Grammar at School

Research on Metalinguistic Activity in Language Education

by Teresa Ribas (Volume editor) Xavier Fontich (Volume editor) Oriol Guash-Boyé (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 290 Pages
Series: GRAMM-R, Volume 23


The studies presented in this book argue that exploring the grammatical system outside the communicative flow enables students to develop clearer knowledge of this system and to become more effective in their language use.
This approach is the outcome of research revolving around the role of metalinguistic knowledge in learning how to write. According to this research, language use and metalinguistic activity are interdependent.
The international debate on the effect of grammar instruction on writing skills has been dominated by an overly causal approach which ignores core considerations such as the teaching procedures that we use to reflect upon the grammar system in the classroom and the way we conceptualise this system.
This book highlights the need to encourage students to engage in metalinguistic activity, in which verbalisation and data manipulation should play a key role. It also emphasises the importance of conceptualising the grammar system as an organic entity resulting from the integration of form, meaning and the intention of the speaker.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Grammar study at school: Theoretical underpinning
  • Teaching and learning first and additional languages
  • Psycho-pedagogical and psycholinguistic studies
  • Linguistic studies
  • An instructional model
  • The research approach: Observations and perspectives
  • Regarding schoolchildren’s knowledge of grammar
  • Regarding the kind of reasoning that is accessible to students
  • Regarding epistemological questions
  • Regarding the Grammar Instructional Sequences model
  • This volume
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Metalinguistic activity in language learning
  • Introduction
  • The concept of “metalinguistic”
  • Metalinguistic activity in written composition processes
  • The grammar concepts of secondary school students
  • Towards grammar teaching models based on metalinguistic reflection
  • a) Obstacles related to the object of knowledge and its structure
  • b) Obstacles related to the teaching processes, that is, methodological obstacles
  • c) Obstacles related to the ways of reasoning that are accessible to students
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Working on grammar at school
  • General overview. Focusing on the problem of teaching grammar
  • Grammar and language
  • Didactic transposition
  • An intervention model to work on grammar at school
  • Grammar instructional sequences (GIS)
  • Motivation / Objective / Situated purpose
  • Importance of the process
  • Collaboration (diversity of interests)
  • Language as a mediating instrument
  • Formative assessment / Learning
  • GISs to communicate
  • GISs to be aware of the language system and its use
  • GISs to analyse language use
  • In conclusion
  • References
  • Evaluative analysis of the instructional approach to studying syntactic coordination in ten secondary school textbooks
  • Introduction
  • Theoretical framework
  • Methodology
  • Analysis and results
  • A. Analysis of the textbooks’ explicit approaches
  • 1) Kind of definition of coordination provided in the books (semantic, syntactic and/or morphological)
  • 2) Kind of identification provided in the books of the five kinds of coordination (copulative, disjunctive, adversative, explanatory and distributive)
  • 3) Inclusion of controversies or debates from linguistic theories in the definitions
  • Evaluative conclusions of section A
  • B. Analysis of the definitions and the examples used in the instructional explanations, with a comparative study between the examples and the real usage of coordination in the instructional texts themselves
  • 1) How the textbooks define copulative coordination
  • 2) Contrastive analysis between the examples cited in the instructional explanation and the real usages of copulative coordination from the definitions in the books
  • C. Alternative proposal for working with the materials available in the textbooks
  • 1) Criteria of the proposal
  • 2) Instructional proposal
  • Conclusions and discussion
  • References
  • Appendix 1. List of the textbooks analysed
  • Appendix 2. Tables of analyses of definitions
  • Appendix 3. Table analysing the nuances and controversies in the definitions
  • Appendix 4. Tables analysing examples and real usage (copulative coordination)
  • Appendix 5. Original text in Spanish. Maleducar y mal-tratar
  • Verb tenses in primary school textbooks
  • Introduction
  • Objectives and research questions
  • The theoretical framework
  • The grammatical notions in the textbooks
  • Teaching verb tenses in primary school
  • Verb tenses in two pedagogical grammars
  • Grammaire pour enseigner (Vargas, 1999)
  • Pour enseigner la grammaire (Tomassone, 1996)
  • The textbook study
  • Space, organisation and content of the grammar section within each unit
  • Description of the sections on verbs and verb tenses
  • Description of the contents on verb tenses
  • (a) Declarative information
  • (b) The semantic information
  • (c) The formal information
  • Description of the activities on verb tenses
  • Kinds of activities
  • Presentation of the activities
  • Final comments and considerations to be borne in mind when dealing with verb tenses in textbooks
  • Considerations that should be taken into account regarding how verb tenses are dealt with in textbooks
  • References
