SUE SING, RESEARCH FELLOW, UCL FACULTY OF EDUCATION AND SOCIETY, UK
BAS AARTS, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LIGUISTICS, DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE, UCL, UK
Background and policy context
In 2013, the UK government introduced the National Curriculum, which contains detailed specifications for the teaching of English grammar in primary schools (Department for Education - a ministerial department responsi... More, 2013). However, it did not provide teachers with any materials or support through continuous professional development (CPD). Furthermore, teacher training courses do not offer much grammar training, due to the programme being very full.
The Englicious Project
A team at UCL’s English department created Englicious (http://englicious.org), a website that offers teachers free CPD materials, lesson plans, an accurate, extended glossary of grammatical terminology, and interactive practice materials. Englicious views grammar as a toolkit to help students to improve their spoken and written literacy in an engaging, fun way (Aarts, 2019).
From 2019 to 2021, researchers from UCL and the University of York conducted a randomised controlled trial (RCT) and implementation and process evaluation (IPE) to examine whether using Englicious can help to develop children’s writing. The project involved 70 Year 2 classes (around 2,000 seven-year-old children) and their teachers from 70 primary schools in and around London.
For the RCT, 36 teachers were trained to teach Englicious lessons (described below) while 34 teachers taught grammar using their ‘usual’ approaches. The RCT’s quantitative analysis was based on samples of children’s writing collected at the pre- and post-intervention stages (findings reported in Wyse et al., 2022). To understand the teachers’ experience of using these play-based lessons, the IPE gathered qualitative data through semi-structured interviews and observations of Englicious lessons from a smaller sample of schools, and survey data from the wider intervention school cohort.
This paper focuses on the project’s qualitative findings, specifically the teachers’ experiences of Englicious as a teaching tool. (Teachers’ perceptions of Englicious for learning about grammar are reported in Sing and Aarts, forthcoming.)
- adjectives and expanded noun phrases
- present tense
- past tense
- sentence patterns
- linking (1)
- linking (2)
Teachers were provided with a lesson manual that contained detailed guidelines to ensure consistency across the RCT. Englicious aims for students to ‘do grammar’, e.g. the adverbs lesson explains the grammatical concept and explores what role they might play in writing, and children then apply this to their writing. The lesson comprises four parts:
- Starter: This links to the previous lesson on verbs. Teachers show a colour image of a swimming pool with surrounding activities. They encourage children to use verbs from the previous lesson, e.g. swim, glide, splash, and ask how we can talk about some of the actions.
- Teaching adverbs: Teachers explain what adverbs The lesson demonstrates that by moving adverbs, different meanings can be achieved, e.g. an adverb at the start of the sentence emphasises its meaning. The adverb placement activity (www.englicious.org/lesson/adverb-placement-activity) on the interactive whiteboard (IWB) encourages students to play with sentences and to vary their writing to understand the effects of moving adverbs around.
- Practice: The class discusses a short text. What kind of mental images does it evoke? How does it make us feel as readers? Next, students look at the grammar. In pairs, they consider: Which adverbs can you identify? For each one, is it being used to modify a verb or an adjective? What kind of information does it give to the reader and what happens if it’s removed?
- Application: Teachers show the colour image again and ask: What do we want to tell the reader? How can we describe what is happening? Working independently, students compose a paragraph describing the image, using adverbs to tell the reader how, why, where and when things happened.
The other lessons have a similar structure.
Teachers’ perceptions of the effectiveness of Englicious as a teaching tool
At the early-to-mid-intervention stage, five out of six teachers told us that they especially liked:
- the interactive lessons and the fact that these led to useful discussions
- the fact that lessons included variety
- the manageable, age-appropriate tasks
- the fact that students enjoyed the games and activities.
Teacher 065 felt that she had seen good writing outcomes from some tasks. Teachers 036 and 014 said that Englicious had given them confidence that their teaching was based on solid subject knowledge. They felt that the examples were useful and liked how the intervention provided all the content needed. Teacher 014 also praised the structured format of explanations and said that this worked well for teaching and learning.
