Marina Orsini-Jones

  • Helping students to GRASP the rules of grammar

    Marina Orsini-Jones 
    University of Coventry

    Christine Sinclair 
    University of Strathclyde

    Session 4b

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 16.00-17.00

    Research paper

    Themes: Better understanding of the discipline

    According to the public media, students’ use of grammatical conventions is very poor. While the media does sensationalise the problem, there is certainly sufficient evidence to show that students do not really understand what is said about grammar, let alone know whether they are using it properly. Even students who are studying modern foreign languages encounter stumbling blocks when engaging with grammatical issues, both in their own and their target language(s). This paper illustrates the findings of a research project entitled Grammar: Researching Activities for Student Progress (GRASP) that aimed to identify and support areas that prove troublesome for students.

    The work develops from an earlier study by Orsini-Jones (forthcoming) where she identified the existence of threshold concepts for language students when learning how to break down their native and their target language into grammatical categories. The current project has explored students’ understandings further and has also used grammatical exercises and materials to attempt to support the enhanced understanding of grammar categories. The use of terms such as threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge position the study in an area of work that aims to deal directly with barriers that students face in understanding (Meyer and Land, 2006).

    The study has taken an action-research approach to a cohort of students in their first year of studies at Coventry University in the academic year 2006-2007. These students are undertaking a new module entitled ‘Methods and Approaches’ that supports learning about grammatical and presentational issues for students of languages. This necessarily entails comparative approaches to grammatical categorisations in languages, but this is difficult if students do not have an adequate grasp of grammatical categorisations in their native language.

    As well as investigating where the stumbling blocks arise, the study has drawn on a range of materials for both native speakers and students of languages. Students were asked to discuss a chapter of a new book on grammar designed for native speakers experiencing difficulties (Sinclair, 2007 ). We present an analysis of the findings from student discussions and presentations on grammatical issues. Such an analysis of the students’ problems and responses then provides the subject material for further study and the authors discuss their new hypotheses and suggested approaches for future development.

    The overall aim of the work is to support the objective that students can ‘develop linguistic tools and metalanguage to describe the main features of the language(s) studied’. (QAA, 2002 ) It is hoped that the work will support others who are encountering stumbling blocks in meeting this subject benchmark statement for languages, and the work has been funded by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies.


    • Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R., (2006), Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. London & New York: Routledge
    • Sinclair, C., (2007), Grammar: A Friendly Approach. Maidenhead: Open University Press
    • QAA, (2002), Subject Benchmark Statement for Languages and Related Studies. Available from [last accessed 21/02/07]