  • The use of metalinguistic terms in writing activities in early primary school classrooms
  • Introduction
  • Objectives and research questions
  • Theoretical framework
  • Methodology
  • Source of the data
  • Data analysis
  • Results
  • School A
  • Grammatical terminology used by the teacher and students
  • Other terms and other strategies used by the teacher
  • Verbalisations which promote grammar reflection
  • School B
  • Grammatical terminology used by the teacher and the children
  • Other terms and other strategies used by the teacher
  • Verbalisations which promote grammar reflection
  • Conclusions
  • (1) Does the teacher use grammatical terms in situations in which language is being discussed?
  • (4) What grammatical elements are discussed the most often?
  • (2) How do the terms arise? Does the teacher introduce the grammatical terms or do they come from the children’s questions?
  • (3) What information does the teacher provide on the grammatical terms when this arises?
  • (5) In what cases does the term word replace a specific grammatical term?
  • (6) When the teacher is asked explicitly to use metalanguage in text correction, what metalanguage does she use?
  • References
  • The notion of verb mood in students in compulsory secondary education
  • Starting point
  • Theoretical framework
  • Metalinguistic activity and teaching grammar
  • The subjunctive mood: A ball of yarn with many layers wound together
  • Methodology
  • Design and implementation of the study
  • Data processing and analysis
  • Results and discussion
  • Students’ knowledge of the subjunctive: Relationships between knowledge of use and conceptualisation
  • a. Interpretation of the sentences
  • b. The pragmatic criterion in the construction of meaning
  • c. Judgements of ungrammaticality: From use to reflection on use
  • d. Multiplicity of criteria
  • e. Attention to form
  • f. Description of verb mood: The construction of the notion
  • Metalinguistic activity in a language reflection task
  • a. The influence of instructional intervention on the emergence of students’ metalinguistic activity
  • b. The levels of metalinguistic activity
  • The construction of metalinguistic discourse and the use of metalanguage
  • Implications of the results
  • References
  • “When does that happen?” Recognition of the retrospective usage of the present tense among primary school students
  • Introduction
  • Theoretical framework of the research: From linguistics to language teaching
  • Linguistics
  • Teaching
  • Design and methodology of the research
  • Results
  • Course of the conversations in the 3rd grade pairs
  • Example 1: Semantic manipulation
  • Example 2: Morphological fragility
  • Course of the conversations in the 6th grade pairs
  • World knowledge strategy
  • Semantic strategy
  • Morphological strategy
  • Metalinguistic strategy
  • Conclusions
  • Classroom implications
  • References
  • Reflexive knowledge of the past tenses in Spanish
  • Introduction
  • Spontaneous and formal uses of past verb tenses in Spanish
  • A model of classroom intervention for instructional research
  • The macro-context of the study. A GIS on past verb tenses
  • The micro-context of the study: From conceptualisation to reflective use
  • Task 4: A poster
  • Tasks 5 and 7: Writing a story on a life experience
  • The data
  • The tasks analysed
  • The perspective of analysis
  • Results and discussion
  • Conceptualisation: Achievements and difficulties when explaining the past verb tenses (Task 4: Making an explanatory poster)
  • The reflective use of the verb tenses: The importance of revision (Tasks 5 and 7: Writing and revising a story on a life experience)
  • Text analysis (product)
  • Analysis of the interactions (process)
  • Interactions during the planning phase of the story
  • Interactions during the revision
  • Final conclusions: Teaching grammar and the reflective use of language
  • (1) What are students’ achievements and obstacles when conceptualising the past verb tenses?
  • (2) Under what conditions does this conceptualisation enable them to improve their writing?
  • (3) In what kind of metalinguistic activity do the students engage?
  • (4) What kind of instructional mediation fosters students’ metalinguistic reflection?
  • References
  • Grammar and language reflection at school: Checking out the whats and the hows of grammar instruction
  • Introduction
  • Research question
  • The contents of grammar teaching
  • Teaching grammar: Morphosyntax and beyond
  • A new approach to grammar contents
  • Grammar teaching methodology
  • Teacher-guided induction and speaking in the classroom
  • Speaking in the classroom to learn grammar, as well
  • Speaking to be understood: The importance of finding common ground
  • The need for grammar contents and teaching procedures to be interrelated
  • A grammar learning sequence based on oral interaction and a functional perspective of the grammar contents
  • Grammar learning objective: “The verb is the core of the sentence”
  • Learning target linked to interaction: Reflecting on grammar together
  • Task: To identify the parts of the sentence
  • Analysis procedure
  • Analysis and results
  • Dialogue 1: “En l’ecologisme? Hi crec bastant” (Ecologism? I believe quite a lot in it)
  • Analysis of the interaction
  • Analysis of the metalinguistic content
  • Dialogue 2: “Dalí va pintar aquell retrat de Lincoln” (Dalí painted that portrait of Lincoln)
  • Analysis of the interaction
  • Analysis of the metalinguistic content
  • Conclusions
  • Implications: Grammar study as part of language education
  • References
  • Authors
  • Scientific Board
  • Published Books

