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Teaching and Teacher Education 36 (2013) 77e91

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Grammar matters: How teachers’ grammatical knowledge impacts on the teaching of writing
Debra Myhill a, b, *, Susan Jones a, Annabel Watson a a b

University of Exeter, UK
University of Wollongong, Australia

h i g h l i g h t s
 Teachers’ grammatical knowledge influences what students learn about writing.
 Limitations in teachers’ grammatical content knowledge can generate student misconceptions.
 Teachers’ ‘applied’ knowledge is more significant than declarative knowledge.

a r t i c l e i n f o

a b s t r a c t

Article history:
Received 27 June 2012
Received in revised form
17 July 2013
Accepted 19 July 2013

Teaching grammar has been mandated in statutory curriculum documents in England since 1988. Yet despite this, research evidence continues to suggest that metalinguistic knowledge is an area of challenge for many teachers. Drawing on data from a larger study, this paper considers the role of teachers’ grammatical knowledge, both content and pedagogical content knowledge, in mediating learning about writing in the classroom. It also illustrates how students’ learning about writing is influenced by teachers’ metalinguistic knowledge. The study highlights that grammatical pedagogical content knowledge is more significant than grammatical content knowledge in supporting meaningful teaching and learning about writing.
Ó 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Content knowledge
Pedagogical content knowledge

1. Introduction: framing the problem
The importance of subject knowledge in teachers’ professional development has been the focus for a substantive body of research in teacher education. Shulman’s (1987) seminal work on theorising subject knowledge is important in its endeavour to categorise the nature of knowledge required in the complex act of teaching. He distinguishes between subject content knowledge (knowledge of an academic domain), pedagogical content knowledge (knowledge of how to teach that academic domain) and pedagogical knowledge
(knowledge of how to teach): this signals that ‘knowing how’ is as significant as ‘knowing that’. In other words, teacher subject knowledge is not simply domain knowledge, but crucially involves knowing how to transform that knowledge purposefully to enable learners to master it. Stimulated by the work of Shulman (1987),

* Corresponding author. University of Exeter, Graduate School of Education,
Heavitree Road, Exeter EX1 2LU, UK. Tel.: þ44 1392 724767.
E-mail address: (D. Myhill).
0742-051X/$ e see front matter Ó 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. successive studies have considered teacher subject knowledge in specific domains, such as Maths (eg Rowland, Huckstep, &
Thwaites, 2005) or Science (eg Loughran, Mulhall, & Berry, 2008); in terms of how it relates to beliefs and experiences (eg Wilson, &
Myhill, 2012; Brownlee, Schraw, & Berthelsen, 2011); or through offering new conceptualisations of subject knowledge (Ball,
Thames, & Phelps, 2008; Goulding, Rowland, & Barber, 2002; Park
& Oliver, 2008). Core to all of this work is the inter-relationship between content and pedagogy, between academic knowledge and classroom knowledge, and the need for teachers to be able to transform their content knowledge into pedagogical content knowledge of learning activities which address learners’ needs. The concept of pedagogical content knowledge has been substantially researched (see for example, Ball, 2000; Cochran, DeRuiter, & King,
1993; Park & Oliver, 2008) and particularly in relation to the teaching of mathematics (An, Kulm, & Wu, 2004; Kahan, Cooper, &
Bethea, 2003; Langrall, Thornton, Jones, & Malone, 1996; Rowland &
Ruthven, 2011). In the context of the language classroom, teachers’ metalinguistic knowledge is significant in shaping their professional capacity to plan for and respond to learners’ language needs.


D. Myhill et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 36 (2013) 77e91

Taking Shulman’s taxonomy, this metalinguistic knowledge can be considered in terms of teachers’ metalinguistic content knowledge
(the academic domain of knowledge about language, which includes explicit grammatical knowledge) and metalinguistic pedagogical content knowledge (their knowledge of how to teach and develop students’ metalinguistic understanding). However, empirical investigations of first language teaching and understanding of the subtle inter-relationships between pedagogical content knowledge, classroom practice and student learning about language are more limited, especially in relation to metalinguistic and grammatical knowledge.
At the same time, expectations of students’ grammatical knowledge in curricular in different Anglophone national jurisdictions are becoming increasingly specific. In the United States, the
Common Core State Standards for Language Arts include a set of anchor Language Standards (CCSSI, 2010: 25) which require students to be able to use Standard English correctly and to acquire
Knowledge about Language (which is undefined). The detailed year by year standards which follow are heavily focused on grammatical constructions which students are expected to master. In England, since 1988, there has been a statutory role for grammar in the
National Curriculum for English, although it has been expressed slightly differently in each of its many versions (DCSF, 2007; DES,
1990; DfE, 1995; DfEE, 1999). So, for example, in the 1995 version, very specific aspects of grammar were delineated, including discourse structure, syntactical structures such as main and subordinate clauses, and a list of word classes which should be taught.
In contrast, the 2007 version adopted more generalised descriptions of a variety of sentence structures and writing in Standard English. However, it was the non-statutory National Strategies guidance (DfEE, 1998; DfES 2001) which had more impact on teachers’ practices in the teaching of grammar and writing because of the very detailed setting out of teaching objectives for each year of schooling from Year 1 to Year 9 (ages 5e14). These curricular expectations in the US and England place considerable demands on teachers’ grammatical content knowledge. Similar expectations in other Anglophone countries are posing similar challenges. Gordon
(2005), in New Zealand, describes the problems faced in trying to implement an innovative syllabus with a strong grammar focus, concluding that major barriers were experienced because of teachers’ ‘lack of knowledge about language’ (Gordon, 2005: 63). In
Australia at the current time, a new National Curriculum is being developed which includes a strand on Knowledge about Language which aims to foster ‘a coherent, dynamic, and evolving body of knowledge about the English language and how it works’ (ACARA,
2009: 1). As in England, there is concern in Australia that ‘many subject teachers (particularly in secondary school settings) have no formal study of language and draw upon partially remembered folklore about language and grammar’ (Derewianka & Jones, 2010: 14) and therefore may feel ill-equipped to cope with these curricular demands. This phenomenon of less secure, or absent, grammatical content knowledge is an historical phenomenon, arising principally from two different, though probably related, causes. Firstly, following the
Dartmouth Conference in the USA in 1966, and the widespread view of professionals and educationalists that the formal teaching of grammar had no beneficial impact on students’ competences as speakers, readers or writers, grammar teaching was subsequently largely abandoned in Anglophone countries. A consequence of this is that current cohorts of English teachers were themselves not taught grammar at school, a point also noted in the US context by
Kolln and Hancock (2005:106). Borg (2003: 97) reports a study which showed that native speakers of English performed less well than non-native speakers in a grammatical content knowledge test, an outcome which he attributes to the different educational

