Exploiting parsed corpora in grammar teaching
The principal barrier to the uptake of technologies in schools is not technological, but social and political. Teachers must be convinced of the pedagogical benefits of a particular curriculum before they will agree to learn the means to teach it. The teaching of formal grammar to first language students in schools is no exception to this rule.
Over the last three decades, most schools in England have been legally required to teach grammatical subject knowledge, i.e. linguistic knowledge of grammar terms and structure, to children age five and upwards as part of the national curriculum in English. A mandatory set of curriculum specifications for England and Wales was published in 2014, and elsewhere similar requirements were imposed.
However, few current English school teachers were taught grammar themselves, and the dominant view has long been in favour of ‘real books’ rather than the teaching of a formal grammar. English grammar teaching thus faces multiple challenges: to convince teachers of the value of grammar in their own teaching, to teach the teachers the knowledge they need, and to develop relevant resources to use in the classroom. Alongside subject knowledge, teachers need pedagogical knowledge – how to teach grammar effectively and how to integrate this teaching into other kinds of language learning.
The paper introduces the Englicious web platform for schools, and summarises its development and impact since publication. Englicious draws data from the fully-parsed British Component of the International Corpus of English, ICE-GB. The corpus offers plentiful examples of genuine natural language, speech and writing, with context and potentially audio playback. However, corpus examples may be age-inappropriate or over-complex, and without grammar training, teachers are insufficiently equipped to use them.
In the absence of grammatical knowledge among teachers, it is insufficient simply to give teachers and children access to a corpus. Whereas so-called ‘classroom concordancing’ approaches offer access to tools and encourage bottom-up learning, Englicious approaches the question of grammar teaching in a concept-driven, top-down way. It contains a modular series of professional development resources, lessons and exercises focused on each concept in turn, in which corpus examples are used extensively. Teachers must be able to discuss with a class why, for instance, work is a noun in a particular sentence, rather than merely report that it is.
The paper describes the development of Englicious from secondary to primary, and outlines some of the practical challenges facing the design of this type of teaching resource. A key question, the ‘selection problem’, concerns how tools parameterise the selection of relevant examples for teaching purposes. Finally we discuss curricula for teaching teachers and the evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention.