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.