Put more complex grammar on the curriculum, says academic

23 May 2019

The use of specific complex grammar such as conditionals should be taught in England’s National Curriculum in order to ensure that disadvantaged children are not left behind, a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar has heard.

Jane Mellanby, an Oxford researcher, told the event at Triangle, Cambridge Assessment’s global headquarters, that her research had found that in high deprivation areas, nearly one in three children had poor acquisition of complex grammar, in contrast to just one in 10 in low deprivation areas.

Understanding of a particular type of complex grammar – conditionals – was vital for progress in education, whether in science, history, politics or just everyday life, she said.

Dr Mellanby gave an example from the study of history: “If Hitler had not invaded Poland, the Second World War might not have happened”. She said that, for students to successfully debate this question, they needed to first understand the conditional, and yet during the course of their research, her team had spoken to one school where researchers had discovered that a significant number of A Level History students did not understand the grammatical concept.

“If you don’t understand this conditional structure, how can you understand hypotheses about cause and effect in history or science? It’s quite worrying,” she said.

She said parents and carers, and staff in nurseries could help improve young children’s acquisition of conditionals and other complex grammar through exposure, such as reading books to children which contain the conditional and using conditionals in conversation with them. To that end, her team is creating a book called “Who Would I Be If I Weren’t Me?” that features extensive use of conditionals. But later on, in primary schools, conditionals and other complex grammar need to be taught, with a particular focus on pupils who are delayed in acquiring conditionals for whatever reason.

“Could we improve general academic attainment by increasing complex language acquisition in early years? I believe we could,” she said.

Tim Oates CBE, Cambridge Assessment’s Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, praised Dr Mellanby for her talk, saying: “If every teacher in training could ask Jane a few questions I think the world would be a better place”. Tim, the architect of the review of the National Curriculum in England, acknowledged that conditionals are not currently included on the curriculum but agreed that they should be. In a speech in February School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said he wanted “a debate on how oracy can support the delivery of a knowledge-rich curriculum”.

“This is really important stuff,” Tim concluded. “We have a small window of time for young children to acquire complex grammar automatically, from exposure. For those that have not acquired it, then it needs to be taught explicitly in school.”

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