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Form and formality

We need to ditch the clapped-out arguments of the past if the essential role of grammar in children's intellectual development is to be recognised, says Geoff Barton

Are science teachers 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 20th century we'd have developed enough 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 madcap arguments about whether to talk about "describing words" or adject-ives, 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 be taught grammar only in the context of their own writing.

But it feels as if the ground is shifting. The Department for Education and Employment is considering testing grammar more formally at the end of key stage 3. And we've already seen the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's Grammar Papers.

If anyone expected a furious reaction to this document, they'll have been startled by the silence that greeted it. It's as if finally we're moving away from knee-jerk defensiveness, and starting to recognise that a knowledge of grammar is essential to a child's intellectual development, a tool to help children read, write and think more precisely.

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

* 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 they need. A formal, systematic approach to teaching grammar doesn't mean we have to ditch literature, media work or drama. It isn't eitheror. All should be part of the English experience.

* Technical terms are important as a shorthand to understanding, not in their own right. A Year 9 special needs class I taught a couple of years ago was 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 regarding them as an optional substitute for full stops.

* The old-fashioned view of grammar was that students needed to learn chiefly about word classes, and that you can tell when they've gained a basic grammatical knowledge by their ability to quack the parts of speech. Not so. The essential grammatical understanding most students need to develop is at the sentence and discourse level: - patterns and rhythms of sentences;- features of Standard English; - grammar features of various genres.

* Another unhelpful assumption - still exerting some influence - is that drills and exercises of any sort are, by definition, 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. The same should apply with grammar. Exercises can help students develop the understanding that can then be applied in their own reading and writing.

* 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 clear - to shape and clarify meaning in writing.

Just as we like to assume 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 that 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 will help our students the most. This view of grammar is about liberating students' creativity, not repressing it.

Geoff Barton is deputy head of Thurston Upper School, Suffolk. He writes English textbooks

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