Grammar teaching skipped two generations. Now it's back with purpose

Margaret McBride and her son Dr Navid Sabet have created an online grammar basics workshop for teachers. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Margaret McBride and her son Dr Navid Sabet have created an online grammar basics workshop for teachers. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Everybody's mixing up "I" and "me" these days, according to Margaret McBride.

"People think it sounds better with "I" but it's not the case," she said.

The linguistic enthusiast has noticed people over-correcting their language or not being able to explain why things seem right or wrong.

Mrs McBride has been running grammar workshops designed for teachers since 2015. With the help of her son, Dr Navid Sabet, Mrs McBride turned the workshop into an online course in 2020 in response to COVID-19.

The explicit teaching of grammar has been back on the Australian curriculum for nine years. The challenge is many of the current cohort of teachers didn't systemically learn grammar at school but now they are required to teach it to the next generation.

"There's quite a lot of terminology, lots of foreign concepts for people and they've just been thrown into the deep end," Mrs McBride said.

Before the 1970s, grammar was taught through parsing language. Students were taught to break down sentences and label each part but not necessarily how to write for real audiences and purposes.

ACT Association for the Teaching of English executive officer Rita van Haren was a product of the school system which advocated for parsing but she quickly saw its limited usefulness when entering the teaching profession in the mid 1970s.

"I could see it wasn't very purposeful because it wasn't about teaching kids how to write," Ms van Haren said.

"[Students] actually disengaged from English because of it... We had a book called Let's enjoy English."

The focus moved to deconstructing and analysing texts and teaching students about style. Students were still learning about how to use language but the metalanguage was lost along the way.

"Grammar hadn't fallen off but wasn't explicit enough," Ms van Haren said.

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President of the Primary English Teaching Association Australia and Associate Professor of Language in Education at University of Wollongong Pauline Jones said the English curriculum introduced in 2012 mandated the teaching of grammar for the first time in two generations.

It attempted to strike a balance between traditional grammar and systemic functional grammar, which focuses on analysing texts.

She said in her experience teachers were up for the challenge of learning the best ways to teach grammar in different contexts. For instance, grammar in science writing is different to a history text.

"We've never had systematic teaching of language. I don't know if we've really developed that yet," Associate Professor Jones said.

She said a sound knowledge of grammar in the information age was a matter of equity.

"We talk about the needs of the future... People will have number of jobs in their lifetime and move through various careers. They need flexibility with their language use and applications," Associate Professor Jones said.

"Accuracy is still important because people make judgments about others based on grammar."

Meanwhile, Mrs McBride's grammartraining.com site aims to give teachers the tools to explain how language works without getting bogged down with rules.

"It's giving everyone access to the language of power," she said.

Grammar Quiz

Put your knowledge of grammar to the test. The correct answer will turn green.

This story Grammar teaching skipped two generations. Now it's back with purpose first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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