Grammar for Writing: Shaping Policy and Practice

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sch of Education and Lifelong Learning


The Grammar for Writing? study which forms the foundation for the proposed project is located within a contested, politicised history. Grammar teaching was generally abandoned in Anglophone countries in the 60s on the grounds that it made no difference to children's language capacities or writing abilities. Research has tended to focus on whether explicit learning of grammar benefits children's writing and the results appear to be conclusively negative. Indeed, Hillocks and Smith (1991) argue that 'research over a period of nearly 90 years has consistently shown that the teaching of school grammar has little or no effect on students.' Certainly, a string of robust reviews in the past 50 years (eg Braddock et al 1963; Elley et al 1975; Hillocks 1986; Andrews et al 2006) have concluded that teaching grammar is of no benefit in supporting writing development. There is, however, a major difficulty with almost all of the research that these reviews represent. The studies repeatedly investigate whether various forms of isolated grammar teaching, such as learning transformational grammar, or parsing sentences, improves writing.

In contrast, our study has eschewed decontextualised teaching of grammar. Instead, the intervention teaching materials draw attention to the grammar of writing in an embedded and purposeful way at relevant points in the learning. In this way, young writers were introduced to what we have called 'a repertoire of infinite possibilities', explicitly showing them how different ways of shaping sentences or texts, and how different choices of words can generate different possibilities for meaning-making. The goal of such an approach is to support writers in taking control and ownership of the texts they compose, making choices which enable them to voice themselves in their writing, and to shape texts to meet the writer's rhetorical goals. We think of this as helping writers to become designers of text, understanding the warp and the weft of text, its textures and nuances, and able to combine both creative and critical thinking in the process of composition. The strongly positive effect of this intervention has enabled the study to offer a new theory of the grammar-writing relationship.

The proposed project seeks to build on the success of this approach in three significant ways.

Firstly, the project will seek to bridge the research-practice interface by working collaboratively, through Research Action Partnerships, with a small number of English departments to explore the implications of the research in the classroom practice of these departments. The focus of these collaborations will be on trialling the successful intervention pedagogy, on addressing whether the pedagogy can be equally successful for weaker writers, and on raising critical questions about the intervention. This aspect of the project will address the question: What are the main themes, issues and concerns in professionals' discussion of the role that this research suggests grammar can play in a pedagogy of writing?

Secondly, the project will seek for broader national impact through the holding of a National Stakeholders Conference, bringing together practitioners, researchers, advisors, teacher educators, inspectors and policy-makers to engage in critical discussion about the policy and practice implications of our research. This will be further informed by a set of four international perspectives on the issue and will lead to negotiated decisions about recommendations for further action. This aspect of the project will address the question: What are the opportunities and barriers to engaging professionals and policymakers in the policy implications of this research?

Thirdly, the project team will develop a set of commercial teaching resources, drawing on the successful pedagogy of the intervention, and informed by the outcomes of the Research Action Partnerships, to generate maximum access for English teachers.

