Many younger teachers were educated in the days when everything was subordinate to the 'creative flow'. Grammar and spelling weren't important

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Consider this snippet of Ant (or was it Dec?) congratulating a contestant on Pop Idol: "That was fantastic! You were brilliant, just brilliant! What a fantastic voice!"

Contestant: "It was fantastic. I've had a fantastic time."

Or this conversation overheard in the playground at my school: "Where did you went? That time. When you wasn't in school."

"I weren't well."

"I see your mum. You've had a chicken's pox, innit?"

What is happening to our language? Many years ago, a colleague walked into a shoe repairer's and complained about a sign that said, "Shoes mended while U wait". How could we teach children to use English well, he asked, if they were subjected to signs like that? How trivial it seems now. We can accept text messages peppered with shorthand such as "IMHO" ("in my humble opinion") and "FWIW" ("for what it's worth") because there is a reason for the brevity, but the poverty of language and standard of spelling and grammar in everyday life is truly worrying. We try to address the problem with our literacy hours and language targeting, but seem to be constantly swimming against the tide.

A free local newspaper which came through my door recently was riddled with errors. Banner headlines told us the new "Naborhood Center" was progressing, train services were still "appaling", and teachers had "disipline" problems "dispite" smaller classes. Page two contained 18 errors, and I could read no further. People who write in newspapers usually have a fondness for the correct use of language. Was I witnessing the birth of a worrying new journalistic standard?

Even supposedly serious publications are often full of mistakes. In newspapers I've seen: "Are you paying too much comission?"; "Put our advise into practise"; and "We're a fully independant company". These days, no one seems to have heard of colons or semi-colons, either; commas have taken their place and sentences are merely run into each other. The advertisement quoted above also said: "Mortgage brokers receive fees, these are paid by the lender."

So who's to blame? Well, we'd better start with the teachers. Many younger teachers were educated in the days when everything in literacy was subordinate to the "creative flow". Grammar, spelling and syntax weren't important; the main thing was to get the ideas on paper. Teachers were told not to put discouraging marks on their pupils' work because it might put them off writing forever. Looking back, it seems amazing that so-called "educational experts" can have been so daft, but they certainly did some damage. One teacher at my school spelled "vocabulary" and "verbal" wrongly on every one of her school reports.

Parents must take some of the blame, too. Often, they are hard-working people who haven't got much time to spend with their children. They don't talk to them, let alone read a book with them, even though such basic activities are crucial in developing language skills. A child who has been given a literacy-rich start at home stands out, from nursery onwards.

Teachers don't have time to extend children's language as much as they'd like, either. Though I sometimes look back through rose-tinted spectacles, it wasn't all perfect. I remember an LEA sending a directive to teachers stating its concern about "litracy" standards. They withdrew it hours later, very shame-faced. Quite right too, FWIW, IMHO.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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