Tuesday, 12 December 2017

13 more thoughts about writing

1. Every genre of writing has a ‘syntax’ and a series of paradigms. (Think eg the rom-com). The syntax is the storyline-structure-plot. The paradigms are the protagonists and settings. Select a story: are you going to change the syntax? Paradigms? Both?

2. An author is someone who plays with genres, motifs, syntaxes, paradigms, expressions, rhetoric and the audience expectations written in to all these aspects of writing. We learn these expectations through reading loads and writing loads for audiences.

3. ‘Audience’ is not just the real reader(s). Every text implies an audience who know/like eg the language it’s written in, the choice of words , the motifs and allusions, the genre, the rhetorical devices, the similarity/alteration in syntax/paradigms .

4. Every time we want to describe a person or thing having introduced him/her/it we can choose whether to use a ‘which/that/who’ type expression or start a new sentence with a he/she/it/this/that/these type. The second is often more informal, more like speech.

5. If you ‘front load’ too many sentences one after the other, with phrases, clauses and adverbs that come before the sentence’s main action, the reader will tire/get lost/get bored.

6. Expressing an ‘argument’ in fiction/non-fiction is greatly affected by whether each sentence is or is not part of the argument. Digression tells more about the person arguing than the argument itself. Fine, if that’s intended! If not, get rid.

7. Surprise in fiction may be that we were reading the story as a genre, which built expectations, but the writer broke from the genre by altering the usual syntax and/or one or more paradigms and/or introducing an unusual motif.

8. ‘Character’ in text is made up of only the ‘signifiers’ we give them through words in the story eg thru speech, thought, description of action, others’ viewpoints. Ultimately ‘character’ in fiction only matters when it ‘engages’ in action, like a cog getting in gear.

9. The Stith-Thompson Index is an index of story motifs. These are scenes, encounters, ‘moments’ selected and classified from thousands of stories. They are a resource!

10. The viewpoint in non-fiction texts ‘hide’ behind phrases like: ‘it is thought that...’ (by whom?!);’many people have said...’ (who? When? Where? Why?); ‘few would question...’ and unproven adjectives/adverbs: ‘improbable’, ‘celebrated’, ‘thankfully’, ‘universally acclaimed’,

11. Seemingly objective narration can slip a p.o.v. in without readers spotting the ‘bias’ eg ‘It was pointless for her to go on.’ Is this her thought? Or the narrator’s? Or both? Or neither? Ie somehow belonging to the story?!

12. In stories, there are events of the past and future we can relate which ‘thicken’ the text, but there are ‘continuous’ states of mind, outlook etc (past, present or future) we can relate: eg ‘she used to...’,/‘might later like to...’.

13. Who is going to help or hinder the progress of your protagonist(s)? Why? What’s their motive?

Monday, 11 December 2017

Writing: how? 19 thoughts.



1. Year 8, Harrow Weald County Grammar School, 1959: we read Browning’s ‘dramatic monologues ‘ and talked about what was told and how. Homework: ‘write a dramatic monologue, long, short, prose or poem.’ And we could!!! Literature that works is infectious.

2. How do writers of non-fiction research, select material? How do we lay that out in sequences? How do we make sure there are as few ambiguities as possible. How do we distinguish between fact and opinion? How do we invite (or not) readers to debate what we write?

3. Why would it be in anyway sensible to take advice on writing from Gove, Gibb and their pals rather than from eg Frank Cotterell Boyce, Philip Pullman, J.K, Rowling, Shirley Hughes, Malorie Blackman, Jacqueline Wilson, David Almond, Jamila Gavin, Michael Morpurgo, Anne Fine, etc etc?

4. Many stories have an elbow or crux, the moment when an accumulation of problems has led to a defining moment which in theory could lead to success or failure, good or bad outcomes. These elbows should be almost painful!

5. The questions, who am I? Where am I? When am I? are often good places to start writing, even if it’s non-fiction: the ‘who’ can be eg the impersonal narrator of a scientific description. It’s still a ‘who’! These questions help define the genre(s).

6. The formulas for ‘expected level’ of ‘good writing’ created by the govt are nonsense and could only have been created by people who don’t write or are lying about how they write.

7. With jeopardy in writing, always ask who or what is causing it? Who or what is it happening to? How does the jeopardised get out of it? (Or not!)With whose help? (Or not!) And why did we choose that cast to display that jeopardy?

8. Writing relies heavily on the writer assuming readers are constantly predicting. Writers create *possible/probable* outcomes and then confirm, disrupt, ruin these...usually done in an unspoken way. Hidden story syntax.