Planned Impact

The design of this project is wholly focused upon impact and knowledge exchange, rather than the generation of new data and new research. As such, there is a close relationship between the project activities and impact. Thus, this Impact Summary considers impact in terms only of the immediate beneficiaries, those who will benefit directly from the project. Consideration of the wider beneficiaries, is included in the Pathways to Impact document. There is already considerable academic and professional interest in the findings from the original study, both nationally and internationally, and the project aims to establish a solid initial impact upon which to build further elaborated knowledge exchange and professional development. The ultimate goal of any knowledge exchange in this area is to improve the educational attainment of students in writing.
Immediate beneficiaries:
1. English Departments involved in the Research Action Partnerships: this element of the project represents the most in-depth knowledge exchange activity and builds on the PI's previous success in working collaboratively with teachers. For example, the research design of Grant R000239123, involved active collaboration with 3 headteachers as participant researchers and was followed by securing 13 DfES Best Practice Scholarships with teachers from the research schools to follow up the findings in their practice. More recently, a Research Action Partnership with Education Bradford involved working with a range of primary schools over 18 months to develop practice based on our research. The impact of these partnerships is fundamental, because of the sustained and participatory engagement. They give teachers an immensely valuable opportunity to access and reflect on cutting-edge research, but equally importantly, to analyse and reflect on their own practice in the teaching of writing and to discuss pedagogy and writing attainment with their peers and with partnership researchers. The potential benefits of the Research Action Partnerships are: improved writing attainment for students in the schools involved; better departmental understanding of writing pedagogy; and improved contexts for bridging research and professional practice.
2. Stakeholders involved in the National Stakeholder Conference: this element of the project represents the broader reach of knowledge exchange by engaging a wide range of stakeholders in considering the research findings. It brings together those capable of achieving influence beyond their own practice, and includes policymakers, and the wider public (such as the English Association). This builds on the PI's previous experience of working constructively with many of the policy stakeholders as commissioned researcher (eg Ofsted 2005; DCSF 2008; QCA 1999) and as critical friend to several of the National Strategy projects (Improving Writing at Key Stage 3; Developing Talk; Supporting Able Readers) The potential benefits for stakeholders are: research-informed policy decisions; strengthened provision for writing in teacher education programmes; improved advisory or support programmes for writing; and better public understanding of the 'grammar debate'.
3. English teachers: the design of commercial teaching resources will make the practical realities of the research available and accessible to all secondary English teachers. The teaching materials for the intervention succeeded in raising student attainment with only limited mediation, suggesting that well-designed materials can have impact. This builds on the PI's previous experience of publications which makes research accessible to practitioners (see publications list) and upon the experience of the RF in writing teaching materials for Devon Curriculum Services, published by NATE (eg Lines and Lloyd 2007). The potential benefits for English teachers are: accessible materials to improve writing attainment translating the successful intervention strategies for more widespread use.


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Description As a follow-on project, this was principally concerned with impact development rather than the generation of new findings. However, the Research Action Partnerships have had a direct effect on writing attainment, as outlined below.

Assessment data on pre- and post- scheme writing samples provided evidence of:

• gains of at least one sub-level for between 61 per cent (lowest figure reported) and 84 per cent

(highest reported) of students in their class

• gains particularly strong amongst average - higher ability students.

Close analysis of writing samples has illustrated gains in:

• control of sentence structures used for deliberate effects

• control of punctuation and effective experimentation

• more thoughtful word choices, appropriate to purpose and impact

• evidence of revisions made to students' writing, with purpose and audience in mind.

Many teachers reported that the close focus on language in authentic text models, including the use of grammatical terminology, had improved students' analytical reading skills and the precision with which they talked about their own writing. There were many reports of positive engagement by students and gains in their confidence and self-esteem as writers. Given the variety of school settings and ages (ranging from Y4 to Y12), the variety of writing genres covered and the fact that the average scheme of work lasted only 12 lessons, these reported gains are very encouraging.

The Research Action Partnerships have also led to the following findings:

As with the original study, teachers' grammatical subject knowledge is a significant barrier to successful intervention.This operates both emotionally and pedagogically. The fear of grammar inhibits teachers' engagement with the embedded grammar approach, and the weakness in declarative knowledge impedes teachers' ability to think on their feet and be responsible to student questioning in the classroom.The project team spent far more time than anticipated on supporting subject knowledge development and on reassurance.This, however, was valued by the teachers.

There is tentative and small-scale evidence that the intervention is equally successful in primary school contexts. There was one primary school involved in the project who very confidently adapted the materials and adopted the principles for year 4 and 5 writers and they reported more rapid improvement in writing for the project classes than for the other year 4 and 5 classes in the school.

There is potential to extend this approach beyond English to other subjects across the curriculum. One school focused on developing the intervention in A level subjects other than English.This generated school-level discussion about 'what grammar' to focus on in relation to writing in subjects such as Psychology and Philosophy. Although this discussion required considerable support initially from the project team, the outcome was a heightened understanding of the specific writing demands of particular subjects and effective strategies to address them.
Exploitation Route The activity has led to further research funding and further impact activity with schools.
Sectors Education

Description Please see the impact for Grammar for Writing, the parent project for this study. It is impossible to separate the impact from this grant and that grantr.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal

Description Choice and control : contextualising grammar within writing
Amount £339,000 (GBP)
Organisation Educational Endowment Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2013 
End 12/2013
Description Struggling writers
Amount £38,000 (GBP)
Organisation Pearson 
Department Pearson Education
Sector Private
Country United States
Start 09/2012 
End 01/2013