Get to grips with grammar - again;Opinion

29th May 1998 at 01:00
What goes round, comes round. Just as the fashion hound smirkingly reaches into the recesses of his wardrobe to pull out yesterday's fashion that by designer alchemy has become tomorrow's, so too does the long-toothed teacher with longer forgotten curricular jetson.

I can hardly repress a smile when I read that Blair's New Model Army generals are ready to lead the charge towards grammar, while the foot soldiers are quaking at the thought, because their grammatical swords have been beaten into creative ploughshares.

It seems only yesterday that teachers were being told that "by the time the pupil completes his course...he should know the names of the principal parts of speech and the functions of each: what kind of words work, phrases and clauses do: and the structure of the sentence - simple, complex and compound." Note that this is for pupils, not teachers.

It gets worse. "To provide an adequate basis for the study of foreign languages, in parsing, it was considered sufficient to consider the noun (number, case, relation), pronoun (two kinds), adjective (qualifying), verb (subject, transitive, intransitive), adverb (time, place, manner), preposition (governing), conjunction (joining)." All this is from The Primary School in Scotland, 1950. The bit I like best is what follows. "There are obvious omissions from this list..." You bet there are. The writer meant reflexive pronouns, passive voice and infinitives.

The middle-of-the-road classroom practitioner with one half-life down, will be sweating profusely at the thought of imparting what they must think is gobbledegook, and promising a hecatomb in thanksgiving that all this was pushed on to the chuck-out shelf by the Primary Memorandum. Perhaps prematurely.

The memorandum did a through-the-looking-glass job on grammar. It talked airily of excessive preoccupation with formal accuracy, and the cardinal importance of fluency. Grammar was not an end in itself and should not be treated as a separate subject. Children would grasp these concepts by some form of osmosis, and the memorandum went on to some highly suspect mumbo-jumbo about sentence patterns. Grammar, as it was known and detested, was forced into the curricular oubliette.

Now the 5-14 strand "Knowledge about language" reminds us gently but firmly of noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun and conjunction, subject, predicate, even apostrophe. And it stresses that children should know, understand and use at least these terms. I can understand the ire of the academics who keep getting the impression that every new student has gone completely idiolectual, wondering why it's taking so long for the fruits of 5-14 to bloom in the groves of academe.

Could it be that teachers don't appreciate that the scanty triumphs of grammatical understanding at Level A, B, C, etc must be treated as precious, and be revised for lack of understanding at every level, especially E, at whose expectations much of academic gripe is directed?

There is little to be gained by pointing the responsibility bone at any one group for the current lack of teachers' grammatical expertise. We can perhaps take comfort from D'Annunzio, who suggested that while victory has a thousand fathers, defeat (grammatical in this case) is an orphan. Many teachers I suspect would feel comfortable with the reply of the Ethiopian in Acts to the apostle Philip when asked if he understood the scripture he was reading. "How can I unless I have someone to guide me?" The answer may be short, sharp in-service to ensure the almost infinite variety of unevenness of grammatical understanding can be levelled out.

What goes round, comes round. Does "Holmes Grammar"? "The English Apprentice"? Mmm. Hopefully not. But let's hope that grammarians' oddball inventions like the periphrastic future subjunctive has its future firmly behind it, otherwise the stress will be removed completely from grammar to teacher.

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