Question of objectives

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Melanie Phillips has got it wrong in her much publicised book. Pupils must learn how to convey a message and how to master linguistic form, says Brian Page. Melanie Phillips appears to have read one book - Grammar! (CILT 1994) - and by careful quotation manages to give a totally erroneous impression of language teaching in our schools today.

She gets some things completely wrong. For example, she quotes me as criticising one examination board's marking criteria because top marks are only given where there are very few grammatical inaccuracies. What she does not know is that I was on the committee which drafted the criteria and I completely support it. My commentary on it was not to oppose the rewarding of correct grammar but to point out that we need to make our position theoretically and philosophically coherent by arriving at a communicative value for correct grammar. Phillips completely misses the point.

She has little idea of pedagogy. She criticises Barry Jones for implying "that if there should be a number of different grammatical structures within a text, teachers should avoid explaining them all". So she must be in favour of teaching all the grammar all at once and has no idea of sequencing and prioritising. She gives as an example the proposal that if you teach "je voudrais" you should immediately teach all the other parts of the conditional.

She has only a sketchy idea of the terms of the debate: the relationship of grammar to communication, the implications of starting from the principle that the purpose of language is to convey messages. Her view of grammar is bizarre. She says "the rules of language are essential precisely because they are universally applicable", which can only mean that the rules of the grammars of English, French, German, etc are much the same. If only they were!

The view that a communicative approach to language learning meant you didn't have to bother with grammar was always wrong. In the Eighties, modern foreign language teaching moved away from the view that the production of grammatically correct sentences was the major objective and moved towards the principle that the purpose of language is the communication of messages.

Phillips does not mention that during that period, in those areas where a communicative approach was used, the number of learners choosing to go on at the 14-plus option stage doubled. The GCSE introduced in 1988 with a communicative aim attracted more language candidates than ever before. Does she consider this a good thing? Or does she want to go back to the times when language teaching was so unattractive that only an elite was prepared to continue to examination level?

This change of direction did not mean that grammar was to be ignored but that it was to serve the main purpose. Indeed, the 1988 GCSE syllabuses, which had as a stated aim the learning of language for practical communication, set out in detail the quite extensive grammatical knowledge required of the candidates.

The difference is that communication of the required message, even if grammatically inexact, will be rewarded as the real if modest achievement it is. For higher achievement, in marks or examination grades, learners have to show control of grammatical structures. Phillips' claim that languages teachers are ignoring the teaching of grammar is just plain wrong.

Melanie Phillips, All Must Have Prizes. Little, Brown, 1996 Grammar! edited by King L, Boaks P. Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, 1994.

Brian Page is a former president of the Association for Language Learning.

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