Grammar is safe withthe strategy

4th February 2005 at 00:00
The report by Professor Richard Andrews and colleagues at York university did not, as you claim, show that "children do not need to be taught the rules of English grammar" (TES, January 21). What it showed, correctly, is that traditional approaches to grammar are often unsuccessful.

The research which is reviewed so thoroughly shows, over and over again, how easy it is to teach grammar badly. In the vast majority of these projects, grammar was taught as a separate strand of English and failed to produce the hoped-for improvement to the children's writing. What a surprise. In contrast, the literacy strategy's very different approach to grammar teaching puts a great deal of emphasis on the importance of applying grammatical knowledge in practical writing assignments.

The widely praised book Grammar for Writing offers 100 teaching ideas in which a grammatical concept is introduced, explored and applied (in that order) - a far cry from dry sentence analysis that leads nowhere. But your article, like the York press release, claims that "the national literacy strategy requires five to seven-year-olds to learn about nouns, verbs and pronouns, while older children are expected to learn the names and functions of all the main parts of speech, as well as the grammar of complex sentences".

This is a mere caricature of the strategy; in the same vein, learning to play the piano involves learning the names of all the black and white keys.

Yes, knowing how to classify and name is useful, but in literacy, as in piano playing, it is merely a tool for honing performance skills. Just as some fortunate children can pick up the piano by ear, some can learn to write well without being able to tell a pronoun from a preposition. But most children need a teacher's guidance; and guidance requires a language for talking about the items of performance, be these musical notes or words.

In short, children need to understand the language and ideas of music (for piano) and of grammar (for writing). What the report rightly recommends is what is called "sentence combining" - learning to combine a handful of short, simple sentences into a single, complex one. This has been shown to work, in terms of improved writing. But sentence combining is actually an excellent example of the literacy strategy's approach to grammar teaching, with plenty of creative activity and an immediate application to a writing task; it fits very comfortably in the strategy's activities, along with a great many other ways of having useful fun with words.

Rather surprisingly, perhaps, Noam Chomsky put the question rather succinctly 35 years ago: Should grammar teaching be ended or mended? The York report seems to favour ending it (though it also rather oddly asks for further research); but the literacy strategy deserves great credit for having mended it. The new approach is very innovative, very popular with those who understand it, and something we, as a nation, should be proud of.

Richard Hudson 57 Park Avenue North London N8

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