My belt-and-braces approach to grammar? It's a load of old pants

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Stephen Jones: Another view

Help! He didn't put it in quite such simple terms, but that was what the young English teacher was really saying to me.

I gave him what he wanted: a big bundle of resources that would help him with the classes he'd been drafted in to teach. I'd begged, stolen and borrowed most of them over the years, so I didn't feel a particular sense of ownership.

Only later did I realise that what I should also have given him was advice. This too had been some years in the making: the product of 30 years of hard experience in English classes of all kinds.

So what would I have said if I'd had the presence of mind to come up with it at the time? First would have been the reminder that as an English teacher in FE, your task is repair and maintenance, not new-build. The cowboys and DIY merchants have had their go, and now along you come with your metaphorical sand and cement to try to shore the thing up.

Then it's down to specifics. Start by giving them a bit of basic vocabulary. By that, I mean those tricky little words known as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. This will be fun for you, because it's the nearest you're ever going to get to knowing what it's like to be a maths teacher. As soon as you propose it, you'll see that look come into your students' eyes: a combination of blind panic and dull resignation - not unlike the one you see on the faces of cattle queuing for the abattoir.

It's worth persisting with. After about five weeks of dancing about the classroom in best Play School fashion, illustrating the difference between a thing and an action, they'll start to get it. They might even thank you for finally making it understandable to them.

You're going to have to go back to basics in other areas too. The primary building block of most forms of writing (though not of texting) is the sentence. To you, it's second nature; to them, it's torment. Why, they ask, do you tell them to let the words flow, when every few seconds they've got to turn off the tap again?

But you persist. What is a sentence? Of course, they've heard it all before. At least the words have been spoken in their direction. They're with you now precisely because they haven't been heard.

So you're going to have to try something different. Time to bring on the "three pairs of trousers" metaphor. It may, or may not, get them to put the darned full stops in the right place, but at least you get to play Rolf Harris.

Which came first, you ask them, speech or writing? After some thought, they generally plump for speech. And once writing has been invented, how do we represent the sounds of speech on the page? Through the letters of the alphabet, they answer as one. So, if letters make words and words represent sounds, how do we put down the pauses that we use in speech to help get the meaning?

This in itself brings a pause. You leap to the whiteboard and with practised ease draw a pair of shorts and a pair of "long" trousers next to them. At this point, they'll be thinking you've flipped. Never mind. The long-trousered pause is .? you ask. The full stop, they chorus. And the shorts? The comma.

Now comes the coup de grace. In between the longs and the shorts, you draw in a pair of ankle-swingers. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, you establish that this represents the intermediate pause, the semicolon. But you have to add a health warning. Otherwise; you get sentences; that look; like this. So, just as the ankle-swingers are the height of fashion one summer and (forgive me) pants the next, so you must make sure that your semicolons are given only the occasional of outings.

Stunned silence. Have they got it? A hand goes up. "That's all very well. But what if I want to wear a skirt?"

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