Grammar and poetry

Can grammar help us enjoy poetry?

The relation between teaching grammar and literature, especially poetry, has aroused heated debate for more than a century.   Sir Henry Newbolt, author of the first government report into the teaching of English in England, wrote that “formal grammar and philology should be … kept apart … from the lessons in which English is treated as an art, a means of creative expression”.  The Newbolt Committee were “strongly of the opinion that in dealing with literature the voyage of the mind should be broken as little as possible by examination of obstacles and the analysis of the element on which the explorer is floating”.  Newbolt was thinking of the teaching of classics in grammar schools, where attention was paid to grammar rather than to literature, and the contemporary dry analysis of dead languages.  The Newbolt Report recommended that the study of English literature should not meet such a fate, and since 1921 the teaching of grammar and literature – especially poetry – have been uneasy companions in classrooms across the English-speaking world.

The uses of grammar

Grammar means nothing more nor less than the rules or laws of language: the ways in which words work together to create meaning.   As Peter Trudgill and others pointed out decades ago, we learn these implicitly: without such knowledge, communication would not be possible.  Nevertheless, is implicit knowledge enough?  Living in a world where words are used to confuse and deceive as well as enlighten, we need to get a handle on the way language works.  Since the pioneering work of Michael Halliday in sociolinguistics, much work has been done in the last 50 years to develop such grammatical knowledge.  Most recently, Debra Myhill and her team at Exeter University have shown that some kinds of explicit knowledge can assist students in their own writing.  It can also help us enjoy reading, including reading poetry.

What kind of grammar?

Let’s look at the first lines of Edward Thomas’ poem The Brook.   

Seated once by a brook, watching a child

Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled. 

Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush

Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,

Unseen.  There was a scent like honeycomb

From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome

Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft

A butterfly alighted.

A traditional grammatical analysis would say that the first phrase is participial, ‘seated’ being an adjectival participle.  More recently, people will call it an adverbial phrase – indeed a fronted adverbial, a term made notorious by the primary school grammar tests.  Both views are plausible, but neither can be proved by external reference, and the choice of name doesn’t help us understand the way the words work.   What does it matter?   When grammar doesn’t connect with anything outside itself, it may appear not only difficult but useless.

Once more with feeling

But if we read the poem with feeling, we notice that Thomas creates an atmosphere of reverie and enchantment from the first lines.   How does he use language – grammar – to do this?   A good exercise with students might be to get them to write the lines prosaically. Here is an example:

I was sat by a brook once, watching a child paddling.  It enchanted me.  The blackbird sang mellow and the thrush sang sharp in the oak tree and the hazel undergrowth.  I couldn’t see them.  The mugwort had a scent like honeycomb.  And a butterfly alighted on top of the stone the cart-horse often kicks against.  

The words in the prose account are in the usual order, the subject preceding the verb: “I was …”; “it enchanted … “; “the blackbird sang”.  This subject-verb relation is so common that students will easily be able to relate it to their existing linguistic knowledge.  It then becomes easy to see that Thomas changes the usual word order, often putting the verb much later than would be expected.  This is especially clear in the first two lines, where the verb is entirely delayed – nowhere near the beginning of the sentence, but right at the end.  This enacts the beguilement: the reader is taken into the experience of watching, the sense impressions of the brook and the child paddling preceding the onset of enchantment.  A similar effect is created in the lines ending “a butterfly alighted”. 

To analyse the poem in this way, to understand the way Thomas disrupts usual word-order to create the poem’s particular pleasure, is a helpful use of grammar.  It is a grammatical analysis that most people will readily understand, because of their lifetime experience of the usual order of prose.   A helpful grammatical analysis of word-order and verb placement makes more sense than the near-theological discrimination of phrase types, because the reader can draw on their wider reading and experience when thinking about the language and what is described.


The current issue of English in Education is about Grammar in Schools: policies, politics and pedagogies.  Several of the articles are available open-access to everyone.   For more details, see the next post.

