Supporting English-related teaching and learning at all levels

Growth in Grammar – Report by Debbie Haynes January, 2019

There is a Growth in Grammar and, no I am not making a mistake with punctuation here, or even making some general comment about the state of health in “education England”. There is an actual website called “Growth in Grammar”. It is a corpus of grammatical usage by students in Y2 –Y11 built and categorised by a research team working at Exeter University and it will not surprise you to note the name included in the research team. Debra Myhill, Mark Brenchley and Phil Durrant have been working on this fantastic resource for any with an interest in developing writing and I was able to attend a launch event at Aston University on Saturday (26th January) where they showcased its features, explored its benefits and made the links to the grammar for writing pedagogy that Debra Myhill has been championing for some years, now.

The corpus is hosted by WordPress and can be accessed once you sign an initial agreement form. The form can be obtained from Phil Durrant (P.L.Durrant@exeter.ac.uk) and the corpus itself can be accessed here: (https://gigcorpus.com/)

The scale of the project is what makes the resource particularly useful. It encompasses a national sample of student writing, from 24 schools. This includes 3,000 pieces of writing; 1000 student authors; 3 disciplines: – English, Science, Humanities and 4 key stages:- Year 2 (6-7) -Year 9 (13-14) and – Year 6 (10-11) – Year 11 (15-16).

Once the written pieces, from both literary and non-literary genres had been collected (which would have been quite an enormous task, in itself) there was a process of cataloguing of the sentences used in the writing. Each text was marked for various pieces of linguistic information and involved a two stage process: Automatic annotation using special linguistic software and then hand marking of subsamples by a team of trained annotators.

The research team then set themselves the task of interpreting patterns of writing development in children from this wide age spectrum and, we, in the audience on Saturday, were invited to try and interpret alongside. Two questions which they set us to consider were: Do older children use more complex noun phrases? And – Do older children use less frequent words? We then investigated some of the examples included in the corpus. It would take too long to go into detail about the process but we looked into the use and length of noun phrases; pre and post-modification of the noun in sentences used by children across all 4 key stages, as well as the children’s lexical diversity and sophistication.

There are some preliminary interpretations distilled from the detailed pattern analysis:

  • Children’s writing gets measurably more diverse at each KS
  • Literary writing is measurably more diverse than non–‐literary writing

This is reassuring in that we must be doing something right in education. Notions of greater awareness of the audience at KS4 were discussed which would account for the more specific use of the noun phrase and in particular the length of words in non-finite noun phrases used in post modification for literary writing. I include one of the graphs to show their quantitative analysis of the grammatical form here:

The day was ended with a session led by Debra Myhill. We investigated with her the kind of texts and approaches she advocates in her “Grammar as Choice” pedagogy; where as teachers, we are encouraged to “notice” the grammar choices writers make in order to play with and make effective grammar choices in our own/students’ writing.

I recommend the corpus to you and also the other web based resources developed at Exeter including these excellent resources for investigating texts with a grammatical lens at KS1 – KS4.

http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/education/research/centres/centreforresearchinwriting/grammar-teacher-resources/

I understand from Phil Durrant and Mark Brenchley that there will be some publications forthcoming but here is a reminder of one you may have already come across:

Brenchley, M. & Cushing, I. (2017) 10 Things Every Teacher Should Know About Grammar. Times Educational Supplement. No.5278, 8th December:

https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/10-things-every-teacher-needs-know-about-grammar