Beyond their ken

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Not so long ago I passed a notorious pub in our town just as a group of young men were going in. One of them, though, did not follow but stood at the door. He had been barred, and he was urging his friends to plead his case with the landlord. "Tell him if he lets me in I'll only drink orange squash," he cried in a plaintive voice.

Such, I feel, is the relationsh ip between the National Literacy Project's draft "Framework for Teaching" and the teaching of grammar in the primary classroom. The Framework outlines the rigorously structured teaching methods being used by schools involved with National Literacy Centres throughout the country. It may influence mainstream practice for years to come, or even find its way on to the curriculum if the drive to raise standards of literacy continues in its current vein. It took a long time to get formal grammar lessons out of primaries where, once, it was a time-consuming distraction from the real business of teaching children to be literate. The authors of the Framework, though, want to let grammar back in, on an implicit promise that it will behave itself this time.

But I am a veteran and crusty landlord, and I say we should be careful. What starts with orange squash might end up with vodka chasers. Still, perhaps the Framework is right - the intention, after all, is not so much that pupils should practise the rules of analysis but that they be taught to see why one sentence works and another one does not - to recognise the structural error, for example, in "My shoes is dirty".

Few teachers would argue with that, nor with the Framework's assertion that: "Much of this work can readily be accomplished through exploration and investigation, for example, of word orders in sentences." So we are not, it seems, going back to exercises.

All the same, I am not comforted when I see what sort of grammar and punctuation the Framework sets down in its "Teaching Objectives". Take, for example, the writing and punctuation of direct speech, which the Framework wants taught to young children. By the second term of Year 2 pupils should be taught not only "to identify speech marks . . . understand their purpose" but "to use speech marks to write dialogue".

Now I yield to no one in the belief that children should be pushed and challenged. Everything that follows, in fact, must be read with the proviso that we must not deprive bright children of the right to make progress. But the teaching day is overcrowded, and it makes sense to use it effectively. It is my experience, based on 30 years of teaching at primary, secondary and adult levels, that people learn some things more quickly and with less anxiety when they are older and more experienced. The punctuation of direct speech is, I believe, one such task.

The problem is that before you can punctuate direct speech you have to know what it is, and to the average young primary child, whose experience of literature and of life is by definition limited, this is not obvious. Even some adults have problems with it. Take the following three sentences,which I offer without punctuation:

My father said good morning to me.

My father bade me good morning.

My father wished me a good morning.

Now you, a well-read adult, may be convinced about which of these sentences contain direct speech, and therefore need speech marks, but it is possible to envisage someone having difficulty with at least one of them. For a child, the challenge is greater. It is not that you would put my examples before a child, but that he or she will perceive many apparently more straightforward examples as being opaque.

A significant proportion of infants do not "see" direct speech in a sentence - they are not at all sure what it is that teacher is asking them to do. This is not a problem of grammar or of punctuation. It is a problem of conceptual understanding, and the teacher who fails to realise this is going to hit frustration and delay.

Eventually a good teacher will succeed in teaching the concept and the practicalities to some Year 2 children. To exactly what end, though, and at what cost? This same teacher could be using the time much more productively and creatively on something which the pupils might not find so baffling. The punctuation of direct speech can safely be left until much later, probably at least until the end of key stage 2. Even then, the starting point should be not to teach the speech marks but to check whether the pupils understand what is direct speech and what is not.

There is a case for leaving it until later still. I know from teaching adults that once people have had 25 years of reading and chattering, if takes about 40 minutes to teach them to punctuate direct speech - and that includes 20 minutes of silent practice in a notebook. By that time, too, they are ready to enjoy a discussion about the three examples I gave earlier. How long will it take to achieve the same with seven-year-olds? During that time how much more enrichment could they have had from spending more time reading, listening, discussing, and role playing - all of which are also in the Teaching Objectives?

The fundamental problem, I believe, is that these are Teaching Objectives - which is to say that they have everything to do with what adults think children should know, and too little to do with what excites children and turns them on to learning. The objectives want reception children, for example, to be taught to "expect text to make sense and check for sense if it does not".

This means that a five-year-old, to whom everything makes sense in joyful ways beyond the ken of the grown-up world, has to work out what teacher thinks the words in their book mean, and then tell him or her. Perhaps, in the 1990s, this is what we mean by education. Once upon a time, things were different. In 1967 Marie Peel, in Seeing to the Heart, wrote of "the vividness of children's inner lives . . . the strength and often controlling nature of fantasy". What has happened to us in the years since then?

Gerald Haigh has taught English at primary and secondary levels and to adults and young people to examination level in further education

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