Grammar in Schools: policies, politics and pedagogies

Our special issue Grammar in Schools: policies, politics and pedagogies is online and will shortly be in print. The three articles starred (*) below can be accessed freely by anyone, even if you are not (yet) a subscriber to the journal.

Ian Cushing writes in his editorial that post-2010 policies in England’s schools are driven by deficit-orientated notions of “raising standards” and “closing gaps” which fail to recognise the linguistic dexterity and creativity that students – and teachers – bring to school with them. A range of international writers discuss issues of grammar in physical and online spaces, highlighting the agency of teachers as innovative practitioners but also the ways in which linguistic knowledge is constrained and controlled by top-down policies.

John Hodgson and Ann Harris’ Make Grammar Great Again? * offers a genealogy of grammar policy in England’s schools. Tracing discourses about grammar from the eighteenth century through to the present day, the authors dispel the myth that there was ever a “golden age of grammar”, pointing to the deeply embedded, perpetual reach of the standard language ideology which has long worked to subjugate and silence non-standardised language practices.

Starting with the notion that varieties of English are arranged hierarchically in society, schools and the linguistic market, Ruanni Tupas’ Fostering translingual dispositions against Unequal Englishes presents a case study of a teacher in a Singapore classroom who “deploys strategies in subtle ways to address unequal Englishes to make the teaching and learning of English less harmful to students whose linguistic repertoires are undervalued – or suppressed – by the educational and political establishment”.

Ian Cushing and Marie Helks’ Exploring primary and secondary students’ experiences of grammar teaching and testing in England * shows how students reproduce narrow ideas about grammar focused on decontextualised rules and notions of correctness, despite their teachers claiming to resist this in their own pedagogies and approaches. Data also reveals how state-mandated grammar tests work as a de facto language policy in shaping students’ experiences, memories and perceptions of grammar.

Clara vaz Bauler’s Flipgrid netiquette: unearthing language ideologies in the remote learning era offers, for the first time, an account of language and body policing in digital environments, showing how teaching materials “fall into a continuum between creativity and control of students’ language choices and social behaviours”. The research is timely and highly applicable given the global shift to online learning as a result of Covid-19.

Debra Myhill’s Grammar Reimagined: foregrounding understanding of language choice in writing, * based on Myhill and her team’s rich history of research, argues for a re-imagining of “grammar” in which a curriculum is built on descriptive, critical knowledge about language and taught with pedagogies which have a clear purpose for grammar governed by choices and “what ifs?”. Central to this is “the importance of making connections for learners between a grammatical choice and how it subtly shapes or shifts meaning in their own piece of writing”.

Jamila Lyiscott’s poem Three ways to speak English provides a fitting conclusion to the special issue. The poem challenges the listening practices of white authoritative bodies such as teachers, professors and parents. Lyiscott shows us how she uses her linguistic creativity and deftness to interrogate the racialised and colonial ideologies of standardised English and the deficit conceptualisations of “articulacy” within these.  This poem was originally created as a spoken word piece. A video of Jamila performing the poem can be found at

English in Education

Issue 55:2 (April 2021) is now published online.

 Secondary Shakespeare in the UK: Velda Elliott asks teachers what governs their choice of Shakespeare plays

“Acting a Play Helped Me”: Caroline Powell works with year 8 pupils on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Teaching Self-critical Empathy: Omri Cohen’s IB students study The Tortilla Curtain and Half of a Yellow Sun

Three Readers of Ibsen: students discuss A Doll’s House as undergraduates and seven years after their university study

Howling at the Scrabble-Board: a trainee teacher’s “autistic lens” gives her reading a strong affective component

Literary Theory across Genre Chains: Robert LeBlanc shows how a senior high school student develops her understanding of literary theory over three weeks in relation to her study of Albert Camus’ short story The Guest

Experiencing Fictional Worlds : Jessica Mason explores recent research on reading fiction and cognition

Taking on the work of Margaret Meek Spencer: call for papers for a special issue in summer 2022

Print copies of this issue will reach NATE members and international subscribers early next month. To join NATE, follow links on the right of the screen or contact

Write for English in Education: upcoming special issues

Next year (2022) English in Education will feature two special issues:  Poetry (Issue 1, February) and Margaret Meek Spencer (Issue 3, August).    We invite contributions for both, as well as for the general issues in May and November.  Please read on for details of both issues and how you can contribute.