9. Fiction is writing about ideas and feelings attached to beings who readers care about. The feelings emerge out of our varying attachments to what characters do and say with/to each other. Ideas emerge out of a sense of right/wrong, Fair/unfair, in scenes and outcomes.

10. Part of learning to write (which all writers do till the day they die) is ‘finding a voice’( or voices). We find these through reading and listening, saying to ourselves: ‘I could write like that.’ As we imitate, we adapt to suit the purpose. Continuity and change.

11. The ‘cliffhanger ‘ is the most extreme form of ‘reveal/conceal’. In truth, all writing, even reports, argument, non-fiction , Poetry relies on many, many mini-cliffhangers: moments which ‘say’ I’m not telling you all, there’s more to come.

12. Fiction relies heavily on dramatic irony: situations, states of mind etc that the writer creates in which a protagonist appears to know less than the reader.

13. All writing is a ‘con’ in one respect: it pretends to ‘reveal’ but at the very moment it reveals it ‘conceals’. That is: it implies but doesn’t say *yet* what’s coming next. This is what ‘pulls’ the reader through a text, thinking ‘I want to know more’.

14. In writing, there is no such thing as a good or bad word in itself. It always depends on context and purpose. Will it help me say what I want to say? Will it help me say it in the way I want to? Does it ‘do’ humour? Sadness? Nostalgia? Anger? Or what?

15. When writing, we ask ourselves if we want to draw attention to the writing itself eg through ‘self-conscious narrator’, deliberate over-description, heavy repetition of sound or word or the metaphorical. Or aim for invisibility through ‘sparse’ technique.

16. Every part of a sentence or whole sentence has a rhythm. To find it, repeat it out loud several times. When writing, we can ask ourselves if the rhythm ‘feels right’. Sometimes, we might want to accumulate detail = running rhythm. Contemplative might = long phrases etc etc.

17. The moment we start to write we borrow from previous writings:the genre (or mix of genres),the narrative voice,the register(formal, informal, regional, etc),motifs (eg the ‘disruptive force’, pathetic fallacy), rhetoric (eg hyperbole, rule of 3,, story syntax (eg rising jeopardy)

18. If you write dialogue in fiction you make rhythms between eg speakers taking turns, what characters are thinking, descriptions of how they speak, narrations of events, past, present or future. Some texts (or parts of) do all these. Some rely on dialogue standing on its own.

19. Any writer who has chosen a ‘narrative voice’ has them to decide ‘what does this narrator *know*?’ If ‘omniscient’, inside everyone’s head? Specific character(s)? Only what can be seen/heard? Or other narrations? 1st person? Multiple? Crucial decisions for all writing.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Trump, Jerusalem, our MPs and the 'facts on the ground'



Facts on the Ground

How wise and thoughtful the MPs sound
talking about Israel and the 'facts on the ground'!
They have 'reservations about Donald Trump',
they get a few laughs by calling him a chump
Then they add it's such a terrible pity
he's declared that Jerusalem's the capital city
but then on cue they bring it back round
to talk of Israel and the 'facts on the ground'.


Funny they should mention that word 'ground'
'cause anyone who's looked has always found
that that ground, that land, has always had facts:
they are people who, after many attacks
no longer have great stretches of that land
It's almost as if, from the start, it was planned
so if it was 'clever' that I wanted to sound
I could say these people are facts OFF the ground

So a logical, factual, thoughtful little phrase
is used by our politicians to give some praise
to premiers and generals with a serious intention
to uproot, remove, destroy (but not mention)
the ground and the facts where this takes place.
Politicians on TV with solemn face
appear to condemn Trump for what he's said,
but choose to ignore the dispossessed and the dead.

The full 'meaning' of a word is not its 'definition'.


It’s easy to reduce ‘meaning’ to ‘definition’. This leaves out ‘connotation’: the web of connections a word/phrase/whole text has with our experience. This is yet another way in which 'grammar' (sometimes employed by critics) does not explain all!

The words ‘pain au chocolat ‘ and ‘chocolatine’ mean the ‘same’. But they ‘connote’ different meanings via my, your and our experience.

Ironically, some of the most reductive, most non-connotive approaches to language occur when education and exams approach the most connotive uses of language: literature!


Given that a good deal of poetry works through and with such processes we call 'allusion', 'affect', 'ambiguity', 'resonance', 'evocation', and 'suggestion' - again, how ironic that we keep trying to reduce words or phrases in poems to single meanings or definitions.  

