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Grammar goes back to basics

Willis Pickard is impressed by a book that favours traditional values in teaching English. A Scottish publisher has entered the controversy about the basics of teaching English with a book which reasserts the importance of grammar.

Knowledge about Language is published by Robert Gibson, of Glasgow, a firm best known to pupils for its revision-aid reprints of Standard grade and Higher papers.

The authors, Margaret Firth and Andrew Ralston, are teachers at the independent Hutchesons' Grammar, and they have linked their exercises in language skills to the top end of the 5-14 programme. That is, they see its appeal as mainly in S1 and S2, the years about which the Scottish Office has expressed concern over pupils regressing from primary achievements, treading water or failing to be stretched.

In their foreword addressed to fellow teachers, they claim that in reaction against old-style formal methods of teaching language, including parsing and general analysis of sentences, the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction.

Not only pupils have been the victims: "Younger teachers are likely to have come through an education system in which language and grammar were tackled in the most perfunctory way, if at all. Such teachers may even find themselves having to learn for the first time some of the basic terminology of parts of speech and sentence analysis which is indispensable for the 5-14 writing programme attainment outcomes."

Teachers who have presented candidates for, or marked scripts from external examining bodies will be "particularly aware that interpretation questions such as 'comment on the sentence structure' are very badly handled by the majority, who simply lack knowledge of the necessary terminology with which to express their answers".

The aim of the book is therefore to present "the basics" in an updated format. The introduction for pupils expresses the belief that "grammar does not have to be dull and technical".

Although the presentation of the book is not lavish and all the illustrations are in black and white, an attempt is made to liven up, say, the description and use of "nouns" with drawings and cartoons.

The authors favour traditional values. "Alright" is not deemed all right. The following sentence, allegedly by a Higher English candidate, is criticised as containing "a very common error": "One in 10 people are overweight". (Would that pass in The TES Scotland? Probably, because in a statistical story the assumption is that we are talking about a tenth of the population, not about a single person. Still, the purists have a point.) Pupils are advised to earnestly strive to avoid the split infinitive: "Although you may see it frequently in print, many people consider it bad style and it is therefore better to avoid it."

There are clear descriptions of the parts of speech and ample exercises in using them, although with the proviso that adjectives should not be overused. Adrian Mole's self-criticism is cited. In a description of his "thoughts on Scotland" he admits: "There are a couple too many 'majestics'."

Much space is rightly devoted not to the bricks that make sentences but to the overall design and unity of coherent language. At all levels, including (perhaps especially including) newspapers, writers fail to lead one thought onto another with linkages and with sensible paragraphing. Ms Firth and Dr Ralston introduce paragraphing with an analogy from bricks - the Danish creation of Legoland.

Last week a southern examination body published a study showing that few pupils can handle punctuation correctly. A fall-off in standards was detected when comparing previous O-level candidates with today's GCSE ones. The colon was not even tried by anybody in 1993.

Knowledge about Language offers the prospect of recovery: "A colon introduces a new idea; a semi-colon finishes off an idea, but less firmly than a full stop." The semi-colon is particularly recommended since it helps to avoid the "comma splice", which (since we all have our pet hates) is mine.

* Knowledge about Language. By M.M. Firth and A.G. Ralston. Robert Gibson Publishers. Pounds 6.50

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