Issue 1: Poetry

Edited by Gary Snapper and Julie Blake

We invite contributors to submit papers for a special edition of English in Education focusing on the teaching of poetry and its role in the curriculum and beyond.

We encourage both academics and classroom practitioners to submit papers, and hope to feature a range of approaches to researching and teaching poetry, including exploration of:

  • texts and pedagogies which are associated with successful and inspirational practice
  • continuing debates about the nature of poetry’s place in and beyond the curriculum
  • historical perspectives on the teaching of poetry

Some of the questions we hope that this edition of the journal might touch upon include:

* What kinds of poetry pedagogy – texts and approaches – are effective?

*What do we hope to achieve through the teaching of poetry?

* What are the implications of recent approaches to poetry focused on memory and performance, and how can these be successfully deployed?

* To what extent does our poetry curriculum allow for diverse and multicultural approaches, and encompass the broader popular culture worlds of verse, rhythm and song?

*  What kind of ‘knowledge about poetry’ do we need to teach?

* How do we allow teachers to develop the specialised knowledge of and enthusiasm for poetry which is needed to teach it effectively?

* What is the role of ‘personal response’ in students’ work on poetry?

* To what extent are perceptions of poetry as beneficial in times of crisis helpful?

* Do we have the right balance between creative and critical approaches to poetry?

* To what extent is the view that poetry is a problematic element of the curriculum helpful?

* How do we evaluate the privileged place accorded to poetry in an English curriculum which has radically de-privileged aspects such as literary non-fiction, film and media study, and ‘knowledge about language’?

* What is the relationship between poetry, examinations, and assessment?

* How has poetry fared in the growing high stakes assessment culture?

Please prepare your submission in line with the journal’s guidelines for authors, available here:   Submissions should be made via our ScholarOne site,,  by 7 May 2021.   Please select the correct ‘Special Issue’ as the Manuscript Type.  To discuss a possible contribution, please email or

Issue 3: Margaret Meek Spencer

Edited by Judith Graham and Colin Mills

Our retrospective on Margaret Meek (English in Education 54:3) reflected on her writing and lecturing from 1948 until 2013 and her extraordinary influence on learning in English and literacy. For this special issue, we invite articles that are prospective, reporting on research and/or practice or critiquing work in the field of literacy and English teaching and learning.  What does her work offer today, in a very different context of schooling and teacher training (a word she resisted)?  We use the term ‘taking her work on’ in a double sense of arguing with or against her ideas.  ‘Am I right?’ is a question she’d often ask in lectures or tutorials. Also, ‘taking on’ covers the sense of developing her ideas to meet challenges that she could not have imagined, or which came after her time.

Articles might address some of the themes that Margaret worked on throughout her life:

  • the learning and teaching of reading and writing
  • literature for children and the power of texts
  • information books – what she resisted calling ‘non-fiction’
  • ‘cultural’ and multicultural perspectives on literacy and new literacies
  • teachers’ learning, both professional and personal

Papers may start with pieces that she wrote, contributors re-reading these in the light of today’s challenges. The concept of ‘redescription’ was one close to her heart. We don’t want to (and here we quote Margaret) ‘trammel what you want to do by the language we use to describe what we’d like to see’. But, we will, if you wish, suggest a paper, chapter or book of Margaret’s, from which to start, develop, ‘redescribe’.We’d be happy to receive draft completed articles (between 4,000 and 6,000 words) by 31st January 2022.  We want the process to be as inclusive as possible and will give full and constructive feedback.

