Sorry, Folks. Teaching Grammar Doesn’t Stifle Creativity

The idea that teaching grammar stifles creativity is a damaging myth, made all too believable by the DfE’s daft testing regime.

“Teaching grammar stifles children’s creativity.”

“Instead of teaching grammar, we should teach children to write imaginatively and creatively.”

The truth of these two statements is accepted by many people, both inside and outside of the current British primary education system. I’ve come dangerously close to expressing such views myself in the past. However, I have come to believe that the first statement is flat-out wrong and, because the first statement is wrong, the second statement is illogical.

What teachers too often mean when they say “teaching grammar stifles children’s creativity” is “I don’t know how to make teaching grammar fun” or possibly even “I don’t know how to teach grammar at all.” Understanding how our language works equips children to use it in a richer variety of ways. It enables them to rearrange and reword sentences to create different effects and suit different registers. It encourages them to play with the conventions of language to give their writing precision and nuance. It empowers them, when communicating their ideas and sharing the contents of their imaginations, to do so in vivid technicolour. Of course, teaching children about grammar in this way is not the same as simply preparing them for the Year 6 Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Test and here an important distinction must be made. The testing regime in primary schools has impoverished the English curriculum and it continues to do so but that is not a valid argument against teaching children about grammar.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself this question: when teachers tell us that teaching grammar stifles creativity, what do they generally advocate doing instead? Often, the answer is a genre-focused writing task based on a book they’ve read, e.g. write a diary entry for the Big Bad Wolf, write a news report about the events of The Highwayman, write in role as Jim Jarvis from Street Child. Now, please don’t misunderstand me: there is absolutely a time and a place for these sorts of activities…but do they really represent a gold standard in fostering creativity and encouraging children to be imaginative? To be done well, they usually require extensive modelling from the teacher and clear success criteria that set out the “correct” way to achieve the objective. Yes, they often require the children to engage initially with a well-written text but a well-taught grammar lesson would do this too. In fact, these tasks often require more creativity and imagination on the part of the teacher than they do from the pupil and here I think there is an awkward truth to confront. When some teachers suggest that genre-focused writing tasks are more enjoyable and creative for the children than well-delivered grammar activities, what they actually mean is that they’re more enjoyable and creative for them. The two things are not always the same.

Compare these genre-focused tasks to a very simple grammar starter activity: writing a main clause on the board and asking children to suggest a subordinate clause that could be added to it. This is boring, right? It stifles creativity and makes school dull, surely? Try it and watch what happens. The children will want to make their sentences funny. They’ll want to write sentences about the topics that interest them. They’ll make the task their own and they’ll express themselves because that’s what children do. In fact, they’ll express themselves far more thoroughly than they ever could by writing a report about The Highwayman. The sentences they write will be theirs- from them and by them.

Teaching grammar properly means teaching children how to say exactly what they want to say- it gives them the tools to communicate what’s on their minds and express what’s in their hearts. Because most of us were taught little to no grammar when we were at school ourselves, it requires us as teachers to demonstrate the sort of open-minded engagement with new learning that we expect of our pupils every day. It requires a shift in mindset and, yes, it can be quite difficult. However, none of that is altered by pretending that teaching grammar stifles creativity. When we continue to peddle this myth, we merely betray the limits of our own imaginations.

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