Some thoughts on the improvement in 'Reading' in the international PIRLS tests

1. The PIRLS 'Reading' test was a test in retrieval, inference and interpretation. In England, we usually lump all this together and call it 'comprehension'. By making this the 'Reading' test, PIRLS acknowledged that the word 'reading' means 'reading with understanding'. There is a debate to be had as to whether that particular test (or any other test) does genuinely find out whether children are or are not understanding what they're reading but let's leave that to another day. 

2. The test was taken in 2016 by children who were 9 or 10 years old, (what we call Year 5 in England). They received several months - probably at least a year - in instruction of systematic, synthetic phonics. This is a system of reading which teaches the 'alphabetic code'. That is, it isolates the sounds English speakers make when speaking; isolates the letters and combinations of letters  English speakers use to make words; matches the sounds to the letters according to orthodox spellings; uses a variety of strategies to show how words 'blend' letters to make words. However, due to the irregularity of English, some words are taught according to the principle of 'look-and-say'. Some schemes call these 'tricky' words, others call them 'red' words. In other words, this teaching method is not 100% 'phonics'. A small part of it is 'look-and-say'.  The process by which we do phonic reading, most people call, 'decoding'. At the end of Year 1 when most children are 6 years old (though some will be still 5) the children do a 'Phonics screening check', in which they will say out loud words on a list. Most of these will be real words, some will be made-up words. The argument for doing this is that children are showing that they have grasped the 'alphabetic code' and are not 'guessing' parts or the whole of words according to say, what the whole word looks like or what letters it starts with. The reason why it's a list and not a series of sentences or a story or any piece of continuous writing, is because this would bring in to the reading process 'meaning' and children might be, they say, 'guessing' the next words or phrase. 

2. Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister for England, has claimed that there is one reason for the improved result shown by English children in the PIRLS test: the stricter demand that all schools teach one particular kind of phonics (there are several phonics methods). 

3, For Nick Gibb to claim this, it has to be shown that this one change - the stricter demand caused the improvement in the result. I'm not sure that Nick Gibb has understood the rules of 'cause and effect' in scientific experiment. The rules involve such things as: 
a) whatever is designated as a single cause, must be the only thing to change in the process leading to the change. In science, if we say that a candle heated some water, (cause and effect), we have to be sure that the water wasn't near a radiator which came on while we applied the candle. What we do is 'hold all the variables constant, while varying the once factor we are testing.' 

The time lapse between the time these children did SSPhonics and taking the PIRLS test was about 5 years. Any scientist would therefore ask, were the variables held constant? Indeed, any teacher might ask of the curriculum and their 'intervention', did we do anything different between teaching the children SSPhonics and Year 5? (Different, that is, from the previous 5 year period.) 

To my mind, several things happened. For example, in that time, Nick Gibb and others are very keen to say that 'schools improved'. They draw on data taken from Ofsted, to say that schools are getting better, more and more schools are 'outstanding'. Clearly, this judgement did not just involve 'standards of reading'. These were school-wide judgements. Can Nick Gibb or anyone else show that this general improvement in schools was NOT a contributory factor in the PIRLS sample of children improving their Reading scores?

Another factor I saw happening was that alongside the introduction of SSPhonics there was a request (demand?) that schools provide a rich diet of rhymes, stories and poems. Purely anecdotally, I saw that in action several times (indeed my school visits are seen by some schools as fulfilling that specific requirement). I also had a strange discussion with a passionate exponent of SSPhonics (a headteacher) who explained to me a) that he had brought in an hour long session every morning with Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, every morning, at which the teachers did 'rhymes, stories and poems' with the children. He also told me that this 'had nothing to do with reading'. I said that I thought it did, because it enabled the children to 'read' as opposed to 'decode'. It enabled the children to read with understanding, and not just say out loud words on a list. 

Unmentioned in the debate around these results is any account of whether schools have or have not instituted such 'rigorous' (!) hour long sessions at which children are free to listen to and interpret rhymes, stories and poems.

This brings us to a problem I predicted would happen the moment the phonics screening check was brought in. I called it 'phonics creep', and it's the process by which people like Nick Gibb describe the reading of 6 year olds as being 'fluent' or 'improving'. The only way he can make such claims is if he uses the improving results of the Phonics Screening Check. I repeat this test is not a test in 'reading'. It's a test in 'decoding'. It is designed precisely and particularly (and quite cleverly) to eliminate 'meaning' (ie 'comprehension). If someone like Nick Gibb describes children's performance at this test as 'reading', he is either ignorant or deceitful. As we all know, it is quite possible to 'decode' without being able to understand what one is reading.  

