Teachers ‘do not know enough grammar to teach new curriculum’

A linguistic professor has said that Michael Gove’s new tests for pupils up to the age of 14 will demand a greater knowledge of grammar than many teachers possess – but it’s not their fault.

The Education Secretary’s new curriculum features rigorous testing on the mechanics of grammar, but Professor Bas Arts has attacked teachers’ ability to teach the subject, as they often have “no knowledge of English grammar themselves,” the Telegraph reports.

The University College London academic said: “Many teachers feel uncomfortable with grammar and don’t know how to use it formally.” However, their lack of knowledge is due to a historic lapse in the formal teaching of grammar: “There was a point in the 1960s when the Government said that schoolchildren didn’t need to learn any grammar as it inhibits their creativity. Now, that’s changing rapidly,” he said.

Professor Aarts is behind Englicious, an online teaching resource that will give schools access to one of Britain’s biggest databases of the English language. His colleague on the project Joe Walsh, from the National Association for the Teaching of English, said it was impossible to generalise about an entire generation of teachers.

If you’re an English teacher, what’s your reaction to professor Aarts’ claims? Share your views with us!

30 thoughts on “Teachers ‘do not know enough grammar to teach new curriculum’

  1. It is interesting to note that the article is taken form that famous scourge of the teaching profession, The Torygraph. Then we note that the professor’s name is spelt in two different ways in the Teachit article – never a good thing to do when discussing others’ perceived faults.

    Of course a good grounding in grammar is useful, and even in some cases, important. Had this latest edict from Wackford Gove come out fifteen years ago, when the whole nation actually spoke to each other for a length of time and was not glued to their cell ‘phones, then it might have had a lot more relevance. We no longer communicate in that way, however, and as succeeding generations of employers, educated themselves in the Major/Blair/Brown eras seek employees who are able to respond quickly to communications, rather than those who can parse sentences, the relevance of the old kind of grammar teaching and learning, as well as usage, will become even more moribund.

    It is hard to resist the feeling that what comes out of the education department, or whatever it is called nowadays – perhaps the Ministry for Looking backwards? – is more to do with the present government wishing to restore ‘Victorian values’, with all that that entails, than simply a desire to improve our expression and grasp of English grammar, themselves a little ironic since the government seems to wish that we become a rainbow nation in any case, rather than anything resembling the nation of a hundred or more years ago.

  2. My daughter was caught in the ‘don’t stifle creativity’ fad that was mostly to do with not correcting spelling, as I recall. That occurred during the 1980s for sure. It may have been introduced during the 1970s, I don’t know, but not the 1960s – at least not in the school which I attended.

    Aren’t we fortunate though, to have caring academics seizing the opportunity to promote their remedies when the curriculum changes. It’s just a pity that the marketing strategy involves highlighting yet more ‘deficiencies’ of the teaching profession in the national press.

  3. As a primary school teacher, you have to teach everything, like a term on the Vikings! Teachers are capable of learning on the job and they have to do it all the time! Teaching children a certain level of grammar is good, but bogging them down does inhibit creativity! People who actually do the job know this!

  4. I have worked with many teachers, in both primary and secondary schools, who lack grammatical knowledge.
    When I broached a specific student teacher’s grammatical errors with a university tutor, I was firmly told not to mention these to the student. It was stated that the issues would not be raised by the tutor, nor would the student be offered help.

  5. I know my gerunds from my possessive determiners thanks. Teachers who teach English language A level have no problem with this; it is maybe primary school teachers, who are not necessarily English specialists, who will struggle most.

  6. “…teachers possess – bit it’s not their fault. …”

    Surely it is supposed to be

    “…teachers possess – but it’s not their fault. …”

    … not only teachers who sometimes are not perfect on their SPG (or typing).

