Language rules OK?

19th September 1997 at 01:00
John Honey: "Time to write off this trendy dogma"

In 1996 a team of inspectors descended for a week on a grammar school in the south of England. Their judgment on the English department indicated great satisfaction, except for one item. The department allowed for one lesson a week in specific language teaching, including grammar and clause analysis. This, the inspectors said, should be scrapped, as it was now well known that grammar teaching was ineffective and possibly even harmful.

This incident illustrates a trend that swept through English teaching in the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries, and became the dominant view between the 1960s and the present day. That excellent body of enthusiasts, the specialist English inspectors and local education authority advisers and their teacher-training colleagues - all commonly drawn from among the best classroom teachers of English - accepted the battery of research findings between 1903 and 1975, which left no doubt that teaching grammar was a waste of time.

This judgment was repeated in the Bullock, Kingman and Cox reports, which merely reflected what had been a reality in classrooms and examination halls since the 1960s. The result was that, unlike their counterparts in Germany or France, British pupils came to lack even the means of discussing the basic mechanics of their own language, and often the tools for editing their own writing.

The disappearance of grammar chimed with other significant developments in the philosophy of English teaching. There was the Leavisite emphasis on the teaching of great literature as a means of ennoblement, the concept of English studies becoming a powerful process of personal growth, and later the influence of critical theory as a vital ideological tool for understanding the world.

Uncertainties about the notion of "correct English" and even about the appropriateness of teaching standard English were nourished by the linguists' dogma that all languages and dialects are "equal", and by their rejection of any form of prescription.

Against this background, governments of the 1980s and early 1990s sought to confront the awkward truth that thousands of school-leavers and even university entrants were unable properly to express themselves, especially in writing.

It has become fashionable to dismiss the issue of declining standards as scare-mongering, but the complaints of employers and university teachers, underlined by international comparisons, seemed to confirm the impression of serious underachievement, especially by lower-ability pupils, despite massively increased investment of time and money.

This concern for standards underlay the creation of the national curriculum and the insistence on the re-introduction of forms of grammar teaching and testing, in the guise of the requirement to study "knowledge about language". Both these developments were brought about in the teeth of hostility from the teaching profession, not least the National Association for the Teaching of English, whose well-understood policy had, since the mid-1960s, reflected opposition to grammar teaching and often suspicion of standard English. (Interestingly, NATE's general secretary, in a marvellous U-turn,this year described such opposition and suspicion as "deranged".)

Grammar teaching was described as useless and all its proponents pilloried as right-wing blimps who saw grammar as a form of discipline to regiment and control the working classes. Standard English was criticised as an exclusively class dialect which covertly represented the interests of white, male, middle-class heterosexuals.

We now have strong reason to reconsider both these basic dogmas concerning the nature of standard English and the outcomes of teaching its grammar. On grammar in particular, it is clear that the experts were simply passing on judgments about research findings they had never examined and the scientific fallibility of which they were simply unaware.

Yet, despite the advice from the linguistic theorists, most teachers continued to correct students unable to handle standard forms, although the fact that some refused is worrying.

The NATE-sponsored Grammar Book???? by Elspeth and Richard Bain shows traces of these mistaken dogmas in its introductory section attacking "tradition al" grammar teaching, and in its hostility to the principle of prescription, although the book is to be welcomed as exemplifying the vital principle that grammar is best taught not as isolated drills but through rooted examples. To teach an inappropriate version of English grammar by inappropriate methods at an inappropriate age is a sure receipt for ineffectiveness and even harm.

"But where are the teachers?" asked a recent headline in The TES. This question has a special urgency in respect of primary and secondary teachers who have responsibility for the linguistic elements that have been force-fed into the national curriculum. After 30 years of neglect, many such teachers are simply ignorant of the technical workings of grammar, and the language in which they are explained. One hesitates to impose further burdens on a teaching force weighed down by unrealistic demands over the past 10 years. But the provision of a comprehensive programme of in-service education in the real grammar of modern English, and the best ways of teaching it, must be a priority.

Classroom English over the next decade will be dominated by the need to assimilate a strengthened grammar element and in finding creative ways of teaching it which avoid the old pitfalls of rote learning. But because of the pervasive influence of the old ideology, we can predict a pattern of resistance, both open and covert. The battle has hardly begun.

