Writers' tool kit

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Vocabulary is definitely a Good Thing. Words are essential tools both for thinking and for communicating, so the more we know and use, the better. We all agree on this.

Every subject area has its technical terminology which teachers are pleased to hand on to the next generation. Geography has peninsulas and tectonic plates, maths has equations and percentages, and so on. No one, so far as we know, disputes the importance of this terminology.

You might think that this respect for technical words might be greatest in the subject areas where words are most central - English and modern foreign languages. And yet precisely in these areas there is a grand tradition of avoiding terminology. Terms like "subject", "infinitive" and "adverbial clause" might be useful for the teacher, but have little place in the classroom - not even when talking about subjects, infinitives or adverbial clauses.

As you may have noticed, we're standing at the start of a new tradition, the new officially approved approach to language teaching: explicit teaching of (and about) specific language patterns. The Framework for the National Literacy Strategy even lists the technical vocabulary which children should learn in each year, and the one for key stage 3 English encourages the same trend towards teaching technical terminology (eg, Year 9 pupils should "know and use the terms that are useful for analysing language").

In general we welcome this move as a return to "normality" in English teaching, but in particular we should like to celebrate one little-noticed achievement of the past few years. In a stroke, the NLS team has solved a problem that has bedevilled grammar teaching for centuries: divergent terminology.

"Noun" or "substantive"? "Past" or "preterite"? "Relative clause" or "adjectival clause"? And so on and on. At the start of the 20th century a bunch of academics made a brave attempt to unify terminology, but failed; but at the end of the same century, the NLS succeeded (without apparently noticing what it had achieved). We now, for the first time in the history of UK education, have an official, governmentsponsored list of grammatical terminology. It's in the official key stage 2 literacy glossary, lodged on the official NLS web site (under "Framework for Teaching" at www.standards.dfes.gov.ukliteracypublications).

This includes about 100 terms for describing language, but it doesn't just list the words; it also fixes their meanings by quite extensive explanations. (The explanations on the website are a little clearer than those in the paper version, which was distributed to all schools.) No longer will long-suffering pupils have to upgrade their terminology when they move from primary school to secondary, or even from one teacher to another. But what about modern foreign languages? Why not extend the same terminology to them too? A single unified terminology for grammar in all subjects is a noble cause.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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