Three cheers for Michael Gove

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This is a guest post by Richard Hudson, who proposed the title "The death and re-birth of grammatical analysis in UK schools". Americans who don't know who Michael Gove is may want to skim his Wikipedia page in order to appreciate what it means that Dick ends his post

So three cheers for Michael Gove! I never thought I'd live to read those words, let alone write them myself.

A few weeks ago, Mark Liberman kindly accepted a guest posting from me about sentence diagramming. In his introduction he said "This is a guest post by Dick Hudson, who has promised a later submission about his experience helping to organize the re-introduction of grammatical analysis in the British school curriculum." So here I am again, to try to explain a rather complicated bit of recent history in UK education.

The key date in this history is (about) 1960. This is when grammar teaching officially died in the state-funded schools of England. (Scotland has always had a completely separate education system, and Wales and Northern Ireland do their own educational thing, though until recently they followed England.) Until then there had been an optional question in the 'Ordinary Level' English exam taken by the academically-top 20% of the population. This was removed in the early 1960s because by that time grammar-teaching had acquired such a terrible reputation as a useless and boring activity that most (but not all) English teachers hated.

How had things come to this? It wasn't inevitable – in plenty of countries grammar continued to be taught with enthusiasm and skill by well-trained first-language teachers. The trouble with the UK was that teachers were not well trained in grammar. The only training they had was what they had themselves received at school – a sure recipe for disaster in any academic subject. And why had they not received any training? Because English departments in universities were (and still are) dominated by literature experts with little interest in grammmar. So grammar died in the UK – and meanwhile much the same happened in the other English-speaking countries, with convenient academic support from a flood of research showing that grammar teaching, as practised in those countries, had no positive effect on children's writing.

But two other institutions came into play to reverse this trend in schools: universities and politicians. At about the same time that grammar died in anglophone schools, it was re-born in anglophone universities, first in the USA and then in the UK. Our universities now offer world-leading research on grammar, especially English grammar – a far cry from 1921, when a report declared it "impossible at the present juncture to teach English grammar in the schools for the simple reason that no-one knows exactly what it is". But very little of this research has been directed at the application of grammar in school teaching – e.g. by studying grammatical development during the school years.

Some of this research effort filtered into schools, thanks largely to the efforts of Randolph Quirk and his protégé Michael Halliday. A large research grant in the 1960s enabled Halliday to disseminate a lot of general linguistics to school teachers, who liked it. To a literature-trained English teacher familiar with the close reading of texts, many areas of linguistics were very attractive, and this enthusiasm translated in the early 1980s into a new public exam for the last two years of secondary school ('A-level'): English Language. This is an enormous success story, with nearly 25,000 candidates every year – and still growing. But … the one area of linguistics that teachers still shunned was grammar.

Then politicians started to worry about our schools. Margaret Thatcher had been Minister for Education before she became Prime Minister in 1979, and was aware of what had happened to grammar. She and her Tory colleagues saw the decline of grammar teaching as the decline of grammar (and maybe a decline in public morality to boot). It's easy to laugh at her attitudes, but she had a point – literacy teaching really wasn't working, and the lack of grammar teaching may have been part of the problem. She also saw this issue as part of a much bigger issue – the lack of central control over the curriculum. So in 1990 she introduced the first ever National Curriculum for England.

To her credit, she saw that English was a key part of the curriculum, and that careful planning was needed. So she set up a number of committees (including several leading linguists) to plan for the new English curriculum, and in particular to look at the role of what came to be called 'KAL' – meaning 'knowledge about language', or put more simply, 'linguistics'; the notion is hard to distinguish from the 'Language Awareness' of foreign-language teaching. The committees all agreed that schools should teach KAL, and at least as far as Margaret Thatcher was concerned, that would include grammar. However, again to her credit, she also saw that teachers hadn't been trained in KAL so they would need in-service training. The government therefore invested no less than £23 million in a training scheme run by academics. Admittedly they later disowned the project when they saw the training materials, but at least they recognised the need for training.

