Recent observations from marking transactional writing draw me to the following hypothesis: when students are pushing their working memory to capacity in order to produce developed arguments, if grammar is not at the point of automaticity, it is neglected.

This post will present the case for this assertion.

There seems to be 5 types of writers in transactional argumentative writing:

  1. Strong content, strong grammar
  2. Good content, poor grammar
  3. Ok content, poor grammar
  4. Poor content, ok to poor grammar
  5. Very poor content, very poor grammar

Grammar, as defined by Aarts, Cushing and Hudson (2019) in their book ‘How to Teach Grammar‘, is a ‘system of generalised patterns in a language that convey meaning.’ Tools to assist in that shaping include inflectional and derivational morphology as well as syntax. Essentially, morphology refers to the structure of words (so spelling is grammar) and syntax to how words are used in a sentence. There are numerous grammars in the world, but an important consideration for proponents of functional grammar is that these patterns must be explored in context, which makes sense in terms of evaluating their effects. Students secure in the grammar understood by schools engage in the ‘playing with’ of structures and patterns to create meaning; and analyse how an author has used words to create particular effects.

Phrasing and the creation of competent sentence constructions is an axiomatic consideration at GCSE level, usually employing subordinate clauses for effect, as well as spelling words correctly. I also contend that punctuation is inextricably linked to grammar in that syntax is defined or bounded by punctuation. Accurately signposting the bounds of these constructions on the page is critical to successful syntax, and therefore, grammar. Out of the VSSPS criteria, that leaves vocabulary as the only element not technically a grammatical choice.

Marking students’ work is a difficult thing to do because the argument of what constitutes grammatical control undoubtedly means lots of different things to lots of different people. Who judges what is appropriate? Modern writers flaunt every convention we are taught, and are rewarded for it. The dilemma for teachers though is that in order to mark exams fairly, criteria need to be established and adhered to. This post can’t delve into this debate, but more so offers a discussion into the benefits of teaching grammar (whether that is contextualised or decontextualized) in helping reduce cognitive load in student writing.

Observations on each of the 5 types of responses (of course, shocking generalisations)

  1. These students obviously score highly in writing tasks. They develop their points, and control their sentence construction well, and usually for effect. These students tend to be on the higher end of the bell curve, and thus don’t represent the majority.
  2. These students are relatively rare. They write with good strong arguments, yet forget about rules of punctuation or basic grammar constructions as they go. They tend to be very good orally, and possibly see language as purely functional, like in text messaging etc, and convert that into their writing tasks.
  3. These students tend to make up the majority. They tend to be band 3 responses in content, and often band 2 in VSSPS. It is the poorer grammatical control that usually prevents them from getting more than 50% of the available marks in the task.
  4. These students, like number 2, are quite rare. They tend to have done well in primary, but then struggled during high school for one reason or another, which results in inability to produce good content in examination. In terms of VSSPS, they feed off the cultural fat of their primary knowledge (lots of participation in reading and writing), but still only just scrape through, and sometimes not. Their handwriting tends to be very neat, and large.
  5. These students seriously struggle in writing. They lack organisation in ideas, and control of grammar in general. Their handwriting tends to be very poor.

A common thread in 4 of the categories is inadequate grammatical control. Bear in mind I am talking about end of GCSE examinations, where really, grammatical control should be at least consistently competent. It should be more the quality of ideas that are being assessed. But sadly, this is not the case.


In examination, students’ working memories are at capacity. I believe that the majority of their focus is ascribed to the question presented in front of them, in trying to plan a response and remember the appropriate layouts and conventions of the text type. If grammar is not secure, and is not at the point of automaticity, it invariably will take the backseat, and suffer miserably. The student simply has to decide (unconsciously) what will be compromised, and the choice is essentially made for them with the palpable exhortation of content over style: ideas over grammatical control.

The enormous irony here is that a good understanding of grammar would assist in the presentation of the students’ arguments. The construction of sentences to frame discussions, if clear and concise, would assist in the working memory’s generation and organisation of present and future ideas.

But, something that maybe is not understood or considered enough, when writing, is the effect of reading back disorganised work on the generation of the next thought. It is normal to read what we have just written, to check and validate the thought process. For the good writer, the reading back is essential in providing a clearer picture of what the next point should be; the past literally frames the future. A poorly organised grammar would make that reading fuzzy, and seriously disrupt that sequencing process. It would create moments of incertitude with where the next thought should be directed. In a timed high stakes examination, despite the unconscious focus on content over style, it is little wonder that students then produce poor content: their working memories have become overloaded BY THE DISORGANISATION. I doubt struggling students would even be aware that they have robbed Peter to pay Paul, but Judas has come and taken the lot.

This seems an appropriate analogy:

Just as fluent lower order phonological processes assist reading comprehension by reducing the demand placed on attention of decoding, so skilled spelling assists written expression by enabling the student to attend to the higher order process of expressing ideas lucidly.

Singer, B., and Bashir, A. (2004). Developmental variations in writing. In Stone, C.A., Silliman, E.R., Ehren, B.J., and Apel, K. (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders, pp. 559-582. New York: Guilford.

I’ve talked before about the benefits of teaching grammar as a dedicated explicit discipline, but if the veracity of the claim made at the beginning of the post becomes validated by research, then it most certainly would demand a stronger emphasis on making grammar a dedicated and much more considered ingredient of any literacy programme. As a minimum, if we are able to develop students’ knowledge of grammar to automaticity, so its use facilitates dedicated attention solely on the development of ideas and points in a discussion, I think we will see a large improvement in the quality of transactional writing across the boards.   

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational discussions and English teaching resources.

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