I’ve worked within and led English departments in the Sixth Form sector for 11 years. In that time I’ve had my fair share of students who find grammar tiresome, confusing, or a headache. Ask them to distinguish between relative pronouns and subordinating conjunctions and most A-level students find their motivation waning. Grammar tests don’t exactly fill them with joy. Grammar involves odd, overly-complex jargon. It’s got vast, confusing label systems. And many people manage to be very gifted at English without knowing much about grammar at all. When competing with creative writing, the history of the language or the beauty of the Romantic sublime, grammar doesn’t seem to offer many thrills.
Unsurprisingly, I disagree with the grammar-is-boring perspective. Whatever your view of the primary English curriculum, it’s safe to say that primary teachers understand better than anyone that a knowledge of grammar is vital. Sometimes the view is that grammar is only a practical necessity, given the KS2 tests. In my position as a researcher and long-time teacher of English Language I want to suggest though that grammar isn’t just about test scores. Results matter, but learning matters more. Ultimately, I think that exploring grammar offers wonderful opportunities for learning.
Let’s take an analogy. Lewis Hamilton is (so my F1-loving friend tells me) incredible at driving cars. Loads of people can drive cars. However, to be able to say you really know about cars, the minimum you’d need do would be pop open the bonnet, peer inside and explain how the different bits function. To know about cars is not just to use one: it’s to know how one works.
Of course, none of that means that you’ve got to be a good driver. But that does mean that you’re on track to have a platform for further knowledge. Questions of design, manufacturing, systems, engineering and user experience would all link to opening-up that first car bonnet. Education is at bottom about learning stuff. For an A-level teacher and examiner, getting more children to be language-mechanics as a platform for further knowledge is exciting. There are really important questions out there and a bedrock of grammatical knowledge can help students explore them.
Part of seeing this as a great first step is to realise just how challenging primary English is. I’ve seen my fair share of 18-year-olds who struggle to distinguish a preposition from an adverb. I may have even made a few similar mistakes myself (‘the bird flew off.’ It’s still a bit of a headache). So let’s take a KS2 sample question and see how tough it’d be for an FE student:
Tick to show which sentence uses the past progressive:
- After Ali finished his homework, he went out to play.
- Gemma was doing her science homework.
- Jamie learnt his spellings every night.
- Anna found her history homework difficult.
This isn’t easy. It demands a knowledge of tense, comfort with inflections, and awareness of the construction of verb phrases (as well as comfort with the words, meanings and context). By the end of the first year of A-level, I’d guess about half of the students would easily complete this question, even after a fair bit of time spent on grammatical basics.
Let’s compare that to a sample question from Eduqas’ A-level English Language paper. It’s on the history of the English language:
Describe the form and the archaic grammatical features of the following examples using appropriate terminology:
- groweth (Text A, line 3, “it groweth and is vsed”)
- know not (Text A, line 9, “know not many greeuous diseases wherewithal”)
This is possibly the hardest question on the paper. True, there’s other knowledge needed in there. You need to grasp context and history. But really this question requires knowledge of tense, comfort with inflections and awareness of the construction of verb phrases. It leads to in-depth analysis of writer’s methods, changing genre conventions, and history. There’s so much to learn about how language has changed here. Students go on to develop a real understanding of how language works and where it came from.
The number one piece of advice I’d give students as an A-level teacher was ‘learn your word classes’. Determiners. Verbs. Pronouns. Lots of students find them difficult to spot quickly. Being able to identify the class or type of any word or phrase is vital to everything else in studying Language. It’s something that requires patience and time from teachers. Yet your average 10-year-old is applying knowledge which an A-level student finds challenging.
Primary pupils are ‘underlining verb forms in the present perfect’. They’re distinguishing modal verbs that express certainty, obligation and possibility. And they’re playing with pieces of writing that use all these different grammatical bits in different ways. Debates about how much this focus detracts from the joys of reading and creative writing aside, I’m struck by how a hugely detailed and complex area of current study is being mastered by primary pupils. It feels similar to when you see a 10-year-old pick up a tablet or laptop and start doing some form of computer wizardry. A-level Language teachers would be struck by how impressive this stuff really is.
A cause for hope is the way in which this might feed into advanced study. A-level teachers might find in a few short years that students arrive armed with a real knowledge of how English works. This might offer opportunities for more theory, research and investigation projects. It might make more space for fun, too.
Ideally, A-level teachers will have lots more students who are both good language-mechanics and better language-drivers. I thoroughly hope that they also still really love taking English for a spin. In the mean-time, I think we should congratulate any 10-year-old who would give a student heading off to University a run for their money.
Printed with permission of Dr. Phil Mark, KTP Associate with Manchester Metropolitan University.
 National Curriculum Tests, KS2: English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Sample Booklet. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2016-key-stage-2-english-grammar-punctuation-and-spelling-sample-test-materials-mark-scheme-and-test-administration-instructions
 EDUQAS: A Level English Language SAMS. http://www.eduqas.co.uk/qualifications/english-language/as-a-level/WJEC%20Eduqas%20A%20level%20English%20Language%20SAMs%20-%20Formatted.pdf?language_id=1