Development in Metalinguistic Understanding and its relationship to development in writing.

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


In the context of national and international concerns about standards in writing, both in school examinations and in the workplace, there is a pressing need for more informed understanding of the ways in which students become competent, autonomous writers. Many studies have emphasised the importance of metacognition and self-regulation in writing, signalling that writing is not simply about production, but also about choice and control. Metalinguistic understanding (knowledge about language) is one element of this control, yet we know surprisingly little about how this develops or how it supports writing development. Thus, this study seeks to investigate the relationship between metalinguistic understanding and development in writing; in other words, what metalinguistic understanding are students increasingly able to articulate and what are they increasingly able to demonstrate in their writing. In doing so, it brings together two complementary strands of research in writing.

Firstly, it sets out to generate understanding of how young writers' metalinguistic understanding develops between the ages of 9 and 14. Existing research on metalinguistic understanding has not considered this in the context of older writers, focusing instead on early years' writing, on oral development, and on bilingual learners. Thus, we have no empirically evidenced understanding of trajectories of metalinguistic development in the middle years. At the same time, we have only limited understanding of the relationship between metalinguistic development and writing development. In general, there is an assumption that metalinguistic development precedes language performance, but in the context of writing, it is important to interrogate whether greater metalinguistic understanding leads to improved writing performance, or whether writing performance marches ahead of, or indeed shapes, metalinguistic development. Gombert (1992) suggests tentatively that declarative knowledge (being able to articulate metalinguistic understanding about writing) precedes procedural knowledge (being able to transfer metalinguistic knowledge into writing). This study will address these gaps in the research through examining the inter-relationship of declarative metalinguistic knowledge and procedural metalinguistic knowledge, and the inter-relationship of metalinguistic understanding and writing performance.

Secondly, the study will seek to understand how the explicit teaching of grammar, relevant to the writing being taught, fosters metalinguistic understanding, and whether it supports the generation of metalinguistic understanding which leads to improvement in writing. This will include exploring the role of grammatical metalanguage in enhancing or constraining metalinguistic knowledge. Curricular emphases on teaching grammar are theoretically predicated upon an assumption that explicit teaching leads to increased metalinguistic understanding, which in turn is realized in improved writing performance. This causal trajectory has never been robustly researched, despite the prolonged and heavily contested debate about the place of grammar in the language curriculum (Locke 2010).

The proposed study is a collaborative, comparative study involving England and Australia. In England, grammar has notionally been a part of the National Curriculum for English since its inception in 1989, with particular emphasis given to 'grammar for writing' in the National Strategies from 1998-2011. In contrast, Australia is just introducing its first National Curriculum, with a parallel focus on grammar. The bid has been developed jointly and a parallel bid to this submitted to the ARC by the Australian team to fund the Australian element. The proposal here has been designed to have intellectual and methodological coherence both as part of a comparative study or as an independent national project, to mitigate against the risk of the Australian bid being unsuccessful.

Planned Impact

The study's focus on metalinguistic understanding and its relationship to writing development will have important implications not only for academic beneficiaries, but also for policy-makers and for professional practice. These implications would not be limited to England and Australia only, but would have relevance to the many Anglophone countries for whom the place of grammar in the curriculum remains contested (eg Canada; USA; New Zealand; South Africa). Arguably, the Australian National Curriculum, with its goal to achieve a 'gradually more powerful conversion of 'knowledge about' language into a resource for effective reading, listening, viewing, writing, speaking and designing' (ACARA 2009:3), is underpinned by a more coherent rationale than its English counterpart. However, this rationale is not as yet empirically tested, a gap which this study will address in relation to writing. At the same time, the study's investigation of how metalinguistic understanding is realised in writing attainment is important given international concerns about achievement in writing and the social wellbeing and economic implications that derive from being an effective communicator in writing.

This study's results, therefore, will have the potential to inform evidence-based national policy-making in language education, curriculum design, examination and testing procedures, teacher education, and to inform practitioners and professional practice. The participatory and collaborative nature of the research design will also bring benefits to the teachers and students directly involved in the study, potentially transforming departmental cultures and practices.