The FINAL date for submissions will be 31st March 2022.   Submissions should be made via our ScholarOne site: Please select the correct ‘Special Issue’ as the Manuscript Type.  Please prepare your submission in line with the journal’s guidelines for authors, available here:  All submissions will be anonymously peer-reviewed.   Please contact us at any time:

Sociable English

Photograph: Hermione Hodgson

The Spring issue of English in Education – shortly be published online at – reminds us of the sociability that is at the heart of English.  

The primary school students in Tom Dobson’s study of collaborative writing produce a publishable fiction text for their imagined ideal reader, a person of their own age.  

Sue Wilson explores the way 10 and 11 year olds in Australian schools discuss picture-books about social, cultural and environmental issues.

Ghazal Kazim Syed and Amanda Naylor set up an online reading community of students in the UK and Norway.   The students discovered ways in which different cultural contexts affected their reading of shared novels.

Lucinda Knight’s paper “Since Feeling is First” describes an experiential workshop approach in which students learn to write paragraphs collaboratively without immediate recourse to formulaic models.

Of course, isolation and silence are also part of student experience.  In his poem “Silent Rambling in an Examination Hall”, Debasish Mishra acutely and ironically observes what is commonly taken to be, in more than one sense, the end of education: terminal examination.  

Shannon Wells and Brian Moon present an analytical model to examine the content of classroom textbooks.  They find that the predominant emphasis is on language and rhetoric, but ethical and social analysis often impinges upon rhetorical study.

In the Reviews section of this issue, Velda Elliott celebrates the multitudinous nature of English Language studies, while I find joy in John Richmond’s compilation of writings by Harold Rosen, who claimed that the social context is the drama of life. 

Do get in touch if you have ideas for an article or poem about teaching English. 

John Hodgson

Catching up with English in Education

The road to publication

English in Education is running out of space. We’ve had so many good articles, poems and reviews over recent months that the print edition is lagging behind online publication. Fortunately, the next three issues will accommodate most of the backlog.  If you want to write for English in Education, remember that brevity is the soul of it.  

The autumn 2020 issue focuses on student and teacher experience of English Education in the UK, South Africa, Australia and USA.

Francis Hult’s poem Perseverance will resonate with committed teachers everywhere. 

In the research articles:

Rebecca Lefroy finds that English students prefer audio to written feedback

Edward Collyer and colleagues discover the advantages of collaborative lesson planning

Peter Misiri and Ansurie Pillay check teachers’ grammar

Jim Hill helps pre-service teachers cope with conflicts between theory and practice

Margaret Merga asks Australian teachers how they work with struggling students

Call for papers:

Julie Blake and Gary Snapper invite articles and poems for a special edition on poetry.

To view the latest articles, go to

Expertise in English teaching – Summer 2020 special issue of English in Education

Margaret Meek SpencerMargaret Meek Spencer at the Institute of Education in 1988.   Photo by Sally Greenhill

Colin Mills and Judith Graham’s tribute to Margaret Meek Spencer heads the forthcoming special issue of English in Education on English Teaching and Teacher Expertise. Edited by Andy Goodwyn, the special issue also includes:

A comparative study of the experience of teachers in Australia and England by Andy Goodwyn and Kerry O’Sullivan

Bethan Marshall and Simon Gibbons’ account of the practices and constraints of English teachers in Ontario compared to those of teachers in England

A striking report by Sue Pinnick on the experience of English teachers as mentors

A major survey of Australian teachers’ strategies for supporting struggling literacy learners, by Margaret Merga and colleagues

Laura Thomas’ account of an intervention in a London school to improve the knowledge and writing of SEND students

A visionary exploration of reading in the post-digital age: the future of literature in secondary classrooms, by Larissa McClean Davies and colleagues

John Hodgson’s review of How to Teach Grammar, by Bas Aarts, Ian Cushing & Dick Hudson

Several of the articles are already published online at Members will receive the print copy of the journal in the post within the next few weeks.


