Language rules OK?

19th September 1997 at 01:00
TIME TO WRITE OFF THIS TRENDY DOGMA. John Honey's waspish new book blames teachers for falling standards of grammar. Here he does battle with Elspeth Bain (right)

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 Grammar Book by Elspeth and Richard Bain, sponsored by NATE, shows traces of these mistaken dogmas in its introductory section attacking "traditional" 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, Pounds 8.99 ISBN 0 571 19047 2, published last week

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

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