Grammar in the New Zealand English Curriculum: Implications for Primary School Teachers and Teacher Educators

Article excerpt

Introduction

Knowledge of grammar is one component of literacy, which is "the ability to understand, respond to, and use those forms of written language that are required by society and valued by individuals and communities" (Ministry of Education, 2003a, p. 13). In order to acquire literacy, a person needs to be able to use grammar effectively, appropriately and accurately. Moreover, knowledge of grammar enables students to reflect on how the English language works, understand how grammatical structures affect meaning and critically analyse texts (Derewianka, 1998). It follows then, that as part of their professional capability, teachers need knowledge about grammar (hereafter KAG) to identify the extent to which students are able to do this as they strive to become literate.

Literacy teaching in New Zealand has been generally well regarded by international standards (Mc Naughton, 2002). In 2006, the Programme

for International Student Assessment (PISA) results showed the mean reading literacy score for New Zealand 15-year-olds was above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) mean, and this has not changed significantly since 2003 and 2000 (Marshall, Caygill, & May, 2008). However, there are also groups of learners, mainly Maori students and children from Pacific Islands immigrant families who make relatively poor gains in literacy, and in 2006 the PISA findings showed that these learners had lower mean literacy scores than their Pakeha/ European and Asian counterparts (Marshall et al., 2008).

In order to address this inequity in literacy achievement, Reading and Writing Standards for Years 1 to 8, commonly referred to by teachers and educators as "National Standards", have been introduced to "provide a nationally consistent means for considering, explaining, and responding to students' progress and achievement" (Ministry of Education, 2009a, p. 4). Despite widespread criticism by many teachers, principals and other education professionals, who argue that National Standards are not the way to address inequities in literacy achievement (see, for example, Middleton, 2009; "Standards and the professor", 2010), 2010 saw their introduction in all mainstream primary schools. A discussion of the debates surrounding the standards here would add neither clarity nor justification to the current argument; however, the fact that the National Standards are in schools and being implemented now gives import and some urgency to considering teacher capability in understanding the reading and writing assessment standards which, it will be illustrated, include a significant grammatical dimension.

This article, then, questions whether or not primary school teachers do have adequate KAG to teach and assess learners' ability to use grammar. As a component of literacy, grammar is both implicitly and explicitly referred to in the English area of The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). This document, along with other recently released ministry publications intended to support literacy teaching--English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP) (Ministry of Education, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c, 2008d) and Literacy Learning Progressions (LLP) (Ministry of Education, 2010)--will be examined to illustrate the nature and extent of KAG teachers are expected to have. Finally, in the absence of any local empirical research, some overseas studies of teachers' KAG will be discussed, as these have possible implications for the New Zealand context.

Background

In my position as a lecturer, I work with practising primary and secondary teachers doing postgraduate study in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). It is important to note that, although this is a TESOL course, most teachers work in mainstream classes that include native speakers of English and English language learners (ELLs). All course members, both mainstream and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers, are required to identify the specific language demands of curriculum tasks undertaken by their students. …