Grammar Battles


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Do you suppose science teachers are embarrassed by the word "photosynthesis"? Do they dare use it openly in front of their students, or do they instead talk about plants soaking up the rays of the sun to convert into energy? My guess is that they're happy to use the technical term, seeing it as a useful piece of scientific knowledge and an efficient means of referring to a complex subject.

In English we seem more neurotic.

You'd think that here at the end of the twentieth century we'd have developed sufficient professional understanding of children's acquisition of language and their cognitive development to enjoy a shared, unabashed approach to teaching grammar. Not a bit of it. The old battle lines remain. It's still possible to stumble into mad-cap arguments about whether to talk about describing words or adjectives, and be branded a fascist for tentatively suggesting that teaching students about grammar might actually help them

With the sterile debate go unhelpful prejudices for example, that teaching children systematically about grammar must mean making them quack the parts of speech or grind endlessly through punctuation exercises; that whole-class grammar work is authoritarian; that students should only be taught grammar in the context of their own writing.

But it feels as if the ground is shifting. The DfEE is currently considering whether to test grammar more formally at the end of key stage 3 a decision that should be finalised any day now. And we've already seen QCA's Grammar Papers an enlightening collection of articles on the teaching of grammar.

If anyone expected a furious reaction to this document, they'll have been startled by the silence that appeared to greet it. It's as if finally we're moving away from the knee-jerk defensiveness of our old response, and beginning to recognise that knowing about grammar is an essential ingredient in a child's intellectual development, a tool to help them read, write and think more precisely.

Based on developing a more formal approach to grammar in my own teaching and writing, I'd suggest the following principles are more relevant to the faded arguments of the past.

1  Assuming students can learn grammar in the context of their own writing is naive and unhelpful. Students need a more systematic overview of the way language works, and a sudden blitz on proper nouns here or apostrophes there won't help to give the reassuring sense of clarity that they need. A formal, systematic approach to teaching grammar doesn't mean that we have to ditch literature, media work or drama. It isn't either/or. All should be part of the English experience.

2 Technical terms are important as a short-hand to understanding, not in their own right. A Year 9 special needs class I taught a couple a years ago were flattered to be told about parenthetical commas (pairs of commas we use, like this, around words and phrases to clarify meaning within sentences). Suddenly they saw a purpose in commas, rather than using them as an optional substitute for full stops.

3 The old-fashioned view of grammar was that students needed to learn chiefly about word classes, that you can tell when they've gained a basic grammatical knowledge by their ability to quack the parts of speech. Not so. I'd say for most students the essential grammatical understanding they need to develop is at the sentence and discourse level:

  • The patterns and rhythms of sentences
  • The features of standard English
  • The grammar features of different genres

4 Another unhelpful assumption still exerting some influence is that drills and exercises of any sort must, by definition, be bad. This is nonsense. We learn to drive a car by developing and practising discrete skills. We then leave the practice behind, put the skills into action and drive off towards the liberated horizon. I'd argue that the same should apply with grammar. Exercises can help students to develop the understanding which crucially - can then be applied in their own reading and writing.

5 We should teach students about punctuation within the context of grammatical meaning, not as a separate branch of English. That's where the daft notion of using commas when you need to breathe comes from. Punctuation is essential to precise meaning, as students quickly recognise if asked to compare the meaning of these two sentences:

    I can't stand teenagers like you; I find them badly behaved.

    I can't stand teenagers; like you, I find them badly behaved.

Suddenly the essential purpose of punctuation becomes clearer to shape and clarify meaning in writing.

Just as we like to assume that learning occurs as a natural consequence of our teaching, we can also convince ourselves that students will simply absorb the grammar knowledge they need. I'm increasingly convinced that this is dangerously misguided, leaving students without an essential core of knowledge which could make them better readers, writers and thinkers. The important first step in this process is dismantling the old grammar barricades, ditching the clapped-out arguments of the past, and taking a more confident look as education experts at which bits of grammatical knowledge are going to help our students the most. This view of grammar is about liberating students' creativity, not repressing it.

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