Document 497

From Parsing to Politics: A Brief History of School Grammar Teaching

Author(s): James McGonigal, Andrew Philp

Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material


This Position Paper examines the historical context of grammar teaching. It considers the influences which have shaped current attitudes to grammar in schools, including the approach of the "English Language 5-14 Guidelines", and outlines current trends which are likely to influence developments in the immediate future. These are not merely academic questions, but important dimensions of our professional awareness about what we teach in Language and why. They also raise quite serious issues, as we shall see, concerning politics, empowerment and ideology.

The thinking behind traditional views of grammar in schools has its roots in the work of the prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century, notably Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray. They tried to ‘fix’ the language by prescribing exactly what constituted correct usage and, by implication, saw language as unchanging and any deviation as error or corruption. This prescriptive tradition is to be distinguished from the descriptive or analytical approach to grammar. The latter can be traced from such 18th-century grammarians as William Ward through the late 19th and early 20th-century work of Otto Jespersen and others, up to the research of modern descriptive linguists such as Michael Halliday, which is influencing the school language curriculum in Britain and in Australia at the present time.

The prescriptive approach, however, held sway for some two hundred years. It was based on fixed attitudes, on forms and rules derived from Latin and on exercises on the correction of sentences. Such exercises set up many of the shibboleths about usage that still remain (for at least some people) the essence of ‘correct’ grammar. The avoidance of prepositions at the end of sentences (as in ‘To whom did he give the book?’ rather than ‘Who did he give the book to?’) or the use of ‘It is I’ rather than ‘It is me’, or avoidance of the so-called ‘split infinitive’ (now immortalised in the Star Trek injunction ‘to boldly go’) are all examples of the kinds of usage taught to school pupils for many generations which still cause anxiety among people anxious to observe ‘correct’ grammar.

Most of these prescriptions, and their accompanying rules (‘It is wrong to split infinitives’) were based on analogy with Latin, even though English forms of language patterning are very different from Latin. For instance, English clearly has more than one word in the infinitive (‘to go’) unlike Latin, and therefore one is hardly ‘splitting’ the infinitive by introducing a related word. Also ‘It is I’ is based on the practice in Latin to have ‘nominative’ or Subject forms after the verb ‘to be’, even though English is very largely an uninflected language and does not normally indicate Objects by means of ‘accusative’ endings at all, far less make exceptions for the verb ‘to be’. The rule about avoidance of prepositions at the end of sentences, similarly, derived from a stylistic tendency in Latin to have verbs at the ends of sentences.

Such prescriptions about English grammar were reinforced through countless exercises on the correction of sentences, where pupils were expected to identify the ‘correct’ form of usage, which was frequently the one they did not use in their normal speech! Such rules often seem to run counter to natural usage in English, certainly in the much less Latinate and less formal English that most of us now write, even in fairly formal circumstances. Moreover, an over-concern with whether pupils can employ these extremely formal usages seems an odd priority, when they may well have a very shaky command of Standard English as a whole, even in situations where it is appropriate.

These prescriptive attitudes were based upon two central assumptions:
• that there is a correct standard form of the language, normally only found in writing
• that the development of pupils’ abilities in written English depends upon their being taught this grammar explicitly and being trained in its use.

The first of these assumptions is contradicted by modern policy and practice, which focus more than ever before on the nature of spoken English and its differences from Standard written English. The second assumption, that skill in writing depends upon formal grammar teaching, was seriously called into question by the findings of a number of research projects (e.g. Macauley 1947, Harris, 1963); more recently the work of Elley and his associates (1999) seems to prove the case beyond any doubt. Using a longitudinal study, involving traditional grammar, modern transformational grammar (associated with Chomsky), and a control group, they showed that ‘English Grammar teaching, whether traditional or transformational, has virtually no influence on the language growth of typical secondary school students.’ (Elley, W.B. et al. 1975, ‘The role of grammar in a secondary school English curriculum’. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies 10: 26-42. Quoted in Elley, 1999.)

The early prescriptive approach assumed, falsely, that the forms and structure needed to describe the grammar of English are simple, all-embracing and essentially unchanging. It took over the eight ‘parts of speech’ from Latin, and took essentially the same approach to syntax, without trying to modify the system to suit English or to reflect the complexity of the language. Some philosophical grammarians of the 18th-century did attempt to describe the language accurately and devised analytical systems to do so; the serious grammarians of the 19th-century, such as Curme, Poutsma and Jespersen, tried to describe it comprehensively; and the linguists of the 20th-century, such as Chomsky and Halliday, devised new systems to account for the phenomenon of language in all its detail.