The National Curriculum arrived and is still with us, though in a greatly reduced form. Through a number of revisions, grammar has figured quite prominently in the English syllabus, so you might expect that twenty years of National Curriculum would have produced several generations of grammar-rich school leavers. However, reality is different, and shows that mere regulations aren't enough to ensure change. A survey of school-leavers' knowledge of grammar showed that in 2009 school leavers actually knew less about grammar than a comparable cohort had known in 1986, before the National Curriculum was introduced.

Why the mismatch between official aspirations and reality? Nobody knows for sure, but two related explanations seem plausible: teachers still don't know enough grammar to teach it with any degree of confidence (and pleasure), and grammatical KAL wasn't tested in any of the public exams that determine a school's fate (and funding).

If we stopped in 2009, the history of grammar teaching in the UK would look pretty hopeless. But once again politicians have come to the rescue, in the unlikely person of Michael Gove, probably the most reviled member of the current Tory cabinet. He has driven through a package of reforms to the National Curriculum which include just two appendices: one for spelling, and one for grammar. To write the grammar appendix, he appointed a respected academic researcher, Debra Myhill, whose recent research on the teaching of grammar has shown that carefully focused grammar teaching can have very positive effects on writing. And he gave her (and her committee) a free hand in defining 'grammar' and even in composing a glossary of technical terms. He read all the drafts, but his only intervention was to insist on an entry for 'subjunctive'! So one cheer for Michael Gove.

Another cheer comes for his introduction of the first ever formal test of grammatical KAL (along with spelling and punctuation) for every child at the end of primary school. This doesn't go much beyond recognising basic word classes, but it's a start and a lot of primary schools are taking it very seriously.

And another for his radical reform of A-levels, with a much bigger role for universities in deciding their content. The chasm between universities and schools has bedevilled UK education for a century, so any bridge is welcome – especially if it brings with it the possibility of more grammar (as this one may).

So three cheers for Michael Gove! I never thought I'd live to read those words, let alone write them myself.

The above is a guest post by Richard Hudson.


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

    I see that in the US there are now two separate AP exams for ambitious high school students having to do with English, one named "English Literature and Composition" and the other named "English Language and Composition." I can't find a potted history in a few minutes googling, but my best recollection is that when I was a high school senior in 1982-83 there was only one AP exam having to do with English and the optional class some of us took in my particular high school called simply "AP English" (which was very literature-focused – it is painful to imagine what my earnest 17-year-old oral exegesis of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" must have been like for my classmates) supposedly prepared us for that test if we felt like taking it. (All I remember of the exam itself is that we had to answer questions about an Auden poem I'd never seen before – possibly "As I Walked Out One Evening," but don't hold me to that.)

    It would be interesting to know more about what the "linguistics" and/or "grammar" component of the "English Language" A-level currently amounts to, and get a rough sense of how a set of arbitrarily bright-and-with-good-grades-in-"English" US twelfth graders would do at it.

  2. Brett said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: The English Language AP test started in 1980, so it was new when you were in high school, but it existed. At my high school, in the first half of the 1990s, there were two AP-level English classes for seniors, geared toward the two tests. The literature class had the title "AP English," presumably by virtue of being older. The other class, which prepared students for the language exam, was called "College Writing"; in addition to the AP test preparation, the course could earn students college credit through the local community college. However, there was nothing resembling linguistics or grammar instruction in the College Writing class. I'm not sure about the content of the exam, since that was the one AP test offered at my school that I opted not to take.

  3. Nick Zair said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 4:01 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer. The requirements of the A level English Language course for at least two of the exam boards can be found here:

    and here:

    For the AQA course, the key 'grammatical' (i.e. syntactical – phonology, for example, comes under another heading) knowledge required, listed on p. 6-7 of the 2014 requirements, involves identification of an array of parts of speech (e.g. nouns: proper/common, singular/plural, concrete/abstract), along with: sentence functions (statement, command, question, exclamations), sentence types (minor, simple, compound,
    complex, compound-complex), clause types (main, sub-ordinate, co-ordinate), and clause elements (subject, verb, object, complement, adverbials).

