Why grammar parses me by

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Seven years of my life were spent at a grammar school - and at the end of it all I still couldn't spell the word grammar! I discovered this deficiency in the most embarrassing way possible - at a job interview.

Surprise, surprise, I didn't get the job. It might have been the Swinging Sixties, but the Slough Observer still wasn't prepared to train up a junior reporter who thought he'd just left a "grammer" school.

Occasionally I tell this tale against myself to encourage struggling students, but it comes to mind now in the wake of a York university study into that very topic - grammar. Academics at the university had a detailed look at existing research on the effects of teaching grammar to five to 16-year-olds. They concluded there was no evidence that "traditional grammar" helped children to write better than they otherwise might.

These conclusions will come as no surprise to teachers in the field. Kids are grammatical beings, and work out the "rules" of language as they pick up words. Force-feeding them with a lot of theory is not going to improve the way they string those words together on the page one jot. A suitable analogy might be found in the world of Formula One racing. It may be useful and apt for a driver to know what goes on under the bonnet of his car, but will that knowledge really improve the way he hurls the machine around the track?

At that secondary school which I had such difficulty in spelling, they did indeed teach you grammar. Slicing up sentences, we called it, otherwise known as parsing, as all who suffered its inanities will remember. As knowledge goes, it came pretty far down towards the useless end. Six months after leaving, I had forgotten it all - you might say I couldn't tell my parse from my elbow.

But if teachers know these things, it's equally the case that politicians don't. People who couldn't teach a donkey to bray have no hesitation in braying like donkeys themselves at the first mention of such emotive terms as literacy, standards and, indeed, grammar.

One such is Tim Collins, a Tory. Asked by this newspaper what he thought of the study's conclusions, Collins responded predictably by pointing to "dismal standards of literacy among some of our school leavers", adding:

"It is therefore surprising that this report should come to such an indifferent conclusion to the tried-and-trusted methods of helping our children to improve their writing skills."

I suspect that not a lot of people know this, but Tim Collins is the shadow education secretary. And while you might say that accounts for him knowing nothing about teaching, you would still think he'd have the sense to keep quiet on such detailed and technical topics.

However, recognising that grammar doesn't assist with writing is not the same as saying that grammar shouldn't be taught at all. Students who arrive in the FE classroom need to be able to talk about their work in an economical and informed way, so reminding them about such terms as noun, verb and adjective doesn't do any harm, and might just do some good. There are some aspects of teaching writing that are best left alone, however. A quarter of a century in the classroom leads me to put the following into that category:

* The semi-colon. You can always spot the students who have been taught this at school. Like the Italian waiter and his pepper mill, they sprinkle their semi-colons indiscriminately and from a great height. Trying to teach it to the rest of the class has the same effect. They all go down with acute semi-colonitis. Far better to point out that George Orwell wrote his novel Coming Up For Air without recourse to a single semi-colon; if you don't bother it; it won't bother you.

* Ditto the apostrophe. Forget Lynne Truss' and her "leafy shoots". The apostrophe is a bottomless' pit into which hour's of teaching time can be poured with no tangible result. In fact, in this case you will touch bottom. It will come at the end of many frustrating classroom hours' when you realise that (a) only about 5 per cent of those who couldn't use it before, now can; (b) this is balanced almost exactly by the 5 per cent who could use it to start with, but now cant'; (c) the other 90 per cent have remained untouched by the whole experience.

* Telling them that you will teach them to write like Shakespeare. Try this and you will discover they know more than you think. Several students will immediately tell you that Shakespeare invented many words of his own, and that henceforth they will feel free to do the same. Then some bright spark will remember reading somewhere that Shakespeare spelt his name in several different ways, and so I At which point you might as well give up and go off and become a shadow education minister!

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