Yet it is the prescriptive, dogmatic approach that has dominated school grammar, and it still influences the views of many adults who pronounce on the subject as amateurs. And of course it still affects the attitudes and even the approaches of many teachers today, although some teachers in Britain, America and Australia have, since the 1970s and 1980s, been introducing their students to a more enquiry-based approach to language, including grammar. The former view sees the theory of grammar as simple, comprehensive and unchanging, whereas the latter sees it as a complex, speculative undertaking, constantly being honed by grammarians striving to describe accurately the complexity of the English language as it changes over time and space (into American or Australian or indeed Scottish English).

For most school children, however, change came slowly. British pupils at the end of the 1950s were drilled in grammatical analysis of sentences and parsing of ‘parts of speech’ from upper primary until the final stages of compulsory schooling, and this grammatical prowess was tested in British public examinations at ages 16 or 17. In 1975 the Bullock Report said of the GCE O-level examination papers established in the early 1920s:

"Forty years later, in the early sixties, they had changed little. There was a précis, letter-writing, paraphrase analysis and other grammatical exercises, the correction of incorrect sentences, the punctuation of depunctuated passages, and, of course, an essay."

Parsing and analysis were taught in Scottish primary and secondary schools, using such comprehensive and scholarly textbooks as "The Approach to Standard English" (Barclay and Knox) and "The Study of Standard English" (Barclay, Knox and Ballantyne). These books and others like them provided pupils with an education in traditional school grammar which embraced all the practices and assumptions discussed above. While scholarly, and no doubt comprehensible to the ablest pupils, they created a detestation and fear of English for many generations of adults.

It was probably this response from pupils, born out of their inability to understand ‘grammar’ or its purpose, together with the fact that it clearly did not transfer to an increased ability to write continuous English, that led most teachers in England and (rather later) in Scotland to reject the teaching of traditional grammar and to look for an alternative approach.

One such approach was the growth of interest in ‘creative writing’. Here the child’s potential for creativity was to be fostered through a series of motivating experiences involving talking, reading, and writing. Fluency was to be encouraged; consequently, teachers were careful to avoid attempts to correct or improve the child’s creation, either during or after the act of writing. This doctrine clearly ran counter to the traditional approaches to grammar outlined above, although they did survive within O-level examinations in England and Wales. ‘Creative writing’ never really took root in Scottish schools in the 1960s, although a modified version, focusing on the importance of what James Britton called transactional, expressive and poetic functions of writing, did become prominent here in the 1970s and 1980s. Britton's categories, of course, became the types of writing termed ‘functional’, ‘personal’ and ‘imaginative’ in the 5-14 Guidelines.

In England, ‘creative writing’ approaches and ‘Leavisite’ views of the central importance of literature as a force for moral and linguistic development held sway throughout the 1960s, coupled with an extreme antipathy to anything remotely connected with grammar teaching. Two other approaches to language teaching which developed in the 1960s became more prominent during the 1970s and 1980s. The first was associated with the work of Britton, Barnes, Dixon and Rosen. This approach saw the development of the child, as language user and mature human being, as being rooted in ‘exploratory talk’ and ‘expressive writing’, as the child strove to find his or her individual voice and in the process developed as a person. Its proponents saw literature and language study as equally important in this process but they took a stance against the explicit and systematic use of terminology from linguistics. They concentrated instead on developing their own eclectic approaches to how meanings are made in talk and writing. In Barnes’ words:

"Discussion of the audience’s needs and whether they are being fulfilled is often valuable, but this is discussion in terms of content or style. Such discussion, though it necessarily refers to particular features in texts, need not demand that pupils first master an extensive generalised system for describing those features." (1988: 37-38)

A more explicit approach had its genesis in the "Programme in Linguistics and English Teaching", directed by M. A. K. Halliday at University College London, from 1964 to 1969. This drew directly upon the insights of linguistics and considered their implications for mother-tongue teaching. The "Language in Use" materials which emerged involve pupils in investigations into a wide range of aspects of language as it is used in society: the relations between spoken and written language; language in social situations; patterning in language, and so on. The focus is not upon ‘teaching grammar’ but upon creating knowledge about language as pupils meet it in daily life, and upon their using a range of registers as they investigate these concerns. Thus "Language in Use" instituted the broad approach which has become the Knowledge about Language aspect of both the Scottish 5-14 Guidelines and the National Curriculum in England.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s there was considerable discussion of the methodology of teaching grammar, as opposed to the actual form of grammar taught. In 1972 the Scottish Central Committee on English published their Bulletin "The Teaching of English Language". This put forward a view of the role of grammar in language teaching which was essentially to be advocated by all the Language reports of the next twenty years (Bullock, Kingman, 5-14 and Cox), at least up until the revisions of English in the National Curriculum by the Department of Education and Science from 1992 onwards. The view of the SCCE Bulletin could be summed up in the following quotation:

"The sorts of language work described here will be facilitated by the use of a suitable grammatical vocabulary, some of which will have been acquired earlier by means of ‘mention’.... The vital point is that grammatical terminology should be produced only in response to need. The grammar to be taught should be limited only to what pupil and teacher require."

