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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Accessing grammar in senior secondary English: a Victorian exemplar

Jean Mulder
Caroline Thomas
Dr Jean Mulder is Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. Ms Caroline Thomas has been teaching English and ESL for over thirty years. Both authors have been actively involved with the development and implementation of VCE English Language since its inception.

This article summarises the authors' paper presented at the 2009 Bridging Divides conference. A version of this paper has also been published in English in Australia 44:2.

This paper argues that an educationally meaningful approach to the teaching and learning of grammar within English involves incorporating both a diverse range of knowledge and awareness about language and contextualising it within actual language use and real-world texts. In rethinking approaches to grammar, we contend that it is important not to 'chuck out' present teaching approaches with their emphasis on language as communication, but to combine the explicit teaching of grammar with the study of language, and to ensure that each grammatical concept is introduced within the context of a particular aspect of language use.

This article summarises a paper presented at the recent Bridging Divides conference, which examines VCE English Language, part of the senior secondary English syllabus in Victoria. VCE English Language bridges the study of grammar and the study of English texts and serves as an example of how grammar can be taught meaningfully.

Conceptualising grammar

One of the motivations behind local and global calls to renew the teaching of grammar in schools is to improve students' ability to write and speak clearly and effectively. However, the assumption that the study of grammar will improve language use has not been established in the research literature. Indeed, the lack of positive research support was a major factor in the widespread abandonment of traditional school grammar from the English curriculum throughout the USA, Britain, Australia and New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s (see, for example, Elley et al 1975; Hudson & Walmsley 2005).

Yet the failure of formal approaches to the study of grammar to produce improved performance in language use can be at least partially attributed to the particular conceptualisation of grammar and the grammar teaching practices that were then in place. Within a traditional or classical approach, grammar is typically taken to mean the correct usage of language as specified by a set of prescriptive rules. While potentially helpful when considering formal written texts, such a view has little to offer when approaching a wider range of spoken and written texts of varying levels of formality.

The concept that learning grammar means mastering a set of rules has created an emphasis on decontextualised rote learning rather than on applying grammatical understanding to actual instances of language use across a range of situations.

We argue instead that the teaching of grammar should centre on the analysis of actually occurring texts. Such an approach moves beyond notions of the correct usage of grammar, and incorporates a diverse range of awareness about language in order to develop students' language skills. It involves viewing grammar as a description of language as a system. Grammar and, more broadly, language description provide a rich framework for taking texts apart in order to see the ways in which we can communicate effectively in a range of situations and for a range of purposes.

This requires a richer metalanguage for talking about language and communication in general than is found in traditional school grammar. At the same time, as studies by Huddleston (1989), Collins et al. (1997) and Horn (2003) have found – and our own experiences have corroborated  –  wherever appropriate, we need to take steps to build upon, rather than replace, the metalanguage of traditional grammar, which is the traditional metalanguage almost universally held by teachers when describing English.

The subject VCE English Language

VCE English Language provides an example of how grammar can be taught meaningfully. Informed by the discipline of linguistics, it bridges the study of grammar and the study of English texts by combining a systematic exploration of the English language with the development of skills in the linguistic description and analysis of a diverse range of spoken and written English texts ranging from spontaneous informal conversation to established written literature. 

VCE English Language, seen as a means to offer additional choices and alternatives in English studies at senior years level, has shown steady yearly increases in enrolments and school provision since its introduction in 2001. Interviews conducted by the authors with VCE English Language teachers and former students indicate that it appeals to students who prefer to take a more analytical approach to a subject, who like to deal with communication as it applies to the real world, and to those who have an interest in language and how it works. Students and teachers also highlight the subject's engagement with real life issues of communication and their ability to transfer skills learnt to other subjects and contexts as being key to their enjoyment of the subject.

While English Language has a general focus on developing language literacy through a variety of contexts in which language is used, it also has a distinctive focus on the development of knowledge about the English language itself. Students learn a metalanguage and a range of analytic and descriptive tools for studying language. This enables them to explore language in a variety of contexts, such as investigating language variation, the link between language and identity, distinctive characteristics of English in Australia, and the ways in which writers and speakers adapt language and structure according to their purpose.

Language description, where the explicit grammatical understandings about the structure of language are located, is spread across the four units of the course, enabling the gradual introduction of the elements of linguistics and grammatical analysis. There is a focus on the key subsystems of language, including the sounds and sound patterns of language; the words of a language; the construction of phrases and sentences within a language; the organisation of sentences within a larger text; and the meaning created through the combination of the other subsystems. Real examples of language use, such as newspaper articles, TV or radio programs, and communications through electronic media such as SMS, email and Facebook, are used to help students gain explicit understandings of each of the subsystems, their conventions, and the relationship between the different subsystems.

By using texts as the frame of reference for the study of language, within which the elements of language description are identified and interpreted, the central focus is on language in use, allowing students to develop descriptive, analytical and critical skills in dealing with a diverse range of texts. In addition, the subject offers a bridge between the explicit study of grammar and, more broadly, knowledge of language and the real world.

A subject such as VCE English Language not only allows access to those students who would like an alternative or an addition to the standard English course, but successfully bridges the study of grammar and the study of spoken and written English texts.


Collins, P; Hollo, C & Mar, J 1997, English grammar in school textbooks: a critical survey, Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 20 (2), 33–50.

Elley, W; Barham, I; Lamb, H, & Wyllie, M 1975, The role of grammar in a secondary school English curriculum, New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies 10 (1), 26–42. 

Horn, A 2003, English grammar in schools, in P Collins and M Amberber (eds), Proceedings of the 2002 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society

Huddleston, R 1989, English grammar in school textbooks: towards a consistent linguistic alternative, Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, Occasional Papers, No 11.

Hudson, R & Walmsley, J 2005, The English patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century, Journal of Linguistics 41, 593–622.


Subject Headings

Educational planning
Educational evaluation
Education policy
Victorian Certificate of Education
English language teaching