Growth in Grammar: A multi-dimensional analysis of student writing between 5 and 16

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

Abstract

A central aim of schooling is to help students become effective writers. Becoming an effective writer is critical both for individual and for economic well-being: through writing, we can learn about ourselves and our world, we can understand the past and imagine the future, we can share new knowledge and innovative ideas, and we can create revolutions. The emergence of new media for writing, such as email, blogs and Twitter have served to increase the prevalence of writing as a communication tool both socially and in the workplace. Young people whose education has equipped them to be confident and capable writers are socially and economically advantaged.

Central to good writing is the meaningful and appropriate use of grammar. Research has shown that becoming a good writer requires learning both how to use grammar in purposeful ways to express meanings and how to adapt grammatical choices to meet the expectations of different communicative contexts (e.g. formal vs. informal) and text types (e.g. telling a story vs. constructing an argument).

The importance of grammar as a tool for creating contextually appropriate meanings is recognized in the National Curriculum in England, which states that students should be taught how to write by "selecting appropriate grammar and vocabulary, understanding how such choices can change and enhance meaning" (DfE, 2013a). However, although this principle is well-established, translating it into practice through specific guidelines regarding what should be taught and when it should be assessed, as well as through teachers' day-to-day practices and choices, requires a more detailed understanding, which research has not yet provided.

This has serious implications for the teaching of writing. In particular, current curricular guidance as to when particular grammatical forms should be taught and assessed is not based on a substantial, systematic evidence-base. Moreover, the presentation of grammar in the curriculum largely through the use of an Annex runs the risk of presenting forms as individual isolated items, divorced from context, leading to a teaching focus on labelling and identification, rather than enhancing learners' understanding of shaping written text for differing purposes and audiences.

Given this picture, it is important to establish how students' control over grammatical forms develops throughout the course of their school careers. We need to know which forms are used to express which meanings at each stage of a typical student's development; we need to know how such uses differ across students at different levels of attainment in writing; we need to know how students at different stages and levels adapt their use of grammar to different communicative contexts; and we need to know how these trajectories of development compare to the uses of grammar which are typical of successful mature writers.

This project aims to provide these understandings through computer-aided analysis of a large, systematically-collected, body of authentic student writing. The objectives of the study are fourfold. Firstly, it will establish the first full multi-dimensional analysis of the grammatical patterns which mark the broad spectrum of school-aged writing produced by students in England across the age and attainment range. Secondly, it will offer a more thorough understanding of grammatical development, along with its specific relationship to student writing as found within a particular educational system. Thirdly, it will generate an updatable and publicly accessible corpus of grammatically-annotated, educationally authentic student writing designed to support further studies of literacy development. Finally, it will form the basis for a set of recommendations to inform both national and international curriculum policies.

Planned Impact

This study sets out first and foremost to have impact on young writers and their educational outcomes, through informing and shaping education policy and practice. Concerns about literacy standards, and especially standards in writing, are a frequently reported concern in many Anglophone jurisdictions. Becoming an effective writer is critical both for individual and for economic well-being: through writing, we can learn about ourselves and our world, we can understand the past and imagine the future, we can share new knowledge and innovative ideas, and we can create revolutions. The emergence of new media for writing, such as email, blogs and Twitter have served to increase the prevalence of writing as a communication tool both socially and in the workplace. Young people whose education has equipped them to be confident and capable writers are socially and economically advantaged.

Accordingly, there are three key groups who would be beneficiaries of this research:
1. Policy-makers:
The research would contribute towards evidence-based policy-making in terms of curricular specifications. The debate in Anglophone countries about grammar in the curriculum has historically focused strongly on whether it should be included or not, rather than on what it is appropriate to learn at particular ages and stages of education. The findings from this study will offer robust evidence of which grammatical features appear in children's writing and when they appear in terms of age, attainment, and text type. This would enable curriculum specifications to more appropriately specify the content and coverage of grammar in relation to writing development at different stages of the curriculum. Depending on the findings, it may also inform decisions about when different text types should be introduced. Internationally, it is likely that policy-makers in Australia, New Zealand and Norway would have an immediate interest in this because of their own current curricular developments.

