Friday, November 12, 2010

The Clamour for Grammar - thank you

Thanks very much to everyone who came to our Clamour For Grammar day on Wednesday. It was a small, specially-selected - some might say "elite" - group of teachers and advisers who came along for the day and we were really pleased to meet you. We've already had some very positive feedback and are thinking ahead to similar days next term and/or in the summer. If you are interested in coming along to another grammar day (Grammar Hammer, perhaps?) or have specific ideas for what you would like covering in future sessions, please let us know by emailing Dan on the address on this page. We're also interested to find out the best time of year to organise such days.

Thanks too to Seth Mehl for his help on the day.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Spreading the word

We've been trying to raise the profile of grammar teaching and the ideas involved in our project by talking to various other sites and publications, and you can see some of the fruits of that in the following links.

Interview with Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus website: part one & part two. The discussion after the interviews is probably worth having a look at too.

Article in today's Times Educational Supplement by Dick Hudson and Dan Clayton and news story here. Supporting page with further links and reading can be found here.

Thanks to Ben Zimmer for the Visual Thesaurus coverage and Rita Ofori for her help with the TES article.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Correcting" local dialect and slang

The history of grammar teaching has often been associated with prescriptive models in which the "correction" of perceived faults in language has been paramount. While linguists are careful these days to talk about what is "grammatical" or "ungrammatical" and  "standard" or "non-standard", rather than what is "right" or "wrong", there is still a tension at the heart of the teaching of English.

Emma Thompson hinted at this when she was widely reported in the media last week as having criticised the language of young people at her old school (Camden School For Girls, incidentally one of the nine secondary schools we're working with on this project) for its supposed reliance on likes, innits and off ofs. While she was fairly careful to couch her criticisms in a liberal language of acceptance of slang in its context and awareness of the need for two languages, at the heart of her attack lies a prescriptive view that some forms of language are just bad and that they make the user of them look bad too.

The grammatical arguments about the terms she chose to pick up on are quite interesting. Innit has been studied in the last few years, and identified as an invariant tag question (a tag that doesn't change to agree with the subject of the statement it follows: so it's innit at the end of she's nice, I am pleased, we are going there and they are bad, etc.). Grammatically, it has become something new. You might - like Emma Thompson - dislike it, but it's got its uses and it is quite a powerful device. Another use, and probably a more recent one is as a response to its tag question form. So, younger speakers often employ it in a conversation to show agreement to it being used as an affective tag.

Also, with like we have a word that has often been used as a filler, but that has now become something else as well. In its quotative usage, we can see that it is used to perhaps dramatise and emphasise elements of  reported/direct speech in storytelling. For example:

I'm like, "You're not getting in. You weren't invited".
And she's like, "What you gonna do about it?".
Again, whether you like it or not, it's now got a new way of being used, reflecting the flexibility of our evolving language.

But it's not just slang that causes upset to a prescriptivist mindset: dialect is a threat too. In yesterday's Daily Mail, a short report told us that teaching assistants in Portsmouth (two of them - close to a national scandal) had been criticised by OFSTED for their use of local dialect. The example quoted in the story, "I likes football", sounds like a fairly typical example of south coast dialect to my ears.

Why is it a problem? Well, if you read the comments that follow the article (never a good idea if you're trying to stay balanced and the right side of happy on a dreary Monday morning) you'll see a splenetic outpouring of disgust. Teachers are illiterate! Tony B-Liar is to blame! Education, education, schmeducation! Country bumpkins shouldn't be allowed near our kids!

That's fairly typical for the Daily Mail's message boards, and among the vitriol and badly spelled attacks on immigrants and left-wing teachers who use street slang is an undercurrent of dismay that the grammar of Standard English is at risk. And here is the tension referred to earlier.

The common perception of regional dialects among many English speakers is that they belong to the lower social orders, that they are inferior forms, but the reality is that many of us use regional forms without being particularly conscious of them. Whether it's the Cockney we was or the Reading he done it, regional dialect is still alive and well, and it has a grammar of its own. The tension comes in establishing its place in relation the grammar of Standard English in the education system.

If one of the key aims of teaching Standard English is to establish a shared, mutually intelligible form of the language for everyone educated in the UK then does having a teaching assistant who uses a local dialect damage the educational opportunities of young people? Probably not. I think an argument that might be effective here is that if we properly study the grammar of both Standard English and regional varieties (and sociolects like slang varieties too) we will learn a great deal more about not just grammar as a system, but also about the history of the language, feelings we have for our own varieties of language and the connections we have to our own communities of practice and social backgrounds.

So, I think it should be argued that neither slang nor dialect should be seen as a threat to the education of young people, but as legitimate and rewarding areas of language study, both of which can help students enrich their understanding of language in all its varieties.

 I'd be interested in any views from readers, so please post comments.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Verbs and adverbs

And while I'm plugging Visual Thesaurus (and using coordinating conjunctions to start my sentences, just to spite Simon Heffer and his chums), here's a link to a good article about teaching descriptive writing strategies. We're often told that good writing should be descriptive, but that good writers shouldn't automatically reach for an adverb to a modify a verb, when a well-chosen verb will work better, but here are some really good ideas for making that advice a bit more practical.

Grammar and vocabulary extension

Morphology - the study of the form of words - is an area of grammar that sometimes gets forgotten. This brief article on the Visual Thesaurus site talks about using morphology to help students develop their understanding of words with similar morphemes. In this case, the examples are the Greek roots -crat and -cracy.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Clamour for Grammar

Following on from our successful Glamour of Grammar day in July 2010, we are pleased to announce a second dubiously-titled day of grammar. The Clamour for Grammar will take place on Wednesday 10th November at UCL. Presented by Bas Aarts and Dan Clayton, the day will start with a crash course on word classes, phrases and clauses before moving on to focus on practical approaches for using grammar to analyse texts.

The day is aimed at teachers of Key Stages 3 and 4, but would also be suitable for people new to teaching A level English Language. The practical approaches sessions will focus on the spoken word, language and literature, and we're hoping to provide a range of lesson resources that can be used straight away as introductory materials in the classroom.
The price for the full day (including lunch and refreshments during the day) will be £95.

For more details, email Dan Clayton through this link on the Survey of English Usage webpages.

The link to the most recently updated plan for the day is here.

What grammar shouldn't be about

Simon Heffer has a new book out and it's called Strictly English. It's a title that, with its twin whiffs of prescriptivism and punishment, calls to mind Lynne Truss's "zero tolerance approach to punctuation" which David Crystal so systematically debunked here.

Heffer sets himself up as an authority on language and then sets about telling us what's right or wrong in English grammar. In fact, he's on record as saying that "English grammar shouldn’t be a matter for debate". This is, for want of a better word, cobblers. One of the key aims of our project here at UCL is to investigate grammar, to open it up for debate and exploration, not to close it down into a set of rights and wrongs. Such a prescriptive view of language doesn't really help anyone.

Language Log have already laid into him here and here, and I've blogged about his appearance on Radio 4 here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


The MacMillan Dictionary blog is always a good source of material on language and there's a recent piece on there by Jonathan Marks about the process of conversion (sometimes called verbing) when you change the word class of a word and use it in a new and original way.

Monday, September 6, 2010

New grammar day planned

We're planning to put on a second grammar day for teachers on Wednesday November 10th at the Department of English Language and Literature at UCL.

This time, we're hoping to focus very much on the basics of grammar and aim the day at teachers who either want to go right back to basics, or those that feel they need a refresher course. Therefore, this day is really for Key Stage 3 and 4 teachers, and those who are new to A level English Language.

There'll be more details on here and the project page next week.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Teaching grammar through hip hop

"I'm a gonna pop a cap in yo... yo-what, class?"
"Yo ass, sir."
"Yes, and yo ass is a what-phrase?"
"A noun phrase, sir."
"Yes, well done, class."

This article from a Canadian online newspaper suggests that recent immigrants can pick up English through exposure to, and discussion of, rap music. I'm all in favour of novel approaches to grammar teaching and wouldn't dismiss this out of hand, even if the scene conjured up is a bit like the one at the start of this post, but on closer inspection the approach seems to be quite old-fashioned.