backgrounds of native English and non-native English speakers, with non-native speakers typically receiving higher levels of grammar teaching. A second reason for the lower levels of grammatical content knowledge in England may be that at the point of entry to postgraduate teacher education courses, there appears to be a distinct preference for teachers who have come through the literature degree route, at the same time as there is a shortage of applicants from a linguistics route (Blake & Shortis, 2010).
Curriculum expectations that students will have explicit knowledge of grammar combined with the tendency towards an absence of grammatical content knowledge in the academic experiences of English teachers generate very specific challenges for pedagogical practice and student learning. At the same time, grammatical content knowledge is only one element of the broader set of metalinguistic content knowledge required to be a language teacher. This paper, therefore, sets out to explore the complex interrelationships between teachers’ metalinguistic content knowledge, specifically their grammatical content knowledge, and their use of that knowledge in the teaching of writing.
2. Literature review
2.1. Theories of metalinguistic knowledge
Defining metalinguistic knowledge is not as straightforward as it might initially appear. The term is used differently in psychology and linguistics (Gombert, 1992: 13; Myhill, 2011: 249): in general, psychologists are interested in the thinking processes which accompany text production, whereas linguists are more concerned with language as an artefact. A further ambivalence concerns the place of metalanguage, especially grammatical terminology, within metalinguistic knowledge and the tendency in different studies to use ‘metalinguistic’ either as synonymous with grammatical knowledge, or as an over-arching knowledge set, of which grammatical knowledge is a subset. Indeed, Andrews prefers to talk of
Teacher Language Awareness because of the ‘potential ambiguity of the phrase ‘metalinguistic awareness’ (awareness that is metalinguistic, or awareness of metalanguage) (2003: 86). For the purposes of our study, drawing on Camps and Milian’s definition of metalinguistic knowledge as the ability ‘to take language as the object of observation and the referent of discourse’ (1999: 6), but also mindful of the interdisciplinary framework in which we were working, we defined metalinguistic knowledge as the ‘explicit bringing into consciousness of an attention to language as an artefact, and the conscious monitoring and manipulation of language to create desired meanings grounded in socially-shared understandings’
(Myhill, 2011: 250). From the perspective of teachers’ content and pedagogical content knowledge in the language classroom, metalinguistic content knowledge might include the teacher’s knowledge of how emotive language can be a persuasive technique in an argument, how newspaper editors use straplines to signpost key information for readers, or how expanded noun phrases can convey effective character descriptions. We see grammatical content knowledge as just one part of this metalinguistic content knowledge: it is that part which draws specifically on explicit knowledge of grammar in terms of morphology and syntax, rather than on broader knowledge about language and how texts work as sociallyconstructed artefacts. So in the classroom examples given above, the knowledge of how noun phrases convey character description is grammatical content knowledge. It is teachers’ grammatical content and pedagogical content knowledge which is the particular focus of this article.
Theoretical thinking about grammatical content knowledge has tended to address three themes: what teachers need to know about grammar; explicit and implicit grammatical knowledge; and

D. Myhill et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 36 (2013) 77e91

addressing learners’ language needs. Both Leech (1994) and Perera
(1987:3) agree that teachers’ grammatical knowledge needs to be richer and more substantive than the grammar they may need to teach to students, requiring ‘a higher degree of grammar consciousness than most direct learners are likely to need or want’ (Leech, 1994:
18). Indeed, Kamler maintains that students do not need to learn the metalanguage of grammar, whereas teachers need this knowledge in order to make appropriate pedagogical decisions in the language classroom (1995:4). At the heart of this is explicit, conscious grammatical knowledge in which teachers are ‘conscious analysts of linguistic processes’ (Brumfit, 1997:163) and possess
‘conscious awareness’ (Armstrong, 2004:223) of how texts are structured. Andrews (2005:75) argues that a teacher with ‘a rich knowledge of grammatical constructions’ is more likely to be able to intervene to support developing writers, whilst Gordon (2005), drawing on an empirical study working with teachers in New
Zealand, concluded that teachers with poor grammatical knowledge were ‘unable to see language development in the writing and speaking of their own pupils’ (2005:61). Not only does limited grammatical knowledge prevent teachers from appropriate identification of language development, it may also hamper the teaching of writing because even if teachers are ‘able to internalise the features of the text to the extent that they can imitate its style’ and thus must have implicit knowledge, if they do not have explicit knowledge ‘they cannot make the analysis explicit’ (Hudson,
2004: 113).
There is, thus, a connection maintained between teachers’ grammatical content knowledge and their ability to address learners’ language needs in the classroom. On one hand, a lack of teacher confidence with grammatical content knowledge can lead to learners’ developing misconceptions, such as the students in
Paraskevas’ (2004) study whose meaning-based descriptions of verbs as ‘doing’ words do not correspond with linguistic definitions. On the other hand, robust grammatical content knowledge confidently communicated by the teacher offers the potential of
‘increasing students’ language repertoires and thus expanding their meaning making resources’ (Coffin, 2010: 4).
2.2. International concerns about grammatical content knowledge
However, such robust grammatical content knowledge appears to be a scarce phenomenon: repeated studies or national reports have signalled weaknesses in teachers’ grammatical content knowledge. In the US, Vavra (1996:36) critiqued the expectation that students should analyse the structure of sentences, when English teachers could not do this themselves and in England, a survey by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) also concluded that teachers’ lacked confidence with syntactical knowledge. Gordon (2005:50) noted that because linguistics was not widely taught in New Zealand university courses, and because
English teachers entered the profession through a literature degree route, teachers avoided the need for grammatical content knowledge by approaching language teaching from a predominantly sociological, rather than linguistic perspective.
There is also a substantial body of research investigating grammatical content knowledge at university level, particularly in pre-service education. Alderson, Clapham, and Steel (1997),
Alderson and Horak (2011) and Bloor (1986) have conducted studies with undergraduate English or language students and consistently found that grammatical knowledge, particularly of grammatical terminology, is limited and that even when students possess the metalanguage, ‘they are not necessarily able to use the terms they acquire accurately’ (Alderson & Horak, 2011: 37). Kolln and Hancock (2005:6) complain that in the US most pre-service programmes for English teachers do not address grammatical


