The present government in England says it wants to focus on ‘what works’ in education, backed up by solid research, especially research using randomised controlled trial (RCT) designs. Yet, the mismatch between Ministers’ curriculum policy for English teaching and the growing research evidence base is stark, particularly at primary level.
Especially worrying is the heavy emphasis in the curriculum and the SATs on traditional grammar teaching. My latest paper (with my colleague Carole Torgerson at Durham University) published in the British Educational Research Journal today is an analysis of what works in education. The paper includes the evidence for a much more integrated approach to the teaching of grammar and writing.
We conducted a review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses, RCTs,
and quasi-experimental trials, and concluded that the widespread use of traditional grammar teaching for improving writing among native English-speaking children is not supported by robust evidence.
While there is little evidence to support traditional grammar teaching, we were able to compile key classroom principles, based on the evidence about the teaching of writing more generally. Our hypotheses are that teachers can best support primary pupils’ grammar by intervening during the writing process, and interacting with pupils individually (and with groups) to discuss the use of grammar in the context of the overall aims for the piece of writing. The need to use technical terms, such as subordinate clause or subjunctive, remains a question open to research, but it is doubtful that attention to such terms is beneficial.
Our analysis of several decades of research leads us to suggest that adopting everyday language to discuss improvements in the use of grammar in writing will be more beneficial than explicit teaching of complex terminology. Small-group and whole-class teaching that includes a focus on the actual use of grammar in real writing may also be more effective.
A key risk for policy makers and their advisors is to attend too closely to individual pieces of research that might support a preferred policy direction rather than take due account of multiple studies published over many years. This, in addition to ideological belief, appears to be a reason for the dramatic emphasis on grammar in England’s 2014 primary national curriculum. This trend is counter to the research evidence overall, and risks having a negative impact on children’s literacy learning and hence life chances.
Reviews of multiple studies, including systematic review and meta-analysis, are a much more reliable evidence-base for policy decisions than single studies. But this kind of evidence also requires mediation by experts who possess substantive, methodological and, most importantly, practical knowledge and experience of teaching in schools.
When the decisions taken by, and for, schools and teachers about what approaches to adopt are informed by research, there are important choices to be made. If the overall goal is to improve pupils’ writing then a much wider set of research evidence about writing needs to be considered.
A very recent meta-synthesis of high-quality research studies on writing suggests that, rather than emphasise grammar, the following practices could be selected as a priority for teaching writing in primary education:
- an increase in the amount of time spent on writing
- adoption of a process approach to writing (including peer learning, self-questioning, story mapping and vocabulary development)
- a classroom environment that supports children’s writing
- development of pupils’ writing skills, strategies, planning skills and knowledge
- assessment for learning techniques
- a use of computers as part of the writing process
- writing meaningfully across different subject areas.
The robustness of the evidence underpinning these practices is built not on single studies but on multiple RCTs and quasi-experimental trials.
It is very promising that policy makers and politicians around the world have begun to engage with the importance of research evidence. But this should not mean cherry-picking and choosing the evidence they like out of the vast accumulation of studies. Policy must accurately reflect the outcomes of robust reviews of multiple sets of evidence. Sometimes these reviews may point to a policy direction that is contrary to a minister’s ideology and personal beliefs. At other times there may not be sufficient research evidence to warrant a policy decision in any direction. In these cases the wisest course is to further prioritise schools’ autonomy and teachers’ professional judgement.
Finally, if policy-makers pay truly serious attention to research evidence, then curriculum policy would change more slowly and more incrementally. Accumulation of the multiple studies that are required to warrant decisions in important areas such as the teaching of writing takes many years.