"When I tell people my research focus is grammar this generally provokes some kind of a response."

Dr Sue Jones

How I got here

My background is in primary education, having started out as an early years teacher. I still think of myself as a teacher though I have now spent many more years as an educational researcher than a classroom practitioner. These two strands of my professional life come together in supporting trainee researchers through teaching on master’s programmes, supervising doctoral students, working alongside students as colleagues within my research group, and in my role as the Director of Doctoral Studies. I now find myself, therefore, recursively researching aspects of teaching and learning and then teaching about research.

My early research roles involved working as a research assistant on a varied set of funded projects which included a focus on boys’ underachievement, boys and literacy, classroom interaction and the use of talk to support writing development. I am now part of a well-established team of researchers who form the Centre for Writing Research. This creates another oddly recursive aspect to my working life in that I research writing and then write about my research.

What am I currently trying to understand through research?

Our current research is concerned with whether and how a focus on grammar might support young writers. When I tell people my research focus is grammar this generally provokes some kind of a response: there is the pedantic response, which often references a particular grammatical error that causes grief (typically the use of the possessive apostrophe); there is the fearful response, which often comes in the form of a list of grammatical errors the speaker fears they may make themselves; then there is the glazed response, grammar does not tend to generate a frisson of excitement; finally the vaguely irritated response, from those who view a focus on grammar as the enemy of creativity.   It seems that everyone has a view on grammar and so we generally have to start by being clear about our own view.

Our research has explored a writing pedagogy based on embedding grammar meaningfully into the writing classroom.  The focus IS NOT on error, the focus is on choice and control. We talk of contextualised grammar teaching as offering ‘a repertoire of infinite possibilities’. We don’t see ourselves as language hygienists but as empowering young writers to put their ideas and intentions into words.

With this in mind then, our research has explored whether this focus on choice and control can have a positive impact on how young writers shape texts for different purposes.  We consider the linguistic understanding of both teachers and students and how they might influence each other. Through classroom observations we are developing a detailed understanding of the moment by moment challenges for the teacher. Through textual analysis we are seeing how the teaching focus is taken up by young writers. Through interviews with teachers we are developing an understanding of how their beliefs and values about writing and grammar are impacting on how they teach. Through talking with young writers about their own writing we can see the relationship between what they know, what they want to say in their writing and the relationship between the two.  We are also seeing what is informing their misunderstandings.

What is it that keeps me fascinated?

There is a good reason why there is very much more research on reading than on writing.  Readers respond to existing text, writers have to generate it.  Researchers can see what readers do; they can analyse both the decoding and the interpreting of text.  The process of becoming a reader is much more visible. The process by which we become a writer, however, is much less visible and considerably more complex. The text can be analysed but the thinking that generated it is much harder to get at. This creates a particular problem for the writing researcher. Writing researchers have to find creative ways of investigating the process.  This is undertaken through a variety of methodological approaches within quite different traditions; psychology, linguistics and socio-cultural theory.  As an academic and as a researcher, the solving of this research problem and the variety of approaches there are to the problem feeds my intellectual curiosity, and this alone is enough to keep me fascinated by what I research.  As a teacher, however, I am aware of the extent to which writing, through whatever medium, remains the means by which young people negotiate and access educational transitions and the workplace. Lack of progress in writing might also be what prevents access and opportunity.

I relish engaging with the current debate about the place of grammar in the curriculum, I am intrigued by what our data are revealing about how we become writers, I enjoy wrestling with and sometimes resolving research problems but in the end I do this because I like to think that both teachers and researchers can make a difference.