Decline to agree with the Prince

10th January 1997 at 00:00
THE GRAMMAR BOOK By Elspeth and Richard Bain National Association for Teaching of English Pounds 45

In 1985, Norman Tebbitt claimed that the decline in the teaching of grammar had led directly to the rise in football hooliganism. Four years later, Prince Charles insisted that English was taught "bloody badly", for schools "no longer bothered to instil the basic rules of grammar and the construction of sentences". One recent cynic implied that teachers of English can't teach what they don't know.

Such critics see grammar as a shibboleth: fixed, stable, obedient to logical rules. In contrast, one of the first topics in this book examines 20 different uses of "shop". Yet while it is easy to parody the prescriptive viewpoint as an emotional hankering after a mythical golden age, it remains a powerful lobby. In The Great Betrayal Brian Cox records the somewhat sinister suppression of the LINC (Language in the National Curriculum) project in 1991. Speaking last month on the Today programme, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard wanted more emphasis on grammar - you've guessed it - to raise standards.

Just before the Prince's criticisms, in 1989, the government-appointed Kingman and Cox committees produced reports on the teaching of English. Both received a hostile reception from right-wing politicians and the press, who wanted a return to whole-class teaching of latinate grammar. Parsing, clause analysis and drilling were the means to improve standards. The Kingman report, however, had stated: "Nor do we see it as part of our task to plead for a return to old-fashioned grammar teaching and learning by rote." Cox agreed with that, and the remainder of Kingman paragraph 1.11 (worth re-reading), as do Elspeth and Richard Bain, by implication, in The Grammar Book.

Unfortunately, the grammar battle is a conflict of prejudices, the offspring of ignorance and unreason. Take the word itself. What do politicians and their educational acolytes mean by "grammar"? To a linguist (and most English teachers) the word is not used in the colloquial sense, now almost meaningless. The Cox report advised that secondary school students should themselves begin to discuss explicitly the different meanings of "grammar" and become conversant with the controversies aroused by the word. Encouragingly, this book has activities that foster exactly that kind of intellectual curiosity.

The authors advance the descriptive view. They explore grammar teaching as "complex, changing, exciting, and revealing useful patterns". It describes and analyses language in use, recognising and building on what children already know. It concerns the syntax of sentences through to the organisation of lengthy texts. It considers the differences between spoken and written English, the formal and informal. It recognises language changes in relation to purpose and audience. It is part of a wider syllabus of language study.

Those principles of grammar are pursued through nine termly units (121 photocopiable A4 pages). Each contains a range of four different types of topic, organised arbitrarily, so avoiding any suggestion that grammar follows a clear-cut hierarchy of conceptual difficulty. Unit 3, for instance, begins with students trying to deduce patterns from a list of nouns and comparing those patterns with other languages and dialects, incorporating learning about capitals, plurals and proper nouns. Its concluding topic looks at stories from two comics, analysing parts of speech and sentence structure to highlight gender-stereotyping. The book's copious activities should stimulate interest in language and reflection on it. The determining premise is that grammar is most effectively learnt in the context of children's own reading, writing and speech.

This publication makes no pretence to teach children everything there is to know about grammar. Of course not. Its thrust is to consider and develop a range of concepts that can be beneficially applied to their own language use. I hope every school will buy this excellent book - every dogmatic prescriptivist too. Or is that too prescriptive?

Brian Slough was a member of the working group on English in the National Curriculum and a head of English for 30 years

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