Syntax rules, OK

8th December 2006 at 00:00
'Teaching grammar could stop mob violence'

giving pupils greater mastery of grammar could help prevent outbreaks of violence, ministers in France have decided.

Gilles de Robien, the education minister, has also demanded that French grammar should be taught in a simpler way because children in France - like pupils in Britain - can find the subject daunting.

The announcement follows last year's riots in Paris, when thousands of cars were torched and policemen attacked. Mr de Robien said improving the way pupils were taught grammar could avert violence, if disputes could be settled by reasoned argument.

He said: "In problem areas, where I often go, when young people have difficulty expressing themselves the tone can rise quickly." The minister's decision to focus on grammar comes after bitter disagreement between teachers and the government in France over how pupils should learn to read, which mirrored rows in Britain over the compulsory use of synthetic phonics.

Mr de Robien has accepted findings from an inquiry led by Alain Bentolila, a linguist, which says that the teaching of French grammar has become too complicated and full of jargon, and criticises the current trend in which pupils learn grammatical rules through reading texts rather than by the traditional method of analysing the place and function of a word within a sentence.

Mr de Robien has ordered that from next autumn teachers should devote a set amount of time, probably at least two hours a week, to teaching grammar - not through tedious, old-style lessons but through more lively, activity-centred approaches.

Grammar was often regarded as "daunting," said Mr de Robien. "One thinks of a basic labelling of words - adjectives, verbs, pronouns, articles, and so on - as if grammar only served to cut up the language, to break up its unity. That's not at all the point of teaching grammar. Knowledge of grammatical rules is not a constraint. It's an instrument for mastering language. So it is an instrument of freedom."

The minister said teachers had to simplify the terminology they used about grammar, particularly when working with disadvantaged pupils who did not receive extra private coaching. Making language clear to understand would also reinforce equality between all pupils, he said.

The report L'enseignement de la grammaire is at

Would the idea work in Britain?

British academics are more sceptical than French ministers about the impact that teaching grammar can have on preventing violence. Dr Sue Beverton, a lecturer at Durham university who has specialised in English teaching, is one of a group of researchers who has examined the impact that grammar lessons have had on five to 16-year-olds.

Young people in the UK are more likely to end up in prison if they have low reading abilities but Dr Beverton said the notion that grammar lessons might cause teenagers to solve arguments peacefully was "a really far-fetched concept to entertain".

She said: "We found it made a slight improvement to the way they structured sentences. But we could not find a link between teaching grammar and children's behaviour, social cohesion or integration. I don't think it's tenable."

Dr Beverton added that teachers in the UK were more likely than their French counterparts to see pupils from other countries as an asset in class.

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