The glamour of grammar revisited

8th September 1995 at 01:00
Sue Palmer puts the case for an enlightened approach to a neglected discipline.

It is a little-known fact (shortly to become better-known as more people discover David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopaedia of The English Language) that grammar and glamour share the same root. Both come from the Greek grammata, meaning "words". Grammar came first, having been used in English since the Middle Ages to mean "the study of language". Most Middle Agers regarded such activity as somewhat strange and esoteric, so grammar acquired other connotations - secret, mysterious, even magical. In Scottish English the word underwent a consonant change - gr to gl - and got even more mixed up with magic and enchantment, until eventually it emerged as the sexy type of glamour we know today.

This shared etymology usually raises a smile, as to most 20th-century minds grammar is probably the least sexy subject in the curriculum. Everyone over 40 remembers all that dreadful parsing and grammatical nitpicking which went on in the grammar lessons of their youth. Most people under 40 feel rather vague and uncomfortable about the subject, since it largely disappeared from the curriculum in the 1960s and their own grammatical education was likely to be patchy at best.

To add to personal reminiscence or anxiety, just about everyone has unsavoury associations with poor old grammar because of its regular appearances in the political boxing-ring over the last 30 years or so. We have been treated frequently, and at length, to the ravings of grammar's champions (in the blue corner) who want to restore England to imperial splendour by sitting children in rows and feeding them boring rote-based trivia; and also to those of its opponents (in the red corner) who claim that grammar - like dates, times tables, and any other factual information - is all part of an elitist plot to stifle independence of thought and stultify the proletariat.

In fact both sets of extremists in that tired old fight are, as usual, wrong. Grammar has changed a lot over the last 30 years. It is no longer the pedantically prescriptive pursuit of old, concerned with rules about what is and what is not acceptable. The modern grammarian isn't interested in scoring points by separating the sheep (those of us, for instance, who know to say "different from") from the goats (who ignorantly say "different to") - or indeed the Americans, who say "different than". There are no grammatical reasons, other than historical ones based on a discredited system of analysis, why "different from" or many other shibboleths should be of interest. Grammar today is a descriptive science - the study of language and how it works. Today's grammar is leaner, fitter for the task of describing the English language, and distinctly easier to get to grips with. In terms of the teaching required at key stages 2 and 3, it is merely a question of introducing children to the vocabulary with which they can talk about the language they use .

For some reason, talking about language, as opposed to merely using it, has been resisted in the past, which is probably why the authors of the national curriculum felt it necessary to mention grammar specifically in the final Order at key stage 2: "Children should be given the opportunity to develop their understanding of the grammar of complex sentences, including clauses and phrases . . . They should be taught to use the standard written forms of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and verb tenses." At key stages 3 and 4: "pupils should be encouraged to broaden their understanding of the principles of sentence grammar . . . reflecting on the meaning and clarity of individual sentences, using appropriate terminology. "

It's difficult to see why appropriate terminology should be resisted in English, when teachers are keen to use it in other subjects of the curriculum - in maths we have no hesitation in calling a sphere "a sphere", or in geography a peninsula "a peninsula" - but perhaps it is due to the lingering memory of all that parsing. In view of the great advantages to be had from teaching children the technical vocabulary of their language, however, it is probably time the resistance movement was disbanded.

One advantage of teaching linguistic terminology is that it raises pupils' awareness of the particular bits of language that are worthy of their notice, the bits they need to know about to improve their work. It also alerts them to the fact that language is a rule-based system, with patterns of behaviour which make it manageable, rather than a vast unfathomable mass understood only by the linguistic elect. Above all it provides them, and us, with a lingua franca in which we may discuss the language we meet in the classroom - how it works, why it sometimes doesn't work, and how we can make it work better to express what we have to communicate.

The terminology required to do all this is not vast. The breakdown of stages for teaching grammatical vocabulary given in the chart opposite was worked out for the language component of the Longman Book Project, and vetted by Professor David Crystal of Cambridge Encyclopaedia fame. The teaching required is not vast either. It boils down to three stages: 1. Introducing the language term, preferably as it arises within a meaningful context - speech, reading or writing going on in the classroom; 2. Consolidating pupils' knowledge of the term and its meaning through various practice activities; 3. Using the vocabulary in context, to talk about pupils' own language use and the language they meet in their reading.

It is stage 2 that still raises occasional hackles, as people remember long hours underlining nouns in sentences, or doing all the other pointless things associated with "decontextualised exercises". But it doesn't have to be like that. Language can be enormous fun, as all literate adults know. We spend a great deal of our time enjoying language in decontextualised ways - where language is temporarily dissociated from its meaning. We do crossword puzzles and word games; we play around with puns, riddles, tongue-twisters, double-entendres, acronyms and endless other linguistic trifles; we enjoy poetry, where meaning and non-meaning elements of language (such as rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia) are used simultaneously to complement one another, in the same way that representation and form complement each other in the visual arts.

The same types of enjoyable activities, tailored to the age and interests of the children concerned, can be used to consolidate grammatical terminology. Many games already exist, like the Victorian parlour game "The Minister's Cat", which provides a splendid vehicle for practising adjectives, and the miming game "Adverbs", in which children mime actions "in the manner of the adverb" until "it" has guessed which adverb it is. These games have been enjoyed by generations of children, and are still an excellent way of filling in the odd 10 minutes before break.

Other activities can be found in good English teaching materials, like Sandy Brownjohn's Word Games and the language strand of the Longman Book Project. Once teachers have got to grips with the national curriculum Order they will of course make up many more of their own.

Nouns, for instance, are labelling words - so Year 3 pupils could design and make strong, easily-tied luggage labels - say, six each. Good for design and technology, as well as language. As the idea is for children to remember the technical term they are practising, they could write "noun" on the back of each label. Then each child can find six nouns in the classroom, write what they are and attach their labels forthwith: table, door, chair, teacher, girl, leg, nose . . . the possibilities are endless and the noun-labelled classroom should be deeply memorable.

Pupils who are ready to expand nouns into noun phrases could try their hand at menu writing. Starting from a basic noun menu (such as eggs, ham, chips, etc), pupils could expand each noun into the sort of noun phrase favoured by MacDonald's: "New-laid, farm-fresh, lazily-scrambled eggs with a savoury topping" and so on. Alternatively they could write the anti-MacDonald's menu: "ancient, smelly, foul-tasting, mouldy eggs with a thin coating of green fur". They usually prefer doing the latter.

These sorts of language activities are a long way from the meaningful language work - context-based reading, writing, speaking, listening - which takes up most of the language curriculum. But they may be used as diversions to fill in the odd few minutes between lessons. At the same time, they provide opportunities for pupils to manipulate and familiarise themselves with language, and for the teacher to rehearse over and over the particular item of terminology which is to be retained. The greater the variety and freshness of the teaching vehicles provided, the more memorable will be the terminology, and the greater pupils' eventual understanding of language.

If you think of the language curriculum as if it were an exercise in children's television scheduling, most of the programming (serials, drama, cartoons, news items, documentaries) would represent most of the curriculum - the creative, literary aspects of language teaching and the informational reading and writing. Language study activities, including grammar, should be like the adverts. Short, sharp, fun, memorable, hopefully reaching corners of the consciousness that other sorts of teaching don't reach. If we teach grammar like this, maybe it can be sexy after all.

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