  7. I m taking up the issue talked of here””Teachers do not know————–“””Why should this question arise ?? I am baffled ..One teaching English as a subject have the basics and they are picked as they are specialists.The selection is based on some criteria//SO how can such teacher be rated as not suitable. It s a bolt from the blues, to me.
    I have been teaching English Language and then Literature too in Sri Lanka and the Sultanate of Oman for over 22 years ..I have been teaching E. Literature for the last 12 years or more ..Further I use literature to give the necessary brush up, the refinement, to the language in the students…
    i have been getting the learners talk and write grammatical English within or less than 50 hours evenly spaced out lessons //.
    Then comes the icing on the cake. With the introduction of Literature, once I feel the grammar has seeped in, they go from strength to strength in their command of both spoken and written skills. Thus paving the way to developing reading as a habit. They are inspired automatically as they see the various uses of the language and the techniques used by writers of repute.
    I m appalled by this topic ,,utterly at a loss as to why any one should say this>.impossible ,it is ,i feel..
    Teaching English is a sweet affair to me. There are NO hiccups in it. it is not ,at all, a stumbling block either to the teacher or the learner. Assured.
    This statement is baseless, therefore. I disagree here totally ..
    I build the confidence with the passage of lessons ..
    Thanks

  8. While Professor Aarts is absolutely correct, the problem goes deeper still: most people seem to have no eye for accuracy, as this article exemplifies so well, with the professor’s name having been spelt differently on the two occasions it appears. When we also take into account the recent explosion of chat site culture, where mis-spelling seems to be totally acceptable, the increasing confusion about how to use punctuation (if used at all), and the current teaching of foreign languages up to GCSE level, which is overarchingly based on casual conversation, any attempt to remedy the situation needs to target attitudes as well as skills and understanding.
    I’m working on developing a community project, to be delivered at neighbourhood level, which I’m calling “Loving To Read”. Its central focus is on encouraging parents of very young children to read to them on a daily basis, and to support each other in the process. Additional benefits will include closer family bonding, closer bonding within each local community, greater social cohesion in the wider community and, most significant to this blog comment, a level of personal security which will allow young people to lower their defences, develop their innate sense of enquiry, and open themselves up to constructive criticism. With the barriers lowered, it will then be reasonable to promote greater attention to using language with more accuracy.
    Having said this, it should not be overlooked that language evolves over time through “incorrect” usage; otherwise we’d still be speaking the language of Chaucer, or Beowulf or …..

  9. Well I think it’s a bit rich to be commenting on teacher’s grammatical ability when there is a mistake in the first paragraph! ‘Bit’ rather than ‘but’!

  10. Prof. Aarts’ claims are absolutely correct. The vast majority of English teachers (teachers of English) – particularly in Primary Schools – are clueless about even the simplest grammatical rules. Listening to some of them speak simply underlines this. They verbalise bad grammar, so how can one expect them to know how to teach English properly?

    But try to get the teachers to accept their short-comings and and incompetence, you’ll be met with vitriolic resistance – everyone else will be blamed. What you will seldom see is an effort on the part of teachers to improve their linguistic skills.

  11. I am of the generation who missed out on grammar, but I was lucky – I took languages (Latin, French, German, Greek) and learned my grammar that way. I’m now an English teacher, and the teaching of grammar is an important aspect of the program I’ve devised. However, there’s no doubt that the majority of my colleagues know very little formal grammar (however excellent their own writing may be) and are therefore uneasy teaching it, as they feel it’s a case of the blind leading the blind.

    I’ve had a look at Englicious and it seems pretty well-designed, with clear explanations, although it’s hard for me to tell whether someone with very little formal knowledge of grammar would find it useful or friendly.

    Unfortunately, there seems to be some glitch in Englicious’ program which means the registration process is not working. Three attempts to register have failed. There’s no “contact us” tab on the site so I can’t let them know about the problem.