content knowledge, but in England, the expectation that Initial
Teacher Education courses will audit subject knowledge on entry has led both to more direct attention to grammar in these courses and to more research exploring the challenges pre-service teachers face in commanding grammatical content knowledge. Weaknesses in grammatical content knowledge are reported by Andrews (1994,
1999); Chandler, Robinson, and Noyes (1988), Hislam and Cajkler
(2006), Williamson and Hardman (1995) and Wray (1993); similarly, Burgess, Turvey, and Quarshie (2000) found that their preservice teachers were more confident with language at text level and least confident with sentence grammar. In Australia, Louden et al. (2005) conducted a survey which indicated that teachers do not feel confident about teaching grammar when they complete their training and Harper and Rennie’s pre-service teachers (2009)
‘showed limited understandings in their ability to analyse the parts and structure of sentences, and their knowledge of metalinguistic terms did not seem to extend past the basic concepts of ‘noun, ‘verb’ and adjective’ (2009:27).
In general, this body of research constructs a deficit discourse around teachers’ grammatical content knowledge, positioning them as ill-equipped to undertake language teaching effectively.
However, a more nuanced understanding of grammatical content knowledge is offered by Cajkler and Hislam (2002) e their preservice teachers had reasonable knowledge of grammar but experienced high levels of anxiety, believing their subject knowledge to be poor. The authors attribute this anxiety to unrealistic expectations at public and policy level of what can be achieved in a preservice programme. In Australia, a growing cluster of research is also providing a richer understanding of teachers’ grammatical content knowledge. Jones and Chen (2012) have demonstrated how through participatory collaboration with their research team, teachers were evolving new understandings of both grammatical content knowledge and pedagogical practice. A survey of primary teachers by Hammond and Macken-Horarik (2001) found evidence that teachers were teaching many aspects of knowledge about language and were confident in their knowledge of genres and text types. Like Cajkler and Hislam’s pre-service teachers, they expressed a lack of confidence in their own content knowledge, yet this was restricted to ‘rules of traditional grammar’ (Hammond &
Macken-Horarik, 2001: 125). It is also evident that teachers conceptualise grammar content knowledge in very prescriptive ways (Kamler, 1995), with an emphasis on ‘the need for grammar to be ‘correct’ and for ‘proper’ English to be spoken’ (Harper & Rennie,
2009: 32).
2.3. From declarative to procedural: the importance of grammatical pedagogical content knowledge
Teachers’ own perspectives, as reflected in these studies, appear to focus substantially upon their own declarative knowledge of grammatical terminology or of prescriptive rules of usage. Likewise, many of the research studies investigate teachers’ grammatical content knowledge through tests which ask teachers to name and label grammar items and to correct grammatical errors (eg
Alderson et al., 1997, Alderson & Horak, 2011). These studies address content or domain knowledge rather than grammatical pedagogical content knowledge: they examine teachers’ declarative knowledge of grammar, rather than their procedural knowledge of how to use that knowledge in talk or writing. Equally, many of these studies do not consider how this knowledge translates into classroom practice, and is noticeable how few studies examine actual classroom practice, relying instead on survey and self-report.
Yet in second language research there is good evidence that strong declarative grammatical content knowledge is not linked with effective teaching of language (Andrews, 2001; Borg, 1999).


D. Myhill et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 36 (2013) 77e91

Training students in systemic functional grammar did not improve their effectiveness in teaching (Burns & Knox, 2005), and Andrews and Bunton (2006) found that a Linguistics degree was not a good predictor of teacher effectiveness in preparing language materials.
Borg (2003) argues that ‘increasing language teachers’ explicit knowledge about grammar through teacher education will not automatically lead to more effective instruction. Teachers also need the pedagogical skills to use this knowledge to enhance learning’ (2003:
100). Bartels (2005) also argues that language teaching requires an integration of pedagogy and declarative grammatical content knowledge. In other words, it is grammatical pedagogical content knowledge which may be most salient.
Such pedagogical content knowledge is dependent upon teachers (and policy-makers) having a clear understanding of what grammatical content knowledge is for, its purpose in the classroom.
The pre-service teachers in Cajkler and Hislam’s (2002) study understood grammatical content knowledge as essentially about the naming of grammatical constructions but did not understand that pedagogically ‘grammatical awareness is about making available a range of choices for writers to use for particular purposes in particular contexts’ (2002:176). Harper and Rennie frame this as ‘being able to think metalinguistically’ (2009: 30), which would allow teachers ‘to make informed decisions about how and when it might be appropriate to teach metalinguistic concepts explicitly in a decontextualised fashion, or alternatively, how and when they might usefully contextualise explicit metalinguistic teaching’ (2009:29). Without a clear sense of pedagogical purpose and applied understanding of grammatical content knowledge, teachers may generate mismatches between teachers’ use of grammatical metalanguage and students’ understanding (Berry, 1997) or unwittingly convey inappropriate messages to learners. Lefstein (2009) illustrates how teachers using policy materials underpinned by a principally rhetorical notion of grammar can use them in rule-bound prescriptive ways, or in ways which have no real meaning. He gives the example of a lesson on powerful verbs where children were asked to find more ‘powerful’ synonyms for the verb ‘eat’ in the sentence
‘Please may I eat ice cream?’: the children eventually offer ‘gobble’ and ‘demolish’, which are accepted as valid alternatives without any discussion of the contexts in which these might be appropriate substitutes. This underlines the importance of pedagogical understanding which links declarative knowledge to contextually valid purposes: as Derewianka and Jones (2010:14) warn ‘if teachers do not understand the orientation of the model toward whole texts in their contexts of use then the pedagogy is at risk of becoming restricted

to teaching normative structures and grammatical labels in isolation from meaning.’
Emerging understanding of how grammatical pedagogical content knowledge is realised in practice is more evident in second language research than in L1 (for example, Andrews, 2001; Borg,
2001). Wright argues that ‘a linguistically aware teacher not only understands how language works, but understands the student’s struggle with language and is sensitive to errors and other interlanguage features’ (2002: 115). This draws attention to the interrelationship between the declarative grammatical content knowledge of the teacher and his/her analysis of learners’ needs. Synthesising studies on this topic, Svalberg (2007: 296) concludes that description, exploration, languaging, engagement and reflection are the salient features of metalinguistically-aware teaching. It is also evident, however, as noted earlier, that research in this area uses conceptual terms such as metalinguistic knowledge or grammatical knowledge in ambiguous or arbitrary ways, sometimes using the terms ‘metalinguistic’ and ‘grammatical’ interchangeably, whilst at other times using them as distinct concepts. Likewise, there is no clear theoretical understanding or definition of metalinguistic or grammatical pedagogical content knowledge. Thus, in the interests of clarity, we offer a table of working definitions below which inform the conceptual thinking underpinning this article, and which clearly frames grammatical knowledge as a specific subset of metalinguistic knowledge (Table 1).
From a second language perspective, Borg (2003) has argued that ‘our understandings of the relationships between declarative subject matter knowledge and practice in language teaching are still undeveloped’ (2003: 106) and such research is notably scarce in an
L1 context (though see Smagorinsky, Wright, Augustine, O’DonnellAllen, and Konopak (2007) case study of one teacher’s experiences).
This article sets out to redress this gap by illustrating how teachers’ grammatical content knowledge influences their classroom practice and shapes the nature of learning experience by students.
3. Methodology
3.1. The larger study
The data for this article draws on a subset of data from a larger
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded study, involving a research team of two investigators, one research fellow, and one doctoral studentship linked to the study. The study is reported in full in Myhill, Jones, Lines and Watson (2012) and the

Table 1
Working definitions underpinning the conceptual framework.
‘explicit bringing into consciousness of an attention to language as an artefact, and the conscious monitoring and manipulation of language to create desired meanings grounded in socially-shared understandings’
(Myhill, 2011a: 249).
Practical Examples
Metalinguistic content knowledge Teachers’ knowledge about language
Knowing that emotive vocabulary used in a conservation campaign leaflet is used to persuade the reader to empathise with the issue
Grammatical content knowledge
Teachers’ explicit knowledge of grammar in terms of morphology
Knowing what is the subject in a sentence; and syntax. It is declarative knowledge, which is conscious and
Knowing that word classes in English are mobile and need can be articulated, and uses the metalanguage of grammatical to be looked at in the context of their function in a sentence terminology. Metalinguistic pedagogical
Teachers’ knowledge about how to teach language in order to
Being able to select appropriate texts to exemplify content knowledge address learners needs. metalinguistic features of texts;
Knowing how to model the metalinguistic features of texts in the classroom
Grammatical pedagogical
Teachers’ knowledge about how and when to teach grammar
Knowing that children are often confused by word content knowledge in order to address learners’ language needs. This includes class mobility; procedural knowledge of the inter-relationship between
Knowing that post-modified noun phrases can be valuable grammatical constructions and how texts work to shape meaning. in creating effective descriptions of characters