2. Examination Boards and the Department for Education Standards and Testing Agency:
The research would contribute to shaping and enhancing the effectiveness of the testing and examination public services by informing the content of assessment tools. The findings will provide not only developmental age-related information about what grammatical features appear when, but also parallel information regarding the grammatical characteristics evident in different text types. Pattern variations according to text quality will also enable better evidence-based design of mark band descriptors for GCSE English Language, and clearer performance descriptors for writing at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Additionally, the corpus itself will offer exemplars which can inform marker training and assessment development. The research would also have salience for the Common Core Standards for Writing in the US.

3. Teachers and teacher educators:
The research would contribute to informing and developing professional practice in language and literacy education, both for current practitioners and for teacher-educators working with future practitioners, by offering a clear model of development in the grammar-writing relationship. This model will show age-related development, but more critically for classroom practice, it will show how variation occurs according to text quality at particular ages, thus allowing teachers to consider progression and differentiation more effectively. The findings regarding differences according to text type will also allow for more appropriately targeted planning of what to teach and when. The presence of exemplars of writing, drawn from authentic school writing, will give teachers a rich set of models to use to inform planning, and for use in the classroom as models for student discussion. This enriched understanding of progression, and accompanying authentic exemplars, is also likely to be of interest to commercial publishers, such as Pearson.

Publications

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Description What we have discovered:
We have identified key linguistic features which are associated with development in different genres of school children's writing. Findings relate to use of grammar and use of vocabulary.
In relation to grammar, we have found a number of patterns that are associated with age-related development. For example:
• A key marker of development is the use of complex noun phrases. Specifically, use of postmodifiers (i.e. structures such as relative clauses [e.g. the dog which I took for a walk yesterday] and prepositional phrases [e.g. the dog with three legs] increases, both in terms of the number of forms used and the length of those forms. Further findings also demonstrate which types of postmodification are most developmentally significant.
• A number of complex developmental patterns exist in the use of subordinate clauses (i.e. clauses which are dependent on a surrounding phrase, providing further specification about that phrase which is backgrounded to it, e.g. If the students escape, the teacher will be punished). Differences are seen across year groups in terms of both the frequency of use and the internal complexity of several sub-types of subordinate clause. This development is often dependent on the genre in which students are writing. For example, the use of subordinate clauses as the object of a preposition (e.g. Just by looking at the village, you could tell what) increases substantially across year groups in non-literary writing, but does not increase in literary writing.
These age-related shifts in the use of grammatical structures relate to systematic changes in the types of meanings which children create in particular written genres at different stages in their school lives. To take one example, finite adverbial clauses increase in frequency and length across year groups. This is driven by a number of key meaning types which become both more common and more fully-developed in older children's writing. Examples include providing justifications for claims in non-literary writing (e.g. I believe that the festival shouldn't be banned because it bring excitement and enjoyment to people from all areas) and description through similes in literary writing (e.g. He controlled the ball as a puppeteer controls his doll)
In relation to vocabulary, key findings include the following:
• As children progress through their schooling, their use of vocabulary becomes more finely-tuned to the register in which they are writing. This shift is mainly seen in their non-literary writing, where they make ever greater use of words which are typical of adult academic writing, and less use of words which are typical of adult fiction. In their literary writing, children make extensive use of distinctively fiction-like words from a young age. As they get older, they maintain this use and also bring in a small number of academic-style words.
• Using infrequent words, as opposed to everyday words, is often considered a marker of sophisticated writing. Most of the language which we speak or write is made up of a relatively small number of very frequent words, such as think, make, people, and big. This might lead us to expect older students to make ever greater use of low-frequency words. However, we found that the repertoire of words used by older writers was, on average, no less frequent that that used by younger writers. Even in Year 2, children readily use such low-frequency words as smudge, squish, earworm, retina, googly. However, there are some regular differences across year groups in the use of higher vs. lower-frequency vocabulary. In particular:
o Use of low-frequency nouns: Younger children tend to make heavy use of nouns which are very infrequent in adult writing. This is partly due to a focus on topics which are less common amongst adult writers: children's writing makes much reference to fairies, magic, dinosaurs, various types of animals (meerkats, lemurs, hippos, zebras, etc.) and the like. However, the key difference is not so much that these nouns are used (older children also refer to infrequent objects) as that individual low-frequency nouns are used repetitively, so giving them greater prominence in the text.
o In contrast to their use of nouns, as children progress through their schooling, they tend to use lower-frequency adverbs, adjectives and verbs. Low-frequency words are particularly prevalent in their literary texts. As with nouns, the profile of their overall repertoire does not change, but younger children tend to repeat high-frequency items frequently. This tendency gradually decreases as they progress through their schooling. This pattern is particularly strong in the use of verbs.
What we have developed:
We have developed a corpus of approximately 3,000 educationally-authentic children's texts. These were gathered from 824 children in 24 schools. To our knowledge, this is the largest electronic collection of children's authentic school writing in existence. The corpus is currently available for teachers and researchers to download from the project website. An updated version will be deposited at the UK Data Service ReShare repository later this year.
A key methodological learning point from this project was that current software for the automatic grammatical parsing of texts is not sufficiently reliable for research purposes when applied to children's writing. We therefore developed a custom-built grammatical coding scheme for the hand-coding of texts. A sub-set of our corpus (240 texts) has been annotated using this system and is available to other researchers on request.
Exploitation Route Researchers and educational practitioners have shown considerable interest in both the corpus of texts we have created and the findings we have made available through the project website. These can be used, for example, by teachers to understand the age-related linguistic characteristics of student writing in different text types. Teachers working with older children (e.g. A-level students) could also use our texts and finding as a way of raising awareness of important features of language. UK-based researchers have shown interest in the corpus as a resource for further work on children's language development, while researchers from overseas have shown an interest in using our data and findings as a point of comparison for learners of English as a Foreign Language and for children's first language development in languages other than English.
Sectors Education

