Alex Wood: Grammar deserves a place in our classrooms
MICHAEL Gove’s proposal to introduce compulsory testing in grammar, punctuation and spelling at the end of primary schooling has met fierce resistance.
I concur with many of his critics that a one-off test will do little to raise standards. Where they and I part company is on the need to return the teaching of grammar to an established place in the English curriculum in both primary and secondary schools.
Glasgow University advertises its Writing Fellow, Katie Grant, as available to support students to extend their existing writing skills, structure longer pieces of writing and develop a fluent, articulate style. It begs serious questions of our educational system that university students are bereft of these crucial skills, but in the absence of grammatical knowledge, the basic building block of such skills, it is no surprise.
The teaching of grammar and punctuation is not an elitist exercise but an essential component of clear, accurate writing. Take the sentence “Woman without her man is nothing.” Its meaning is entirely determined by the placing, or indeed the omission, of punctuation. Similarly, Brian Johnston’s famous cricket howler, “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey,” becomes unambiguous when read (rather than heard) and with the comma present.
There is the much-discussed issue of the apostrophe. As an indicator of possession, it applies only to nouns and not to pronouns. To grasp that, however, requires an understanding of the concepts of noun and pronoun and a basic knowledge of grammar.
There’s also the hoary rule insisting that infinitives should not be split, but a recent example from a quality newspaper editorial illustrated the virtue of this shibboleth. “Predictably,” the editor wrote, “the response from the National Galleries of Scotland was not to immediately rush to find a replacement…” The sentence would have much more power had the rule been followed and “immediately” preceded “to” rather than followed it.
It is intriguing that none of those sceptical about the teaching of grammar expresses a parallel objection to the teaching of number bonds and multiplication tables. Just as mastering the basic rules of arithmetic is an essential precondition to developing skills in geometry and algebra, mastering the basic rules of grammar is the precondition to creative and innovative use of language and, in particular, to the higher-order writing skills which Glasgow University feels compelled to reinforce.
If, in Scotland, we are to avoid Gove’s one-off grammar test, how can we reposition grammar in the curriculum? The first priority is to revisit Curriculum for Excellence’s Experiences and Outcomes. The Literacy Es and Os include the following valuable statement in respect of reading: “Through developing my knowledge of context clues, punctuation, grammar and layout, I can read unfamiliar texts with increasing fluency, understanding and expression.”
The notable deficit is there is no parallel statement in respect of writing. My suggestion would be: “Through the application of my knowledge of parts of speech, sentence structure and basic grammatical rules, I write with increasing clarity and accuracy and apply increasingly complex linguistic structures to match the requirements of increasingly complex content.”
I was, however, questioned by a colleague who asked how a new emphasis on grammar would sit with the active learning principles of CfE. “Can you make grammar teaching fun? Will it be an active learning experience? Will there be opportunities for peer and self-assessment? Will it embrace health and wellbeing and include aspects of numeracy?”
My response was “Yes, yes, yes and no”. It requires skilled teachers, but aren’t most English teachers precisely that?
A second suggestion would be to alter the expectations in SQA English examinations. Close reading papers which question why a particular grammatical construction is particularly relevant or powerful would be a start. Even more effective would be a rigorous expectation, in English exams at all levels but particularly at Higher, that punctuation is accurate and writing grammatical and that marks will be deducted for all inaccuracies.
The essential precursor of such changes, however, is to re-equip teachers in secondary English departments and across the primary sector with the formal knowledge of English language which has been largely lost over the last four decades.
• Alex Wood, a former English teacher and retired headteacher, now works for the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration
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