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Horarik et al. Teachers’ Subject Knowledge about Grammar. RTE, Feb. 2018. Posted 03/11/2018.

Macken-Horarik, Mary, Kristina Love, and Stefan Horarik. “Rethinking Grammar in Language Arts: Insights from an Australian Survey of Teachers’ Subject Knowledge.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.3 (2018): 288-316. Print.

Mary Macken-Horarik, Kristina Love, and Stefan Horarik report a study of Australian English teachers’ attitudes toward teaching grammar in elementary and secondary schools. The study addresses the effects on writing instruction of a recent national program, Australian Curriculum: English (290). This “ambitious program” (291) asks teachers to implement a many-faceted “relational approach to grammar” (291). Macken-Horarik et al. draw data from a 2014 survey of 373 Australian English teachers to assess their support for the incorporation of this approach into writing instruction and to measure their confidence in their ability to effect this incorporation (291).

The authors cite research from the U.K., including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and from the United States to note increasing calls for grammar instruction that moves beyond workbook exercises to help students understand grammar as a rhetorical element in which choices affect meaning (289, 312). This international research also calls into question whether teachers are prepared to follow through on such a curriculum (289-90).

A “relational approach” as described by the Australian curriculum breaks down amorphous “knowledge about language” into “grammatical subject knowledge” (GSK), which involves “structural resources of lexico-grammar (sentence level and below)” and “linguistic subject knowledge,” which “includes understanding of nonstructural resources such as cohesion (text level and beyond)” as well as “constructs such as genre, register, and discourse semantics” (293-94). GSK includes the ability to recognize and define grammatical elements, while LSK addresses how such elements function in use. In addition to these levels of knowledge, teachers implementing this approach are expected to possess “semiotic subject knowledge” (SSK) that will allow them to extend grammatical instruction to images, performances, etc. (292).

Macken-Horarik et al. identify three features of a relational approach. The first is a “broad scope” that covers multiple genres and forms of communication. The second is a “multilevel” approach, in which “a labeling of grammatical structures is important but insufficient,” with emphasis on how grammatical elements work to enable “higher levels of meaning in language.” Third is a “contextual orientation to grammar,” which allows for analysis of the function of language in diverse communicative and social environments (294).

Australia’s program requires students to study language through this relational lens beginning in kindergarten and throughout their school careers (291-92). The authors point to increasing burdens on teachers not only to convey the higher-level concepts inherent in the relational approach but also to incorporate ever-changing processes important in multimodal genres. They argue that the Australian program has not supplied adequate support to help teachers implement the curriculum (292-93, 313).

The 2014 survey to measure teachers’ appreciation of and ability to teach the curriculum included both quantitative and open-ended measures. Macken-Horarik et al. write that an initial paper drawn from the quantitative questions reported that teachers believed strongly in the value of a contextualized, relational grammar curriculum and generally responded that they were confident in their ability to teach it (296). However, analysis of the discursive, qualitative data “revealed anomalous patterns” (298).

Teachers surveyed overwhelmingly agreed that they valued all aspects of a relational approach, including SSK (the knowledge necessary to engage in multimodal composition) (298). However, questions focusing on specifics received lower positive response rates, and examination of the responses to open-ended questions found that comparatively few employed “a technical metalanguage” (298) that allowed them to discuss how form related to function (300). Despite endorsing the importance of SSK, when asked what kinds of knowledge were important, only 3 of 227 teachers who answered the open-ended version of the question mentioned multimodality (300).

Analysis of demographic data indicated that among the variables studied, including type of school and geographical location, only the teachers’ level of experience and the level at which they taught influenced the importance they attached to teaching grammatical knowledge. Less experienced teachers and primary-school teachers valued this knowledge more than more experienced counterparts teaching higher grades. The authors posit that teachers at higher levels may have assumed that by the time students reached them, the “core business” of grammar was “already ‘in place’” (301). In alignment with research in other cultures, teachers working with students from lower economic strata placed more importance on grammar than did their counterparts (301-02).

When asked in the quantitative sections of the survey about their confidence in their ability to teach the Australian curriculum, teachers again responded overwhelmingly that they felt prepared to do so. New teachers were more likely to express some doubt about their competence (303). Noting prior research that suggests that confidence levels do not necessarily indicate competence (303), Macken-Horarik et al. found that in the discursive answers to a question about the challenges the teachers faced, of 104 respondents, 69 found aspects of grammatical subject knowledge challenging (304). A number of these teachers stated that they had not been taught this knowledge in their own educations; others found “mapping functional grammar terminology onto traditional grammar terminology” difficult, while a third group noted that teaching a relational approach required them to work with more complex and difficult components and texts than they felt prepared to teach (305).

Further coding suggested that 63.5% of teachers responding to the issue of challenges “had already developed [knowledge about language] but needed to add ‘nuance’ to this in one or more areas of knowledge,” while 31.7% struggled with “basic knowledge of language” (305). These same teachers expressed “easy confidence with subject knowledge” in the quantitative measures (306-07). The authors find that this mismatch increases as teachers are asked to articulate specifics, particularly involving the role of lower-level components of language in developing higher levels of meaning (307).

Asked what professional development they needed, teachers identified published resources appropriate to the new curriculum, “infrastructure support,” and collaboration within and across schools (307). Again, roughly 30% of those who answered requested “a comprehensive introduction to subject knowledge” (308), and again, large majorities of those indicating such needs expressed high levels of confidence in their ability to teach the material (309). Discursive responses again revealed “an eerie silence” about the tools needed to teach in multimodal contexts (309).

The authors write that their study of “perceptions” did not allow them to judge whether teachers were actually capable of implementing contextual, nuanced instruction (310). Although more than 60% of the teachers surveyed rejected “decontextualized grammar exercises” (311), the authors call for further research including interviews. focus groups, and possibly text-based testing to illuminate teachers’ actual performance (311). In the authors’ view, Australian literacy education must do more to help teachers understand “how” to achieve the mandated goal of “[c]learly relating grammatical choices to meanings in texts and to contexts in which texts are produced” (312).