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    When my daughter took the English Language AP a couple years ago, it was heavy on rhetorical terms ("Which of these is an example off chiasmus?") and essay-style writing (or maybe those were just the areas she told me about).

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

    *sigh* "of"

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

    I guess conceptually it would make sense to think of the English Language AP as modeling/anticipating a generic "freshman composition" class of the sort required by many U.S. colleges (at least for students going into certain fields) with no attention to the study of literature-as-such, with a high enough grade on the AP meaning basically "let this student skip freshman comp and go on to whatever's next." So it wouldn't make sense for it to have any more linguistics content than the generic type of intro college class it's supposed to be a substitute for. Which as I understand it is essentially zero.

  7. RP said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 4:33 pm

    I don't know how A-Levels compare with AP, although it is interesting to note that AP is defined by Wikipedia as referring to college-level courses taken in high school, and no one in Britain would dream of referring to A-Levels as being college level (but this does not mean that they shouldn't be so considered in US terms, and it is notable that British degrees normally take three years rather than four).

    When I did my A-Levels (which, however, was 18 years ago), there was a choice between English Language A-Level, English Literature A-Level, and English Language and Literature A-Level (which was a single A-Level, not the combination of the first two – though it would have been possible to do a combination of the first two instead, assuming that timetabling didn't prohibit it). I did English Language (which was less well known and less popular) and it had a significant linguistics component. We studied sociolinguistics (particularly Trudgill's work), some grammar (not much of it was new to me as I'd studied French and German, but I do remember a discussion of the fact that certain verbs take a complement rather than a direct object), and some other topics such as childhood language acquisition and Chomsky's theory of universal grammar. Stylistics (and how to write well for the intended audience) was also a significant part of it.

    The specification for the AQA English Language A-Level is here:

  8. Ken Brown said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 5:57 pm

    Things have certainly changed in the 40 years since I was at school (and I didn't do English A level anyway) and probably in the 7 years since my daughter was. But one big difference between our system and the US one is their focus on teaching composition. We more or less dropped that before we started O level courses at age 14. And there is nothing remotely like it for most university courses. If you study sciences here you study science. No-one dreams of making you take a composition class.

  9. Levantine said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

    RP, A-levels could (and in my day did) qualify as 'college-level' in the sense that you did them at (sixth-form) college if you didn't remain at your secondary school. But that's obviously a different sense of the word 'college' from that used in the USA or meant in the Wikipedia article you referred to.

  10. RP said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    Fair point, Levantine. I had the same thought on reflection. But as you say, that is a different sense of the word "college".

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

    As I understand it, university-bound English students typically don't start their 3-year undergraduate program until they've finished "year 13" or what we'd call "13th grade" whereas U.S. students start their 4-year undergraduate program after 12th grade. So it's a bit apples and oranges.

  12. RP said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 9:14 pm

    My understanding is that Year 13 is equivalent to 12th Grade. In both cases the students are typically 17 when they start and 18 when they finish. I believe the difference occurs because in England, Year 1 covers 5- and 6-year-olds, whereas that's kindergarten in the US, where 1st Grade typically designates 6- and 7-year-olds.

  13. Levantine said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 9:55 pm

    Having moved from the UK to the US for graduate school, I'm convinced that they have it right. A broad four-year undergraduate curriculum, including compulsory courses in subjects that you're not majoring in, are far preferable to our overspecialised three-year BAs. It should be noted, though, that many (most?) British BAs that involve learning a foreign language do last four years, one of them spent abroad.

  14. Jeff said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

    I followed ML's advice and skimmed the Wikipedia page on Michael Gove.

