Thursday, 16 March 2017

English grammar in schools: support and training for teachers

In this blog post, we discuss an ongoing project at UCL called Teaching English Grammar in Schools. The project began in reaction to the new 2014 National Curriculum, which included a substantial amount of grammatical content to be learnt by school students. Ongoing outputs from our project include an online platform for teaching grammar, two regular training courses for teachers in grammar, and a mobile app for improving grammatical subject knowledge.

Grammar and the curriculum

The role and place of grammar in the English curriculum is well documented and contested. Research and debate has sought to address a range of issues, such as:

  • How much grammar do school students and teachers need to know?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages in teaching grammar in/out of context?
  • Does a greater knowledge of grammar lead to an increase in writing ability?
  • What models of grammar are the most suitable for schools?
  • What role does metalanguage have to play?

These questions (and others) seem particularly relevant given the changes in grammatical content in the most recent version of the National Curriculum in England. These changes include:

  • Statutory spelling, punctuation and grammar tests to be taken by Year 6 pupils (age 11-12) at the end of Key Stage 2;
  • Optional spelling, punctuation and grammar tests for Year 4 pupils (age 6-7) at the end of Key Stage 1;
  • An increased emphasis on grammatical content for secondary school students (Key Stages 3 and 4);
  • A 19-page glossary of grammatical terms, designed as an aid for teachers.

The KS1/2 tests (commonly known as the ‘GPS or ‘SPaG tests’) have received the most attention from practitioners and the public – with some criticising the nature and content of the assessments, with others celebrating the fact that grammar is ‘back on’ the curriculum.

Amidst the various debates about the nature of testing young people and the most effective ways of teaching grammar, the government forgot one important factor: most English teachers have received very little (if any) training in linguistics, either in their undergraduate degrees or their teacher training. Hudson and Walmsley (2005: 616) write that
most younger teachers know very little grammar and are suspicious of explicit grammar teaching. Not surprisingly, therefore, new recruits entering teacher-training courses typically either know very little grammar (Williamson & Hardman 1995) or have no confidence in their knowledge, presumably because they have picked it up in an unsystematic way (Cajkler & Hislam 2002).
At the same time, school students often have difficulties with learning complex grammatical concepts. To make things even more tricky, grammar teaching has a history of using invented, artificial examples, which students find difficult to relate to real linguistic contexts and their own language usage. It is perhaps no surprise that many teachers feel anxious and under-confident when it comes to grammar (see Watson (2012) for an interesting discussion of the various discourses around grammar teaching).

We believe that good grammar teaching requires a combination of content and pedagogical knowledge - and so, our project was born: with a rationale to help teachers and students in their own subject knowledge, and develop innovative ways for teaching grammar in the classroom. As academics with expertise in theoretical linguistics and practical school-teaching experience, we believe we have a good knowledge base which we hope to share with teachers across the UK.

Support for teachers and students

In response to (a) the changes to the National Curriculum; (b) the fact that teachers typically know very little grammar, and (b) a lack of support for teachers, the Survey of English Usage embarked on a research project, Teaching English Grammar in Schools. This was in the form of a knowledge transfer fellowship, initially funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The outputs of the project are (1) Englicious; (2) CPD courses for teachers, and (3) an app for GPS test practice. We will look at each of them in turn here.


Englicious is a free online platform for teachers and students, for teaching aspects of grammar and linguistics in the classroom. It currently has over 5,000 registered users from around the world. It is completely aligned to the 2013 National Curriculum terminology and content requirements. The site includes hundreds of resources for teaching grammar: starter activities, lesson plans, videos and project ideas, as well as a more detailed version of the National Curriculum grammar glossary. It also includes a section on professional development, where teachers can learn more about English grammar.

We argue that learning about grammar can be fun and engaging, and is interesting as a topic in its own right. The teaching and learning activities on the site are dynamic and contemporary, often making use of the interactive whiteboard that many classrooms now come equipped with. For example, the Noun Phrase Generator activity involves students playing with language and exploiting its flexible properties – as well as providing opportunities to discuss syntax and meaning:

Screenshot from the 'Noun Phrase Generator' activity

In this activity, students are invited to explore various words that can fill the grammatical ‘slots’ of noun phrase structure: so they can generate (grammatical, but rather semantically odd) constructions such as the little elephants in the classroom and (ungrammatical) constructions such as *some special bus that I caught. Importantly, this then opens up plenty of discussions around how grammatical choices convey meaning, what and why word choices are grammatically acceptable in certain positions, and what the internal structure of noun phrases ‘looks’ like.