| 9 →



University of Exeter

In many educational jurisdictions, the word ‘grammar’ is a byword for debate and controversy, and this debate has been long-lived. In general, however, this is a debate which has rarely ventured beyond rather politicised and sometimes polemical arguments about the role of grammar in the curriculum. In Anglophone jurisdictions particularly, the concept of grammar has been crudely associated with surface accuracy in writing, with control, and with social propriety. As a consequence of this long-running and impoverished debate, there has been limited high-quality research and theoretical thinking about grammar, learning and teaching.

This book is a major contribution to addressing this historical deficit.

Significantly, this book takes as its foundation stone the concept of metalinguistic activity, which immediately foregrounds both the core theoretical idea upon which thinking about grammar in school should be founded and the core pedagogical principle, developing metalinguistic understanding, which should underpin thinking about the teaching of grammar. It eschews the debate about grammar and focuses on the more substantive issue of generating deeper understanding of how children and young people become metalinguistically active.

The authors adopt a socio-cultural view of language and grammar, one which has substantial affinities with Halliday’s theorisations of language, the emphasis on the importance of context, and his view of grammar as ‘abstract semiosis’, the way we make meaning with language. Grammar is therefore a semiotic mediating tool and as learners develop knowledge about language, they are increasingly able to think grammatically about language. Crucially, this book grapples with how children learn, not merely the labelling of words with grammatical terminology, but the abstract thinking required for rich metalinguistic understanding. Linked to this, the authors signal the importance of talk in fostering and enriching that understanding. Drawing on the dialogic tradition, they emphasise how learning and ownership of abstract thinking only occurs when young ← 9 | 10 → learners can discuss grammatical ideas and re-frame them in their own words. The book also addresses the teaching of grammar and explores the inter-relationship between what teachers teach and what children learn about language, a relationship which is not always symbiotic.