This leads us to another problem in the matter of 'cause and effect'. Having made a claim that 'a' caused 'b', it's generally incumbent on the person making the claim to explain how or why. We will have to wait, I guess, for Nick Gibb to explain this. He has one problem. SSphonics is a method of teaching the alphabetic code - how letters correspond to sounds (how 'graphemes' correspond to 'phonemes'.) Of itself, it cannot teach children how to comprehend, or interpret. That has to come from other processes. So, let us say, that Nick Gibb can explain how SSPhonics instruction helped the children decode the words in the PIRLS test, he also has to show us what enabled them to interpret a) the questions themselves (that is the wording of the questions) and b) the passages that the children were asked about.

Given that both these processes (decoding and interpreting) were being tested at the same time, it's quite possible that in the five years between doing SSPhonics and taking this test, the children have done some important things to help them interpret better. 

What might they be?

I've already mentioned one: the possible improvement in provision of rhymes, stories and poems with Reception, Year 1 and Year 2. Certainly, the removal of the National Literacy Strategy, in 2009, may have helped teachers to dump the over-use of 'extracts' and return to whole book teaching. Significant? Possibly. 

Here's another: everyone knows the 'familiarity with the test' effect. As teachers and pupils become familiar with a test, it's been observed that scores rise. It's not hard to see why. Teachers see patterns in the wording and methods of the tests and pass these on to the children. They may well coach the children with this, particular the low-performing children who often (in all our experience) find the wording of questions in test conditions difficult. I was in a school recently where the headteacher told me that her KS2 Reading SATS scores were just off 'special measures' levels (for those outside England, that means so low that the school was in danger of being taken over under new management). She implemented a draconian teach-to-the-test regime, with regular 'mock' testing, using past papers, which the teachers got the children to do under the same conditions as the SATs exam itself. She told me she raised the children's scores to 90% at the top level.

Why not? As we all know, doing tests is not some kind of 'pure' assessment of ability or aptitude, but a matter - to some degree - of 'getting' what it is that examiners are asking, knowing the right formulas for answering. Whether this is 'education' is another matter. Whether this method imparts the right or the most useful knowledge and skills is another matter. Whether this really assesses children's ability to do all sorts of other socially useful and desirable things is another matter. And indeed whether this obsession with this kind of testing squeezes out of the curriculum a raft of useful and desirable activities is another matter - for the time being!

In the meantime, we know that plenty of schools are coaching the children to do their Key Stage 2 SATs by teaching them how the questions work. 

I ask therefore, why wouldn't an improvement in this PIRLS test be at least partly down to the incredible hard work that teachers do coaching children in how to do such tests? 

4. The other crucial aspect of 'cause and effect' that Nick Gibb doesn't seem to have taken on board is again a common issue with scientists. Before diving in to say 'a'  causes 'b', they check to see if comparable results are caused or can be caused by another factor - as say, might have occurred in another experiment or (common in medicine)  the 'placebo effect' where patients are given a 'blank' pill while other patients are given the drug. If the improvement caused by the drug is not significantly better than the improvement caused by the 'blank' pill, it's not the drug that's causing the improvement. 

Analogous things happened around the PIRLS test which will have to be teased out. It's becoming clear that improvements in scores occurred with some other countries which used different methods of teaching reading from those used in England. They may well have incorporated some kind of phonics (hurrah for that, say I) but may well have not used SSP. 

So Nick Gibb has a problem there too. He'll have to explain (I'm sure he will) how Ireland, Northern Ireland and some other countries improved their PIRLS scores without doing exactly the same intervention that he is claiming 'caused' the improvement in English children's scores in the PIRLS test.

Or, indeed, how in a previous era, the National Literacy Strategy appeared to have caused an improvement in scores. 

5. I guess much of this will play out over the next few months with full statements from, say,  NATE, UKLA and others when they've had a chance to check the details. However, Nick Gibb jumped in, overruled an earlier statement from the DfE which warned against being too 'hasty' about saying that it was the introduction of SSPhonics which 'caused' the improved scores. 

6. As a PS: I would have hoped that the media could have 'got it' that moving up or down a table doesn't of itself show that performance improves! Arsenal finished 5th last season. If they finish 4th this season, they may have improved. They may not have improved. One cause for the change in place might be that Spurs play worse this season than last. 

As it happens on this occasion, the claim is being made that English children not only went up the table (ie in relation to others) but also that their scores improved in relation to themselves. 