Potential beneficiaries of this research in England and the nature of the potential impact are outlined below:

1. The project schools, both the participating teachers and students in the sample classes.
Involvement in the research is likely to benefit participating teachers in developing their pedagogic subject knowledge of metalinguistic understanding in the context of writing, and will benefit students in helping them to reflect on and articulate their metalinguistic understanding.

2. Policy-makers and policy-informers, such as the Department for Education, Ofsted, and government ministers.
The findings of the study are likely to benefit policy-makers by providing an evidence-based understanding of the relationship between metalinguistic understanding and writing development which should help to provide a coherent theoretical and pedagogical rationale for curriculum development.

3. Testing and Assessment bodies, such as Cambridge Assessment, OCR, Edexcel, and AQA.
The findings related to developmental aspects of metalinguistic understanding and how it manifests itself in writing are likely to benefit test developers in terms of both test design and marker training.

4. Professional Associations, such as the National Association of Advisors in English, the National Association for the Teaching of English, and the United Kingdom Literacy Association.
The findings are likely to benefit professional associations by providing evidence-based understanding to inform school-facing guidance and support materials and in shaping subject-specific responses to policy-makers and policy consultations.

5. School teachers and school leaders.
The teaching materials developed for the study and the pedagogical implications of the findings are likely to benefit English teachers and literacy co-ordinators, particularly with reference to teaching strategies which support the development of metalinguistic understanding.

6. Student teachers, and lecturers in HEI responsible for Primary and Secondary English.
The empirical results and teaching materials are likely to benefit pre-service students and course tutors, particularly in highlighting what linguistic subject knowledge and pedagogic practices supports effective teaching of metalinguistic understanding.


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Myhill D (2013) The role of grammar in the writing curriculum: A review of the literature in Child Language Teaching and Therapy

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Myhill D (2016) Metatalk: Enabling metalinguistic discussion about writing in International Journal of Educational Research

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Myhill D (2018) Grammar as a meaning-making resource for language development in L1 Educational Studies in Language and Literature

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Myhill D (2018) Texts that teach: Examining the efficacy of using texts as models in L1 Educational Studies in Language and Literature

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Myhill D (2016) Writing conversations: fostering metalinguistic discussion about writing in Research Papers in Education

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Myhill, D.A. (2016) Essential Primary Grammar

Description The study has provided unique insights, based on rich qualitative data, which illuminates the complex relationship between teaching and learning about grammatical choices, and improving the quality of writing. Four key outcomes are reported below.

1. The development of students' metalinguistic knowledge.
Students' grammatical knowledge is heavily dependent on what is taught, because it is explicit knowledge which cannot be learned implicitly. The study shows that classroom definitions and explanations often hinder conceptual development of grammatical understanding, because they rely on proxy semantic definitions which do not address the key conceptual idea. Students reveal strong evidence of grammatical reasoning and the use of logic, independent of teachers, and this is why the semantic definitions lead to misconceptions. At the same time, however, some students repeat a standard definition of a grammatical term but do not use that definition actively as a test in the examples offered. Conceptual development of abstract grammatical terminology is not strictly linear- prototypical understanding moving to wider interconnected understanding, like ripples in a pond. The longitudinal data reveals how appropriate teacher interventions could alter their conceptual understanding and address the issues raised above.

2. Young writers' metalinguistic talk about writing:
Students are now more confident in identifying grammar structures because of its new emphasis in the curriculum, but there is a tendency to talk about 'deploying', about 'putting things in', which is heavily influenced by the curricular context, especially the key stage 2 Teacher Assessment requirements. Students find it more challenging to verbalise the relationship between a grammar choice and its effect in their writing. There is a relationship between how teachers manage classroom talk and how students verbalise their understanding of their grammatical choices and their effects in writing

3. The relationship between learners' metalinguistic talk and transfer into their writing:
The curriculum assumes that explicit teaching of a grammar point precedes its use in a child's writing. However, this study demonstrates that the relationship between knowing about and applying is more complex. There was evidence that some students are able to use a (taught) structure in their writing, before they can name that structure and its effect explicitly. Some students are able to articulate explicitly their use of grammatical structure but without using grammatical metalanguage. Relatively few students verbalise confidently the grammar choices and its effect in writing. This raises a further important question about much of this is developmental and how much is linked to the students' pedagogical experiences.

