Ah dinnae ken why I have to talk proper, Sir

4th February 2011 at 00:00

I was helping a group of S6 students to draft their personal statements for their Ucas forms. These are fine young folk: engaged, enthusiastic, bright. Like many in Wester Hailes, however, they often underachieve. They have not developed the cultural hooks on which to hang higher order learning. Their language skills do not match their natural intelligence and wit. Consequently, they undersell themselves and are at a social disadvantage.

We seek to ensure that their formal learning builds the skills in which they are less strong. We also employ other strategies to build these skills. We take them to the theatre, galleries and educational conferences. We encourage them to read quality newspapers and challenging literature. All of these activities are asking them to leave their comfort zones, especially for working class youngsters in status-conscious Edinburgh.

It's difficult to say to bright young people that they are good but need to be better, that they have huge potential but that their capacity to realise it is presently limited. During our discussion, one of the brightest in the group gave me an opportunity to explain why we need to do this. We were discussing open days and visits to universities. "Yes," she said, "I wish I'd went to that one."

When I stopped her and asked her and her friends if they could pinpoint the grammatical error in the sentence, none of them could. After a few clues along the "go", "went", "gone" lines, the penny dropped. But the girl who had first used the phrase responded with the rationalisation which allowed an even deeper discussion. "But, Mr Wood," she said, "`I wish I'd went' sounds right." That gave me the in. Yes, indeed it sounded right if that was what was normally heard, but if she moved into a circle where that was not normally heard, not only would the phrase sound wrong to her listeners, so would she.

Now there are several conclusions one might draw from this. The first might be that it is unfortunate that young people are judged by such facile matters as grammatical technicalities. It may be unfortunate, but it is true, just as appearance and dress draw judgments: better not to start with an unnecessary disadvantage.

The second might be that how we speak reflects our family and community roots and surely we should not be ashamed of these? Indeed, and as someone who can and does regularly speak in broad Scots and does so naturally, I would not want my students to lose that ability or to lose pride in the community from which they spring. They must also, however, be able to communicate easily and fluently with those from a range of communities who will not understand their particular patois.

If we threw together, straight from their localities, a Shetlander, a native of rural Aberdeenshire, a Borderer and a Glaswegian, standard English would be the one medium in which they could all converse meaningfully. If that is true of geographical differences, it is even more true of social differences.

The third conclusion is the real challenge. For youngsters from communities where the grammatically wrong "sounds right", the only corrective is the reintroduction of the systematic teaching of grammar as a key element of the literacy curriculum.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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