  12. I am in complete agreement with the lost generations of illiterate English teachers. IN FACT, ILLITERATE TEACHERS ACROSS THE BOARD.
    I left the UK as part of the brain drain in the late 60’s and am one of the last school generations who were taught the English Language and how it works.
    Since then, I have worked in EFL and Senior Education Management abroad. It horrifies me that EFL teaching texts written by Brits are total and inept rubbish as far as EFL books are concerned. The best ones are written by foreigners who know the mechanics of the language and can use it precisely with accurate grammar and fluid and wide vocabulary.
    I returned to work in the UK last summer as Centre Director for a renown private year round school and summer school.
    I was horrified at my management team who had all graduated from public schools and red brick and above universities and were linguistically ignorant.
    Many of the students spoke and used the English Language far more correctly than they did. One appalling fact was that they not only used grammar wrongly but failed to understand the concepts behind the correct usage.
    The only way back to a literate British population is to re-employ all we oldies to educate all teachers below the age of 55, scrap the stupid and ruinous comprehensive system and send us all back into schools for a school generation, until teachers are being qualified in their own native language.
    It is sad that the only English spoken correctly in the UK is that spoken by foreigners.
    Alas, how true.
    An Uphill task which needs to be addressed and rectified before European and American English take over the world and leave British English an also ran in its own country..

  13. I’m 62 and a maths teacher but I went to a grammar school and did O level Latin as well as studying ”parsing” for O level English Language. I suspect I know a lot more grammar than the average secondary English teacher – but I may be wrong!

  14. As a physics teacher and a life-long pedant where the English language is concerned, I cringe each time I hear the over-use of “myself” by colleagues who seem afraid of the word “me”.

  15. What a generalisaion! I would like to know the foundation for this belief and the evidence that supports it!

  16. Speaking as a primary school teacher and an ‘oldie’ who studied languages at school and has taught English as a Foreign Language, I do feel confident with grammar and enjoy teaching it. Young teachers who are not confident need only tap into the wealth of resources available online to fill the gaps in their knowledge. Alternatively, they can always ask an ‘oldie’ for help!

  17. Perhaps we can trade knowledge. ‘Oldies’ can help with grammar but may need help to keep up with IT!

  18. I have to say in many ways I agree that there are many teachers who do not have the grammatical knowledge required for teaching. As a child I left Primary and High school with a very limited knowledge of grammar, which our A-level teachers tried to catch us up on. I have recently studied the Primary PGCE where many of the students were highlighted to have poor grammatical knowledge and we were asked to develop our knowledge ourselves, which was all good and well, however there is some very different ideas on grammar and the teaching of grammar. On many PGCE course you are taught how to teach rather than subject knowledge- in the instance of grammar maybe something that is refreshed on a PGCE to make sure that the same standards are taught across the board.

  19. I’d agree up to a point, Anne, but many younger, and not so young, teachers don’t have the personal grasp of grammar to enable them to do much more than pass on information to their pupils. Reading through staff emails in the morning could be a great source of amusement, if it weren’t a matter for concern. Paraphrasing one message I read last week: “Jack was seen wondering around the school.” A common example, amongst many possible, of multiple inaccuracies in one short sentence could be, “She should be treated no different then other students.” Ouch! This particular specimen demonstrates a lack of appreciation, or maybe understanding, of the role of adverbs, the difference between two similar words, and what constitutes a comparative – or even, maybe, a lack of awareness that comparatives exist. Our nation has be come won in witch people donet no watt there a bout.

  20. I am confident of Grammatical barrier, which does not allow a speaker going beyond it, i.e. to remain inside. Without following it’s norms It would occur breaking the barrier & confining to some accident.
    That’s why, I am of the opinion in teaching Grammar even to a child.
    — Jawahar —

  21. Let’s be charitable and assume that the grammatical bloopers demonstrated in these comments by those professing expertise in English are mere typos.

  22. I am aware of the poor grasp of even basic grammar amongst university graduates. Those who have made comments regarding typographical errors and such are being disingenuous about the issue. I was on the cusp of the changing curriculum as a pupil and as a teacher. I have never believed that it stifles creativity – I have often considered the analogy of driving. In order to drive well, one needs to understand when the gears need to be changed (even if not why!) and how to apply the brakes. An appreciation of the structure of language enables you to appreciate its beauty and this only enhances one’s writing.
    By the way, attacks on political parties and individual politicians does not help create a convincing argument, but smacks of a personal agenda which takes precedence over the issue.