While the context is new - and even a touch funky - the grammatical approach appears rather prescriptive. We are told that Riaz Sayani-Mulji, one of the teachers on the project "asks each person to read a few lines from the song. He then walks them through a dissection of the lyrics that includes correcting the grammar".

It could just be a mistranslation between journalist and teacher, but correcting the grammar of hip hop lyrics seems like a bit of a sterile process. Fair enough, if differences between standard and non-standard forms are identified, then it might be an interesting exercise, but to "correct" grammar harks back to the 1950s. What is interesting however, and more positive, is the contextualisation of grammar in the reality of young people's language lives.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Grammar nazis

Here's the way we should teach grammar.

More on grammar comprehension

Language Log has opened up some discussion of the Ewa Dabrowska research reported below and provided links to more detail about her findings. Here's the review article and here are the Language Log links from one of their most recent posts on the topic.

A couple of interesting points come out of the readers' comments too. Two of the sets of questions in Dabrowska's research are characterised as "Q-is" or "Q-has", for example "Every umbrella is in a stand" and "Every bowl has food in it" where the respondents are presented with pictures and asked to match the statement and the image. But, as Adouma points out (in th comments to this post), one of the reasons why people taking the test may get questions like this wrong is because they're expressions that are rarely heard. In fact, Mark Liberman, the Language Log writer, suggests that in a corpus of 400 million words the pattern "Every noun is in a/an noun" never occurs. How are respondents supposed to get these right when they're "unnatural" examples of grammar?

This doesn't only raise questions about Dabrowska's research itself, but a wider issue for those of us teaching grammar.  If the examples we use to illustrate grammatical concepts are not rooted in reality and genuine usage, what use are they? We could spend all day teaching examples like "Every cat is sitting in a bed" but we'd have to realise that noone would ever say or write such an expression again in their life.

edited to add: there's some Radio 4 discussion of this topic on Material World which will be available on i-player until later this week.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hammered by grammar

A recent piece of research from Dr Ewa Dabrowska of Northumbria University seems to suggest that many adults have difficulty with some areas of English grammar. The research - reported here - points to the passive voice as one particularly tricky area, with some respondents who'd left school at 16 finding it tricky to understand the construction. As Dabrowska points out in the report, many instructions and written forms of information use the passive voice, so the implications in government information and education campaigns might be significant.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Teaching children to make mistakes

This article in today's Guardian gives some food for thought about how we teach young people. Academics in France are running a "festival of errors", designed to encourage students to think for themselves and not to become too hung up on getting the "right" answer. One point made by Girolamo Ramunni, one of those involved in the enterprise, is that "Once they've accepted that getting things wrong is not the end of the world, yes, they may come up with some crazy ideas, but they will have some good ones too".

Perhaps this has some relevance to how grammar is taught in this country too. One approach might be to place more of an emphasis on encouraging problem solving approaches to language as these French academics are applying to science. Instead of a dry naming of parts, grammar learning can be about looking at possibilities, testing out hypotheses and defending those positions - argumentation, in other words - something that has often been lost in the mix as teachers have tried to address the needs of the National Curriculum.

Just to finish, in their book on teaching English using corpora, From Corpus to Classroom, O'Keefe, McCarthy and Carter talk about the difficulties inherent in helping learners move "from awareness of structures as right or wrong, to choices from along a gradient of possibilities, to an assessment of what is probable in one context rather than another". What we are setting out to do - and this article about French attempts to do something similar in a scientific context back the point up - is not only to give teachers and students confidence about their knowledge, but also to show them that living with uncertainty is part of living with our language.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Teaching the parts of speech

Here's a link to an article on the excellent Visual Thesaurus site about teaching word classes to college students in the USA.

Recent presentations

We have presented seminars, workshops and/or talks at the following events recently:
  • "From ICE to VLE" at BAAL/CUP in June 2010
  • "From ICE to VLE: developing a web-based grammar teaching platform" at Teaching English Grammar in Winchester, June 2010
  • "Goodbye to the cat on the mat" at NATE conference July 2010

The glamour of grammar

Thanks to everyone who came to our Glamour of Grammar day last week. We thought it was a good start to our work with teachers and it has given us plenty of ideas for what to cover in future events.

