Discussed in Tunbridge Wells

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Out with "rules", latinate grammar and fussing over split infinitives. In with looking at grammar's function in spoken English, dialects and written, standard English.

The provocative tone of the introduction to The Grammar Book, published by the National Association for the Teaching of English, would make Tunbridge Wells residents reach for their fountain pens.

The authors, Elspeth and Richard Bain, ridicule the strongest proponents of traditional grammar teaching for displaying "a fetishist belief in its power to cure all the ills of the country, from economic decline to crime on the streets". They object that such teaching fosters contempt for language other than standard, written, formal English obeying arbitrary rules and has no effect on children as language users.

The Bains say grammar, if taught well, is an exciting and valuable part of the English curriculum. Their book tries to provide teachers with a useful way of teaching it within the national curriculum, 600 schools have already bought it.

As they point out, the national curriculum specifies that the teaching of grammar should build on children's existing knowledge, should allow them opportunities for exploration through role-play and drama, and develop their awareness of it by reflecting on their own writing as they write.

But many grammar textbooks fall back on a didactic approach which develops grammar through exercises. This book tries to provide activities rather than exercises.

As the first activity, they suggest that students assemble a "language variety box" for their classroom, containing examples of all sorts of texts such as lists, letters, magazines, application forms, textbooks, newspapers and instruction leaflets.

The unit on sentences describes what a sentence is and then suggests that students try to hold a conversation with each other using only full sentences. Another invites students to read Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech aloud in pairs, examine its sentence lengths and vocabulary and try writing their own version of the last sentence.

As for the Bains' bete noire - fussing about the split infinitive - students are invited to discuss in groups what they think about split infinitives and write to their MP and local councillor to ask their views. They may get a dusty response.

The Grammar Book by Elspeth and Richard Bain is available from the National Association for the Teaching of English, 50 Broadfield Road, Broadfield Business Centre, Sheffield S8 OXJ, price Pounds 45 (Pounds 40 to NATE members)

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