GRAMMAR AND COGNITIVE LOAD IN WRITING

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.

A THEORY AS TO WHY

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.

A GRAMMAR SEQUENCE – what it looks like

This is part 2 of developing grammar knowledge. Part 1 is here.

Knowing where to begin a sequence of learning grammar in secondary school is a difficult one, for a variety of reasons:

  • a teacher’s picture of what a student knows and brings into the yr 7 classroom may be incomplete. * The expectations of knowledge are at the bottom of the post, but also see James Durran’s blog which discusses the literacy gap.
  • the existence of a detailed sequential scheme of learning is difficult to find. Daisy Christodoulou’s seminal work ‘Making good progress’ identifies the need to design learning sequences that provide practice of tasks that may not reflect the final summative task, but in fact are individual components that make up the whole. She writes specifically about grammar design here. There are of course a limitless number of resources available online dealing with every aspect of grammar, but I am yet to find anything that takes a student step by step through word classes in a logical and functional manner, and/or does so in a way that doesn’t suffer from the curse of knowledge (the idea that when you know something it is difficult to imagine others not knowing it, which can interfere with teaching something to adequate depth). This is important – i hope to goodness that i am wrong, but I am not aware of a functional approach to grammar (which i espouse) that is connected to a specific scheme of learning. I’ve seen lots of examples of how functional grammar can be applied, but not an actual scheme that could be incorporated into a real curriculum.
  • some don’t value the power of teaching grammar as a distinct discipline
  • building a scheme into a curriculum may interfere with the core content, and as time is everthing’s enemy, takes a significant backseat in most English classrooms.
  • as a corollary, lots of schemes actually don’t include grammar as a focus.

I talked about the power of grammar in the last post, as a tool that strengthens a student’s control of language and improves the feedback process with significantly more explicit direction. I also truly believe that understanding grammar significantly helps with punctuation, especially helping to elimate the dreaded comma splice and the equally as frustrating fragmented sentence. But without any shadow of a doubt, a successful grammar curriculum must be assiduously designed so that it is sequential, incrementally moving a student forward once mastery of each element is achieved.

To that end, I have created such a scheme, and am in the process of creating the resources to match. I have provided an example of how mastery would be achieved with each element.

Here is a short video of the whole scheme. What you will hopefully notice is the progression style of each element. As much as possible, one element blends into another:

The sequence is the following:

  • ​​Nouns​
  • Determiners​
  • Subject + object​
  • Verb forms​
  • Finite verbs​
  • Auxiliary verbs​
  • Modal verbs​
  • Clauses​
  • Conjunctions​
  • Adjectives ​
  • Relative clauses
  • Adverbs​
  • Phrases​
  • Prepositions​
  • Participles 

The sequence is broken into distinct sections, and the teacher would, depending on where they begin, teach each element and then provide activities for students to master their knowledge of the respective element.

Section A: begins by explaining the various types of nouns, and how determiners are used to introduce certain nouns. The subject of a sentence is then taught as this is essential for the understanding of what constitutes a clause.  

Section B: introduces the concept of a verb. The 5 main forms of verb are discussed. The reason for going into depth here rather than simply encouraging students to say that all verb forms are merely ‘verbs’ is that each of the forms serves a particular purpose in our language, and so a secure knowledge of each assists them in being more precise with their language. The great bonus of this is that the teacher can then provide more precise feedback to students. 

The distinction between finite and non-finite verb forms is made clear, which allows for a discussion about tense, and how and why we must use the correct tense. Auxiliary verbs, including modal verbs are presented to assist the understanding of tense. 

Section C: introduces how nouns and verbs are used in combination to form sentences primarily via clauses. Main and subordinate explanations provide opportunities to discuss conjunctions, both coordinating and subordinating, and what rules we use to punctuate both compound and complex sentences.  

Section D: introduces modifiers. The scheme begins by discussing adjectival and adverbial clauses. In terms of adjectival, the common use of relative clauses is explained and restricted and non-restricted clauses are explained; an important consideration for punctuation.  

Section E: introduces how non-finite verbs are used to create phrases. The 4 main types of phrases are explained, and how they are used as modifiers. Prepositions are defined, and lots of attention is given to participles. Participle phrases are highly effective modifiers, and the adjectival nature of past and present participles is explored. As well as this, the adaptive nature of participles explains how they are used in the passive voice, as well as in combination with auxiliary verbs in 9 of the 12 tenses

APPROACHING MASTERY 

Where your students enter the scheme is of course determined by their prior knowledge, but upon entering, each element MUST begin as though the student is a novice, and therefore assessment of the new element MUST only test that element. Isolating assessment is crucial to not only prevent cognitive overload, but also so you can see any errors that arise, and if more activities to achieve mastery are needed. Students MUST master each component of grammar before moving onto the next stage of the sequence. This is crucial.  The table below illustrates this design, with the scheme beginning with proper nouns, and designed activities that incrementally build knowledge. The number of errors to check understanding embedded in each activity would remain roughly consistent, and each element ends with a summative assessment combining the various types of questions that could be asked of the element. As you can see, by the time the summative test is issued at the end of this element (sentence example), a secure knowledge of proper nouns would be certain.

What is essential is that there is an adequate number of activities to achieve mastery. This means creating a bank of resources for each element, a process I have begun, but which will obviously take some time to complete. For example, as illustrated below, if a student needs 10 activities to master the element, then 10 activities must exist. This would be an unusually high number however, as the incremental design should naturally eradicate this occurence.

SO HOW CAN I EMBED THIS INTO MY CURRICULUM?