4. The relationship between teachers' practices and students' metalinguistic learning:
There is a very strong relationship between what is taught and what is learned which has both positive and negative outcomes for learners. How teachers model writing through joint or shared composition can influence student learning, particularly in terms of creating independence and verbalisable metalinguistic understanding. How teachers use mentor texts can support metalinguistic learning about writing, or can reduce students to very basic imitative writing. How teachers teach the grammatical concepts has a very significant influence on students' conceptual understanding of grammatical terms.
Exploitation Route The findings regarding students' conceptual development in understanding grammatical metalanguage has significant implications for teaching, particularly in relation to the grammar requirements for primary in the National Curriculum. Treating a particular grammatical concept, such as a noun, as a single, simple concept is not helpful and more consideration needs to be given to how learners move from basic understanding of a term to more enriched and sophisticated understanding, which is built cumulatively both conceptually and over time.

A greater pedagogical focus on the verbalisation of grammar as choice and the modelling of high-quality metalinguistic talk in the classroom would strengthen the efficacy of the teaching. Teachers understand well the relevance of teaching writing with an explicit focus on grammatical choices and its effect on writing outcomes can be strong, when the teaching is effective. There is less confidence in articulating the effect of particular grammatical choices, because this is new knowledge for teachers.

Teachers' own subject knowledge remains an issue and further support for subject knowledge and pedagogical subject knowledge development is needed. Syntactical understanding, in particular, needs strengthening but also the capacity to notice how texts are working grammatically and how to share that with young learners.
Sectors Education