In the first session Bas Aarts introduced the day and kicked off with some discussion about the place of grammar in secondary English teaching. He looked at how grammar was sidelined in the late 1960s, with more of an emphasis on students' own personal responses to language and literature coming to the fore, before undergoing something of a revival with the National Strategies in the last decade. Grammar is worthy of study in its own right, he argued, but even more interesting when looked at as part of a wider problem-solving strategy which encourages young people to think for themselves, develop argumentation skills and relate what they understand to the language they see around them.

The second session, presented by Dan Clayton, took a look at three different resources that introduced grammar to different age groups. In the first resource he looked at how a made up language could be used to explore concepts in English grammar such as morphology, tense and syntax with Key Stage 3-4 students. Using spoken language as a  starting point for the second resource, he then looked at how to relate grammar to context, considering factors such as the time between presentation and representation in texts such as sports commentaries and match reports. In a third and final resource, Dan looked at how ideas about form and function might be explored using the ICE-GB corpus and a search for tag questions in male and female language.

Barbara Bleiman from the English and Media Centre ran the third session and used extracts from their new spoken language resource to talk about approaches to the structure and form of spoken language with special reference to the new spoken language study at GCSE.

In the final session, delegates got the chance to test out the ICECUP tool to search the corpus and find out a bit more about how to use a corpus in investigating language. Sean Wallis explained some of the capabilities of the software and the potential uses of the corpus in the classroom while Bas Aarts gave an overview of the types of texts in teh corpus and how to carry out basic searches.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Information for teachers

The following is taken from an introductory sheet we're giving out to teachers who have shown an interest in the project. It outlines some of the key areas we want to focus on.

Teaching English Grammar in Schools
Creating a Web-Based Platform for English Language Teaching and Learning

The structures of English are a major part of the National Curriculum and underpin much English teaching at secondary level, but are often viewed with a mixture of suspicion, scepticism and fear by many teachers: suspicion that grammar is just a dry way of learning a narrow, feature-spotting approach to language; scepticism over whether teaching grammar actually helps pupils’ reading and writing; fear that grammar is scary and that they don’t know enough of it. We hope to be able to support teachers in finding ways to make grammar teaching practical, dynamic and accessible, but most of all relevant, because the language we’ll be using is all sourced directly from examples of actual usage.

Our project is designed to help teachers of English at Key Stages 3-5 develop their teaching of grammar, from the basics of word classes such as nouns and verbs, through to more demanding areas such as phrase and clause structure. We are constructing a web-based teaching and learning platform made up of an interactive, structured English language course, which will consist of lesson modules dynamically accessing a grammatically analysed corpus of English.

What is a corpus?
A corpus is a body of data – in this case written and spoken English - which has been collected with the intention of providing material for analysis and illustration of actual usage. ICE-GB, the International Corpus of English, which began in 1990, is being used to provide a large range of material to support this project. 200 written and 300 spoken texts make up the million words of this corpus and every text is grammatically annotated, permitting complex and detailed searches across the whole corpus. One of the major benefits of the ICE-GB corpus is that it also contains a mass of contextual detail, ranging from audio files to accompany the spoken data, to information about each speaker’s and writer’s age and gender.

The objectives of this project are to:

•    Translate our rich corpus resources into effective English language teaching tools and curriculum materials for teachers to use in the classroom;
•    Provide pupils with high-quality web-based learning materials in both classroom and self-directed modes; and
•    Provide quality Continuous Professional Development (CPD) resources to enable teachers to make the most of the resource.

The approach

Using material from the ICE-GB corpus, we are putting together units of work on word classes, phrases, clauses and sentences, as well as material on written and spoken language, different forms of writing and speech, and texts from a range of genres, to form a programme of lessons that can work together as a whole, or as smaller chunks of work through Key Stages 3-4 and into more advanced and open-ended work at AS and A level.  Underpinning this is an approach towards grammar that encourages students (and teachers) to ask questions about language usage and to think not simply in terms of the traditional categories of the “parts of speech” but a more rewarding and systematic method of studying language, which looks at form, function and distribution.

