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How to improve grammar teaching

"Grammar teaching is used as a remedy for having little experience with the language", says Sigrunn Askland. Her doctoral degree is on grammar teaching in Norwegian schools.

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Photo of pupils writing
"Pupils should focus more on grammar while they write, rather than being subjected to explicit grammar lessons", says Sigrunn Askeland. (Illustration photo: Colourbox)

Many people think back to their grammar lessons at school with dread. Even many adults prefer not to worry about split infinitives or the difference between the present participle and the present perfect.

Sigrunn Askland did her doctorate on grammar teaching in lower and upper secondary school. She thinks the teaching methods are traditional and old-fashioned.
"Do the pupils write better Nynorsk if the teacher drones on about how to conjugate verbs? I don't think so", she says. (Nynorsk and Bokmål are the two official forms of written Norwegian)

Too little and too much grammar

Sigrunn Askland is a teacher and has completed the doctoral programme at the Faculty of Humanities and Education at UiA, with specialisation in linguistics.

Askland interviewed 42 teachers who teach Norwegian (both Nynorsk and Bokmål), English and Spanish at schools in Agder and eastern Norway. She also observed their teaching and found considerable variation in how teachers taught grammar in different languages.

While there was little teaching of grammar in Bokmål and English, there was much more in Spanish and Nynorsk.

"The less experience pupils have with a language in everyday life, the more time teachers spend on explicit grammar teaching. For pupils whose main written language is Bokmål, there is relatively little grammar instruction. The same goes for English. And in upper secondary schools hardly any grammar is taught", says Askland.

When she visited a school whose primary written language was Nynorsk, she found that not much grammar was taught in Bokmål as a second written language, precisely because the pupils are surrounded by Bokmål in their daily life.

Askland wants more focus on grammar, also when teaching pupils their primary written language.

"In this way, pupils would become more aware of the structure of the language. The teacher does not have to use difficult terms but can show how words are building blocks you can move around. Working with language in this way can be a lot of fun, but it is not fun to only conjugate verbs."

More practice activities

Experts have warned that teacher education students do not know enough grammar. Teachers Askland has talked to, also say that the pupils have little knowledge of grammar.

"Pupils should learn grammatical terms already in primary school, but for some, it may be a bit premature since they don't see the terms in context. When you work with texts and grammar simultaneously, it makes more sense", says Askland.

She points out that pupils aged 10-11 do not have the maturity to understand all the definitions and abstract concepts used in grammar.

"Teachers could focus on context when teaching language subjects. And pupils should be encouraged to write and read much more. It's all about practising. Theory and practice must be linked", Askland says.

To bridge the gap between theory and practice, Askland suggests earlier exposure to Nynorsk in school, both through writing, reading, and being read to.

"Studies show that many people have negative attitudes towards Nynorsk as a second written language. It may be because Nynorsk is introduced in the ninth grade by presenting conjugation patterns. Pupils should rather be encouraged to read more so that Nynorsk does not seem like some weird foreign language to them", says Askland.

Writing as a process

Askland works as a teacher herself, teaching English and Spanish. She tries to engage the pupils by letting them work more actively with the language.
"Writing is a process. There are many ways to write a sentence, and making pupils spend hours producing a text and not correcting it does not produce learning", she says.

"Instead, pupils should focus on grammar as they write", says Askland. Then the teacher can help them with things they find difficult.

"There is no doubt that such teaching is easier to implement in groups of 15-20 pupils. One could invest more in language learning by reducing class size", she says.

Askland defended her PhD degree at the Faculty of Humanities and Education with the thesis 'Teacher Cognition and the status of Grammar Teaching in Norwegian Secondary Schools - A study of grammar teaching practices in the school subjects Norwegian, English and Spanish!'