At the end of every lesson, children were shown a colour image as a prompt for an independent writing activity. Teacher 033 said that this picture had sparked her students’ imagination and resulted in them using more wide-ranging vocabulary. She also found that the length of Englicious lessons (one hour) and a focus on one grammar concept per session enabled her to deepen her teaching. She valued the fact that every lesson included opportunities for students to apply their learning, and remarked that she had already seen an impact (see quote). Her perceptions of the effectiveness of these longer lessons had given her new teaching ideas.
‘It’s like they’re mastering it in that lesson so that when they do get to that next lesson, when I show them that picture they knew “oh yeah, verbs… we were doing this, it was jumping, it was gliding”… so that you don’t have to keep going back over the same thing again, and that in the week you can just say “verbs” and they’ll know what you’re talking about because they’ve had that hour to really just focus on that thing and I think that is quite helpful.’
In the mid-intervention survey, 15 out of 19 respondents felt that their knowledge about teaching grammar had ‘changed a lot’ or ‘somewhat’ since starting the project (Likert-scale question), with 12 teachers attributing this to Englicious as opposed to other activities.
When we interviewed teachers towards the end of the intervention period, again most teachers spoke positively about the structure and content of lessons. Teachers found these elements helpful because the requirements were clear and easy to follow. Seven out of 11 survey respondents echoed these views. Respondent 010 (a teacher at one of the IPE schools) commented:
‘The lesson slides and guides have been crucial in the delivery of the intervention as a teacher. The interaction of being able to use the whiteboard encourages all children to want to take part and is inclusive, giving an opportunity for children to apply their skills and understanding of grammar in front of the class. I also like the tasks that children complete at the end, especially the cartoon image where there is a lot for children to infer and be creative with.’
Teacher 064 was new to teaching Year 2 and noted that she had learnt ideas for teaching grammar with this year group. Teacher 065 said that she intended to incorporate similar activities in future lessons; she highlighted her students’ enjoyment of the interactive tasks and that learners at different levels had responded well to the learning activities. Another teacher commented that the colour image had really helped her students to think about different ideas. Teachers 010 and 065 told us that they had enjoyed using the IWB.
The survey also showed that 10 out of 11 teachers felt that their knowledge about teaching grammar had ‘changed a lot’ or ‘changed somewhat’ since starting the project; eight teachers attributed this to the intervention rather than other activities. Ten out of 11 teachers indicated that their confidence to teach grammar in Year 2 had ‘changed a lot’ or ‘changed somewhat’ because of participation in the intervention or due to the training provided.
Teachers’ perceptions of the challenges of Englicious as a teaching tool
The mid-intervention survey revealed some concerns, mainly about the appropriateness of the content or slides for Year 2 and/or feeling that the lesson structure could be improved. A few respondents felt that the lessons were long. In the interviews, four teachers said that ‘wordy’ slides could result in students’ disengagement, and presented challenges for children who cannot read well. It is worth noting, however, that we observed a lesson where the teacher skilfully navigated this issue: she explored each sentence in turn so that students were not working with so much text at once. Two teachers commented on the amount of content in lessons, and felt that the pace required meant that it wasn’t possible to spend more time on explanations where needed.
Towards the end of the project, survey responses echoed similar concerns to those mentioned above. In interviews, the main concerns were that lessons contained too much content (deemed unmanageable for students) and that the introductory section of lessons was too long, creating challenges for children’s concentration.
Limitations of the study
We acknowledge the following limitations:
- the small number of teachers interviewed
- an incomplete cohort of respondents for the mid- and end-of-intervention surveys
- the possibility of a self-selecting cohort, although a range of views were shared
- the timing of activities (summer term 2021, post-COVID), which may have impacted response rates.
The qualitative findings from this project discovered that:
- The Englicious teaching materials on grammar can help teachers to enjoy delivering literacy lessons in a playful and engaging way
- Many teachers valued the Englicious approach, e.g. discussing the effects of options offered by using grammatical patterns in varied ways, and felt that this was helping to develop students’ writing skills
- The resources can support teachers’ grammatical understanding and enhance their confidence to teach grammar because they are based on accurate subject knowledge.
The 10 lessons used in the intervention can now be freely accessed here: http://englicious.org/lesson/new-guided-grammar-lessons-yr-2
For enquiries about Englicious, please contact Prof. Bas Aarts: firstname.lastname@example.org
We wish to express our gratitude to all of the participating teachers and their students, and to the Nuffield Foundation for funding this research.