D. Myhill et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 36 (2013) 77e91

statistical results are reported more fully in Jones, Myhill and Bailey
(2013): however, it is necessary to provide an overview here, as it frames the findings in this paper. The research investigated whether embedding the teaching of grammar within teaching units for writing would improve students’ attainment in writing. The grammar selected for the teaching units was consistently linked to the genre of writing being taught, with the intention of helping students develop a repertoire of possibilities for authorial decisionmaking in writing. Three genres of writing were taught over a period of a year (narrative fiction; argument; and poetry). The study involved 32 teachers in 32 schools in a randomised controlled trial with a complementary qualitative dataset of lesson observations and teacher and student interviews. The schools were mixed comprehensive schools drawn from the Midlands and South-West of England. They were selected using local authority school lists, which were numbered as listed, and then a random number generator was used to determine a rank order. Each school was then directly approached in rank order and invited to join the study and this process continued until the target sample of 32 was reached. One class of 12e13 year old students from each school was involved in the study (n ¼ 855 initially, n ¼ 744 with attrition).
Using a pre and post-test design, measures of writing attainment were taken before and after the intervention, using a writing test designed by Cambridge Assessment (an independent assessment organisation used to set and mark national writing tests at age 14).
Cambridge Assessment also blind marked and moderated the writing tests, mirroring the standards and expectations of national testing in England, with a 30 point mark scheme, calibrated to reflect National Curriculum levels. The research team was not involved in any way in judging writing attainment, creating greater robustness in the design. The study found a strongly significant impact (p < 0.001) of the intervention on writing attainment with a modest effect size of 0.21 (see Table 2 below).
Subsequent stepwise regression modelling revealed that teachers’ subject knowledge of grammar was a mediating factor
(p < 0.050) in the success of the intervention, and equally, the analysis of the lesson observations and teacher interviews signalled the saliency of grammatical subject knowledge.
3.2. Grammar knowledge test
As one of the subsidiary research questions for the larger study was to investigate the impact of teachers’ grammatical content knowledge on the teaching of grammar and writing, teachers’ declarative knowledge of grammar was tested prior to randomisation in order to establish levels of knowledge. Teachers were then ranked in pairs according to their results and then individuals in each pair were randomly allocated to intervention or comparison groups. Because participating teachers did not know the research focus was grammar in order to avoid bias in the results the test was masked as a broader teacher profile, eliciting their academic record, their personal experiences as a writer, their views on the teaching of writing and their literary knowledge, as well as their knowledge of grammar. The grammar test used an extract from Pride and
Prejudice as the basis for straightforward questions of grammar at word and sentence level (See Table 3).
Table 2
The statistical results of the study.













Effect size


Note: Writing attainment measured on a 30 point scale.



Each answer was scored as either right or wrong and one point was given for a right answer, with a maximum available score of 15.
Analysis of the tests showed that the teachers had very differing baseline levels of grammatical content knowledge, with a mean result of 8.7 points and a Standard Deviation of 2.1 points. The scores spread fairly evenly across a range from 5 points to 13 points.
In other words, the test indicates that across the sample, teachers’ grammatical content knowledge ranged from very low to very high, but with the majority of teachers achieving just over half marks.
3.3. Ethics
The study was given institutional ethical approval, and was informed by the ethical guidelines of the BERA Revised Ethical
Guidelines for Educational Research (2004) and the ESRC
Research Ethics Framework (2005). Anonymity, confidentiality and informed voluntary consent were not problematic with this research design; however, the need to conceal the precise research focus from the teachers in order to maintain the blind randomisation required particularly careful ethical consideration. At the outset, all participating teachers were told that the study was researching the teaching of writing but that, in order to prevent any bias, no further details would be provided until the end of the study.
On the final plenary conference for the project, teachers were then fully informed about the research questions for the study and how the schemes they had taught realised this research goal. For a fuller discussion of the ethics, see Myhill, Jones, Lines and Watson. (2012)
3.4. Lesson observations
During the teaching of each of the three genres of writing, for each teacher involved one lesson was observed. With thirty two teachers involved, this resulted in three observations per teacher, and thus a total dataset of 96 observations. The observation data was captured on an observation schedule which noted what the learning focus was for the observed lesson, what grammatical terminology was used during the lesson, and a record of the lesson under four column headings: Activity; Teacher Interaction; Student
Response; and Comments. Under Activity, the observer noted what the teacher or learners were doing, such as ‘teacher explanation of a noun phrase’ or ‘paired work highlighting modal verbs’. The Teacher
Interaction column invited the observer to note what the teacher said and did; to provide examples; and to capture the nature of questioning and explanation offered. In the Student Responses column, the observer noted both student responses and nonresponses; evidence of understanding, misunderstanding or confusion, and evidence of learning. The Comment column was used to record additional details to help contextualise the observation in later analysis.
3.5. Teacher interviews
After each lesson observation, the teacher was interviewed: the aspects of the interview relevant to this article are a) the discussion of the lesson observed and b) the discussion of their grammatical knowledge. The interviewer invited teachers to reflect on the lesson observed, the teaching strategies used, and the learning achieved in the lesson; drawing on the lesson observation notes. The teachers were also invited to consider how confident they felt with the grammatical content knowledge needed to teach the three writing genres through being asked what were the key features of narrative, argument or poetry that they wanted writers to understand.
This question was asked separately to address word, sentence and text level understanding. In this way, the interview probed pedagogical content knowledge by trying to elicit the links teachers


D. Myhill et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 36 (2013) 77e91

Fig. 1. The test of grammatical subject knowledge.

made between their declarative content knowledge, and the learning about writing they wished students to accomplish.
3.6. Student interviews
After each lesson observation, one focus student in each class was also interviewed: the teachers selected one boy and one girl from each class on the basis that they would not find the interviewing intimidating, and the research team used this to select a gender-balanced data sample of 32 students (96 interviews). Students were first asked what they thought the teacher had been teaching them about writing in the lesson, what they felt they had learnt, and what they found helpful in supporting their learning.
The interview then focused upon the students’ own writing, produced in the lesson observed, or in previous lessons, and they were asked how they felt the writing was progressing and what they were most pleased with. They were also invited to comment on genre-specific features they had used, the effectiveness of their sentence structures or patterning, and vocabulary choices, and what they were least happy with or might want to change or improve. The final section of the interview used another piece of writing as a prompt for metalinguistic conversation: the prompt questions for the narrative unit are outlined in Table 4 below, and those for argument and poetry followed a similar design.
3.7. Qualitative data analysis
Although reliability and validity were important concepts to address in the statistical analysis of the randomised controlled trial, these concepts are ‘premised on the assumption that methods of data

generation can be conceptualized as tools, and can be standardized, neutral and non-biased’ (Mason, 1996: 145) and are thus less appropriate in the context of the qualitative data analysis. Instead the qualitative analysis was mindful of Guba and Lincoln’s (1985) concepts of transferability, dependability, confirmability and credibility. Fig. 3 below indicates the methods used to ensure trustworthiness in the findings.
The teacher and student interviews were analysed inductively making use of the data analysis software, NViVo. Broadly adopting
Wellington’s (2000: 134) recommendation of four stages of analysis, ‘immersion’, ‘reflecting’, ‘taking apart’, and ‘recombining and synthesising’, the first stage of the coding process involved all members of the research team reading the transcripts of the interviews to fully familiarise themselves and immerse themselves in the data. Each member of the research team then coded an initial interview collectively to develop a shared understanding of possible themes emerging through analysis and to actively consider alternative interpretations of the data. Following this, team members coded the remaining interviews individually.
The first stage of coding involved open coding, the process of identifying, labelling and classifying the data, seeking to represent codes which reflected what each phrase or statement was expressing. At this stage, Wellington’s ‘taking apart’ stage, coders sought to assign meaning to as much of the interview transcript as possible to avoid the potential researcher bias of ‘cherry-picking’ findings from the data. The technique of constant comparison
(Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was used, whereby each individual coder iteratively compared current codes and new information with previously coded data, and reframed, revised or refined coding labels accordingly. The team met when this stage was complete to