  23. My daughter, a Year 4 pupil, was recently sent home with spellings highlighting -f nouns changing to -ves in the plural form. The last 2 words on the list were ‘belief’ and ‘believes’. If the teachers cannot get it right, how are the children supposed to? Yes, I did bring it up with the teacher and have other questions regarding a confusion between nouns and verbs which I intend to raise at parents evening.
    I was a MFL teacher and know my grammar because of learning French, German and Russian. It is a sad fact that children in other countries are being taught English better than our children appear to be.

  24. Dr Stella Berry posted a very interesting comment. However, in the passage, “The only way back to a literate British population is to re-employ all we oldies to educate all teachers below the age of 55 …”, she might have written with even greater grammatical accuracy, “… to re-employ all US oldies…”, “us oldies” being the object of the verb rather than its subject.

    This business of using the correct case for personal pronouns and adjectives seems to be a major sticking point, sometimes causing remarkably awkward clusters of words. I thought I’d heard it all until a few years ago, when a member of the learning support staff in the school I was working in at the time said, “It’s my husband and I’s wedding anniversary next week.” Of course, a sentence of this nature raises the question of whether we should be using the possessive case for “husband” as well as for “I”, or whether we should seek a more eloquent way of presenting the utterance, such as, “Next week my husband and I shall be celebrating our wedding anniversary”.

    Then again, although awkwardness may grate on the ear, is this really important in building a decent and caring society. Is British society ripping at the seams as a result of poor spoken English? Or are the poor quality of spoken English and the social crisis both symptoms of something else? Or is there no connection whatsoever? If, as I suspect, it’s the last, shouldn’t we be reflecting upon where our priorities really lie? For all that I eschew the widespread ignorance of grammar, I seriously believe that attributing such importance to it, is a diversion from what really matters in life. I have many dear, caring, socially honourable friends in whom I value their personal qualities to an extent which renders their grammatical inadequacies totally irrelevant.

    What we have witnessed in this debate is people, including myself, picking holes in other people’s communication, with the sole aim of achieving “correctness”. In doing so, we have launched attacks on people we have no connection with at a personal level. This, surely, is hardly respectable behaviour; so we find ourselves replacing the socially correct – deploying a magnanimous attitude towards others, especially those we don’t know personally – with the grammatically correct. I now know for certain which of the two I favour: stuff the grammar!

  25. I am a teacher of French and German in a grammar school. I can confirm that none of my students from Y7 right through to A Level has any clue of how their own language works. I find myself having to teach them English grammar so they can relate to it when learning French and/or German…

  26. As a school child of the ’60’s and a thirty (thirdy) year veteran in a second language environment for English, perhaps even a third language since 1997, with Putonghua becoming ever more prevalent here in Hong Kong (la!), I can see the grey beneath the silver lining of a perfectly grammatical world. Hong Kong students, at University level where I teach, can often write grammatically, even if with a tinge of Dickensian usage of complex conjunctions, smatterings of wrong “vocabulary items”, (we don’t call them words here for some reason!) and tenses, but it takes them about five times as long as a native writer at whatever post-primary level.
    I agree with so much of what is written above. The learning of Latin, French, German and Spanish at school showed (should it be shewed) me the value of gramma(e)r, but the local students’ fear of making mistakes from KG level up to my own sector points to the stultification of expression resulting from over-reliance on “correct” grammar and expression.
    Local students won’t speak up in class, in English or Cantonese, for fear of errors. Teachers accept one word answers, failing thereby to give opportunities for students to practice sentence structure. English lessons are rigorously divided into reading, writing, speaking and listening lessons, hence students fail to understand the integration of the four so called channels of expression. Changes in the languages curricula in 2000 have led to little actual change in the classroom.
    I am sorry to say that the letter from the Sri Lankan English teacher, above, illustrates how bad the situation can become, and how, consequently the English language becomes more and more deformed around the world. With mispron(o)unciations entering BBC English, on their World entertainment channels, after long and perhaps correct acceptance there of regional accents, it is easy to see how English language teaching even at a very basic level, can become inaccurate. From “different tha(e)n ” or “different to,” American and accepted there because no one has learned how prepositions worked from their Latin roots, to “somethink,” as failed correction of pronunciation, probably at primary school, we can expect further deterioration. I remember the oft mispronounced “windowscream” as an example from my own primary school days, quickly picked up and corrected by a gre(a)y haired Miss King! Thank goodness the BBC finds excellent English speakers, often with obviously “foreign” names for their World service TV news, is that deliberate? These people are fine examples of what continued insistence on standards, in some British schools and by their own self-discipline, can produce. I suspect that most are “second generation” British educated people.
    By the way, I teach science, not English; how’s the above for structure? I am often criticis(z)ed for overly long sentences, but ideas are rarely simple!