    What stood out the most was the phrase:

    Preceded by Ed Balls (Children, Schools and Families)

  15. Lane said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 3:02 am

    I have always, as a mental shorthand, thought of British A-levels and the German Abitur and their like as representing, roughly, *either* AP classes or what the American college student gets in the first year of college/university (which American colleges/universities assume to be roughly equivalent, in that they give college credit for high-school AP courses). Ie, all three are a broadish palate of introduction to the Big Topics in the chosen subjects, before specialisation.

    In America, AP classes are great because you still get 4 years of college, but you get there not having to take a bunch of "core" stuff you hate, because you did it in AP. So there's plenty of time to take subjects for pleasure. This is how I got to plough tons of my free electives into language classes.

  16. Adrian said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 4:34 am

    One problem we have is that the exam boards tend to mimic each other rather than competing with each other by "differentiating their offer". It would be good, for example, if one or two of them added a grammar component to their GCSE English exam, so that schools could choose whether to offer a course that was more writing-based or more analysis-based (etc.). to better suit the teachers' abilities and students' needs.

    As far as primary school is concerned, primary school testing is anathema to me, so no cheer for Gove there.

  17. Robert F said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 4:42 am

    I am glad to see that the glossary gives "walk" as an example of an infinitive, and not "to walk". Perhaps this means the "split infinitive" zombie rule will finally die a few generations hence.

  18. Mar Rojo said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 5:09 am

    I'll let DC speak for me:

  19. Mar Rojo said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 5:10 am

    "the only kind of English that Mr Gove and his markers want to see in schools is of a predictable, cliched, and uninspiring kind."

    Prof. DC

  20. Mar Rojo said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 5:11 am

  21. RP said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 5:13 am

    Question for Richard Hudson. Why does the marking scheme for the grammar test regard the serial comma as incorrect?

    According to : "The mark will not be awarded if a serial comma is used in a list of simple items. For example, this would be unacceptable: We bought apples, cheese, and milk".

    Surely the use or not of the serial comma is a matter of style (personal style or house style, depending on the situation) rather than a question of right and wrong. Certainly at , we read "The 'Oxford comma' is an optional comma before the word 'and' at the end of a list". We don't read "The 'Oxford comma' is an optional, but incorrect, comma before the word 'and' at the end of a list".

  22. RP said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 5:25 am

    The elevation of the anti-serial-comma prejudice into a zombie rule is particularly extreme if you consider that (according to the same assessment criteria) "correct spelling is not required".

  23. Jenz said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 6:44 am

    In the Anglophone International Baccalaureate (IB) high school program in Finland we were given the choice between English A1 (native speaker) and English A2 (advanced SL). The A1 class was just pure literature and absolutely no grammar, whereas A2 was a more nuanced mix of some grammar, some literature and some text comprehension and processing. This is in pretty interesting contrast to the teaching of Finnish as a mother tongue at the same level, where some grammar rules are gone over in literature modules and whole modules are offered in grammar for those who felt their grasp of it a bit shaky.

    Going to an English/Finnish mixed junior high what stuck with me was the amount of grammar a 13-15 year old was taught in Finnish class compared to English. In Finnish we went over loads of simple classification (there are musical litanies the different kinds of pronouns and conjuntions everyone who went to groundschool at least recognises) of words and the infamous 15 cases. We were also taught how to dissect any Finnish word to its root and any constituting morphemes, and to boot there was a bit of historical linguistics about what languages Finnish was related to, what cognates were and how reconstruction works. This was all in addition to loads of literature study. In English, all that stuck with me for grammar was that linking verbs exist. I dont remember what they are anymore, but Im assured theyre something important.

  24. Ray Girvan said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 7:06 am

    As I commented to the earlier post Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal, the level 6 sample test Richard Hudson posted had this:

    Circle the correct word
    Neither of the pupils ( was / were ) paying attention

    Any claim of a clear-cut answer to that is the same old prescriptivism.

