Not if, but why and how;Reviews;English;Books

12th June 1998 at 01:00
NELSON GRAMMAR (for ages 5-11). By Wendy Wren. Evaluation Pack. pound;35.40 Nelson.

Nelson's contributions to primary English always aim for completeness. And Nelson Grammar keeps the tradition going. The teacher's book contains all the answers, a description of formal grammar and a trenchant introduction - thoroughness that is repeated in the pupil material.

The resource comes from the same philosophical stable as Louis Fidge's recent grammar course for Collins; both are signs of the times. English, the author Wendy Wren writes, has "suffered from fashionable trends", a concept that is here left unexamined. The question is not "if grammar should be taught" but "why and how".

This is a tendentious simplification, rendering partisan the good sense of succeeding paragraphs. Of course children cannot understand purpose and audience in their writing, or draft and proof read if they do not know how language works. Nor can they speak articulately, although this is not mentioned in the text. All responsible educators have asked "how" and "why", never "whether".

While old-fashioned "dry exercises" have "no ... other end but ... themselves", the similar context-free exercises in this grammar are to help pupils "improve their writing". Long-dead grammarians, such as Lindley Murray, had the same aim. William Cobbett saw grammar as the great enabler. He wrote "for plough boys" and he was right. This returns us to battlefields that should have been desertedlong ago.

But are we helped by seeing grammar as "right" or "wrong", language as fixed - the debate since the 18th century? How, for example, can we be certain of correctness in an exercise on prepositions (book 2, page 11). Although an inveterate "different from" user, can I assert that "different to", supplanting "from", as grey squirrels conquered red, is wrong?

So the "how" can have answers different from (see?) these. Look at Grammar 9-13 by Sue Hackman and Clare Humphries (Hodder) before you plump for Nelson.

Having said that, I admire the practice and extensionactivities providing differentiation, the recursiveness, the help to teachers perhaps unsure about classroom organisation andthe grammar itself. Children completing this course could tackle any grammar exercise.

But as with the old "dry exercises", will this grammar be truly learnt and habitual to their thought, speech and writing?

* Dennis Hamley is a former English adviser for Hertfordshire

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