D. Myhill et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 36 (2013) 77e91


Fig. 2. The prompt questions for the narrative unit.

compare coding and to cross-check for consistency in both the coding itself and the naming of codes. These consistency checks were systematic and thorough, with two coders reviewing all the data allocated to each code and checking that it reflected the code label accurately, using the affordances of NVivo to cross-refer back to the full interview transcript for confirmation, if necessary. At the same time, the team checked the code labels and their definitions for appropriacy. With 96 interviews in both the teacher and student dataset, this was a substantial body of analysis and the initial open coding of the teacher interviews resulted in the generation of over
200 codes, and the student interviews generated over 320 initial codes. The next stage involved recombining and synthesising the coding (Wellington, 2000), using the process of axial coding described by Corbin and Strauss (2007). In this stage, coders examined the open codes, looking for inter-relationships and links between the codes. This led to the clustering of the data under broader conceptual themes, and to the combining of some of the open codes into newly-labelled codes which appropriately

synthesised relevant codes together. So, for example, the over 200 codes generated in the teacher interviews were clustered into three over-arching themes: Writing Pedagogy; Grammatical Subject
Knowledge; and Schemes of Work, each with associated sub-themes.
Fig. 4 below provides a full overview of the codes and sub-codes under the theme of Grammatical Subject Knowledge, which informs this article. The lesson observations were analysed manually following a similar process, but also looking to match codes in the interview data with the observations. For example, relevant to this article, one sub-code which arose from the teacher interviews were comments on the problems teachers had with grammatical explanations, and the observations were analysed to look for classroom examples where explanation proved problematic or otherwise. 4. Findings of the study
The data reported in this article draws principally on the teacher interview and lesson observation data, though it is complemented,

Fig. 3. Overview of methods used to ensure trustworthiness.


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This article draws on the two codes which relate to pedagogical knowledge: Pedagogical Problems with Grammar and Making Connections between Grammar and Writing. The definitions for each of these codes and sub-codes is outlined in Fig. 5.
Fig. 8 provides an overview of the number of responses in the interviews which were coded to each category. It should be noted that the very high number of responses to the code Syntactical
Choices is because one of the interview questions related directly to sentence-level understanding (Fig. 6).
Synthesising the data from the interviews and the observations, we have structured the presentation of the findings under four subheadings:
The problem of grammatical definitions and explanations
Syntactical challenges
Making meaningful connections between grammar and writing Conceptualising lexical development in terms of addition
Fostering grammatical discussion

4.1. The problem of grammatical definitions and explanations
Fig. 4. Grammatical content knowledge: codes and sub-codes.

where appropriate, with student interview data. The interview coding process, described above, elicited a coding theme of Grammatical Content Knowledge. Within this theme, one set of codes related to teachers’ beliefs about their declarative knowledge of grammar (Fear, Anxiety or Inadequacy; Grammar as Technical Skill;
Grammatical Confidence; and Grammatical Knowledge Problems) and have been reported by Watson (2012). A further set, Perceptions of
Students’ Grammatical Knowledge, related to teachers’ reflections on student issues with developing grammatical understanding.

One immediate challenge in teaching grammar is knowing how best to define and explain grammatical metalanguage, and this challenge is substantially increased for teachers whose own grammatical content knowledge is limited. The interview codes,
Problems with Grammatical Explanations and Problems handling
Students’ Grammar Questions indicated some teachers’ concerns with this issue, and the observations revealed many examples where teachers struggled with grammatical explanations. A strong tendency throughout the sample was to attempt to explain word classes using semantic rather than functional definitions. Of these, calling a noun a ‘naming’ word or something you can touch, a verb a
‘doing’ word and an adjective a ‘describing’ word were the most

Fig. 5. Definitions of codes and sub-codes.

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Fig. 6. Number of responses coded to each category.

common, mirroring what is often standard practice more widely in both primary and secondary schools in England. Some teachers coined their own unique definitions: one teacher defined an adverb as an ‘action plus word’ and another defined an adverbial as ‘size words’. One reason for this seems to be a view that these semantic definitions make it easier for learners to understand, but it may also linked to a sense that more functional definitions are too difficult, and that it may create antipathy. In one interview, the teacher explains why she avoids even using the appropriate metalanguage for fear of ‘putting off’ learners (Fig. 7):
The difficulty with everyday or semantic definitions is that whilst they are easy to understand at a superficial level, they are rarely robust enough to stand up to the test of authentic language in use and thus ultimately generate confusion rather than understanding. Because of the mobility of word class in English and the fact that you cannot identify a word class from its morphology, identifying what class a word is can only be achieved when it is in the context of a sentence. In a sentence, such as ‘Dancing is my passion’, many students will identify ‘dancing’ as a verb because it is the ‘doing’ word in the sentence. Such confusions were frequently evident in the lesson observations. In one lesson, a student reasons that ‘you play hockey so it must be a doing word’.
In another school, the ‘test’ of a noun being something you can touch caused confusion (Fig. 8):
In the same class, there was discussion about whether ‘homework’ was an object and students were prompted by the teacher,

‘Can you touch it?’ which seemed to convince the majority that it was, although some remained confused as to whether an object needed to be a ‘single thing’ or an ‘abstract’, suggesting a further confusion between an abstract noun and a collective noun.
There was a clear link between teachers’ confidence with a grammatical point and the clarity and the economy with which they were able to explain it to students. In one lesson, the teacher used examples of kennings to explain the pattern of compound nouns: ‘Compound means put together, like in a compound sentence where you put two clauses together, here it’s two nouns together’. This definition was used to test students’ own examples of kennings and by the time they came to write independently, all but one were confidently using the pattern of compound nouns. In another lesson, there was no firm evidence that the teacher had seen the pattern herself. The initial explanation of a kenning as an ‘idea of collective things being put together to describe an object’ was not made any more specific in terms of word class so that although models of kennings were provided and some students imitated them independently, many were not aware of the compound noun pattern when describing their chosen animal, leading to kennings such as ‘a soft-fur’ which did not really make sense.
4.2. Syntactical challenges
Linked to the broader problem of providing appropriate grammatical definitions and explanations was a specific problem with

Fig. 7. Interview extract.