  25. Mar Rojo said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 7:48 am

  26. Alen said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 8:47 am

    Levantine's posting about three year 'British' degrees is in fact inaccurate because (as the original article notes) the Scottish education system is different from the English and four year courses are the norm in Scotland. They also differ in that students undertake a number of 'subsidiary' courses in the first two years; these are often to the same standard as the courses taken by students studying those subjects as their main subject making it easier for a student to switch subject after their first or second year. This was particularly important when I was a student 40 years ago as universities taught subjects not often taught at schools (or not taught to a certifiable level) and with which students might be unfamiliar when choosing the subject they wished to study at university.

  27. Levantine said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

    Alen, you're absolutely right. I should have specified that my characterisation of 'British' degrees did not include Scotland, and I apologise for not having done so.

  28. Richard Hudson said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

    RP asks "Question for Richard Hudson. Why does the marking scheme for the grammar test regard the serial comma as incorrect?" Well here I am to answer it, but I have no idea. It strikes me as pretty ridiculous, but no doubt I shall learn more in a meeting on Friday with the people who run these tests. Should be interesting.

    Incidentally, I was fascinated by what Jenz said about grammar in Finland. I'm not at all surprised. And isn't it Finland that consistently comes at the top of the international PISA rankings for education? So it doesn't do them any harm. I'd love to include an account of Finland's grammar teaching for my

  29. RP said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

    Thanks for the reply. That meeting does sound interesting.

  30. Mar Rojo said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    RH said: "And isn't it Finland that consistently comes at the top of the international PISA rankings for education? So it doesn't do them any harm."

    But does it harm the language, and the understanding of it, as a whole?

  31. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

    I am shocked by "The main point of this brief history and geography is that normal schooling does include grammar teaching, so there is nothing ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ about ignoring it."

    There is nothing about the history of grammar teaching that shows, teaching it is normal. If anything, not teaching it has shown, that other than a few pedants, we're just fine without it. Not a hundred years ago, you could have told the same story about beating children by teachers. Or, to be a bit less extreme, teaching Latin and Greek. Surely, we don't want any of those back.

    And, please, using a Google search comparison of "I love grammar" vs. "I hate grammar" to suggest slightly more people love grammar is not just a crude measure, it is preposterously inappropriate measure. Not only do Google counts not actually guarantee greater frequency, even if they did, they would not reflect children's attitudes to towards being taught grammar. I love grammar and I hated the teaching of it!

    But actually looking at what the people who 'love grammar' actually say, it would appear that most just like to lord it over others with their ill-informed peevery. I love real grammar! I don't want to be associated with those who think loving grammar means, you don't use 'literally' as an intensifier.

  32. Mar Rojo said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

    Gove and his cronies are killing creative learning. Nuff said.

  33. Mar Rojo said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

    I'm off to bed to read this again and again.

  34. Ray Girvan said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    @Richard Hudson: It strikes me as pretty ridiculous

    And likewise "Neither of the pupils ( was / were ) paying attention".

    It looks as if the whole thing has been contaminated by the same old same old.

  35. Mar Rojo said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 7:19 pm

    Jenz story about being taught the mechanics of Finnish could have involved a dumbing down of education through rote learning. Who's to say what a more creative exploratory approach would have yeilded?

  36. Mar Rojo said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 3:29 am

    Just woke up?

    "I hope things will change – and I especially hope that there are enough linguistically aware teachers out there these days to see the limitations in tests of this kind and continue with the more informed approach to language study that I know exists in many schools. There’s nothing wrong with being able to identify adverbs as long as this is not thought to be the end of the story. It would be like giving people a driving test where all they had to do was name the parts of the car. With a linguistically informed approach, one can do this, yes, but then go on to drive the language, as it were, and take it to all kinds of exciting places."

    David Crystal

  37. John Walden said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 3:36 am

    Michael Gove is right.

    Like a stopped clock is right.

