'Perhaps I Didn't Really Have as Good a Knowledge as I Thought I Had.' What Do Primary School Teachers Know and Believe about Grammar and Grammar Teaching?

By Jeurissen, Maree | Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, October 2012 | Go to article overview

'Perhaps I Didn't Really Have as Good a Knowledge as I Thought I Had.' What Do Primary School Teachers Know and Believe about Grammar and Grammar Teaching?


Jeurissen, Maree, Australian Journal of Language and Literacy


Introduction

The place of grammar in literacy education has been debated in English-speaking countries for some decades. These debates have stemmed mostly from efforts to improve the quality of students' writing and have focused on the value of explicit metalinguistic knowledge for school pupils (for example Andrews et al., 2006; Myhill, 2000; Paterson, 2010). Metalinguistic knowledge, sometimes referred to as knowledge about language (KAL), includes an awareness of phonemes, syllables, rhyme and morphology (Fielding-Barnsley & Purdie, 2005) and in the context of schooling, explicit knowledge about grammar (KAG) (Harper & Rennie, 2009). Many of the debates concern this latter aspect of KAL, grammar. Whilst 'views remain polarised' (Andrews et al., 2006, p. 39) and the debates about whether or not to include explicit grammar teaching continue, so too, does teaching and learning in classrooms. Teachers themselves, often unaware of, or ambivalent about, academic debates, must get on with the job of teaching their students. What are the bases for their decisions about grammar teaching?

It is reasonable to assume that teachers' pedagogical decisions about whether or not to teach grammar, and if so, what and how to teach it, are informed by their prescribed curriculum documents and guidelines. However, there is a growing body of literature which suggests that teachers are also influenced by their own prior knowledge, experiences, and beliefs (Borg, 2003). If this is the case, it is likely that classroom practice varies considerably. The author's anecdotal experiences working with practising teachers undertaking graduate University study suggest that there is indeed, considerable variation in their own KAG and ways of teaching grammar in the classroom. Others, such as Hancock (2009), voice misgivings: 'English teachers in training, with little or no formal understanding of language from their own schooling, often have no more than a course or two in linguistics to build up their competence, possibly courses that reiterate the research-driven position that grammar itself is harmful, irrelevant, or unimportant' (p. 200). Observations such as these bring into question the adequacy of classroom teachers' KAG as a basis for pedagogical decisions. The study reported here sought to investigate New Zealand primary school teachers' knowledge and beliefs about grammar and grammar teaching. The teacher participants in this study were enrolled in their first year of a TESOL diploma which aimed to equip them with both theoretical understandings of second language acquisition and practical strategies for working in classrooms with second language learners. Initially, the intention was to gather data which would inform the content and delivery of the grammar component of the diploma. However, with the introduction in 2010 of a national assessment system including elements of grammar came the realisation that the study's findings could potentially have wider implications. Some background information about this assessment system along with some key developments influencing the place of grammar in the New Zealand curriculum are necessary to place the study in context. In New Zealand primary schools, the English curriculum which includes reading, writing, listening, and speaking, is commonly referred to as literacy, and this is the term which will be used here.

The place of grammar in literacy education: the New Zealand situation

Locke (2009, 2010) provides an in-depth account of grammar teaching internationally, and describes the debates played out in New Zealand, England, the US, and Australia as 'controversial, unsettled, and frequently confused historically' (2009, p. 183). These debates lead to a general decline in the explicit teaching of grammar in schools.

Reflecting this international trend, New Zealand published a revised English syllabus in 1983 which 'contained no mention of the term "grammar"' (Locke, 2009, p.

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