The benefits to teachers

Along with the material that we will produce for individual lessons, we will be developing units of work with activities for reading, writing and speaking & listening tasks, a range of CPD materials to support teachers’ developing knowledge of grammar, and suggestions for ways to incorporate the teaching of grammar into other areas of the curriculum. All of these should have practical benefits to classroom teachers, but we also hope that the interface between the ICE-GB corpus and the Moodle VLE will allow flexibility in course planning, so that individual English teachers, and English departments as a whole, can select appropriate lessons and extracts to use with their classes, tailoring the material to the demands of their own pupils.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What the project is about

The impetus for this proposal is a recent review of Key Stage 3 Grammar Teaching, published by DfES in 2007, which concluded that teaching should make use of formal and informal English in different settings, and that grammar teaching must be driven by real examples.
We will construct a web-based teaching and learning platform consisting of an interactive structured English language course, tailored to the goals of the National Curriculum’s Key Stages 3-5. This will consist of lesson modules dynamically accessing a grammatically analysed corpus of English.
The objectives of this project are to:
  1. Translate our rich corpus resources into effective English language teaching tools and curriculum materials for teachers to use in the classroom;
  2. Provide pupils with high-quality web-based learning materials in both classroom and self-directed modes; and
  3. Provide quality Continuous Professional Development (CPD) resources to enable teachers to make the most of the resource.
Our partner is the School Improvement Service of the London Borough of Camden.


The dynamic selection of real language examples taken from the corpus has many potential benefits:
  • Since the source material is independent from the teaching modules (the system design is modular and extensible) modules can easily be revised;
  • A great deal of context and contextual information is available (e.g. the setting in which a conversation is conducted, who the speakers are, etc.), as well as audio material;
  • Material can be selected for a particular student group or purpose (e.g. to teach students the features of formal English, or how to write a letter).
The proposed platform will have a modular design to provide a very high level of adaptation for teachers and students.
The specific outputs are:
  • A fully-functional web-based system for teaching and learning the English language and its grammar, built in Moodle, interfaced with the ICE-GB corpus;
  • Course materials for English language students at Key Stages 3-5 and equivalents used in the classroom by teachers or in a self-directed mode by students working alone. Examples will be sourced directly from the corpus providing context, alternative examples, etc.
  • A course management component for teachers including:

    • tools for creating courses from existing modules;
    • tools for selecting modules from restricted material sets;
    • guidance on the selection of modules;
    • randomisation controls, etc.
  • Exercise and project materials;
  • Continuous Professional Development materials for English language teachers to support the above;
  • Evaluation results of the platform;
  • User documentation on the system, integrated into the website;
  • Technical documentation, including the interface to the corpus management system.
The main beneficiaries will be teachers and students of the English language in the local community, but with the long-term aim of producing a resource that is available across the UK. Teachers will benefit from the availability of pre-written, but flexible and adaptable, courses and modules for building their own course plans. They will be able to access corpus materials, including texts and audio recordings. Students will benefit through the acquisition of grammatical concepts being made relevant to them through lessons and interactive hands-on exercises.
Further benefits:
  • Teachers can monitor students’ progress, and can support their homework, exercises, projects and self-study;
  • Teachers can decide on course modules, and then select specific text genres to teach (formal/informal, spoken/written, etc.). They can also select materials written by different authors in different periods and opt for different complexities of analysis;
  • Teachers can select source materials and determine a set of possible lessons, exercises and student projects.
The resource will be will be compliant with the Special Education Needs and Disability Act (SENDA), and can also be used for the following categories of students: ESOL students (English for Speakers of Other Languages), ‘Skills for Life’ students, and Adult Education students. The use of web technologies is designed to maximise access from schools, libraries (via the People’s Network,, and home.
The entire development system will be available over the internet from UCL and requires no additional software at the user’s end, aside from standard internet browser programs. This will enable the community in general, and teachers and students of English in particular, to gain access to the system.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Teaching English Grammar in Schools

This is a project based at the Survey of English Usage in the English Department at University College London. It is funded through the AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship Scheme and is developing in partnership with the London Borough of Camden.

More details about the project can be found here.