URL http://gigcorpus.com
 
Description Data and findings from this project are being used in education and teacher education, through a number of different channels. A one-day workshop for educational practitioners in 2019 discussed the project and its key findings and introduced teacher resources available on the project website. This workshop was later reported on the blog of the National Association of Advisors in English (http://www.naae.org.uk/growth-in-grammar-report-by-debbie-haynes-january-2019/). The website, which has been designed to provide accessible data to both teachers and researchers, has been visited over 2,500 times since its launch in late 2018. A workshop for Year 11 boys was conducted at a school in central London in 2018. This workshop built on findings from the project to help students develop their explicit grammar knowledge and appreciate how this knowledge can improve both their reading and writing. Findings from the study have also been integrated into a series of continuing professional development projects led by Debra Myhill as part of the Grammar as choice project. Findings from the study have been discussed through media outlets aimed at educational practitioners. Specifically, findings were covered in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) and were discussed on a TES podcast entitled "What Every Teacher Needs to Know about Grammar".
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal

 
Title Growth in Grammar Corpus 
Description A corpus of approximately 3,000 texts collected from 983 children in 24 schools across England. This corpus has been made available in four different versions (with different levels of linguistic annotation) through the project website. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Not known so far 
URL http://gigcorpus.com
 
Description Englicious symposium 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact A workshop un in conjunction with the team responsible for the 'Englicious' website - an online grammar resource for English teachers. The aim of the workshop was to discuss the respective approaches to grammar teaching of our team and the Englicious team and to consider possibilities for future collaboration. Discussions about possible future collaboration have continued since the workshop.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Growth in Grammar Twitter feed 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The project maintains a Twitter account, with a growing community of 1250+ followers. This is used to (a) update on the progress of the project, (b) gain feedback from and engage in discussions with professional practitioners to inform the conceptual framework of the study, (c) engage in discussions about the nature of the project, including its approach to grammar, in a way designed to feedback positively into schools, and (d) generally promote a more positive view of grammar designed to help practitioners and schools make better sense of the curriculum grammar focus.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL https://twitter.com/growing_grammar?lang=en
 
