Given the likely renewed emphasis on grammar in the forthcoming revised National Curriculum, it is important to think about what our young writers know about language. In the Grammar for Writing study carried out by the University of Exeter, one of our research questions was: What I is the impact of grammar teaching on pupils' metalinguistic understanding? Evidence of understanding about language came from: I * writing conversations with one student from each Year 8 class: we wanted to know if they could talk about language choices explicitly, with or without the use of grammatical terminology;
* samples of students' writing: we wanted to know if they could apply the language features they'd been taught in the schemes of work on narrative fiction, argument and poetry;
* lesson observations where we noted evidence of understanding (and confusion) about how language works.
In the writing conversations, we prompted students to talk about their own writing and to respond to text models. For example in the Poetry scheme, they wrote a kenning about an animal or person; a personification poem about a classroom object, and a poem based on a childhood memory, imitating the extended noun phrase patterns used in 'Child on Top of a Greenhouse' by Theodore Roethke. Students annotated one of their poems to show the effects they intended.
We found that students in the Intervention group, who had been taught grammar explicitly, spoke about language choices in more precise detail and used grammatical terminology more accurately than did students in the Comparison group. Intervention students' writing showed more examples of explicitly-taught language features being used independently and effectively. The student who wrote the following poem, for example, successfully imitates the sentence patterns of the Roethke model, where the main teaching point was how the non-finite verbs and the use of the senses create an immediacy to the scene, as though the childhood memory is being re-lived, while the final line of the poem uses a finite verb to 'resolve' the scene.
Of course, not all Year 8 students were as confident about language as this student seems to be. Because the Grammar for Writing schemes encouraged language play and talk about language, there was lots of opportunity to discover what students knew about linguistic choices: teachers in the Intervention group reported 'brilliant discussions' in which 'students were willing to risk opinions about language more'; but these also revealed students' partial understanding or insecurities about how language works. For example, one of the Grammar for Writing points in the Argument scheme was how to use co-ordinating and subordinating conjunctions to link ideas securely, in the context of writing a counter argument. In one class, the teacher intended her opening question as a quick recap of learning from the previous lesson. In fact it led to an animated ten-minute discussion, part of which is transcribed here:
Teacher Can you remind us of what a subordinating connective is? Student 1 You have two things together and it makes one more important than another, maybe one is stronger. Student 2 Co-ordinating connectives like but, or, mean the same thing. Although means it could possibly be. Student 3 I don't really get that--why would you need to do that--what difference does it make? Teacher Let's look, like Beth said, as some connectives being about possibilities. Which would those be? Student 4 But sounds rubbish compared with although. Student 5 But sounds really bum. Student 4 While, despite, although--I've got it; they're like what posh people might use in a posh sentence. General discussion about which connectives sound 'posh' or 'better' than others, with some frustration voiced: 'Oh, I don't know'; 'Ah, this makes no sense', until teacher intervenes to move to next activity. …