Grammar policy, pedagogy and the primary-secondary transition: students’ perceptions and reflections: Ian Cushing & Marie Helks

We set out to trace the complex ways that current grammar policy in England gets perceived and recalled by primary (Year 6) and secondary (Year 7) students, by examining the reporting of their own lived experiences in a series of focus groups, and triangulating this with a bricolage of other data including policy documents, pedagogical materials and teacher surveys.

This research was generously funded by the UKLA, and we begin by extending our thanks to them. 

We focused on grammar because it was one of the major changes made in post-2010 curriculum and assessment reforms, as well as attracting significant academic and media interest. Our research was motivated by the absence of students’ perceptions and voices in the existing literature on grammar policies and pedagogies in schools and indeed, in UK language education policy research more broadly. Our research questions were:

  • What are primary and secondary school students’ perceptions of the kind of grammatical knowledge and grammar pedagogies that they experience?
  • To what extent do these perceptions align with the way that grammar is conceptualised within primary and secondary curricula?

Read the full findings of the report below.

Grammar policy, pedagogy and the primary-secondary transition: students’ perceptions and reflections: final report for UKLA

Ian Cushing (Brunel University London) & Marie Helks (Sheffield Hallam University)

Aims

This research was generously funded by the UKLA, and we begin by extending our thanks to them. We set out to trace the complex ways that current grammar policy in England gets perceived and recalled by primary (Year 6) and secondary (Year 7) students, by examining the reporting of their own lived experiences in a series of focus groups, and triangulating this with a bricolage of other data including policy documents, pedagogical materials and teacher surveys. We focused on grammar because it was one of the major changes made in post-2010 curriculum and assessment reforms, as well as attracting significant academic and media interest. Our research was motivated by the absence of students’ perceptions and voices in the existing literature on grammar policies and pedagogies in schools and indeed, in UK language education policy research more broadly. Our research questions were:

  • What are primary and secondary school students’ perceptions of the kind of grammatical knowledge and grammar pedagogies that they experience?
  • To what extent do these perceptions align with the way that grammar is conceptualised within primary and secondary curricula?The studyOur methods were driven by the motivation to generate data which highlighted students’ voices and perspectives, in seeking to understanding their lived experiences. This involved putting questions of power in the centre of our aims, asking what kinds of consequences that policies and pedagogies have for people involved in them, and by examining the role that language plays in the production of these.To elicit students’ perceptions, we designed and conducted focus groups in four co- educational, state-maintained schools: two primary (Year 6) and two secondary (Year 7), in two English cities. During the focus groups, our prompts and questions were purposefully crafted as to draw out students’ situated, contextualised lived experiences: we asked for specific accounts, memories and moments in order to understand the ‘social life’ of grammar policies and pedagogies. Informal conversations with each contact teacher post-focus group enabled us to reflect on the students’ views. We also collected language policy artefacts from each school (such as literacy policies and curriculum overviews for English), Ofsted reports, and a survey completed by each one of the contact teachers about their own pedagogical approach/policies for the teaching of grammar.FindingsThere were a number of interesting themes which emerged from the work, although we focused on three in particular.Conceptualisations of grammarStudents’ conceptualisations of grammar were found to be geared around clause-level notions, which often conflated with ‘spelling’ and ‘punctuation’. This was the case for all students across the Y6-Y7 divide. In calling up their ideas about grammar, students were focused on narrow definitions which centered on small units of language such as morphemes, words, clauses and their associated metalanguage. In this way, students’ ideas were reflective of the way that grammar is framed within current policy, especially at primary level, which focuses on narrow, clause-level notions of grammar with an explicit focus on grammatical terminology. Even at secondary level, discourse-level concepts such as meaning and choice were generally rejected as being associated with grammar, despite this being an overt aspect of secondary policy texts such as curriculum documents.Lived experience of pedagogiesStudents’ reporting of their lived, embodied experiences of grammar were associated with similar notions of decontextualised grammar, feature spotting and the arbitrary insertion of grammatical

features into their writing. However, data from our teachers revealed that this was in stark opposition to the kind of pedagogies teachers reported to be enacting, which were largely geared around contextualised, discourse-level grammar. Data from teaching materials, fieldnotes and teacher surveys showed that our teachers exhibited a deep commitment to contextualised grammar pedagogies, characterised by discussions of meaning, choice and creativity.

The GPS tests as de facto language policy

Across all year groups, the GPS tests were found to be working as a powerful de facto language policy with a strong washback effect, which was warping and distorting students’ memories and experiences of grammar, as well as influencing teacher pedagogies. The tests were seen as an ‘endpoint’ for Y6 students, and ‘lived on’ in the minds of Y7 students, being reported to dominate the primary classroom and play a significant role in shaping the lives, memories and experiences of students. Again, this is in contrast to the ways that our teachers spoke and felt about the tests and the kinds of experience that they were attempting to construct for their students. The GPS tests would seem to promote knowing about grammar simply for testing purposes, rather than a genuine sense of curious, critical knowledge about language.

Implications and future research

Our research has been critical of a government grammar and assessment policy, which has the potential to warp and distort the lived experiences of students in relation to grammar. Even in classrooms which are reported by teachers to be spaces where contextualised grammar is enacted, the GPS tests remain as a powerful policy mechanism. Classroom observations of grammar teaching and ‘policy in action’ would certainly be a useful avenue for future work, in threading together these attitudes and tensions in relation to grammar. We argue that this work has implications for policy makers in reconceptualising what is meant by ‘grammar’ within policy, further questioning the validity of the GPS tests, and making the case for an expanded, critical view of grammar which reflects how language is used in everyday life.

Dissemination of findings

We were due to present this work at the UKLA 2020 conference, but due to Covid-19, this has been postponed until 2021. We hope to be able to attend when the details are announced. We have written this work up as a journal article for Literacy, which is currently under review (submitted October 29).

Budget report

Our original budget was £1650. Our total spend was £553. Our under-spend is a result of shifting travel plans to online meetings (due to Covid-19). Funds were also not required for teacher cover, as 3 of the participating schools did not require this.

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