  38. Mar Rojo said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 9:43 am

    And you'll never get me in a naive enough mood to cheer "three cheers for Michael Gove!".

  39. Ron said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    @Levantine: My son was one of the small number of Americans who applied to Oxford from high school. He wanted to read Arabic and was prepared to make the four year commitment. He wasn't offered a place and he's very happy at a university here in the US. However, he isn't all that keen on his distributional requirements, and would rather dispense with them so he could add Persian.

    Is one method better than the other? Hard to say. US students are encouraged to defer specialization, so the English model would come as rather a shock. On the other hand, I've known plenty of doctors who knew to a moral certainty as early as high school that they would eventually study medicine. For them, as for my son, early specialization would have made perfect sense.

  40. Levantine said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

    Ron, thanks for sharing your story. I knew very early on what I wanted to specialise in, and I still work in that area, so part of me is very pleased that I got to do my BA entirely in my chosen field. That said, when I came to the US for graduate school, I was struck by how much better my American peers' general knowledge appeared to be than mine. I think that even our A-levels are more specialised than the average US college degree. On the other hand, I had a head start in terms of my graduate work, as I was already familiar with a lot of the material. On balance, however, I think my American counterparts are better off, because it's always easier to acquire specialised knowledge as you move through the system than it is to catch up on stuff you were never exposed to.

  41. Richard Hudson said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    Dominik Lukes says:
    "I am shocked by "The main point of this brief history and geography is that normal schooling does include grammar teaching, so there is nothing ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ about ignoring it." There is nothing about the history of grammar teaching that shows, teaching it is normal. If anything, not teaching it has shown, that other than a few pedants, we're just fine without it."

    Are we really just fine without it? You mean our young people all have the first-language literacy they need, and are all satisfactorily prepared for learning foreign languages in adulthood? I don't think so. And it's just a matter of fact that teaching grammar has been a normal part of European school education for at least two thousand years, so the 20th century abandonment really is an aberration.

  42. Stephen said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

    @Mar Rojo

    Is there any of that axe left? After all you have been grinding it rather hard.

  43. Stephen said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 3:34 pm


    "Having moved from the UK to the US for graduate school, I'm convinced that they have it right."

    " I think my American counterparts are better off, because it's always easier to acquire specialised knowledge as you move through the system than it is to catch up on stuff you were never exposed to."

    I think that which system is 'right' depends upon what you want to achieve.

    We have friends who trained as medics in the UK (she as a nurse and him as a medical doctor) and who moved to the US. He also had a doctorate and was doing research.

    One time when visiting them I asked a question about the US university system which sparked off a debate between them about its usefulness versus the English system.

    He said that the US graduates he dealt with knew so little about their subject that they were virtually useless in the lab until a lot of time had been spent in training them.

    She said that the US graduates she dealt with had a more rounded education and had a broader set of skills. One example she gave was that they could write a decent descriptive essay, unlike English science graduates she had prior experience of.

    He countered that writing a decent descriptive essay was a skill that should have been acquired in school, but that it could easily be taught quite quickly. Also this, and any other necessary skills, could be taught much more quickly than it took to bring the people up to the level of English science graduates.

    So for someone who was really certain that they would be moving in to serious work in their subject, the typical English system may well be better, for someone who is less clear about their future direction then perhaps the US system is better.

    There is also the exception to the English system which is (or at least was) practised at Keele University.

    There most degrees are four years long, and the first year is an essentially common foundation course that all four year students take. My memory is that the only parts of that course that you did not do were the ones that related to you chosen subject.

    So people reading Physics did not do the Physics component that was designed to be accessible to Arts students, people reading French did not do the French component that was designed to be accessible to Science students, and so forth.

    At the end of that foundation year, students were free to choose what subject(s) they wanted to read for the remaining three years. Of course there were logistical limits so people did not have total freedom.

  44. Mar Rojo said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 6:16 am

    If your axe is not existent, Stephen….

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