Progressive Teaching Methods In the Primary School

June 30, 2012

I recently saw the following comment on Twitter about plans to emphasise the teaching of grammar in primary schools (and by “emphasise” I mean “actually do”):

To understand how there can be controversy here it is necessary to understand how primary education is understood within the tradition of progressive education. Here is a flowchart to clarify matters (it may also help with the debate over phonics):

Hope that clears everything up.



  1. “I had some grammar in primary school AND they had us reading for pleasure.”
    Er.. Oh dear we’re all doomed

  2. In my last year of Primary School, I spent 2 hrs every day parsing. That is why I am a vicious, child-hating, psychotic Tory-lover.

  3. This certainly strikes a chord. When my daughter was in year 2 she was at a school that believed in learning through play etc etc
    she spent the day with the playmobil – as most activities were optional – then I had to spend our evening teaching her. Most unfunny really with a tired 6 year old.

  4. It’s bewildering to parents who see being taught the three Rs in primary school as normal! I was basically told that spelling and grammar tests are elitist, cruel and pointless. Really strict teachers who made the children read at the beginning of the day and forced them work to work very hard (with beautiful work to show for it) were ostracized and usually left the school.

    Some head teachers in primary schools often adopt the latest fashionable drivel about teaching methods with a great fanfare and then quietly abandon it when it doesn’t work. They only do it to limb the greasy pole of their career path – the ones with integrity don’t bother and stick to what experience tells them actually works. Adopting the latest idea and then dropping it when it fails is not helping the children at all.

    Primary schools often do booster sessions in the run up to SATS. These are not just for the odd one or two that are struggling, but for large groups of children. This is because the schools are trying to catch up on everything they haven’t done for the previous five years, and they’re panicking about league tables.

    The secondary schools are left to pick up the pieces with children often arriving with poor all round literacy skills and not even knowing their times tables.

  5. I flipping love teaching grammar; I think it’s the most liberating and empowering thing that lower ability writers can be taught (seriously!). It’s also a ludicrous myth perpetuated by lazy educationalists (usually people who have no idea what it’s like to struggle to write coherently and so have little clue as to the importance of teaching grammar) that you can’t combine grammar with enjoyable learning. Have a look here for example –

    Brilliant – kids love it and are now using subordinate clauses like there’s no tomorrow…


  6. I’m a traditionalist and have no truck with fads- and I welcome robust learning.

    but… if i am honest…

    when I was a kid I passionately loved English, reading and story writing.

    But I despised secondary school grammar and comprehension – i found it so dry and unnecessary. (I accept the RRRs should be compulsory at primary – goes without saying)

    I personally enjoy writers with a certain cadence and turn of phrase.

    which is why for me, some classics are a dull as dish water because whilst the grammar used may be impeccable, it just doesn’t scan well.

    And personal preferences aside, does anyone really compose letters, plays, essays or novels by constructing words according to a grammar equation?

    Surely one composes in a natural manner using your instincts, experience and phrases you have heard 1000s of times before, compensating for context, meaning and emphasis?

    For me, I really cannot see a return to strict grammar lessons leading to a love of English- it very nearly destroyed the love I had for it and I know I wasn’t the only one…

  7. I think that’s the point though – for you, a lot of the grammar stuff was pointless as you were someone capable of ‘composing in a natural manner using your insticts, experience and phrases you have heard 1000s of times before, compensating for context, meaning and emphasis’.

    The problem is that there are a bucket load of kids who haven’t heard phrases 1000s of times, don’t have any experience of literature and hence haven’t honed the instincts of which you speak and so are utterly unable to compenstate for anything; these are the kids for whom the grammar teaching is essential.

    All of the cadence and turn of phrase that you speak of is, ultimately, underpinned by use of grammatical structures (even if there is deliberate inversion of them which is something I like to teach) as is all language.