This book, therefore, is a substantial and welcome contribution to the field, pushing boundaries of theoretical and pedagogical understanding of grammar and metalinguistic development, and revealing a landscape ripe for further research in this important area.

| 11 →


Teresa RIBAS, Xavier FONTICH and Oriol GUASCH

Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB)

The authors of the different articles compiled in this volume are the researchers from GREAL (Grup de Recerca sobre Ensenyament i Aprenentatge de Llengües)1 at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain). We are interested in the process of teaching and learning writing skills and their relationship with grammar. An initial interest in writing skills led the group to focus on discursive genres, contexts of writing composition, formative evaluation and the interplay between L1 and L2 writing skills. Based on the results of our research, this initial interest gradually shifted towards the metalinguistic activity that emerges from language in use and towards students’ grammatical knowledge. These results showed that students had a remarkable lack of metalinguistic capability, despite the strong tradition of grammar instruction in Spain over recent decades. What is more, these results dovetailed with those of studies conducted in other countries.

The group’s current interest so far focuses on students’ grammar concepts and metalinguistic activity. We have thus joined an international trend concerned with the fact that adopting a constructivist and sociocultural stance may help learners through a wider and more contingent array of pedagogic strategies. Broadening the field has opened up a new avenue of research in a twofold sense: research into writing skills and research into how metalinguistic activity can enhance these skills.

The international debate on the effect/lack of effect of grammar instruction on writing skills has been dominated by a far too causal rationale that has ignored core considerations such as the teaching procedures that we use to reflect upon the grammar system in the classroom and the way we conceptualise this system. The chapters of this book highlight the need to engage students in metalinguistic activity, in which verbalisation and ← 11 | 12 → data manipulation should play a core role. These chapters also highlight the importance of conceptualising the grammar system as an organic entity resulting from the integration of form, meaning and speakers’ intentions.

These studies are based on the following idea: giving a functional value to grammatical knowledge is not incompatible with studying the grammatical system itself. We believe that studying the grammatical system outside what we could call “the communicative flow” enables students to develop more orderly knowledge on this system and use language more effectively. As noted, this approach is the outcome of an avenue of research revolving around the role of metalinguistic knowledge when learning how to write. The studies that fit within this avenue have found that language use and metalinguistic activity are interdependent.

Grammatical knowledge requires a systematic approach that makes it possible to create coherent frameworks into which declarative and procedural knowledge on how language works can be organised. If grammar is only approached according to language use, the difficulty of getting students to develop these frameworks has been amply proven. This underscores the fact that mastery of these uses is impossible without a reflective capacity on language systems and how they can be used. In this sense, we have started with the idea that knowledge of the system is essential in the linguistic training of schoolchildren, who are immersed in a society that requires increasingly sophisticated language use.

In the lines that follow we wish to briefly describe GREAL’s avenue of research, within which the studies in this volume have been conducted. First, we briefly describe its theoretical underpinning and then we briefly explore the classroom intervention model designed based on this theoretical underpinning. Thirdly, we summarise the research group’s approach as well as offer several observations and perspectives. And finally, we briefly summarise each of the chapters in this volume. We shall conclude this introduction with a reference to GREAL’s focal points of interest today.

Grammar study at school: Theoretical underpinning

The GREAL research group, the origin of the studies presented in this volume, focuses on three areas: language teaching and learning, psycho-pedagogical and psycholinguistic studies, and linguistic studies.

Teaching and learning first and additional languages

The paradigm shift that has guided first and second language education in recent years has been accompanied by abundant research on the processes and results of verbal production and comprehension activities. This research has stressed the importance of metalinguistic ← 12 | 13 → concepts in this process. However, it has not come hand in hand with a precise definition of the influence of these concepts on language use. In Spain, numerous instructional experiments conducted as part of the revamped curriculum in the 1990s revealed the possibilities as well as the limitations of occasional grammatical teaching related solely to language uses, with barely any attention paid to the integration and systematisation of the grammar contents and lessons.

Research opens up new ways of considering the relationship between language use and systematic knowledge of the forms implicit in this use. In the field of additional languages, the limitations of the communicative paradigm have led us to reconsider the role of explicit grammar (Bialystok, 2001; Doughty and Williams, 1998; Swain, 2000; Ellis, 2006). However, this position has been received unevenly in first-language teaching, in which the debate on the usefulness of grammar instruction is still ongoing (Locke, 2010). Some issues that have barely been studied include how we can help learners integrate the different grammatical knowledge inherent in all the different languages they are learning, and how grammar instruction influences the use of the written language.

