July 02, 2018

National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) Conference 22–24 June, Aston University

National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) Conference 22-24 June, Aston University - Alison Morgan

Despite being a member of NATE for a few years, this was my first visit to the annual conference.

The opening keynote was by Debra Myhill, Professor of Education at Exeter University, whose research lies in the inter-relationship between metalinguistic understanding and writing. The title of her keynote was: Creative Knowing: Bringing Grammar in from the Cold. This was of interest to me for a variety of reasons: firstly, as a literature specialist, I have always felt that grammar teaching is challenging. It is relatively easy to engage students in literature through narrative and character but more challenging to find fun ways to teach the differences between a defining and non-defining relative clause. Secondly, as something of a grammar pedant, I am constantly dismayed by the low literacy levels of some trainee teachers and recognise the important of grammar teaching in schools. As the mantra goes, all teachers are teachers of English.

Myhill began by outlining how grammar itself is contested and often regarded as a ‘dirty word’ in English teaching, stifling creativity. According to one academic, grammar is the skunk at the garden party of the language arts. Despite the emphasis on grammar in KS2 SATS, there is no evidence to suggest that teaching and testing grammar makes better writers. It is one thing to identify an adverbial phrase but another thing entirely to use it effectively in an essay or short story. The knowledge and understanding of grammar, she argued, is to help learners understand both their own work and that of others. It is a resource for shaping and crafting meaning in a text; however, grammatical metalanguage is not always familiar to teachers and grammar itself is conceptually complex. Having learned grammar myself firstly through studying French and Latin at school and then through working as a TEFL teacher and teaching A-level English Language, I can attest to this and recognise in many trainee English teachers their wariness and lack of confidence in teaching grammar.

The issue is further compounded, Myhill went on to say, by the conflict between the prescriptive model of grammar as advocated by the DfE (courtesy of Michael Gove) and the descriptive model used by academics. In short, the debate is between whether grammar should be used to guide the accuracy of writing or to describe what has been written. Debra cited the work of the famous linguistics academic, Michael Halliday, whose theory of ‘functional grammar’ defined it as a meaning-making resource, a gateway to the study of discourse. I endorse his (and Myhill’s view) that grammatical knowledge should be about providing choice to a writer, a way of both choosing the most effective language and syntax for a piece of writing as well as identifying the reasons behind the choices made by others. The teaching of grammar should emerge through the study of literature or writing rather than a dry exercise in feature-spotting.

Overall, an engaging and illuminating lecture which provided an excellent start to a very good day.

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