The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

When the hundreds of thousands of 16-year olds sit their first GCSE English examination next Monday, many will be putting their ink on paper and producing sentences that read like the following:

1. Stevenson uses an adverb “trampled calmly” to show how Mr Hyde trampled calmly over a girl’s body.

2. The phrase “He broke out in a great flame of anger” shows how angry Mr Hyde is. “Broke” is a verb that shows an violent action and “great” is an adjective that shows a large amount. “Anger” is a noun and it shows Mr Hyde is angry.

3. Mr Hyde is described as “pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any namable malformation”. Stevenson uses adjectives and nouns in that quote to show that Mr Hyde looks like a half-developed human.

I feel your pain. 

The first time in my teaching career when this style of writing is becoming a norm. Identification of grammatical terms, such as word classes, has become the students’ preoccupation when attempting to express their views on the writers’ use of “language, form and structure”. Grammar has now obscured clarity of expression. On the one hand, what the above three examples demonstrate is some knowledge and straightforward understanding of characterisation. Admittedly, there is plenty of improvement to be made in those areas. The real concern, however, is a slavish attitude to grammar spotting. The mechanic way of naming the part – instead of strengthening the critical quality of the response – makes the written expression awkward and unclear. As a result, grammar spotting renders a test for true appreciation of writers’ craft into a grammar-spotting exercise.

The chickens have come home to roost. 

Ahead of the new GCSE English examinations (Literature, and then Language) from next week, it has become obvious that this new way of writing has become commonplace. Anecdotal evidence sampled from students’ work shared by their teachers on social media, notably Twitter, serves as a tangible trend in the English classrooms up and down the country. 

I am talking about the identification of grammatical features in students’ attempt to “[a]nalyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate” as one of the key Assessment Objectives (AOs). The weighting of this particular AO is high. Take AQA’s English Literature Paper 1 for example, AO2 is worth 12 marks, equalling AO1 (“Read, understand and respond to the texts”), out of a total of 30 marks in both Section A (Shakespeare plays) and Section B (The 19th-century novel). Understandably, English teachers place greater emphasis on this particular Assessment Objective. Crucially, it can be suggested that many students as well as teachers have assigned grammatical knowledge its unintended supremacy in the context of assessment and mistaken it for evidence of quality.

But why is there such an almost obsessive focus on grammatical features? Casting our minds back to the publication of The importance of teaching: the school’s white paper 2010 might shed some light on the question. Undeniably, the current phenomenon is readily explainable by the policy that was billed to “promote high standards of language and literacy by equipping pupils with a strong command of the spoken and written word, and to develop their love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment” (English programmes of study: key stage 4: National curriculum in England, 2014). The Spag Test for Year 6 pupils at primary schools has come to epitomise the reform introduced by then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. The purpose of this piece is not to renew the debate over the merit of his reform. It focuses instead a tangible outcome of his ideology from the classroom – the reality.

For secondary students, such clumsy written style that places Grammar as its central consideration is the direct result of Michael Gove’s legacy, seven years on. The first generation of Gove’s children is coming through the system of his education reform, and the examination results for English will be watched with close scrutiny and hopefully in-depth research to assess its impact. The preliminary evidence flags up areas for concern. 

Before the results of the marking are published, the impact of grammar teaching is evident in the above three examples. It is clear that the knowledge of grammar, apart from demonstrating that the students can name the parts, paradoxically, it impedes on the quality of writing, precisely what Robert Hudson – the man recognised to be responsible for the primary grammar test – is concerned about. 

Firstly, Hudson admits that the grammar test “was not based on good research evidence” (Mansell, 2017). His admission raises doubt over the legitimacy of grammar test for the 11-year-olds straightaway. More concerning is the long-term detriment that such drive to improve grammatical knowledge in the cognitive development of the young children. David Chrystal has also remarked that there is “too much emphasis on linguistic labelling as an end in itself” (Mansell, 2017). Sentences included in those examples illustrate a clear propensity to do just that. A voluble critic of Gove’s “back-to-basics” approach to the English curriculum, Michael Rosen, has also warned against the damage that the over emphasis on grammar teaching can do to students’ writing. Many teachers will be able to list examples similar to those we have considered. Can we draw a tentative conclusion that it is indeed the case – at least for now. 

Ironically, Robert Hudson expresses circumspection about the continuity of grammar teaching from primary schools into secondary school. Evidence from current GCSE candidates and even KS3 students at secondary schools demonstrate that “all the work children do in primary is [in fact not] wasted” (Mansell, 2017). Indeed, it has been followed with much zeal and fervour, if not more, believing that grammar guarantees gravitas. Sidelined are other literary and poetic devices – a holistic evaluation of a combination of techniques deployed by authors. 

Based on early evidence from the classroom and more than likely the test centres in England, Tim Oates is right to call for a rethink of the grammar test. In addition to a “genuine problem about undue complexity of demand” of the “language about language” (Mansell, 2017), better education in grammar teaching needs to be built into Initial Teacher Training and CPD for serving teachers to ensure that grammatical knowledge, though it can be a scholarship in its own right, serves to illuminate the beauty of writers’ art. As Debra Myhill’s research finds that grammar teaching can be beneficial to students’ writing, adding:

“The key is using grammar to open children’s eyes to the infinite repertoire of choices which are available to them as writers. Used in this way, grammar helps children understand how language works and how to express themselves with great craft and creativity.” (2014)

However, this outcome can only be achieved if Grammar is taught “in such a way that links meaningfully to how they write” (Mansell, 2017) – and read.

When Michael Gove set out his vision for the English teaching in KS3 and KS4, his personal plea of “the love of literature” would have resonated with many. Unless, we teach grammar and embed grammar in reading and writing meaningfully and discriminately, we are in danger of creating generations of young children who not only resent reading and writing but also struggle to articulate their thoughts clearly, coherently and cogently, never mind creatively.

Here’s a challenge. Re-write one or more of those sentences to improve their analytical and critical quality. In whatever colour you like as long as it’s not green. You can even simply rehearse in your head, too. Or even verbalise your attempts.


DfE (2010), The importance of teaching: the school’s white paper 2010

DfE (2013), National curriculum in England: English programmes of study

Exeter, University of (2014), New approach to writing changes policy and practice

Mansell, W. (2017), “Battle on the adverbials front: grammar advisers raise worries about Sats tests and teaching”, the Guardian


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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