John Honey develops these arguments in Language is Power, a Faber paperback original, #163;8.99 ISBN 0 571 19047 2

Professor John Honey was formerly dean of education at De Montfort University, Leicester

Elizabeth Bain: "Evolution is the only way forward"

As the millennium approaches it is natural for a nation to review its success at preserving aspects of its heritage. The popular press suggests that although samples of our architectural heritage and landscape are being protected, our language, a far greater national treasure, is in decay. It faces, at worst, deliberate despoilation and, at best, shameful neglect. English is perceived as a degraded and debased victim of widespread indifference and more specifically of a teaching establishment that recklessly abandoned the teaching of grammar a generation ago.

Should a preservation order be slapped on the language? Is the damage irretrievable? Should English teachers be forced to return to the good old days of formal grammar teaching? Should the Government bring back compulsory parsing?

The notion that language is in decay has a long pedigree. Greek scholars of the 3rd century BC bemoaned the declining standards of language, hankering, presumably, after the higher standards of the 4th century BC. In linguistic terms it seems the past was always a golden age and change is never for the better.

Down the years English writers have complained that the language is decaying, often describing their own work as the last bastion against linguistic chaos. Some have suggested language can and should be fixed. In 1712 Jonathan Swift called for the setting up of an academy to control the English language because he saw no absolute necessity why any language should be perpetually changing. But languages do change and, presumably, always will.

The bulk of formal grammar teaching disappeared from schools during the 1960s. The discipline became discredited because there was no evidence it improved pupils use of language and because it was based on a prescriptive approach that was seen to be untenable.

Grammar is not a set of absolute rules, the that-which-must-be-obeyed of language, but a series of patterns through which a language community constructs meanings. These patterns include the ways words are modified to refine meaning and the ways they are grouped together to create sentences and longer texts. While there will be many widely accepted patterns, they will necessarily change over time as users develop new modes of expression to meet new needs.

Once systematic grammar teaching was abandoned, most teachers chose to address specific issues as the need arose. Although aspects of grammar were still taught, there was no consensus on what should be covered. A general feeling emerged that purposeful tasks could develop language skills without the need for explicit teaching of what was understood implicitly.

Many English teachers now see value in explicit grammar teaching. However,this does not mean a return to what was done before. Any study of grammar must aim to make implicit understandings explicit. It must be directed towards clarifying meaning or contributing to a judgment of value. So, for example, teaching pupils to identify parts of speech is, in itself, of limited value. They need to be able to go on to use that knowledge to explore refinements of meaning and aspects of style in real examples of purposeful writing. They need to examine their reading and learn skills they can use in their own writing. Work on verbs could start with pupils identifying verbs within a text, and reflecting on their own use of them. It could move on to substituting alternatives for some selected verbs and experimenting with various effects. Developments could include looking at verb-less sentences, such as: Three pints today, please. or at the use of tenses including, perhaps, the predominance of the present tense in newspaper headlines.

The work could then be re-inforced during the drafting process, when pupils would be asked to review their selection of verbs and reconsider some of them, possibly suggesting alternatives to a drafting partner.A modern study of grammar cannot restrict itself to formal, written standard English but must take account of the entire range of usage, including spoken English, informal standard English and regional dialects.This does not detract from the significance of standard English, but pupils must see that this dominant and widely accepted dialect exists within a more varied range of forms of English and cannot be examined in isolation. Awareness of the grammatical structure of their regional dialect will help pupils use standard English, with its different structure, more accurately.

It is also essential that a modern grammar should examine the structure of complete texts. Examples of texts could be drawn from novels, shopping lists, tabloid and broadsheet papers, casual spoken and formal persuasive language, carrier bags, school reports, comics and textbooks.

Through work on grammar, incorporated into reflection on their own writing and redrafting, pupils will learn how to improve control of meaning in sentences, gain an awareness of the dangers of ambiguity, write with simplicity and clarity and find an appropriate balance between variety and repetition.

Our pupils understanding of language should not be informed by a simplistic distinction between false absolutes of right and wrong but by a subtle and intelligent approach to language forms. The best, indeed the only way to preserve a language is to encourage its use for all purposes and in all modes by people who are demanding and analytical about their own writing and reading. Only dead languages do not change and develop. English must change. Let us aim to educate vigilant and enthusiastic users of the language who will enjoy its freshness, variety and beauty and who may be the first generation to celebrate the excitement and promise of a developing and perpetually changing language.

The Grammar Book, by Elspeth and Richard Bain, published by the National Association for the Teaching of English, 1996, ISBN 0 901 291 45 5, #163;45, to non members #163;40 to members, plus #163;3 pp. NATE, 50 Broadfield Road, Sheffield S8 0XJ

Elspeth Bain is head of English at Boldon Comprehensive School, South Tyneside

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