Pauline Jones

Now grammar is back again. And again. And again.

It was with some surprise that we recently read newspaper reports that ‘Grammar is back’ in NSW schools. Were they not aware that grammar has been mandated in the Australian Curriculum for the past decade or so? And was greeted with similar headlines at the time: 

This announcement was somewhat premature as the English Syllabus (3-10 years) hadn’t yet been released – but any excuse to grab a headline and appeal to readers with promises that bringing back grammar will fix the latest ‘literacy crisis’. And the readers’ comments echoed these sentiments:

Absolutely agree . . . Wonderful news!  Should have been done years ago!! The three R’s. – about time. It’s taken a while, but the penny has finally dropped. 

… along with sharing their pet peeves: 

GREAT! Can we eliminate the word ‘like’ out of every conjunction to?

I’ve been advocating for many years that a gap/space should be made between the last word of a sentence and the symbols ? and !. Obvious examples include …hill! V hill ! and …zoo? V zoo ?. 

Hopefully people will stop using “him” and “her” as subjects of a verb and will go back to using “he” and “she”.

I will die happy if this new syllabus means children will be taught to say they are bored “by” or “with” something instead of the cringe-inducing ‘bored of’.

And banning the use of “gotten”.

Such comments reveal a pedantic understanding of grammar as the mark of an educated person. And of course such a view should not to be underestimated given that correct usage is a powerful gate-keeping device.  (Oops! Just began a sentence with ‘and’.)

Several of the comments equated grammar with punctuation, spelling and vocabulary – another common misunderstanding. 

Another reader lamented the disappearance of Latin on the grounds that this would help with English grammar – a misconception that underpinned much of the traditional approach to the teaching of grammar that resulted in its rejection from the curriculum some fifty years ago.  

So if ‘elegant speech’ and the parsing of sentences is no longer seen as the end goal of teaching grammar, then what are they to be replaced by?

Here we might consider a distinction between the constrained and the unconstrained skills (Paris 2005). The constrained skills focus on grammar (along with phonics, spelling and punctuation) as a limited set of rules that can be assessed as correct or incorrect. We would want students to be able, for example, to compose well-structured sentences with clarity and precision. 

While important, this isn’t sufficient in developing students’ ability to use language effectively. The unconstrained skills are concerned with meaning-making – how language functions in our lives to help achieve our purposes. Australia has been at the forefront internationally in developing a functional approach to the teaching of grammar. It has underpinned the Language Strand of the Australian Curriculum: English since 2010. A functional model:

  • sees language as a flexible resource for making meaning. It provides tools to investigate and critique how language is involved in the construction of meaning.
  • focuses on knowing how to make effective choices from the language system depending on the context in which language is being used (the topic, the audience, the purpose, the mode – written, spoken, multimodal).
  • is taught in the context of authentic curriculum tasks, not as an end in itself.
  • works at the level of the whole text right down to relevant grammatical choices.
  • incorporates terminology to refer to the function of a grammatical feature as well as its form (using traditional terminology such as clause, prepositional phrase, conjunction).

However, as several of the readers commented:  

The only problem is that there are currently generations of teachers, including coming graduates who have no understanding of grammar themselves and will therefore struggle to teach it!

This is not entirely the case. Grammar is a key component of initial teacher education programs. And many in-service teachers, anxious over their knowledge about language, have completed professional learning courses (often in their own time) in universities, have undertaken upskilling programs offered by experts in the field (Dare & Polias, 2022, Rose & Martin 2012) and professional associations, and have participated in many classroom-based research projects (Derewianka, 2020; Humphrey, 2017). These programs are usually intensive and engage teachers in iterative cycles of learning, classroom trialling and reflecting, so that teachers’ knowledge about language and appropriate pedagogy is developed over time. We know that teachers with strong knowledge about language are well placed to support their students’ literacy development (Myhill et al., 2012).  

Nevertheless, there are still many teachers who require intensive support. If this current focus on grammar is not a mere election stunt (as several of the reader comments suggest), then systems must make significant investment in teachers, their professional learning and curriculum resources. Companion documents that include explanations of concepts, analysed model texts, exemplars of practice, and authentic assessment tasks – all coherent and linked to syllabus content – must be forthcoming.  Such resources should be based on sound theory, accessible to teachers and appliable to their subject areas and to the diverse needs of the students in their classrooms. Further, resources require ‘wrap around’, quality professional learning, so that teachers can deepen their language and pedagogic know-how in dialogue with colleagues and experts in the field.

Pauline Jones is Associate Professor, Language in Education at the University of Wollongong. Her research interests are educational semiotics, literacy development, and pedagogic dialogue.  Recent publications include Transition and Continuity in School Literacy Development (Bloomsbury, 2021) co-edited with Erika Matruglio & Christine Edwards-Groves, and Teaching Language in Context 3rd ed. (OUP, 2022) with Beverly Derewianka. She is also currently President of the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA).

Beverly Derewianka is Professor Emerita at the University of Wollongong. An educational linguist, she has researched students’ literacy development, particularly writing in the context of school curriculum. Her current research focusses on writing development from junior to senior secondary years in English, History and Science. She has written numerous scholarly publications, textbooks and professional resources for teachers. The third edition of her best-selling Grammar Companion for Primary Teachers (PETAA) has just been published.