The examples of language used in Englicious activities make use of the Survey’s corpus, ICE-GB. This means that the activities are based on real, authentic examples of language, and generates new examples each time - something that no printed textbook can do. Our Identify the Subject activity illustrates this:

Screenshot from the 'Identify the Subject' activity

Again, this can lead on to plenty of discussions around meaning, choice and effect – whilst using appropriate metalanguage to foster high-quality talk about texts and the structure of language. Activities like the ones explored here combine grammatical description with explanation, bringing together subject knowledge and pedagogical skill to create what we consider to be good grammar teaching.

An example of Englicious being used in the classroom (as well as our other videos) can be seen here.

To see Englicious for yourself, please visit:

CPD courses for teachers

We run regular, 1-day CPD courses for primary and secondary school teachers. Participants come to UCL from across the UK, where we spend the day developing grammatical subject knowledge and pedagogical methods for teaching grammar. We have taught hundreds of teachers via these courses, where we also demonstrate Englicious and show how it can be used in the classroom. We offer two courses:

English Grammar for Teachers
A subject knowledge course designed for primary and secondary school teachers, where we talk through the National Curriculum requirements and cover word classes, phrases, clauses and grammatical function. See for more details.

Teaching English Grammar in Context
A pedagogical grammar course for secondary school teachers, we explore how KS2 grammatical knowledge can be developed and applied in KS3-4 teaching. We look at how grammar can be taught in relation to a range of texts, genres and styles. See for more details.

The teachers that we work with on both these courses are enthusiastic and keen to develop their own subject knowledge. Many of them come from backgrounds that have included little or no training in grammar, and many have been ‘thrown in at the deep end’ considering the revised curriculum and the lack of support from elsewhere. It is a real privilege to work with teachers who are committed to their subject and their students, and it is a pleasure to see the ‘lightbulb’ moments that so many of them experience during the courses.

We run our CPD courses at UCL, or as INSET days in schools

Grammar Practice KS2

This is a mobile app for school students who are preparing for the KS2 GPS tests. The app contains 50 different practice exercises covering everything from word classes, phrases and clauses to identifying formal and informal language.

It is available for download here.

Our Grammar Practice KS2 app is popular amongst students - and teachers!


Cajkler, W. & Hislam, J. (2002) Trainee teachers’ grammatical knowledge: The tension between public expectations and individual competence. Language Awareness 11: 16177.

Hudson, R. & Walmsley, J. (2005) The English Patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century. Journal of Linguistics 43(3): 593-622.

Watson, A. (2012). Navigating ‘the pit of doom’: Affective responses to teaching ‘grammar’. English in Education 46 (1): 21 – 37.

Williamson J. & Hardman, F. (1995) Time for refilling the bath? A study of primary student-teachers’ grammatical knowledge. Language and Education 9: 2345

Bas Aarts and Ian Cushing
Survey of English Usage, Department of English Language & Literature, University College London

Bas Aarts is a Professor of English Linguistics at UCL.

Ian Cushing is a Teaching Fellow in English Linguistics at UCL, and previously taught English in secondary schools.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Academics in the Classroom: Reflections on the Workshop

In the now-distant heat of mid August, a group of 19 secondary English teachers and a corresponding number of early career academics gathered in Hertford College, Oxford for two days of stimulating discussion and debate, the focus of which was outreach. Funded by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Awards and led by Dr Catherine Redford, the Academics in the Classroom workshop aimed to foster links across the sectors and explore ways in which expertise can be shared.

The first keynote speech was by Professor Emma Smith, who drew on her experience of
working with secondary students. She explored some of the ways in which academics can use their expertise to enrich students' (and their teachers') understanding of context. While her speech spoke to early career academics and how they might approach outreach sessions to students, what became apparent in subsequent discussions was that teachers really value the expertise and subject knowledge that academics can provide.

Gary Snapper speaking at the workshop
Other sessions included training by Dr Velda Elliott from the Department for Education in Oxford, whose dynamic session on Active Pedagogies encouraged participation and performance. Gary Snapper detailed research conducted on transition from sixth form to university level study and lively roundtable discussions demonstrated the range of educational programmes and projects including the British Library, the Globe Theatre and the Brontë Parsonage Museum, as well as the ways in which blogs and technology can be used as outreach tools. Dr Eleanor Parker’s A Clerk of Oxford blog and Dr Andrea Macrae and Dr Marcello Giovanelli’s Integrating English project and their blog The Definite Article demonstrated the ways in which technology can support and develop teachers' expertise.