Psycho-pedagogical and psycholinguistic studies

First of all, our research fits within sociocultural theory (Vygotsky, 1986, 1978) and the study of metalinguistic activity. From this vantage point, grammar learning is envisioned as a process that takes place within human activity. Human beings conceptualise the objects in the world through language. Given that language itself is one of these objects, from their earliest years of life humans are involved in an activity that entails conceptualising language through language: they are involved in a metalinguistic activity. Based on the pioneering studies on metalinguistic development (Culioli, 1990; Gombert, 1990; Karmiloff-Smith, 1992) and on Vygotsky’s ideas about spontaneous and scientific concepts, Camps and Milian (2000) believe that metalinguistic activity is manifested along a continuum of various levels: procedural, verbalised using spontaneous language, and verbalised using scientific language.

Secondly, within the framework of studies on classroom interaction, one important concept is “exploratory talk” (Mercer, 2000). It is described as collaborative reasoning among learners and is viewed as an instrument that enables knowledge to be constructed jointly. Swain (2000) speaks about “collaborative dialogue” to refer to the model of classroom interaction which enables metalinguistic reasoning to be used when teaching additional languages. Based on this, our research aims to explore alternative methodologies to traditional grammar teaching, which bear in mind how individual reasoning on language takes place within a specific social context. ← 13 | 14 →

Thirdly, there are a large number of studies that show the obstacles and difficulties learners face when constructing grammatical knowledge. These studies also stress the lack of evolution of grammatical concepts throughout schooling (Fisher, 1996; Myhill, 2000; Camps et al., 2001; Notario, 2001; Gonzalvo and Camps, 2003; Martin, 2000). Our research revisits the pioneering studies conducted in the 1980s (Kilcher-Hagedorn et al., 1987).

Fourthly, studies on processes of abstraction reveal the different levels of abstraction involved in the different forms that language knowledge can take. These forms are reflected in different levels of metalinguistic activity. Some of these studies revolve around the use and knowledge of languages (Laks, 1996), while others are oriented at proposals for teaching these same processes of abstraction (Barth, 2001).

Finally, in recent decades a large number of studies have adopted and developed an emergentist view of grammar according to language usage (Tomasello, 2003) and a sociocultural and functional vision of language study (Bernárdez, 2008). These studies have shown the potential of research and the potential for learning to adopt a view of language linked to the ways speakers use it.

Linguistic studies

From the field of linguistics we wish to stress two general orientations that enable us to address language teaching using integrative approaches. First, the theoretical frameworks of discourse analysis and the confluence of different avenues of research in this field are becoming consolidated (Charolles, Le Goffic and Morel, 2002). In this sense, teachers and instructors should contribute to establishing a certain consensus on useful contents for teaching the grammar of text and discourse (Bronckart, 2008).

Secondly, the approaches to studying syntax are diversifying, which comes with higher mastery that also includes semantics and pragmatics (Pennington, 2002; Larsen-Freeman, 2003; Combettes, 2007). The contributions of functional grammar (Martin, 2000) and cognitive grammar (Cuenca and Hilferty, 1999; Taylor, 2002) help to shed light on the need to shade solely formal approaches to studying the system in the classroom and instead to bear in mind the individual’s process of conceptualising the world and how this can help them to better understand grammar learning processes. In this sense, the importance of reviving certain approaches from contrastive linguistics (Candelier, 2003) has come to the fore, not to prevent errors but to help learners to progress based on the relationships between different subsystems, either between different languages or within the system of a single language. ← 14 | 15 →

An instructional model

The theoretical framework we have sketched above, which is complex and apparently diverse, converges in the approach underpinning our model of language teaching. Our group has been conducting research on this model for the past two decades (Camps, 1996; Camps and Ferrer, 2000; Camps et al., 2005; Milian, 2005; Fontich, 2006; Ribas, 2010; Guasch, 2010; Milian, 2012). We would like to stress three of its fundamental features.