The road to mastery is not a short one. Daisy Christodoulou discusses the difference between a spiral curriculum and a mastery approach here, espousing the benefits of the latter succinctly, and convincingly. Beginning the grammar scheme as soon as possible in secondary school would be the ideal, utilising SATS tests as a baseline (see Sarah Barker’s blog on this), in combination with other measures. Some older year groups may begin the scheme near its end, with participles for example, with students having already demonstrated security in every previous element. Teachers may wish to use the scheme as an intervention tool, arming interventionist staff with a deliberate approach to bringing students up to speed, so they can begin to analyse and use language in classes with increased confidence.

How you deliver the content is up to you. Where possible, the reason for the existence of the grammatical function would be explicitly explained to the students. Why are there nouns? etc. There are cues to this in the scheme, but the teacher would add their spin on the reasons. Advisably, a strong focus on contextual grammar would be best, as superbly illustrated here by James Durran, but of course this can only happen once the form has initially been taught. You may adapt activities to reinforce mastery with examples from respective texts you are studying, but remember that the design of the activities is still crucial in terms of minimising extraneous load. Either way, constant discussion in class about the elements already covered would significantly assist in students encoding the knowledge. Empowering students with the technical language to discuss the functional grammar used in texts you are studying I think makes teaching those texts infintely more enjoyable, as you get a step closer to being truly able to evaluate the meanings contained within.

The important consideration however, is that you can’t cheat the process of developing grammar knowledge. The power it provides students is irrefutable, but you simply can’t rush the process, or skip parts of the sequence. Learning gaps will result if you do, and we end up with the current state of serious and debilitating VSSPS issues at GCSE level.

NEXT STEPS

The ultimate aim is to add videos to help explain each element, maximising the process of dual coding, and then have the activities embedded into an adaptive learning platform, so students are AUTOMATICALLY directed and guided depending on their success rates to the relevant section in the course. Stay tuned!

*Below is the Yr 6 Curriculum signalling expectations of grammar knowledge:

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

A GRAMMAR SEQUENCE – why we need it

It is not an accident or platitude that primary school students are taught grammar, and to an impressive degree too. Teaching grammar literally equips students with an understanding of the building blocks of language, the tool that we use extensively, and would be utterly lost without. In primary, the teaching of grammar is a mixture of form and function, the distinction well explained here by Bas Aarts, with functionality, inextricably connected to context, deemed as the superior strategy. The quantitative nature of SATS however anecdotally fixates attention more on form, mostly in Yr 6, rendering it a practice that many believe to be incongruent to the ideal. It may be, worryingly so, earlier for some.

Being pragmatic, both foci offer secondary teachers a significant opportunity to harness the incredibly important work done by primary teachers. Unfortunately, this opportunity seems to be rarely taken up. There exists a great irony in the recent spotlight into curriculum design that doesn’t take heed of what students bring to the table from primary education*. Issues in getting the transition right and avoiding the ‘wasted years‘ is intelligently discussed here by James Durran. It is certainly not an easy thing to get right, especially when students may arrive from a multitude of feeder schools, but having a better understanding of what a student already knows as they enter a Yr 7 classroom has got to be a step in the right direction. A recent post by Sarah Barker raises the possibility of teachers gaining more precise awareness of prior-knowledge in English, with access to specific breakdowns of errors available to secondary teachers:

Of course, all of the information is practically pointless if what students know is not going to be built upon. Yes, grammar, punctuation and spelling are perennial areas of concern, and make up a substantial ratio of an English GCSE grade, but how much focus is actually given to them as discreet components of language development? Or are they simply add-ons to the core of what we teach, with greater attention given to a more contextualised focus on language meaning?

It is my contention that a rigorous grammar focus would significantly improve schoolwide literacy as well as language analysis and expression in the English classroom.

Teaching grammar in secondary school has potency. Continuing the empowerment inducted into primary students with the knowledge of how our language is constructed not only provides opportunity for students to read and comprehend increasingly complex written information with understanding, and hence enjoyment, in almost all subjects, but it also gives them a platform from which to build, shape and refine their own writing.

Be Explicit!

Explicitly and continuously directing students to the functionality of grammar in everything they are exposed to is a sure way to help students achieve automaticity in parsing language. James Durran’s blog on doing so is a must read for all KS3 teachers, in which he beseeches teachers to discuss grammar contextually, continuously drawing students’ attention to the purpose and meaning of the language use. Explicit grammar teaching also significantly assists in providing explicit feedback to students’ writing, as you are able to suggest more refined and precise instructions for improvement. It is far superior to say to a student, ‘Would that sentence be better if you added a more interesting adverb to that subordinate clause?’, or ‘I think an appositive would improve the description in the sentence’, or to assist in punctuation, ‘Why do you have a comma placed between two independent clauses?’, or ‘Can you use a semi-colon there if the second section is a phrase and not a clause?’

This sentiment echoes the great Tom Needham, who adds to the invocation of Doug Lemov when he says: Although I want my students to be able to name these particular parts of a sentence, most importantly I want them to use them. While there may be disagreement about the ‘correct’ name to give these (absolute phrases seem to be known as ‘nominative absolutes’ as well as ‘noun phrases . . . combined with participles’), we still need a name to give them if we are to discuss, analyse and practice them, creating what Lemov refers to as ‘a shared language for your team’ p.66. If we have this shared language, we are able to minimise confusion and be precise, allowing us to create focussed practice activities.

Essentially, my belief is that having a better grasp of the science of our language will ultimately help in understanding and producing the art of our language.

How to integrate a grammar scheme

Well, that’s the next post… here.

*Below is the Yr 6 Curriculum signalling expectations of grammar knowledge:

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