  27. Wow, as an American, I find this unbelievable and sad! To be able to teach English even as a volunteer or private tuition classes here in Asia (Sri Lanka where I gave private tuition for 10 years and lived on next to nothing…Malaysia….Myanmar….Thailand) you need to have a very good knowledge of grammar, both for the beginning students and for the advanced level students….and even for students in international schools who grew up mostly speaking English. In Myanmar, I was teaching basic grammar to Primary 2 (2nd grade) students at the international school there! And teachers in the UK get full-time salaries and don’t even know basic grammar?

    I agree that there are different learning styles and that some people learn basic grammatical patterns mainly by READING and they become naturally absorbed…I myself learnt this way and was writing grammatical stories long before I learnt grammar rules! However, many other people learn better by deductive logic and by learning rules and applying them….so anyone who is going to TEACH definitely has to have a good knowledge of grammar!

    And I disagree 100% with the idea that, because we talk fast and are glued to our cellphones and write chat style, we don’t need grammar. A text/SMS message with poor grammar can confuse people just as much as an old-fashioned note with poor grammar can. It all depends on who the conversation or chat is with…maybe with our best friend, a mistake is okay. But a prospective employer is a whole different matter!

    I suggest a balanced approach, similar to the Cambridge Headway syllabus, that bases each English unit around a theme or topic and adds a dialogue, a reading comprehension passage, and grammar exercises, as well as a writing assignment. FOUR SKILLS (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) PLUS GRAMMAR AND SPELLING is the best programme for English.

  28. Great to see the range of views and degrees of passion associated with this hardy perennial. Byron wrote about it 200 years ago, and the Dartmouth Conference of 1966 set the ground for the debate between skills and creativity to lean too heavily towards creativity.

    I work with hundreds of teachers of English, and nearly all see value in teaching knowledge and skills for improving writing. My texts on literacy and English grammar are used by thousands of teachers and university students. There are a couple of messages. Knowing the patterns of English syntax and being able to use the metalanguage to talk about text are huge helps for writing blogs or research papers. The conventions of punctuation, and a selection of ‘rules’, help with communication. Just try to read a blog that is spoken language blurted out as a selfie twist without a thought for the reader.

    So what we teach our students is how spoken and written English work, the purposes and contexts of language use, and the common syntactic patterns of English. This learning is purposeful and engaging for students, and our research shows that teachers can get students to know when and how to craft a variety of sentence types. We are now conducting research into ways for improving the writing of all students, not just for the top few students who have a long history of reading print text to assist them.

  29. I am an American EFL/ESL teacher 60 years old. In grammar and secondary public schools we were required to study what I later learned was classical English grammar study -learning sentence diagramming, subject and verb agreement, and parts of speech.

    During occasional social sessions, I have a simple test I sometimes ask British teachers to test their understanding of parts of speech which consists of one question –

    Is this sentence grammatically correct or incorrect – “Please join my husband and I for dinner”.

    Anyone who studied sentence diagramming and parts of speech in an average 1960-1980 American secondary school will know the answer. Very few British teachers know the correct answer.

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