We recently learned of a fascinating new project in the United Kingdom entitled "Teaching English Grammar in Schools," and we were pleased to see that Dan Clayton, a researcher working on the project, had spoken highly of the educational resources of the Visual Thesaurus. We got in touch with Dan to find out how the project, part of the Survey of English Usage, is promoting new approaches to the teaching of grammar based on real usage examples pulled from a corpus of texts.

VT: Could you describe the project you're working on?

Dan: The project is called "Teaching English Grammar in Schools," and we're developing an interface between the classroom and our corpus. At the Survey of English Usage, we've got ICE-GB, which is the British branch of the International Corpus of English. That's a corpus that has been parsed and tagged, and you can do grammatical searches on it.  What we're trying to do is develop an interface between that and grammar teaching in English secondary schools, age groups from 11 up to 18. 

What we're trying to do with the corpus is create something that's more flexible and dynamic in its interface. When you've got a textbook, you might have examples plucked out of the ether by whoever's sitting there pondering upon a grammatical concept they want to explain. And so the traditional The cat sat on the mat examples crop up.  What we're trying to do is to use our corpus to pull out living, breathing examples of English.  Of course, that poses its own problems.  When you're calling up nouns from the corpus, you end up with some fairly bizarre ones as well as ones that serve to illustrate a point quite well.  So we're working on the readability of certain examples in the corpus, and where these would fit into different types of teaching.

VT: Is the idea that teachers would be able to use this interface as they build their lesson plans, in order to fit the National Curriculum requirements on grammar?

Dan: That's right. There's a degree of planning that goes into it in the first place where you work out, let's say, "Where does this grammatical concept fit into a teacher's coverage of a set text in literature?"  We're trying to integrate some of the work on grammar into the things that teachers already do, so we've looked at lots of lessons, seeing what teachers really do. 

We're also trying to put together an outline for teachers, showing them how they could work their way through certain units in the material we're doing, and assemble various activities and tasks that would fit together well into a coherent overview for a particular grammatical concept, or just insert particular activities into lessons that they may want to do off the cuff when they're doing something else. There's a big focus on "starters" these days in English classrooms. You have to have quick 10-minute starters, to get your class warmed up. 

VT: So the teacher could be working with the class on a particular work of literature, and then they might use this as a supplement to their lesson on that piece of literature?

Dan: You could, or an alternative might be to actually start with what we're producing.  I've been working on trying to incorporate bingo cards into games with grammar.  So I'd be looking at a poem line-by-line, identifying noun types, adjectives, verbs.  And that could then lead into the same approach being used on other poems that a teacher has to do with that class.  So it would be offering them a ready-made lesson to begin with, but also a template for an approach that might work with other areas.

VT: Could you describe what the National Curriculum actually says about the teaching of grammar and how you see your project as fitting into that?

Dan: It's a complicated picture because it's changed quite a lot.  There's been a lot of good work done by linguists in trying to influence the National Curriculum. In the 1980s, when the National Curriculum first appeared, there was input from linguists then into the knowledge about language material that would feature in there.  There was work done by the LINC [Language in the National Curriculum] project, which got stymied by the government at the time. There were various other initiatives to try to get language as a focus and particularly working on developing teachers' grammar knowledge. 

But there's also been a countercurrent, a movement away from grammar from the 1960s until fairly recently, where we've had an almost absolute disappearance of grammar from the curriculum in any kind of recognized way.  This is a movement towards personal response – in the broadest sense, creative responses to text rather than the kind of analytical approaches that grammar lends itself to. More recently, the rapid growth of A-level English Language from about 10 years ago has created a slightly more specialist team of English teachers at that age group, 16 to 18, who have worked very hard on introducing research from language study and linguistics into their teaching.  But lower down the school, there's not been that kind of knowledge around. It's very rare to find secondary-school teachers in this country who have got any background in linguistics or language. 

The actual stipulations for what kind of grammar knowledge you need to pass are very vague, so it's a mixed bag. There are some schools where they see grammar as very important and they try to embed that into all their teaching of English, and there's others that are absolutely horrified by the prospect of teaching anything to do with grammar and see it as a dead-end.

VT: Would you say there's been a return to grammar for students of that age that had been fading away in past decades?

Dan: I think there has been, and I think A-Level English Language is partly responsible for that, but I think there's also been a lot more popular discourse about grammar and redefining what it is. English grammar is constantly being discussed in the media. There's a certain degree of interest in it because there's a worry from a particular generation that they weren't taught it. 

There's now a unit on the GSCE [General Certificate of Secondary Education] which focuses specifically on spoken language, which is a real move forward considering what we do most of the time is speak rather than write. Certainly blended forms like texting and e-mail are probably moving more towards spoken than written forms. Students can look at those things at a younger age and actually critically analyze some of the language around them.  They can look at Facebook; they can look at Twitter; they can look at text messaging. There's a usual kind of "to hell in a handcart" discourse in the popular media about that.  But at the same time, I think there's a degree of maturity that this is the kind of thing that people should look at, and that's made an appearance now in the GSCE specifications. 

Younger kids are now going to be looking at an introduction to spoken language — different types of conversations, and some of the structures and the unwritten rules of spoken discourse.  I think that's very positive.  Whether or not grammar is foregrounded in that is a different matter.  There are different opinions on that, and it's only really beginning to be taught now. We'll have to wait and see what happens there, but it could be a really exciting way of opening up English language to new areas of study.

Next week in part two of our interview, Dan talks about how the project is encouraging students to launch their own investigations into how language works.