Roundtable discussions that included both academics and teachers highlighted the very different ways in which ‘outreach’ is interpreted by different people in different institutions. It often seemed to be used synonymously with widening participation for universities and enrichment for schools, but as dialogue continued important questions were raised about the purposes of and audience for outreach. As the sessions went on, though, what was apparent by the end was that outreach should not be exclusive to the most able and that for it to reach the widest possible audience, closer collaboration between academics and teachers is vital. There seemed to be a call for reciprocity in such partnerships where teachers can offer pedagogical expertise to early career academics with little training or experience of teaching and the academic community in their turn can support the subject knowledge of English teachers who are constantly having to update and develop their subject to keep up with changing specifications.

Delegates take part in an 'Active Pedagogies' session
English Association president Adrian Barlow’s keynote speech at the end of the two days highlighted another important aspect of this reciprocity between the secondary education community and further education as he brought into sharp focus the shortage of qualified English teachers. He called for university departments to recognise their role in developing graduates equipped with the subject demands of English teaching today.

The Academics in the Classroom website has links to video recordings of the workshop's various sessions as well as a bank of digital resources and useful articles. The website is designed to enable those interested in English outreach to pool their knowledge and make contact with other interested parties, and invites contact from projects or resources that are useful or worth promoting. A special edition of 'Issues in English' dedicated to English outreach and arising from the project will be published by the English Association.

Jane Campion
The English Association

This article was originally published in the English Association Newsletter (Autumn/Winter 2016: No. 213) and is reproduced with the kind permission of the English Association.

Find out more about the English Association here.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Between Schools and Universities

Before last August’s workshop, I’d always taken ‘schools outreach’ to mean what happens when academics worked with school pupils. In the past I’ve spoken about the value of an English degree at university open days, led taster sessions on Derek Walcott’s Omeros for Year 11s at an access event, and taught short courses with talented pupils in Hounslow – these activities were what I thought of as outreach.

Adrian Barlow speaking at the workshop
The workshop taught me that outreach activities don’t necessarily need to involve students directly: there can just as much value in having academics and teachers help each other out. Adrian Barlow, President of the English Association, reminded us that students, teachers and academics all belong to the same ‘community of English’ (see from 42:40 in his presentation), and asked us to think about what teachers want from academics, and what academics might do for teachers.

Several participants at the workshop mentioned ways that greater engagement between schools and universities would be valuable. Nicola Thomas, a PhD student at Nottingham, spoke about how much people in her situation would appreciate teaching advice from trained professionals when leading their first seminars and marking their first undergraduate essays. I know from experience how handy such advice can be, as my own university teaching is still informed by the basic grounding in Bloom's Taxonomy that I once received courtesy of The Brilliant Club.

More co-operation would help to narrow the gap between A-Level and University English that Gary Snapper spoke about. And Nicolas Cole’s presentation sparked a debate about whether some residential courses at Oxford would offer greater benefit over time if they were organized for teachers rather than their students.

I also had conversations with teachers who weren’t able to spend as much time as they wanted to find good resources to stretch their strongest students and so help them achieve the grades they deserved. What these teachers required – knowledge of the latest research on texts, access to new scholarship, and the time to sift through material to locate and summarize key extracts from criticism – is exactly what most postgraduates and early career researchers can offer.

Channels for communication between teachers and academics already exist, such as the Oxford Early Career Academic Outreach Network (also represented at the workshop) and the Prince's Teaching Institute. As a result of the workshop I’ve created a new path for cooperation in connection to the separate BARSEA-funded initiative that I’m running, the Early Modern Boundaries Project.

This project offers a new platform for early modernists to discuss research queries among targeted groups of other researchers. It works like a customizable mailing list that allows academics to start discussions among other members who have relevant interests. To learn more, see:

Academics with interests in the literature, history or culture of the early modern period (15th to 18th centuries) are invited to join the network, and to tick the box ‘English Outreach’ when completing the registration form if interested in collaborating with English teachers: 

Teachers are warmly invited to ask our academic volunteers for advice and resources. You might ask us to provide a short extract from a recent article on Othello and race, along with a brief summary and questions arising from it; or to photocopy some primary sources for teaching contexts for Renaissance love poetry; to suggest a female author to read alongside Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer; or to request a school visit for someone to talk about William Blake’s poetry. We encourage any teacher (whether or not present in August) to email requests to or ask via our Twitter account @emboundaries.We’ll then put your question to our early modern ‘English Outreach’ community, share the responses we receive and/or put you in touch directly with an academic.

