Rules for teaching grammar in schools

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AEVIDENCE BASIS is not, as they say, the same thing as proof of absence. But if you keep looking intensely for something and still can’t find it, you can be forgiven for starting to worry. The same goes for the vexed – and in Britain, highly politicized – topic of explicit teaching of grammar in schools, and whether or not it is related to improving writing ability.

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Another study, in this case a large randomized controlled trial, has recently been added to the vast literature on the subject. Like almost all of his predecessors, he found that teaching children how to label the pieces of a sentence did not make them better writers. It was novel in that it tested six- and seven-year-olds who used a digital platform called Englicious to take grammar lessons, alongside rote teaching in class of grammatical particulars and their functions. The Englicious group did no better than those with ordinary instruction when it came to writing narrative passages. (The extra help slightly improved their performance in a task called “sentence combining,” which requires students to turn two sentences into one in a logical way, such as adding “because.” was not statistically significant.)

Bas Aarts, one of the researchers on the project and one of the researchers behind Englicious, hopes that with longer exposure or study of older students, an improvement in writing skills could be detected. Other observers may begin to wonder if the National Curriculum in England, which since 2014 has made grammar a central part of its English curriculum, might have fallen into a dead end.

The force behind the reforms, Michael Gove, a former Conservative education secretary, is sometimes criticized for other political reasons (notably among opponents of Brexit, which he has championed). He is said to have insisted on inserting personal bogeymen into the grammar syllabus, notably the subjunctive form, “If I were”. The mere mention of his name wrinkles the noses of many teachers, in part because some of them were ill-prepared to teach the new material themselves, after decades in which grammar was largely absent from classrooms. class.

In retrospect, it hardly seems surprising that learning to underline a modal verb, such as ‘may’, ‘should’ and ‘may’, does little to help students use them effectively in their own writing. These words are in any case grasped by very small children without needing to know what their name is. This may lead to the conclusion that the teaching of grammar should be abandoned altogether. But there are reasons to reform it rather than abolish it.

Understanding language is part of a larger education about what makes human beings human. How concepts are transformed into sounds, and how these sounds combine to form propositions, commands, or questions, are questions that have occupied many linguists in philosophy departments. What they reveal about the mind has trained psychologists and cognitive scientists.

There are practical reasons for asking children to tackle grammar as well. The first is that its explicit knowledge will facilitate the learning of a foreign language. Even if you figured out how to do subordinate clauses in your native language as a toddler – just uneducated – it’s easier to master them in German or Russian later on if you know how to define and spot them. As things stand, many English speakers come to understand grammar by studying a foreign language, rather than the other way around.

For grammarians eager for future careers, the field of natural language processing is booming. After many years of poor results, tech wizards have designed programs for machine translation, speech recognition (as in dictation software) and other services that are actually usable, though far from perfect. . These tools may rely more on AI knowledge than subjunctive, but linguistic expertise still matters and can give budding programmers an edge over rivals whose best language is Python.

Grammar could still be better taught. A small study showed improvement in some students when concepts are concretely linked to writing tasks. Even so, it may never be easy to point to an increase in widget production as a direct result of improved tuition. A cook doesn’t need to know chemistry to make a delicious sauce. But the science of how words combine to make sense is as fascinating as it is fundamental.

This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “More than the sum of its parts”

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