Description NARRATIVE IMPACT REPORT The impact from this study builds upon and extends the impact of our preceding ESRC grants, ES/F015313/1 and ES/J00037X/1. The first was a randomised controlled trial and complementary qualitative study testing the efficacy of a pedagogical approach which teaches writing with an explicit attention to how grammar shapes meaning, and the second was a Follow-On study working with teachers to support them in taking up the approach. The current study, Development in Metalinguistic Understanding, has further extended our understanding of the efficacy of this approach, particularly regarding: the relationship between what teachers teach and what children learn; how children's metalinguistic knowledge develops; how that knowledge is transferred into writing; and what constitutes effective metalinguistic talk. As a consequence, we have further refined the pedagogic approach, revising the underlying design principles to four key principles, and giving more emphasis to the place of talk for learning about writing, and how to support transfer of metalinguistic learning into writing. In 2014, we won the ESRC Award for Outstanding Impact in Society for our work on grammar and writing: some of the later impact used in the submission for this award drew from this project. It is not possible to separate the impact of this study from the two earlier grants, as this is a cumulative body of work, and so we are counting all impact since 1 Jan 2014 as impact on this project, as this was approximately when we first started using early findings from this study in our work. To date, our key impact can be summarised as follows: ? Changing educational understanding of the relationship between the teaching of writing and the teaching of grammar; ? Strengthening teachers' subject knowledge of grammar and their pedagogical knowledge of how to integrate grammar teaching in the teaching of writing ? Influencing commercial educational publishers and commercial professional development for teachers; Changing educational understanding of the relationship between the teaching of writing and the teaching of grammar; We have had a significant impact through professional development work with teachers, teacher educators, literacy charities and advisory bodies in changing how educators think about the grammar-writing relationship, moving away from a grammar 'labelling' attitude to understanding how grammar is a resource for making meaning in writing. More than 4,000 teachers or teacher educators have attended training workshops led by our research team since January 2014. Increasingly these workshops are leading to secondary reach, where attendees then train other teachers. For example, the Teaching and Learning Adviser for the London Borough of Merton has used our research to inform her training of schools in the authority, and their 2015-16 data results showed a clear improvement in student outcomes in writing. The National Literacy Trust invited us to contribute to their national Language for Life programme. Our research is increasingly being taken up in international contexts, particularly in Australia, Scandinavia, and Chile. In Australia, Debra Myhill gave a keynote at the Education Day of at the International Federation of Systemic Functional Linguistics annual conference in July 2017, and ran a teachers' workshop with researchers from the University of Melbourne. She will give a keynote in Perth in July 2018 for the Australian Literacy Educators Association There are other examples of uptake by practitioners in Australia: for example, the Educational Services / Wagga Wagga Operational Directorate in New South Wales has used our research 'with teachers who are writing a grammar course for schools together' . In Scandinavia, we have given 8 keynotes at teacher educator conferences in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and worked intensively with teacher educators in Linnaeus University, Vaxjo, on integrating our approach into their teacher education programmes. This work has been supplemented by 4 commissioned articles or chapters for teachers in these countries. In Chile, a research team from the University of Chile have received funding to research our pedagogical approach with teachers in Chile and Debra Myhill visited the team in December 2016 to advise both on how we conducted our research and on how we worked with teachers. Strengthening teachers' subject knowledge of grammar and their pedagogical knowledge of how to integrate grammar teaching in the teaching of writing: The professional development workshops, noted above, have also had impact on teachers' subject and pedagogical knowledge. Teachers' grammatical knowledge has not been strong because they themselves were not taught in schools. One change made since 2014 to our professional training sessions is to include more direct support for grammatical subject knowledge. Teachers attending report clear benefits in increased subject knowledge of grammar, increased understanding of how to teach grammar, and increased understanding of the relationship between grammar and writing. For example, 90% of 75 teachers surveyed following attending professional development for our EEF funded project, reported they had strengthened their grammatical knowledge of syntax, and 67% reported improvement in their knowledge of the verb. These CPD workshops frequently create a ripple effect of further, more sustained work. The large regional workshop events lead to schools inviting us to work with their schools in follow-up workshops and increasingly in sustained ongoing projects. We have developed bespoke CPD programmes over a period of time with schools across the country, with federations or academy chains, and with University-school partnerships. These deeper relationships lead to more embedded change. We have also written a book for primary teachers (Essential Primary Grammar) to develop subject knowledge of grammar and how to teach it: this made strong use of findings from this study and it is recommended reading on many PGCE courses. Influencing commercial educational publishers and commercial professional development for teachers During the period of this grant, we have sustained our relationship with Pearson Education who have used our research in their commercial materials for teachers. We developed new GCSE teaching materials with Pearson and ran a series of 30 CPD courses for them around the country in 2014-15 supporting teachers in integrating our pedagogical approach into the new GCSE syllabuses. Our research is cited on p1 and extensively on p21 of their guidance to schools.. We have also we have undertaken commissioned research for Pearson Education's EDEXCEL wing, analysing the written responses in Geography and History examination papers and scripts, which resulted in reports for Pearson and teacher guidance on the grammar-writing implications. We also wrote a teaching unit on 'A Monster Calls' which is part of Pearson's free online resources to accompany their edition of this book. Pearson tell us that working with us 'has not only changed how we think about literacy, but also our entire strategy for how we can best help learners progress'. We have also developed a strong relationship with Babcock Education, who manage all literacy advisory work in Devon and run national professional development and training. They have adopted the findings of our research into their own materials and school support. Babcock tell us that our research has been 'enormously influential' in informing all their CPD, publications and training materials: in addition to the teaching resource and conference series below, they are currently developing an online module, influenced by our research. Their teaching resource, No-Nonsense Grammar, drawing on our research, has been very popular, and the sales team 'has found that the association with the Exeter team, through the foreword and our conference work, is a real draw for potential purchasers'.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Grammar for Writing Primary
Amount £172,163 (GBP)
Organisation Education Endowment Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2016 
End 09/2017