This coming together of the two BARSEA projects is intended to pursue the agenda that ‘Academics in the Classroom’ established by generating new opportunities for teachers and academics to share their skills. Do get involved – we’d love to hear from you.

Peter Auger
Queen Mary University of London

Ashby School Visit De Montfort University

Following this summer's 'Academics in the Classroom' conference, two delegates - Tom Mummery and Alice Wood - collaborated on an English outreach project that saw fifteen Year 13 students from Ashby School in Leicestershire visit De Montfort University this month for an enrichment day. Alice and her colleagues at De Montfort organised a seminar on corpus linguistics and a lecture on the representation of women in magazines from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The students then had the chance to visit the university's archives to examine a collection of women's magazines from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

You can read more about the collaboration on the Ashby School website.

Monday, 21 November 2016

2017 Christopher Tower Poetry Competition

The 17th Christopher Tower Poetry Competition, the UK’s most valuable prize for young poets, has opened for entries, and this year students between 16-18 years of age are challenged to write a poem on the theme of ‘Stone’.  In the 16 years of Tower Poetry's competitions we've received almost 11,000 entries from almost 2,250 schools. Students from Bishop Challoner Catholic College (who have been longlisted) have entered most often, followed by the Sixth Form College, Colchester (with a winner in 2008) and thirdly Putney High School (with a winner in 2001). Over 200 different schools have been longlisted - some more than once.

Sarah Howe (Photo: Hayley Madden)
Established in 2000, the Tower Prizes are recognised as among the most prestigious literary awards for this age group. The first prize is £3,000, with £1,000 and £500 going to the second and third prize-winners. In addition to individual prizes, the students’ schools and colleges also receive cash prizes of £150 and the three prizewinners are eligible for a place on the Tower Poetry Summer School. Three or four commended entries will receive £250 each. The names and schools of those longlisted will also be published on the Tower Poetry website. Entry forms are downloadable from the website and entry can be made online (or by post).

The entries will be judged this year by poets Sarah Howe and Vahni Capildeo. The 2017 competition will build on the success of earlier competitions.  Many of our growing 'alumni' of 100 winners (2001-2016) and almost 800 longlisted, as well as 68 Summer School students, are gaining further acclaim in other competitions or within the publishing / writing world. 

Vahni Capildeo (Photo:Georgia Popplewell)
The competition is open to all 16-18 year-olds who are in full or part time education in the UK, and students and schools can find out more information about the prizes and associated future events at, or email or call 01865 286591. 

Follow us on Facebook or @TowerPoetry on Twitter or YouTube at The closing date for entries is Friday 17 February, 2017. The winners will be announced on Wednesday 19 April 2017.

Kathryn Grant
Christopher Tower Poetry Administrator

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

A Shared Community: The English & Media Centre

The English & Media Centre (EMC) has, for many years, provided Continuing Professional Development, resources and magazines to meet the needs of English and Media teachers and students in secondary education, both in the UK and internationally. We have developed a strong reputation for our work at A Level (and equivalent qualifications like IB), in part as a result of publishing a quarterly magazine for A Level English Literature, Language and Lang/Lit students that reaches a large number of schools and colleges nationwide. emagazine is directed at students, sits on the shelves of classrooms and is displayed in libraries, but it also has its own website, with thousands of archived, searchable articles and other items, such as interactive activities and video clips.

These are the simple facts about us and about emagazine, but what lies beneath them is a much richer and more interesting story about the ways in which we have managed to make connections with colleagues in universities, establish mutually beneficial relationships and allow a two-way process of academics being able to discover more about the English subjects at A Level and students and teachers being able to find out more about English in the academy. 

The pages of the magazine are filled with articles by A Level students, teachers, academics and some undergraduates who used to read the magazine and have wished to maintain contact by continuing to write for us. In any one issue, this rich mix of writing offers a flavour of the kinds of practices, texts and topics under discussion in our subject, across the school and university sectors.  