    Check the resource above and you can (honestly!) teach grammar in a really engaging way – seriously, my kids, especially boys, LOVE grammar and getting technical with their langauge use and analysis. This, for instance, is a real snippet from my classroom: ‘Sir, I’ve just done sub-clause, comma, main clause, semi-colon, explanatory main clause and it is SICK! And it starts with a gerrund! You NEED to hear this Sir’

    If it’s not taught well, however, and placed firmly within a creative context I fully agree that we risk turning a lot of kids off but that’s crappy teaching, not the grammar itself.

  8. Perhaps you are right ‘Seeking’ and perhaps it was the teaching I was exposed to but I would counter with 3 points:

    1. My english teachers I liked- they were pretty inspirational- it was the content I hated- although I accept they may not have used your modern techniques

    2. the snippet you just used turned me right off!!- sorry- just being honest!- but I accept your kids like it

    3. Even if your kids love it I am not sure it would help their actual usage or appreciation of English. I would assert they will not use the grammar rules/formula when composing texts, letters, job applications, thank you letters, love letters, exam answers in history or geography etc.

    It will not lead them to enjoy reading articles or contemporary or classical novels.

    it may allow them to look back on an answer they have given and realise why its grammatically correct but i suspect the instinct has already told them its fine. in which case the skill is for its own sake with limited application.

    Or maybe I’m the odd one out and everyone else in the world continually applies well rehearsed ‘tests’ on everything they write prior to submission???

    ps Im afraid i have similar views on Latin…. :)

  9. Grammar needs to be taught, and that the way it is taught is the key to success.

    If pupils do not use it properly in official letters and job applications it could go against them – it may put them at a disadvantage when compared with other applications and affect the general impression it gives potential employers.

    Once children get used to common grammatical rules they use them automatically. This improves the overall quality of their exam answers which will influence their overall grade – especially in sixth form, when they are more likely to have to write long essays.

    The point is, it’s not just about grammar, dryly and in isolation – it goes hand in hand with spelling and a wide range of vocabulary to make a great piece of writing. However if taught in a way that it stultifies someone’s creative instincts, then that will affect their views on teaching grammar – even if, subconsciously, they may have benefited from it.

    Learning how to use grammar will not directly lead anyone to pick up a novel, but nobody claimed that it would. It may, however, help with more challenging texts, where longer sentences with lots of clauses are used that might put off someone unfamiliar with books that require a bit more concentration but are fantastic stories.

    Children’s authors no doubt have had the benefit of being taught grammar -and whatever the levels of their books they will have been edited by somebody with grammatical knowledge. If they hadn’t had that education and a framework of rules to work within (or legitimately break for effect!) it may have affected the potency of their writing.


  10. But thats my point- others have picked up great writing skills but never received lessons on grammatical rule.

    I ignored my old grammar lessons as best I could and today I can barely define a verb or adjective or noun.

    I have students who have written wonderful essays and side splittingly funny routines in the school mag, using a marvellous command of the language, yet they claim to have done virtually no grammar at all.

    Id love some English teachers to combat me on this, its a pet theory that I havent researched bar a handful of conversations with students and friends. Some people ‘suppose’ they learnt to write by being told the rules of grammar but they can never recall ever ‘composing’ a sentence or letter by using the codec.

    You just start writing dont you? Because its automatic- and as i say, i assert that the ‘habit’ is not from grammar lessons but from the practice of creative writing, answering written questions across all the subjects. Or even watching the telly and hearing adults talk.

    I suppose what I am saying is that literacy is not dependant upon explicit grammar lessons but upon regular practice and feedback.

    spelling tests yes, essays yes, comprehensions exercise about the understanding of a piece yes,

    but listing a bunch of nouns?
    identifying the components of the ‘cat sat on the mat’?

    To me its Gradgrind’s approach to English….

