Children are learning grammar through foreign languages but not through their own, according to research published today.
Most 13- and 14-year-olds have heard of nouns and verbs but do not really know what they are, says the study from Southampton University, part of a five-year research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
They are getting mixed messages about grammar, with modern language teachers emphasising its formal teaching while English teachers encourage children to learn grammar by using the language.
Professor Martin Hughes, the research programme's co-ordinator, said: "It's ironic. If you want to learn about your own language you need to learn another."
Professor Christopher Brumfit and Dr Rosamond Mitchell, the study's directors, spent a year analysing dozens of lessons by seven teachers in three schools. They also assessed children to discover how much they knew about language.
While foreign language teachers taught grammar in a traditional way, concentrating on individual sentences and words, English teachers tended to teach about whole texts and were more interested in style and genre than grammar.
The study found that there was very little formal grammar teaching in English lessons. Teachers often do not know enough about language to teach it properly, they concluded.
Dr Mitchell said pupils learned basic definitions of nouns in primary school but that was not developed. We needed to be more systematic about language teaching and teachers needed to be told what pupils of a particular age should understand about grammar. "Most teachers do imaginative things about language but in a very patchy way."
Professor Hughes, of Exeter University, said: "Pupils' limited understanding of their own language is a serious cause for concern. …