Grammatical concepts and terminology may be drawn upon by teachers as they discuss with pupils what meaning is being created in written texts, and how it is being created, but this is not the same as teaching grammar on the assumption that the pupil has to be taught the forms in order to be able to use them. In fact, they potentially know most of the grammar already. What they have to be taught is how to utilise this knowledge appropriately. In such teaching it may be beneficial for teachers to draw upon grammatical terminology, if they consider it appropriate.

The Bullock Committee, perhaps surprisingly, took a broadly similar stance to the Scottish Central Committee on English on explicit rules and facts about language, saying that these have direct practical value to pupils when they solve particular problems in the tasks they are engaged on, or when pupils are able to reconstruct for themselves the analysis that led to the rule:

"What we are suggesting then, is that children should learn about language by experiencing it and experimenting with its use. There will be occasions when the whole class might receive specific instruction in some aspect of language. More frequently, however, the teacher will operate on the child’s language competence at the point of need by individual or small group discussion. As a background to all this activity, he should have in his own mind a clear picture of how far and in what directions this competence should be extended."

A very similar view of the process of grammar teaching was advocated some fifteen years later by Carter (1994), who suggested that Knowledge about Language ‘requires a methodology which is not transmissive and teacher-centred but investigative and project-based’. Thus the emphasis in grammar teaching should not be upon the teacher instructing pupils about concepts and terminology that they do not know, but upon helping them to discover explicitly what they already do know unconsciously about language. The process of making such knowledge explicit

"should not be imposed or engineered but rather fostered and supported as naturally as possible, as needed in specific contexts and in ways which reinforce the process as one of positive achievement with language. There can be no return to decontexualised exercises or gap fillings or to the deficiency pedagogies in which such procedures are grounded."

Such an approach to the role of grammar as terminology introduced at the point of need is clearly established in the English Language 5-14 Guidelines:

"…there is still a need for the teacher to help pupils with word choice, with a turn of phrase, with sorting out the meaning or punctuation of a sentence. In doing so the grammatical terminology of the sentence, the word (noun, verb, etc.) and punctuation should be introduced as the technical terms by which teachers and pupils discuss such matters."

And, as has been suggested in our LILT Booklet A 5-14, pupils’ awareness of relevant concepts and terms can also be reinforced effectively through games or the discovery of meaningful patterns in texts.

The question of explicit knowledge about language being imparted to pupils leads to the related issue of the teacher’s own linguistic knowledge. The SCCE Bulletin claimed that the teacher

"…must be in possession of a much more explicit knowledge (than his pupils) about language in gener

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Information about Document 497

From Parsing to Politics: A Brief History of School Grammar Teaching


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Year of composition 1998
Word count 2544
General description One of a series of position papers on current educational developments in relation to language education

Text medium

Other CD Rom of teacher materials (LILT)

Text publication details

Part of larger text
Contained in CD Rom: LILT Materials
Editor J McGonigal / C Kay
Part of a longer series of texts
Name of series Position Papers: CD Rom: LILT Materials

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction


Author details

Author id 60
Forenames Andrew
Surname Philp
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1930
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism
Occupation Retired Lecturer in Education
Place of birth Londonderry
Region of birth Co. Londonderry
Country of birth Northern Ireland
Place of residence Airdrie
Region of residence Lanark
Residence CSD dialect area Lnk
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Tool Fitter
Father's place of birth Auchterarder
Father's region of birth E & SE Perthshire
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Per
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Seamstress in shirt factory
Mother's place of birth Ture
Mother's region of birth Co. Donegal
Mother's country of birth Ireland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes At work, at home
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic Yes Yes Yes Yes Evening classes and immersion
Italian Yes Yes No No Elementary
Japanese Yes No No Yes Very elementary
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes Elementary - intermediate
Urdu Yes No No Yes Elementary


Author details

Author id 78
Forenames James
Surname McGonigal
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 18
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism
Occupation University lecturer
Place of birth Dumfries
Region of birth E & Mid Dumfries
Birthplace CSD dialect area Dmf
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Glasgow
Region of residence Glasgow
Residence CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation F.E. Lecturer
Father's place of birth Cleland
Father's region of birth Lanark
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Lnk
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Primary School teacher
Mother's place of birth Midcalder
Mother's region of birth West Lothian
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area wLoth
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes Work and home
French Yes Yes Yes Yes Used occasionally
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic No No No Yes Very limited vocabulary
German Yes Yes Yes Yes Used occasionally
Scots No Yes Yes Yes Work (language study) and creative writing
Spanish; Castilian Yes Yes Yes Yes Used occasionally