  11. OK – of course, lots of kids will ‘pick up’ brilliant writing skills without explicit grammar lessons. In the same way, lots will be great at football without any specific coaching. I’m not denying that – I myself never had any grammar lessons and can string a reasonable sentence or two together. But what for those who don’t possess a great deal of natural talent? Or the pupils who don’t ‘hear adults talk’ with sophisticated language?

    For me, it was always a question of this: James in y8 can understand every single word in this amazing passage of description but he can’t write anything like that himself – why? It struck me as odd. Turned out that grammar was the answer. It enables James to deconstruct the piece and understand HOW the wonderful effect is created through a range of techniques and constructs. Once he understands them, he can begin using them at a micro-sentence level and gradually build them into his own extended pieces of writing.

    My kids – predominantly ‘inner city’ boys in a challenging catchment – like it because it empowers them; I teach technique, then I explicitly teach them how to apply their techniques to their writing. Then I encourage them to get really creative; because they now have the tools to do so, they really go for it and they absolutely love it – I PROMISE!!!! :) . I have just taken a class of level 4 pupils to a level 6 in a year purely because of this.

    Point 3 is very wide of the mark. Clearly, teaching grammar in isolation is rubbish – I promise you, my kids apply all of the rules (and the deliberate inversions of the rules for effect) in every piece of written work they do; I NEVER teach rules in the abstract.

    And of course it helps them reading articles and enjoying novels! Obviously we sometimes just read because we love it but, for example, when reading something like War Horse, we’ll get grammatical every now and again e.g. you have 3 mins to find the 7 sub-clauses on p.19 – GO! Then we discuss what they mean and how they add to the descriptive power of the passage and convey the suffering of the soldiers or re-read without the sub-clauses to see how important they are or the kids re-write the sub-clauses to shift the meaning of the passage or we’ll write the words on paper and jump the sub-clause about and others have to jump in with the right punctuation etc etc etc. FUN! :)

    Grammar isn’t about knowing what a verb or a noun is, it’s about understanding how that verb or noun enhances or contributes to the beauty and power of the written word – those of us lucky enough to have had very literate parents tend to get this naturally; others are not so lucky.

    As such, the bit where you say ‘instinct will tell them it’s fine’ is madness – if only this were the case! Instinct often tells them it’s WRONG but, without the grammar knowledge, they can’t correct it or, usually, even understand exactly why it ‘sounds funny’. I have no idea if you’ve ever taught in a catchment with very low levels of literacy but trust me, there are thousands and thousands of kids for whom ‘instincts’ don’t cut it.


  12. Well at the end of the day if what you do works then I have to respect that.

    And if you have found all your students adore the technique then thats an achievement to be proud of- for sure.

    Perhaps its me that has an aversion to niggly tasks like counting beetles in a quadrat (biology yawn) or counting sub- clauses in a poem (english double yawn) or scraping chewing gum off the underside of tables (punishment triple yawn)

    I still maintain instinct (primary gained via experience) is the chief driver to good writing. And correcting sentences using the grammar codec would be quite laborious wouldnt it?

    If you manage to get tough kids turned on by sub clause counting I take my hat off. If I was to manage to get tough kids to love grammar I suspect a lot of other people would be eating their hats. You must be a gifted teacher and better than I. :)

    ps I think you meant luv, not love- tch!

  13. When I went to Grammar school and started Latin, in the first week the teacher lost her temper over something and scrawled out on the blackboard ‘I am, you are, he she or it is… etc…’.

    A sort of nuclear explosion went off in my head… there was an organised structure to it! whay hadn’t anyone mentioned that before?

    • I had a similar realisation studying Latin, although not at grammar school. Suddenly realised that words like “him” and “them” followed a structure thatwe’d seen in Latin.

  14. If grammar were better taught, headmasters of soi-disant “outstanding” free schools wouldn’t humiliate themselves by writing semi-literate rubbish like “the trust and it’s staff” in self-regarding adverts in the local press, thus providing much amusement.


  15. Tokyo:

    is that really a source of amusement for you?

    you must be a hoot at parties….

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