Description Interview with Schools Week journal 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Interview with reporter from Schools Week journal. News story in the journal.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://schoolsweek.co.uk/send-us-your-schoolwork-biggest-study-of-grammar-to-help-shape-curriculum/
 
Description Keynote talk at International Conference on Writing Analytics. University of Southern Florida. January 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Keynote talk given at conference attended mainly by teachers of composition at US universities and by representatives of testing and assessment organisations. The talk aimed to raise awareness of our work in these practitioner groups. As a result of the talk, I have been invited to help develop a corpus-linguistic research element to an ongoing collaboration between four universities: University of Southern Florida; North Carolina State; University of Pennsylvania; Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Linguistic Data Consortium Guest Speaker (Philadelphia) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Mark Brenchley presented on methdological aspects of the Growth in Grammar project to the Linguistics Data Consortium, a world-renowned centre for corpus linguistics. The object was to highlight particular methodological difficulties involved in automated grammatical analysis within the context of student writing, and to discuss ways in which the field may seek to better address these difficulties.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.ldc.upenn.edu/communications/ldc-institute
 
Description London School Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The project team have been invited to deliver a special grammar workshop, designed to help students develop their explicit grammar knowledge and appreciate how this knowledge can improve both their reading and writing. The workshop is scheduled for March 2018, with a proposed audience of two classes of 60 Year 11 boys within a central London school. The workshop will be delivered on the basis of the project's interim findings, including a bespoke noun phrase analysis of the project's narrative texts that is being undertaken for a practitioner conference in April 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Press release, leading to news features in Times Educational Supplement 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A description of part of our study findings was sent as a press release to the Times Educational Supplement and published as a new item.

This has led to inquiries from readers about access to the corpus of texts we have collected.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.tes.com/news/meerkats-volcanoes-primary-pupils-unexpectedly-sophisticated-vocab
 
Description Project website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Project website setting out key findings and related resources for practitioners. Also makes complete datasets available. Website is accessible by registration only. To date, it has been received over 1,000 views from over 50 distinct users.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
URL http://gigcorpus.com
 
Description TES Podagogy Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The project was briefly discussed as part of a featured Times Educational Supplement podcast with the research fellow, entitled "What Every Teacher Needs to Know about Grammar". To date, this podcast has been downloaded over 2,600 times and been received positively by teacher practitioners. Many of these practitioners have directly commented on how useful the information has been and on their intention to use this information in their teaching. The podcast has resulted in an increased profile for the project within the practitioner community, with the Twitter account adding numerous followers on the basis of the podcast and expressions of interest in the project's final results.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/listen-what-every-teacher-needs-know-about-gramm...
 
Description Teacher workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 20 teachers/educational leaders attended a one-day workshop which reviewed the project, discussed key findings, introduced the teacher resources available on the project website and discussed related ideas for teaching. Event was reported by one participant on National Association of Advisors in English blog (http://www.naae.org.uk/growth-in-grammar-report-by-debbie-haynes-january-2019/). We later received requests for access to our data and findings from the English and Media Centre and an invitation to present the project as a keynote talk at the upcoming National Association of Advisors in English conference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Trondheim symposium 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Symposium organised involving team member from the Growth in Grammar project, a team from the Norwegian National Centre for Writing Education and Research at Trondheim University of Science and Technology, and other members of the University of Exeter Graduate School of Education. The aim of the symposium was to share knowledge and ideas stemming from the related projects run by the two teams. We discussed possible areas for future collaboration on cross-linguistic research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Writing analytics conference (Florida) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Gave a 'featured presentation' at practitioner/researcher conference. Led to collaborative work with a team in Florida responsible for an online feedback tool for college composition.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://toolsforwriters.com/writing-analytics-data-mining-and-student-success/