Friday, 17 May 2013

Learning grammar

Recently, English children aged 10-11 had to take their SATs (tests that children take every few years to check the school isn't useless). The English test included a test of their spelling, punctuation and grammar, a new thing introduced by the wildly unpopular and widely-derided Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.
Michael Gove:
as much of an idiot as he looks.

I am, of course, in favour of these things being taught in schools. It seems sensible to me that children should learn how to write well and how to understand the language they speak. It would be even better if they learn how language works and were taught linguistics. This can be done, and I once read a very good proposal for how to implement it, which I now can't find. But anyway - that aside, yes, teach children how to spell. Good.

The problem is how Gove wants this taught and tested, as with all his reforms (his changes to history make the curriculum just a list of facts and figures, according to history teachers, because he felt that children were learning too much about Martin Luther King and not enough about ancient kings and queens of England).

Michael Rosen has written about this at great length and David Crystal has added his comments, so I won't add my thoughts here, but basically it's teaching children meaningless terminology out of context, which is at best confusing and at worst wrong. See the Crystal link for examples. It means that people end up with fixed rules that they don't fully understand and can't apply - one of the comments on the Crystal piece:
My son (an American) had a high school Advanced Placement composition teacher who would take points off for every "passive" sentence in a composition. Actually, what she did was go on hunts for instances of "was" and "is", and would deduct points even if the sentences weren't passive.
What I wanted to add to the conversation was this: is it actually useful to teach children grammar?

I know that's blasphemy to anyone of a certain age or temperament, but I'm serious. And I say that as someone whose job is basically grammar. What would the answer be?

If we teach it the way we do now, then I would be of the opinion that we don't teach it till they're older - 13 or so. Then they can cope with learning these unfamiliar terms and rules. But I also think we shouldn't teach it the way we do now, as if there are hard and fast rules. Knowing grammar is useful if you want to learn another language (although it is entirely possible to do it without, if you learn in an 'immersion' style), so perhaps we should introduce it earlier. Many people my age, who weren't taught English grammar at school, learnt all they know from their French lessons. In that case we could do it differently, showing children that there are basic categories of words and they're combined in certain ways, but that language is only real when it's used, and it behaves in interesting ways and the real skill is in learning how to investigate it.

Or, as an alternative, we could just not. I wasn't taught much grammar, as far as I remember. When my generation was at school it just wasn't on the curriculum. It hasn't done me any harm. If you need it or like it, you'll learn it later, and if you don't, well, there is literally no situation in real life where you will desperately need to know if a word is a noun or a verb.

There is one aspect of grammar that does affect real life, and that's using 'correct' grammar - you have to do that if you don't want people to think you're uneducated and not give you a job. That is important, but it's a different thing from learning grammar. That's learning the rules of how to use a particular register of the language to conform to a certain social group. There's no question that schools are failing children if they don't teach them how to do this, because like it or not, it's a vital life skill to be able to speak and write according to the standard language.

And you know what? Schools don't teach children this. I mark essays and there are so many mistakes in them, most students clearly haven't grasped all of the rules. There are maybe 5-10% of essays that are really well-written in any bunch. The rest are mostly not terrible, but they aren't great. This was shocking to me, because I assumed that most people who have managed to reach this stage of education have learnt this stuff along the way.

BUT I do not advocate more grammar lessons in school to remedy this problem. I've taught first-year syntax for long enough to know that if an 18-year-old struggles with grammar, a ten-year-old isn't going to fare any better. It's just going to make them hate writing and feel stupid.

I conducted a poll among my most writerly non-linguist friends - the ones who studied English literature. Some of these people have PhDs in English literature, or will soon, some make a career or hobby out of writing. They know their stuff. Almost all of them said that they don't have conscious knowledge of grammar, it's 'just instinct'. Even the stuff that these children are supposed to know, they wouldn't be confident if they were tested on it. But they can do it, and surely that's the important thing - who cares if you know what a gerund is, if you can use one right?

The way that they (and I) all learnt grammar was by reading a lot. If you read a lot, you pick up good grammar, is my hypothesis. Now of course it is possible that some child might read a lot but still not 'get it'. It might just be that these people picked it up easily AND liked reading, and one is not a cause of the other. I'd like to hear from you if you read a lot but still don't write well, or naturally write well but never read much.

I'm not pretending that this is an easy solution: a lot of children don't like reading and you can't force them to do it, or they end up hating it. I'm just saying, the way Gove is doing it is stupid. Maybe they do have to teach it explicitly. But if they're going to, then they should at least listen to the people they consulted, who specifically advised against the approach they've taken.

And I would bet Gove ten quid that he wouldn't be able to correctly identify, say, the subject of a sentence every single time, but it's not done his career any harm.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. There is, I think, a more fundamental problem, and that is the fact that almost everyone is pig-ignorant about language and languages. It's really intolerable that educated people, who laugh when a well-known TV network mislabels the Czech Republic as "Switzerland", have never heard that the languages of Northern India are closely related to most of the European languages, but not to Hungarian, Finnish, or Estonian. Or what a morpheme is, and how to break up simple English words into their morphemes. Or a hundred other things.

    1. Ugh, tell me about it. Just the other night I had to try to explain to a pub full of people why language is worth studying.