Grammar: an aspirational target too far;Opinion

17th April 1998 at 01:00
One of the great problems in life, and especially teaching, is knowing when to stop. The writers of the national curriculum came up against it, which was why Sir Ron Dearing had to be called in. The latest group of experts to get carried away with their subject are the authors of the National Literacy Strategy. This is a great shame, because their Framework for Teaching is the main plank of the Government's drive to raise standards, and in many ways it is brilliant.

For a start, it has found a peace-formula to end the long-running wars about how literacy should be taught. Teachers are urged always to address teaching on three levels - word (spelling, vocabulary, handwriting and phonics), sentence (grammar, punctuation, aspects of style) and text (comprehension and composition of various types of writing). The message is clear: English isn't about either meaning or skills; it's about both.

The primary teachers I have met on in-service travels round the country have also been enthused by the practical ideas underlying the strategy - a dedicated hour a day for English teaching, a clear framework of exactly what to teach and when, and straightforward advice on teaching strategies and time-management. They've been looking forward to publication of the framework and a sensible, achievable list of teaching targets.

Those I've met since publication, however, are very disappointed. The framework is utterly exhaustive - and exhausting. Even reading it tires you out - the thought of teaching it makes you want to lie down in a darkened room.

The Text Level targets are the least scary - given suitable resources and good in-service support, most teachers will probably cope with these. Word Level is more aspirational (this year's synonym for "daft"), but with careful planning might just about be achieved. It is Sentence Level (key stage 2) which appals and terrifies.

This is a bad mistake, since this is where primary teachers feel particularly in need of direction. From the late 60s until very recently, the orthodoxy preached by teacher-trainers and local education authority advisory services was that grammar, spelling and punctuation were merely "surface features'' to be taught only as they cropped up, and in context (ie with little attention to underlying patterns and rules). Many teachers therefore have been taught precious little about these aspects of English themselves. They're sure the old orthodoxy is wrong, but they don't know where to start.

And grammar is a notoriously difficult subject to teach. Children must know the main concepts and terminology so they can converse with their teachers about language, but this type of language study is not immediately engaging to young minds. Children can be easily confused, alienated and bored by it.

If we want to interest children in language and help them use it better, teaching must be sensitive, informed and light of touch. Endless analysis and scrutiny of text is the kiss of death - and so is explicit attention to elements of grammar before language is sufficiently developed for full understanding.

The teachers I've met are horrified at the speed and intensity of the NLS grammar coverage. Punctuation of direct speech, for instance, is to be polished off by the end of Year 3. The possessive apostrophe is dealt with in one fell swoop in Year 4 Term 2. By Year 6, children must be fully conversant with the active and passive voice, a topic which in my schooldays wasn't covered till well into one's grammar school career.

In fact, the framework rattles through grammar at such a rate that it misses the teaching of a few elementary points - like nouns, for instance. (Either children are supposed to know all about nouns by magic, or someone has blundered.) We're promised a rigorous programme of in-service. Perhaps it'll be effective, and the nation's primary teachers will soon be prattling confidently about complex sentences with main clauses in the passive voice. I wonder though whether the nation's children will be listening?

There's no doubt we must raise standards and expectations, and that all children should know about our language and how it works. But teaching involves much more than ticking off aspirational targets term by term. In failing to balance high expectations with a degree of realism, the National Literacy Strategy puts teachers and children under ridiculous pressure.

The solution, of course, is to take the framework with a pinch of salt. When they've attended in-service courses and improved their skills in the English language, teachers should use professional judgment about what is and isn't possible in their school, with their children, and chop and change the framework to suit.

But will they be allowed to? Will David Blunkett, Michael Barber, Chris Woodhead et al have the courage to trust teachers, respect their expertise in how children and classrooms work, and accept that the grand plan needs toning down? Or will the National Literacy Strategy be like the national curriculum - another indigestible, over-egged pudding - another unworkable orthodoxy imposed on a despairing profession?

Sue Palmer is a former primary teacher who has written many textbooks on aspects of literacy. For the past 12 years she has campaigned for more attention to language study - especially grammar - in primary schools.

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