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University of York researchers closer to answering 100-year-old question

Posted on 18 January 2005

Researchers at the University of York have taken a significant step towards answering a question that has haunted the teaching of English for more than a century.

For over 100 years academics and teachers have agonised over whether or not teaching formal grammar improves the writing skills of their pupils.

A new study by the English Review Group, based in the University's Department of Educational Studies, found that teaching techniques such as sentence combining - combining short sentences into longer ones, and embedding elements into simple sentences to make them more complex - may be more effective in helping young people to write well than formal grammar instruction.

The research suggests that the National Curriculum should be revised to take account of the findings of research into grammar teaching, and that teaching materials and approaches should be reviewed.

The study - the largest systematic review yet of research literature in the field - discovered no evidence that the teaching of traditional grammar, specifically word order or syntax, was effective in assisting writing quality or accuracy among five to 16-year-olds. There was some evidence, however, that the technique of sentence combining can improve compositional skills.

Our findings suggest that the teaching of sentence combining may be one of the more effective approaches [to teaching writing]

Professor Richard Andrews

Joint review group co-ordinator Professor Richard Andrews said: "This does not mean to say that the teaching of formal aspects of grammar is not interesting or useful in its own right; however, in a pressured curriculum, where the development of literacy is a high priority, there will be better ways of teaching writing and our findings suggest that the teaching of sentence combining may be one of the more effective approaches."

In the National Literacy Strategy, teachers are required to teach five to seven-year-olds about nouns, verbs and pronouns, while older primary children are expected to learn the names and functions of all the main parts of speech as well as the grammar of complex sentences. The Office for Standards in Inspection (Ofsted) noted after the pilot year of the National Literacy Strategy that, while there had been improvements in word- and sentence-level work, "improvements were least in sentence construction, punctuation and paragraphing." These research findings suggest that the National Curriculum, and teaching materials and approaches should be reviewed.

The review group calls for a large-scale, well-designed randomised controlled trial to establish what aspects of grammar teaching, if any, are effective in relation to improving written composition.

Notes to editors:

  • eppi.ioe.ac.uk/EPPIWeb/home.aspx?page=/reel/review_groups/English/review_six.htm
  • eppi.ioe.ac.uk/EPPIWeb/home.aspx?page=/reel/review_groups/english/review_seven.htm
  • The review was funded by the DfES via the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) at the Institute of Education's Social Science Research Unit.
  • The full reports of the in-depth reviews on the teaching of syntax and sentence combining can be found at eppi.ioe.ac.uk/reel.
  • The University of York English review team members are Richard Andrews and Carole Torgerson (joint co-ordinators), Allison Freeman, Graham Low, Alison Robinson and Die Zhu. Other members of the team are based at Durham University (Sue Beverton) and Waikato University, New Zealand (Terry Locke). Advisor members of the steering group include teachers, parent governors and policy makers.
  • Further information is available from Alison Robinson, Information Officer, Department of Educational Studies, on 01904 433462/3475, e-mail: ar31@york.ac.uk.
  • The need for evidence to inform policy is a topical issue. Systematic reviews seek to inform those making policy and practice decisions by synthesizing existing research to provide accessible evidence.
  • The EPPI-Centre is part of the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education, University of London. Professor Ann Oakley is the Director of the Centre and Dr. David Gough the Deputy Director. Since its inception in 1993, it has been at the forefront in developing systematic reviews of social science and public policy research. For more information about EPPI, contact Diana Elbourne Tel: +44 (0) 207 612 6578 Email: d.elbourne@ioe.ac.uk

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