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4.3. Making meaningful connections between grammar and writing

Fig. 8. Observation extract.

syntactical explanations. The interview codes, Syntactical Choices and Problems explaining Sentences and Syntax illustrated some teachers’ awareness of the difficulties they faced, and the lesson observations highlighted how differing levels of grammatical content knowledge shaped the clarity of syntactical explanations.
When teaching about sentences and syntax, the combination of weaker grammatical content knowledge and the difficulty in providing clear explanations provided some real challenges. Explanations of sentence types were often reduced to issues of length, and as with word classes, non-grammatical explanations were used. A clause was explained as ‘part of a sentence’ and ‘the bits between the punctuation’ whilst sentence types developed unique non-grammatical variations: ‘more simple’; ‘ very complex’; ‘a normal sentence’;’ a more than average sentence’. With simple sentences, the concept of grammatical simplicity was frequently confused with semantic simplicity and teachers regularly communicated that more sophisticated writing needed more complex sentences.
However, in a class where the teacher’s grammatical content knowledge was strong, her clarifying question, ‘What’s a simple sentence?’ allowed students to put each other right (Fig. 9):
Definitions of the main clause as ‘the main information’ and subordinate clauses as something that ‘gives secondary or additional information’ gave rise to generalised and somewhat misleading explanations of clause grammar. This was compounded by discussions of conjunctions which equated grammatical independence and dependence with equality and lesser importance. In one lesson, where students were sorting conjunctions into two groups, subordinating and co-ordinating, the teacher prompted ‘Is it equal?
Or is it less important? Does it give equal power or does it suggest possibilities?’ and followed this with ‘So what’s a subordinate clause?
It has lower status because it can’t make sense on its own. Sub-clauses are less important.’ Another teacher tried to explain subordinating conjunctions as those that ‘can be moved around in the sentence’ and went on to ‘test’ with students whether different examples of subordinating conjunctions (e.g. while, despite, although) could go
‘at the start of a sentence’ or ‘in the middle’. One student suggested but as an example of a conjunction that could ‘only go in the middle’.
Presumably to avoid cluttering this stage of the lesson with consideration of co-ordinating conjunctions, the teacher responded: ‘Yes, because it’s a slightly different sort of conjunction, but we’ll come to that later,’ before concluding, ‘What you should have picked up on is that a conjunction can be moved around some of the time, but not always’. In the subsequent writing activity, students expressed confusion about which conjunctions to use at the start of sentences and which to use to start paragraphs, while some completed the writing task without using conjunctions at all. In contrast, one teacher made a more helpful distinction between a subordinating conjunction which ‘may go at the beginning of a sentence or within a sentence to join a subordinate clause to a main clause’ and a coordinating connective which ‘must go in the middle of a sentence to join the two main clauses’.

Fig. 9. Observation extract.

The focus of the research was to investigate the impact of supporting developing writers in making meaningful connections between grammatical constructions and different rhetorical possibilities in writing so it is unsurprising that this has emerged as significant in the teacher interviews and observations. The interview codes, Linking Grammar and Writing and Making Informed
Choices, illustrated teachers’ pedagogical reflections on their efforts to support students’ metalinguistic understanding and the lesson observations provided evidence of the these pedagogical issues in practice. Without well-developed grammatical pedagogical content knowledge which could link grammar to purpose, teachers tended to communicate highly generalised principles for writing which were difficult for learners to operationalise meaningfully.
Students were repeatedly exhorted to vary their sentences: ‘make sure you have sentence variety’; ‘sentence variety is key’; variety is important’. But there were few attempts to develop understanding of why variety might improve writing and how that variety might be enacted. Several teachers explained that sentence variety ‘makes it more interesting’, something repeated back by students in interview with no corresponding understanding: ‘I need to vary my sentence variety: she’s said that quite a lot on the marking, she does.’
In one lesson in the Argument unit, one teacher more successfully gave students a clearer example of how sentence variety might be used to support the persuasive articulation of the argument: ‘in a long sentence you can detail the cruelty and a short sentence you can refer to sudden death for impact’. In another lesson, a teacher responded to a student’s draft with explicit linking of syntactical choice with its potential impact upon the reader: ‘Look what’s happened by changing the word order. As a writer you can withhold information and build a sense of expectation.
In the teacher interviews, it was noticeable how often teachers used the phrase ‘for effect’ in relation to particular grammatical constructions, but not necessarily with any meaningful suggestion of what that effect might be. There were some examples from lesson observations of this blanket use of ‘for effect’ and of ‘effectiveness’ which was offered as generic advice for improving writing but was rarely linked to, or triggered by, specific examples. Students were advised to ‘vary vocabulary for effect’ and to ‘remember that some words are more effective than others and you need to find the right ones.just think about what effect it has as well’. These generalised comments were commonly given just before, or during, individual writing tasks and for feedback, as in the plenary instruction to pick out examples of a ‘short sentence used for effect’.
On one level, the desire to link grammar to effects is positive as it shows these teachers attempting to make meaningful connections, but they lack the precise and specific grammatical knowledge to develop the idea of effect in particular writing contexts and purposes. The lesson observations highlighted the problems these generalisations promoted. Students struggled both with the concept of effectiveness and in finding words with which to explain effects, irrespective of how fluently they used terminology. In a starter activity, for example, where students were asked to choose and share ‘an interesting and effective sentence’ from their fiction books, many clearly did not understand what was implied, and comments on effectiveness were limited to plot rather than rhetorical effect. One student in interview, talking about the prompt piece of writing, said ‘It’s kind of like for effect.I can’t explain what type of effect it is.I don’t have a clue.’ Both the interviews and the observations suggest that teachers do have a real commitment to making purposeful links for learners and in some cases, it was evident that teachers were trying to push students’ thinking in a constructive way: ‘In terms of your writing, it’s not just a case of keep changing. You need to be thinking about why these

D. Myhill et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 36 (2013) 77e91

changes are taking place. What effects does it create? Why has Peter
Benchley made these switches? So you know when to change for effect, not just because you’ve seen a published writer do it’.


interesting to think they could actually write successfully without using all of that stuff that you usually say they need to include’.
4.5. Fostering grammatical discussion

4.4. Conceptualising lexical development in terms of addition
In general, the teachers in this study were more assured in their declarative knowledge of word classes than in their syntactical knowledge. But the way this declarative knowledge was realised in pedagogical practice illustrates the significance of grammatical pedagogical content knowledge to make learning meaningful for students. Whilst adjectives and adverbs do, of course, develop descriptiveness in writing, well-chosen nouns and verbs can often remove the need for additional description, and provide opportunities for effective editing. However, a strong theme in the teacher interviews, reflected in the interview codes, Adding to Improve and
Lexical Choices, and in the classroom observations, was the principle that writing. particularly vocabulary usage, could be improved by adding more of something, often adjectives or adverbs. In the interviews, teachers reflected that (Fig. 10):
This additive principle was mirrored in the observations; for example, one teacher advised her class to ‘add in adjectives and like nouns and adverbs and verbs, because. if you do that then it makes it more interesting because. it’s like describing the words, the sentence better’. This ‘learning’ was directly mirrored in the student interviews: responses to how their own writing or the prompt writing could be improved often involved addition of ‘more sentences’, ‘bigger paragraphs’, or ‘more of the modal verbs’. Nonetheless, it was adjectives or adverbs which were most frequently described and in some cases revealed young writers developing misconceptions about improvement. One boy explained that ‘instead of just plain words like, ‘I was kicking my legs back and forth’, you can say, ‘I was hastily moving my legs back and forth’, suggesting that adding an adverb and weakening the verb is a good strategy for improving writing. In contrast was the young writer who initially explained in interview that she would add adjectives to improve her writing but then, almost guiltily, argued that ‘I think sometimes not having adjectives really works, and not having adverbs. just sometimes, sometimes it can make things sound so much better, but sometimes .it makes it sound a bit kind of, like you’ve tried too hard almost, a bit complicated’
There were teachers, however, who recognised this tendency: in interview, for example, one teacher reflected that her students were ‘overdoing the adjectives and the description’ and she wanted to move them beyond this; and another teacher observed that some of her students had ‘three adjectives and one would do - because they know that adjectives are good, they over play them’. In one observed lesson, the teacher explained to the class that ‘a lot of you are adding adjectives when you could change the noun for a better effect’. There was also evidence that the experience of being in the intervention group and using the materials had changed practice in this respect, as one teacher noted she had been ‘trying to use just nouns and verbs whereas usually you bang on about add in adjectives, add in more detail though like literary devices and things like that, and it was