The first is the quest for ways to overcome strictly formal approaches to the contents of grammar teaching. This means developing a pedagogical grammar that is oriented towards language use and reflects on this use. This possible pedagogical grammar reflects a model with a semantic and pragmatic base in which grammar teaching is expanded to areas like the sentence, pragmatics and the text, and attention is expanded to the contributions of functional grammars. The model is also based on adopting a variationist, translinguistic perspective based on the contrast of different languages and different subsystems within the same language (such as between dialects).

The second is making both notions on languages and the use of these notions as well as procedures for reflecting on language the target of grammar teaching. This is based on the idea that there are close ties between grammatical concepts and studying and reflecting procedures, and that the latter are not merely an unimportant, superficial part of the way language is perceived and language knowledge is constructed.

The third involves basing the core of grammar teaching on two features. The first feature is learners’ actions towards the teaching and learning target (that is, on the language system and its uses), action that is always oriented at developing some kind of end product (a text, reference materials, guidelines for revision, etc.), and the second feature is dialogue in the classroom as a generator of reflective activity.

These criteria lie at the base of the proposed instructional sequences for learning grammar that make up a hypothetical model of instructional intervention and research: Grammar Instructional Sequence (GIS).

First, with regard to the instructional intervention, it seeks to encourage students to reflect on grammar. To achieve this objective, it creates a teaching-learning space that influences the students’ zone of proximal development. The interventions that follow this model are not the outcome of a simple sum of individual activities whose organisation determines that students simply have to respond to the logic of the contents or exercises on use with a single answer. To the contrary, the activities are a set of tasks integrated into a unit of meaning for students. This unit in ← 15 | 16 → turn reflects two objectives: one linked to the sequence of activities (what students have to do, what end product they should make) and a learning objective (what they should learn by doing this activity).

Secondly, with regard to research, the sequences enable us to focus on different parts of students’ processes. Here, research can access data generated in natural classroom situations in order to extract language from the incessant flow of communication and be able to reflect on it and endow it with meaning according to the setting in which it was generated. The knowledge generated by this research will be deflected back to reality in the guise of a better understanding of the problems students face when learning grammar and new approaches to redefine the instructional model.

The research approach: Observations and perspectives

The GREAL group’s research on the GIS (Grammar Instructional Sequence) model has followed two complementary pathways. The first was observation and analysis of its use in classrooms. This was in some respects coincidental, as is common to action research. The sequences in the experiments were designed and implemented in primary and secondary classrooms in real teaching and learning situations, with the cooperation of the teachers in charge of these situations and with the goal of developing instructional proposals for teaching grammar. The second pathway was to provide a more detailed description of students’ processes of building metalinguistic knowledge. The research on these processes took into account the design and preparation of the activities, as well as their implementation, with the focus on student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction. The results of this research have helped to fine-tune the design of the interventions.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
Language use Verbalisation Conceptualisation Linguistics
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 290 pp., 9 graphs, 84 tables

Biographical notes

Teresa Ribas (Volume editor) Xavier Fontich (Volume editor) Oriol Guash-Boyé (Volume editor)

Teresa Ribas is a professor in the Department of Language, Literature and Social Sciences Education at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain). Her research interests focus on dynamic assessment in the writing process, grammar instruction and writing composition skills and teacher education. Xavier Fontich, a part-time lecturer in the Department of Language, Literature, and Social Sciences Didactics at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (2005-2014) and a Secondary Education teacher in Barcelona (Spain); visiting researcher (2014-2016) at the University of Exeter (UK). His doctoral dissertation focused on analysing the effects of classroom interaction for grammar learning. Oriol Guasch is a professor in the Department of Language, Literature, and Social Sciences Education at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain). His main research interests focus on the role of L1 on L2 communicative skills, metalinguistic activity and language education in multilingual settings.


Title: Grammar at School
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