PGCAP Project Prize 2008 - Jacqueline Laws

Attitudes of Undergraduate Applied English Language Studies Students to the Study of Grammar

This project was motivated by the informal observation that the majority of undergraduate Applied English Language Studies (AELS) students appear not to perceive the relevance of understanding grammatical concepts, or to value its importance in improving their own writing skills. This comes as a surprise, given that these students chose to study, at university level, the application of language-related issues in a variety of social contexts such as at work and play, and in relationships, the media, education and politics.

The BAAELS degree programme was introduced at Reading in 2003. The number of applicants has increased phenomenally since then with cohort sizes expanding over 5-fold in four years. This increase in numbers is very largely due to the introduction of the new English Language A Level, however, despite the range of relevant study areas covered by this qualification, it appears that students who are attracted to the BAAELS programme have very little background knowledge or understanding of grammatical concepts.

The history of grammar teaching in schools has undergone considerable criticism over the past 50 years (Hudson 1992; Cameron 1995), starting with the 'progressive' educational reforms of the 1960s that removed the explicit teaching of grammar in the classroom, to the implementation of the National Curriculum (NC) in 1988, and its subsequent revisions, which reinstated the teaching of grammar in English lessons. The background to these changes is summarised, and the consequences for the attitude of undergraduate students entering university to study AELS in the late 2000s are analysed. This report explores empirically the attitudes of such students at Reading and assesses potential contributory factors from a quantitative and qualitative perspective by posing the following research questions:

  1. Do BAAELS students have a negative attitude towards grammar?
  2. Do students arrive at university with a negative attitude towards grammar?
  3. Is attitude linked to the amount of secondary school grammar tuition received?
  4. Does attitude affect performance on grammar modules?
  5. Can attitudes be changed by improving grammar tuition?

The results clearly indicated a negative attitude to grammar across cohorts, suggesting that negative perceptions are deep-set in the school culture and that BAAELS students enter university with a degree of 'grammar-phobia'. There were no clear indicators that studying grammar either within GGSE/A-Level English or foreign language courses has a direct impact on performance or attitudes to grammar; nevertheless, there was evidence that as the subject matter becomes more complex, those with a background in foreign language study may have a slight advantage. The results also revealed that negative attitudes can be reversed with the introduction of more appropriately targeted module content and explicit references to the relevance of grammar in other areas of the programme.

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