One of the pedagogic principles underpinning the intervention teaching materials was creating plentiful opportunities in lessons for students to talk about their writing and to discuss language choices and possibilities. This emphasis is reflected in the teacher interviews represented by the sub-code Discussion, and the lesson observations provided evidence of teachers struggling to manage grammatical discussion, and other teachers demonstrating considerable confidence in this. Inviting students to talk about language frequently generated questions or comments about grammatical metalanguage which caused considerable challenges for teachers whose grammatical content knowledge was less strong. This was a risky activity for teachers: they had to deal with misunderstandings or unexpected answers ‘on the hoof’, and this sometimes led to protracted conversations which challenged their subject knowledge. The following exchange illustrates this. The teacher started the lesson with a question intended to trigger a quick recap of learning in the previous lesson but which instead initiated a ten-minute heated whole-class discussion, with the result that the planned content of the lesson was not completed. In addition, through this unplanned exchange, the students revealed an unexpected layer of misunderstanding that the teacher then had to decide how best to confront (Fig. 11):
This led to general, animated discussion about which connectives sound ‘better’ than others, with some frustration voiced: “Ah, this makes no sense”; “Oh, I don’t know”, until the teacher intervened to move to the next activity, unable to develop the discussion.
Similar episodes were frequent, often revolving around correct classification of word classes, and the confusion initiated by the semantic definitions discussed earlier. Where teachers lacked confident grammatical content knowledge, one consequence was that such discussions, potentially fertile contexts for learning and clarification, were quickly closed down to avoid the problems they created. However, in the interviews, some intervention teachers commented on the way the teaching materials had ‘opened up wonderful discussions’. The lesson observations revealed there were teachers who demonstrated greater confidence in managing grammatical discussion and used careful questioning to support student learning, as the extract below indicates (Fig. 12).
5. Discussion
Before the broader theoretical and pedagogical implications of this data are considered, and given the predilection towards deficit discourses around teachers’ grammatical content knowledge
(Alderson & Horak, 2011; QCA, 1998), it is important to reiterate that the teachers in the study presented a full range of confidence in grammatical content knowledge, including those with very limited knowledge through to those with a high degree of confidence.

Fig. 10. interview extracts.


D. Myhill et al. / Teaching and Teacher Education 36 (2013) 77e91

Fig. 11. Observation extract.

Moreover, it is important to note that teachers with limited grammatical content knowledge were frequently highly capable and professional teachers of English, with a particular limitation in this particular area. By focussing our attention upon this aspect of teacher subject knowledge, it is not our intention to suggest there is a crisis of competence within the profession: rather, we wish to draw attention to the continuing professional development needs which are a consequence of changing policy mandates in the language curriculum. These issues have salience, not only in England, but also in all Anglophone countries where new curriculum mandates are re-emphasising grammar, as outlined earlier.
One significant outcome of this study is that it traces, in the context of authentic pedagogical practice in the teaching of writing, how grammatical knowledge mediates interactions with students and influences what students learn. The data presented here suggest that there are two important facets of teachers’ knowledge which merit further consideration. Firstly, the relationship between grammatical content knowledge and classroom practice; secondly, the greater significance of grammatical pedagogical content knowledge in promoting student learning. Linked to both of these is the need to generate greater consensus about the role of grammatical metalanguage in supporting students’ metalinguistic understanding of written text.
Where teachers’ declarative content knowledge of grammatical metalanguage is not secure, this does generate consequent difficulties in managing student learning effectively. As with Harper and Rennie’s pre-service teachers (2009: 28), the teachers in our study were more confident with word classes than with syntax, but

were frequently challenged by the particular linguistic flexibility caused by word class mobility in English. Moreover, although the reliance on semantic explanations of grammar, rather than functional explanations, makes lower demands on teachers’ grammatical understanding, it generates confusions and misconceptions in students’ learning, as Paraskevas (2004) noted with her own students. As a consequence, students ‘mislearn’ grammatical relationships, such as the issues noted earlier around subordinate clauses being presented as ‘lower status’, and struggle, like their teachers, with word class mobility. At the same time, low levels of grammar knowledge create problems for teachers in handling grammatical discussion, particularly students’ questions, and opportunities to clarify misconceptions are not realised. Paraskevas argues that students need ‘clear, linguistically accurate information about the structure of their language’ (Paraskevas, 2004: 97).
Providing such information, however, requires a greater emphasis on developing both a consensus around terminology and definitions and more understanding than exists at present about how best to teach them.
More significantly, however, this study underlines the critical importance of pedagogical content knowledge over content knowledge. Whilst it is axiomatic that declarative knowledge of grammar, or grammatical content knowledge, is a prerequisite for the effective teaching of grammar within a writing context, it is not sufficient on its own to support student learning about writing. Just as the L2 research suggests no direct correlation between declarative knowledge and effective language teaching, (Bartels, 2005;
Borg, 2003), this study also highlights that effective teaching of

Fig. 12. extract from lesson observation record illustrating grammatical discussion.