When university colleagues write for us, we ask that they maintain a high degree of intellectual rigour and challenge in the content of what they write – but we strip away some of the conventions of university-level writing, such as footnoting and extended bibliographies, and suggest a style that puts a premium on clarity of expression, directness and accessibility and avoids acadamese. This often results in stunningly good writing – vibrant prose, a conversational voice, difficult ideas that are clear as a pool of still water. The writers themselves often comment on how refreshing it has been to be able to write in this way and that writing for a young adult audience allows them to adopt a different kind of voice and stance.

I know that students appreciate these contributions enormously and draw on them as models for their own writing. Teachers also use the magazine as a way of keeping up-to-date with current research, new ideas about the subject and as a source of secondary critical material to share with their students.

emagclips is an online library of film clips of writers, critics and academics talking in short 3-5 minute chunks about literary or linguistic topics. It includes poets like Owen Sheers and Jonathan Edwards and academics such as John Mullan, David Punter, Margaret Reynolds and Elena Semino. Some of these contributors have become hugely popular among students. This is a way of sharing some of the expertise and brilliance of university colleagues with a large number of students in schools – not just those who are privileged enough to have a visit at their school, or attend a conference, or go to a lecture at a university Open Day.

One spin-off from all of this has been that we now run three annual emagazine conferences for the English subjects with around eight hundred students attending each. Our contacts via the magazine have allowed us to work closely with the academics who speak, to make sure that the event is really successful and meets the needs of A Level students. This, I believe, is an illuminating experience for the people who come and present, as well as for the students and teachers in the audience.

Perhaps the most interesting side-effect of our work on the magazine has been the way in which as editors and publishers, it has brought us into close partnerships with colleagues in particular universities and departments. We have been able to advise on outreach projects, broker relationships and have ourselves had very fruitful collaborations with individuals over developmental work, or workshops on transition and so on. Lecturers have come to do sessions on our teacher CPD days for A Level and we have provided our own expertise over the years, to the English Subject Centre, when it existed, and more recently at University English events. We have been able to disseminate information about recent research and new publications to our extensive network of school teachers, and are looking forward to collaborations at two panels at the English Shared Futures conference, exploring reading and writing across the school/university divide.

Recently we were approached by a current undergraduate at Cambridge to ask if we’d like him to write something about his experience of emagazine when he was doing his A Levels. He’d been both an avid reader of it and had written a superb piece for us on ‘The Great Gatsby and the Pastoral’. I remembered him, and the article, well. We’d had some interesting emails to and fro, editing and tightening up the piece. When I read the new piece he sent us, I was thrilled by what he had to say. It was exactly what we hoped for from the magazine – a sense that he was entering a discipline and discovering about its practices in a way that has stood him in good stead ever since. His piece sums up why opportunities for these kinds of engagements across the phases are so important; they establish a continuity of practice from school through to university and make us part of a shared endeavour and shared community.

Barbara Bleiman
Education Consultant at EMC and Co-editor of emagazine

Article by Ed Limb

emagazine website

Monday, 12 September 2016

Academics in the Classroom

Welcome to the website for 'Academics in the Classroom', an English outreach project funded by the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Awards and led by Dr Catherine Redford (Hertford College, Oxford).

The project was launched with a two-day workshop that took place at Hertford College, Oxford on Monday 15 and Tuesday 16 August 2016.

This event provided training, networking, and a space for discussion and reflection for teachers and early career researchers interested in how universities can deliver research-led English language and literature outreach work. ECRs and current teachers of Key Stage 4 and 5 English worked collaboratively at an intensive two-day workshop structured around a series of talks, reflective roundtable discussions, and forums.

Topics covered included the successes and limitations of current outreach work; the new GCSE and A level curricula; pedagogical best practice in schools and universities; bridging the gap between school and university; public engagement and impact; working with external organisations; digital outreach; and the future of outreach work in English.

Adrian Barlow, President of the English Association, and Prof Emma Smith, University of Oxford, were the workshop's keynote speakers. 

This website aims to open out some of the discussions that our delegates had over the course of the workshop and to keep these conversations going. Our blog will be updated regularly with reflections coming out of the workshop from delegates, the promotion of new projects, reports of recent outreach initiatives, and calls for partners for future schemes. We welcome blog posts from members of the wider English community (teachers, academics, and other interested parties) on any aspect of English outreach; please contact if you're interested in submitting a post. 

On this website, you can also find links to video recordings of the workshop's various sessions and access a bank of digital resources and useful articles. The website is designed to enable those interested in English outreach to pool their knowledge and make contact with other interested parties, so please do get in touch with details of any projects or resources that you have found useful or would like to promote.