaven and earth…when it comes to spelling

August 1, 2006

I submitted the following to The Australian by way of response to the following article on spelling:,20867,19975952-13881,00.html

Justine Ferrari quite rightly highlights the importance of a balanced approach to teaching reading and spelling (Spelling fad costs kids 14pc drop in results, 1/8/06).

However, what has not been established by those who criticise ‘faddish’ approaches such as whole language is whether in fact the explicit teaching of phonics and spelling ever really did disappear from the nation’s classrooms. Certainly, syllabuses in all parts of Australia have for decades emphasised the importance of direct instruction and students developing both graphological and phonological processing skills. 

Labelling as ‘plausible’ the untested hypothesis that ‘whole language’ was universally adopted by teachers in the 1980s and 1990s at the expense of other teaching practices and despite the ‘balanced’ approach laid down in syllabuses is injudicious speculation.

What strikes me as interesting is the way that those who criticise ‘whole language’ never enter into serious consideration of whether in fact this approach ever actually did force other more explicit or ‘traditional’ teaching approaches out of classrooms. Syllabus documents have emphasisied for decades now the importance of a balanced approach, incuding explicit teaching of phonics and a variety of spelling strategies.

It will be interesting to follow up on the data, methodology etc of the paper named in the article. Without wanting to enter into the ‘crisis’ discourse The Australian is running, what I find interesting is that the report, without saying it is doing this directly, focusses on the first two years of schooling. My initial reaction, and personal experience as a father, suggests this is an incredily complex time in schooling, and beyond the type of instruction they receive, students will bring a myriad of other social experiences to their learning which influence their progress.

The pace of social change in recent decades suggests to me that researchers might have to be looking outside of the classroom for causes of variations in students’ ‘test’ scores. I don’t know that change in the classroom has been as marked.

My daughter has just started school this year. She has a very experienced teacher, who must be close to retirement. My daughter is getting a balanced teaching approach, which includes a good deal of explicit instruction. She is making good progress and enjoys reading.

I find it hard to believe that her teacher, Mrs C., has swung back to the ‘tried and true’ after the wilderness years of being a totally unreconstructed ‘whole language’ teacher in the 1980s and 1990s. And I am sure that she is not so different to teachers of Kindergarten and Year One around the nation.

There are more things in heaven and earth, psycholgists, than are dreamt in your ‘science’.