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writing goes beyond naming and labelling grammatical items.
Teachers need not simply the declarative knowledge of grammar, but also the grammatical pedagogical content knowledge of how grammatical constructions shape and shade meaning in writing, in order to draw learners’ attention to this in relevant ways. Without this knowledge, teachers tend towards the teaching of the
‘normative structures and grammatical labels in isolation from meaning’ prefigured by Derewianka and Jones (2010:14). Indeed, some teachers in our study adopted very formulaic approaches to addressing grammar in writing, fostering a recipe-approach to grammatical content, rather than developing metalinguistic understanding: ‘I tell them very systematically to you know start with an adverbial, start with an adverb, start with an -ing verb, to start with an adjective, you know, just give them those three things that you’ve got to do that so I think we have a habit of doing it quite mechanically like that actually rather than for them thinking about for themselves, what effect am I going to have?’ In England, this formulaic approach is compounded by the heavily-assessment driven English curriculum, where there is a strong emphasis on grades and results. This creates a learning context for writing which often prioritises quick-fix solutions and writing ‘recipes’ over deep learning about writing and the author’s craft.
In contrast, those teachers whose grammatical pedagogical content knowledge was more secure fostered greater learning about writing and the repertoire of possibilities open to writers.
These teachers were ‘linguistically aware’ and understood ‘the student’s struggle with language’ (Wright, 2002). Not only were they confident handling grammatical discussion, but they frequently generated it, responding to the thinking emerging within the classroom. Typically, these teachers were effective in three ways.
Firstly, they always linked the linguistic feature being studied to a specific context-relevant effect or purpose in writing, thus making meaningful connections for learners between the grammar under focus and the writing. Secondly, they were able to respond to students’ own writing sensitively, asking questions which invited students to consider the writing choices they were making, or by drawing out explicitly effective choices in the writing: for example, the teacher who commented on one child’s narrative that there was
‘a real sense of the environment with adverbials in there’. Thirdly, these teachers had sufficient grammatical pedagogical content knowledge to notice relevant aspects of reading texts to draw to learners’ attention.
Such grammatical pedagogical content knowledge allows teachers to induct students into metalinguistic discourses and foster their ability to discuss and talk about language with precision. Identifying the presence of an adjective or the use of complex sentence is of relatively little use to a language learner unless that knowledge can be transformed into meaningful understandings about texts and the choices they have as writers in shaping their own writing. Harper and Rennie (2009:30) argued for the importance of ‘thinking metalinguistically’. This has much in common with Halliday’s notion of grammatics, (Halliday, 2002) where he distinguishes between grammar as a phenomenon in language, and grammatics as the study of that phenomenon in use. In particular, he argues that grammatics is ‘a way of using grammar to think with’ (Halliday, 2002: 416). In Australia, the influence of the
Sydney School, led by Halliday, on theoretical thinking about grammar is significant, although it has as yet had relatively little impact on teachers’ practices (Macken-Horarik, 2012). Thinking metalinguistically is about exploring the symbiotic relationship between language and meaning, and teachers with secure grammatical pedagogical content knowledge are more likely ‘to recognize playful developments in students’ texts and also to foster their control of literate discourse’ (Macken-Horarik, 2012: 179) Indeed, the analysis of student interviews indicated that the intervention


developed students’ metalinguistic understanding, and over the year period of the study the intervention students engaged in longer and more meaningful grammatical discussions than the comparison group (Myhill, 2011). However, the analysis also indicates the strong link between teaching and learning: students’ metalinguistic conversations often echoed what teachers had said in lessons, with less successful learning consequences for those students whose teachers’ grammatical pedagogical content knowledge was less secure.
Underpinning teachers’ grammatical pedagogical content knowledge are deeply-held beliefs about the value of grammar and different pedagogical understandings of the role of metalanguage within the teaching of writing. These issues are not within the scope of this article and are considered in more depth elsewhere (Wilson, & Myhill, 2012; Watson, 2012). Nonetheless, it is important to consider the pedagogical purpose of developing learners’ metalinguistic understanding of writing and the place of grammar in this. Derewianka and Jones argue that it is ‘a means of making language explicit to learners in the form of an accessible and flexible metalanguage’ (2010:6), and like Coffin (2010) and Kolln and Hancock (2005) we have argued that such grammatical understanding develops students’ writing repertoires and understanding of the meaning-making resources available to them.
Teachers with confidence in their own grammatical content knowledge are more likely to share this understanding and thus to foster classroom climates which nurture effective grammatical conversations building upon relevant, explicit teaching. Paradoxically, teachers who feel anxious or insecure about their own grammatical content knowledge are more likely to hold prescriptivist, rule-bound views of grammar (Harper & Rennie, 2009;
Kamler, 1995; Macken-Horarik, 2012). This may account for some of the formulaic, rather prescriptivist teaching sometimes evident in our study.
Finally, in attempting to frame the subject and pedagogical content knowledge needed to address policy mandates across the
Anglophone world which re-emphasise grammar, this study underlines the socially-situated nature of professional knowledge.
Greeno, Collins, and Resnick (1996) describe the situatedness of teachers’ professional knowledge, which is ‘distributed among people and their environments, including the objects, artifacts, tools, books, and the communities of which they are a part’ (Greeno et al.:
17). More recently, Opfer and Pedder (2011) have argued, drawing on complexity theory, that teachers’ professional learning is shaped by complex interactions between the teacher, the school and the learning activity. For the teachers in the intervention group in our study, the learning activities were provided for them in the teaching materials and using them often created different contexts for learning and less familiar discourses around texts which foregrounded both their grammatical content knowledge and their pedagogical content knowledge. For some, the materials acted as effective scaffolds for engaging in metalinguistic talk in the classroom; whilst for others the materials posed a very real challenge.
This was influenced by the teachers’ beliefs about grammar and their own sense of self-efficacy in terms of grammatical content knowledge (Wilson, & Myhill, 2012; Brownlee et al., 2011). At the same time, differing school contexts, influenced by the national high-stakes assessment context, led teachers to orient their language teaching differently, from those who opened up discussion and developed authorial choice in linguistic decision-making to those who narrowed their teaching to formulaic linguistic prescriptions for test success. This underlines that bridging teachers’ grammatical content knowledge into effective grammatical pedagogical content knowledge, realised in classroom practice, is not a simple linear process but one shaped by personal dispositions and social contexts.


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6. Conclusion
To date, this study is the first to investigate how teachers’ grammatical content knowledge influences their classroom practice and shapes the nature of learning experience by students.
Although drawing on a substantial sample, it is limited by its reliance on just three classroom observations per teacher, spread over three terms. Given the intensity of the debate in Anglophone countries about whether there is a role for grammar in the English/
Language Arts curriculum (Myhill, & Jones, 2011; Locke, 2009), it is surprising that there has been so little empirical investigation of teaching and learning with grammar, and of the development of grammatical understanding in L1 learners. Likewise, whilst there have been numerous reports of ‘deficits’ in teacher content knowledge of grammar, as noted earlier, there has been limited exploration of how this plays out in pedagogical practice. There is a need for further studies which trace forensically the situated practice of teachers addressing grammar in the context of writing, drawing on a dataset which includes substantial and sequential lesson observation.
In this article, we have attempted to illustrate the inter-play between teachers’ grammatical content knowledge, and how this knowledge is reframed in the writing classroom as grammatical pedagogical content knowledge. We have shown that declarative grammatical content knowledge alone is not sufficient to establish powerful contexts for learning about writing; it is the pedagogical content knowledge which is more significant in making meaningful connections, and where developing writers are supported in seeing
‘language as a resource, a meaning-making system through which we interactively shape and interpret our world and ourselves’
(Derewianka & Jones, 2010: 9). Shulman wrote of the importance of the teacher’s capacity to ‘transform the content knowledge he or she possesses into forms that are pedagogically powerful and yet adaptive to the variations in ability and background presented by the students’
(1987: 15). The article points to the importance of addressing not simply declarative grammatical knowledge in pre-service and inservice teacher education, but also how that knowledge is transformed to pedagogical grammatical content knowledge, realised in effective classroom practice which develops students’ grammatical understanding of the written text and their compositional decisions. It also signals the situatedness of professional learning and the complex inter-relationship between knowledge, beliefs, practice and context. If grammar matters, then policy-makers and professionals need to take account of this interplay between content and pedagogy to generate practices in the teaching of writing which are genuinely pedagogically powerful.
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