How does grammar help writing? And who should teach it?

A recent report into Australia’s NAPLAN results showed that in 2019 close to a quarter of boys and 10 per cent of girls in year 9 were not meeting the minimum standards. These figures suggest something is seriously wrong with how we teach writing in high schools.

In response, many commentators, including former NSW premier Bob Carr and a former head of the NSW Education Standards Authority, Tom Alegounarias, have called for more explicit teaching of writing in high schools and for teachers to be trained in grammar at universities.

However, amid this debate, there has been little discussion of what grammar is and how it helps writing. For many, grammar conjures up vague memories that prepositions are things you should not finish sentences with – or, better still, with which you should not finish a sentence. Or that conjunctions should never be used at the beginning of sentences. When viewed from this perspective, it may seem difficult to understand what the fuss is about grammar and what it has to do with learning to write effectively.

Educational conceptions of grammar have gone far beyond these notions in recent decades. Grammar is no longer considered as a vague set of rules prescribing how one must write, but rather as a way that teachers can talk with their students about language to improve their writing. In more technical terms, grammar is seen as a “meta-language”: a language about language that teachers and students can use when learning to write.

In primary school, the Australian Curriculum has a significant focus on grammar. This enables teachers to explain that, for example, when writing persuasive texts, it often helps to use “modality”, such as the word should in: “The government should invest in programs to improve writing in high schools.” If students wish to make their argument more forceful, the teacher may guide them that higher modality might be useful: “The government must introduce programs to improve writing in schools.”

Once the curriculum moves to high school, however, much of the connection between language and meaningful writing disappears. References to language become vague, and ways of writing in different subjects become reduced to generic sentences about communication. An example from Year 7 science illustrates this by saying students must: “Communicate ideas, findings and evidence based on solutions to problems using scientific language, and representations, using digital technologies as appropriate.” While few would disagree that students should use scientific language in science, this does not make clear what scientific language actually is.

Teachers of science, like those of history, health, music and technology, recognise that writing in their subjects is highly distinct. Each subject’s writing becomes increasingly specialised through secondary school and is dramatically different to the writing in English class. In science writing, for example, students must regularly use language to intricately distinguish different types of things. In English this is less common. Rather, students need to use evaluative language so they can make nuanced judgments of literature based on their own aesthetic stances. This means the ways of writing in science would often not be at home in English, and vice versa.

Having a language to point out what works in what subjects is an immensely useful resource for teachers helping struggling students and for supporting good writers to know what they’ve done well.

Rather than handing back responsibility for teaching writing to English teachers, universities and professional-learning providers need to support all teachers to develop a meta-language for writing in their own subjects. Leaving it to English teachers in high school risks either hollowing out the English curriculum or genericising the writing curriculum so it does not target the specific ways of writing in any subject.

Helping teachers explain writing in all subjects is an approach that recognises the expertise they have in the writing of their own subjects and supports them to explain the secrets of this success to students.

To ensure we can lessen the vast inequities in secondary school writing, Australia’s governments and universities and should invest in the teaching of subject-specific writing in secondary schools. No, governments must invest in the teaching of subject-specific writing in secondary schools.

By Yaegan Doran and Sally Humphrey, at the University of Sydney and Australian Catholic University, and Dr Sally Humphrey, at ACU, are teacher educators and literacy researchers. First published on September 17, 2020