English in Education May 2020 (issue 2)


All the articles in this issue relate to reading: reading the world and the word.  They explore the meaning of authentic reading and experience. 

Theresa Gooda’s poem Question Time evokes an authentic classroom experience. The teacher’s challenge ”Well?” attempts to assert her authority and to open an exchange of ideas, but the word hangs in the air and the students “drown collectively in the silence”.

Claire Lawrence examines trainee teachers’ internal conflict between the value of “authentic” reading and the demands of external assessment. She presents a case study of their responses to a exemplar poetry lesson that attempts to encourage an authentic rather than manufactured response.  

Ian Cushing discusses a way of exploring literary texts by means of a grammar that builds upon what students already know about the world.  Readers’ responses to the text are authentic but shaped by their growing understanding of the language of the text, and anchored to this understanding.  

Louise Chapman investigates the reading lives of 23 female students at a single sex school in the south-east of England.  Many of her respondents regard print novels as boring, but in their reading logs they extend the concept of reading to include social media including video bloggers.

Mark Dressman and Dingxin Rao examine three theoretical formulations of reading. They give examples of teaching and learning situations where none of the three traditional paradigms is adequate to the interpretive work required. A savvy reader, the authors conclude, will find the stories both in and of texts.  

Chin Ee Loh, Baoqi Sun and Shaheen Majid conduct a large study of the reading preferences of nearly 5000 Singaporean students. They find that gendered differences in enjoyment of such genres as horror, science fiction and fantasy are quite small; student enjoyment and quantity of reading are related most importantly to socio-economic background.  

Alexa Muse asks Turkish and international students of English in a school in Ankara to explore the contexts of their learning by means of several pieces of autobiographical writing and a photography project.   The students gain critical awareness of the worlds both around them and within them. 

Finally, Simon Gibbons’ review of Paul Tarpey’s book Developing Professional Memory: A Case Study of London English Teaching 1965–1975 reminds us of the years of rich development in theory and practice that formed the basis of much of the work recorded in the 57 year history of this journal.

Members of NATE have free access to the online journal.  The print edition is suspended at present.  If you have any difficulties or queries, contact me at

Multilingualism & English education

As Rachael Gilmour writes in her editorial to the first issue this year of English in Education (54/1), multilingual English is not a new phenomenon. The ‘standard language’ of English has always operated alongside other languages and other varieties of English; this is more than ever the case in our super-diverse present. This issue offers insights into contemporary multilingual English teaching at every level, with a strong emphasis on creativity.

In their article Los pájaros are feliz and are dreaming about gwiazdy, Karina Lickorish Quinn and Catherine Barbour discuss a translingual creative writing project with lower key stage two children in a London school.

In The Art of Belonging, Sarah Hirsch and Vicky MacIeroy describe a spoken world and digital storytelling project involving students in a multilingual London secondary school. Emphasising the need to begin from students’ own linguistic and social worlds they discuss the difficulties they encountered the difference between their own linguistic, social and cultural perspectives on those of their students.

Meghan Kuckelman and Sylvia Dobkowska turn to EFL teaching, showing how English poetry can be taught in Japan through the interpretive practices of Butо̄, a contemporary Japanese form of dance and visual art.

In Multilingual Communication under the Radar, Christina Fashanu, Elizabeth Wood and Mark Payne demonstrate ways in which young children in a primary school in the north of England experiment with their own agency to employ different kinds of language, and learn – notably, from one another – about the rules and stakes of linguistic conformity.

This issue contains further articles and reviews. It is is now online and members should have received their print edition earlier this month.

Sabisky, Eugenics, and Me

This post by Disappointed Idealist joins some of the dots that have been preoccupying me recently. I’ve been working with colleagues on a paper about why many students are turning away from English studies, which used to be one of the most popular subjects on the curriculum. Part of the reason for this, as the following post shows, is the view of education, students and “ability” which makes school itself an unhappy place for many students – and their teachers