I just hope, therefore, that PIRLS can confirm that this obeys another rule of scientific testing: they are comparing 'like with like'. That is,  you can't say something 'improves' unless you're comparing the same kind of test on the same kind of sample. Another detail it would be good to get confirmation on. 

7. A further observation - slightly tongue in cheek. In the period covered by this test, several writers have sold multi-millions of copies of books: Jacqueline Wilson, Julia Donaldson (with Axel Scheffler in particular), David Walliams, Anthony Horowitz, J.K. Rowling, Nick Sherratt and of course Roald Dahl with Quentin Blake. 

The sales and borrowings from libraries of these books in England have been staggering and readers must have included some (many?) in the lower percentile in the PIRLS test.  (note the sales and borrowings are staggering even if overall it can be claimed that 'reading for pleasure has declined') 

Given that the PIRLS test was a comprehension test, and given that comprehension is hugely aided by reading for pleasure, then I will make the claim that the reading of these books is also a contributory factor until such time can prove to me I'm wrong!

Friday, 1 December 2017

Using narratology, stylistics, pragmatics, intertextuality in analysing passages of writing

In this blog, I want to break down the topics or disciplines of narratology, stylistics, pragmatics and intertextuality into triggers which we can use productively as ways of examining how texts work. If we link this to ideology we might get a view on why these methods were used by any given writer. 

Note: these triggers or categories are not meant to be water-tight; they can be adapted, and recycled to use or merge with other triggers. 

Note 2 - I am of course am aware that thousands of English teachers have used some or all of these categories before and indeed used many others. However, some (many?) have not. I am offering this because they've proven useful to me in the past, and also to some of my students. I am not making great claims for being original here. I fully understand that I might be re-inventing the wheel on some, most or all of them. 

1. How is the text narrated? Why is it being narrated this way? Categories here might be e.g. 'omniscient narrator' 'multiple narrators', 'unreliable narrator', 'first person narrator' 'self-conscious narrator' (who reveals that he/she/it is narrating).  At any given moment and at all moments, a text is narrated. The question here is how and why? John Stephens (academic) argues that how a text is narrated is very 'ideological'. In his analysis, a first person narrative is un-complex and nearly always seeks to make the reader 'identify' with the narrator, be on the narrator's side. Other kinds of narratives can be more complex and ask the reader to take up varying positions and attitudes to different characters and situations. This leads to the reader debating more matters of right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate etc. 

2. Time frames. At any given moment and at all moments a text is in a time frame. It's possible and frequent for texts to move backwards and forwards in time. It's possible for texts to indicate continuous states of being in the past, present or future e.g. 'Rasheda loved movies..' 'Thin' texts stick largely to one time frame. 'Thick' texts, take you backwards and forwards indicating depth, breadth, background, motive etc.

3. Depiction of thought. How does the text indicate what someone is thinking? The most obvious way is 'She thought...' but there are many variations including one in which the text seems to just 'slide' into the protagonist's mind. It's often done with question in the third person: Rasheda finished reading. Now what should she do next?' This kind of writing has a name: 'free indirect discourse'. Texts which choose not to show us people's thoughts (e.g. folk ballads) are different from those that do. (Clearly!)

4. Point of view, foregrounding and focalisation. These slightly different terms point out that any given moment in a text, we are looking at someone or something from a point of view. If it's through the view of a protagonist, we can call that protagonist at that moment the 'focaliser'. This is all very ideological and political. Think gender,race, class, disability etc, and look to see how and which protagonist is focalised or is the focaliser. Why? How? 

5. Prosody - this means the musicality of a text and is usually applied to poetry and song lyrics but in fact can be applied to any text, particularly when the text appears to make rhythm and alliteration very apparent. However, it can also be done with sentence length, repetition of words or phrases, or breaks in rhythm and the like. 

5a Sentences - without going particularly into the grammar of sentences - you can tell a lot of what is going on with texts by comparing lengths of sentences. Sometimes writers use a series of short sentences and then a long one. Or there might be a series of long sentence, broken by one single short one. These days, many writers create 'non-grammatical' sentences ie they don't 'obey the rule' that a sentence must have a finite verb in it. Dickens did this on the opening page of 'Bleak House'. It's very common these days. Why? Some writers use elaborate (over-elaborate?) long sentences with many 'clauses'. Why? Sentences create rhythms, which you can look at when looking at prosody. 

6. How are people, settings, creatures, and events evoked or described? This can be done e.g. with incremental material detail. It can be done describing inner states of being. It can be done using figurative language (metaphors and similes). It can be done by the narrator appearing to take a stance towards that setting, creature person or event. Is this sympathetic, hostile, mocking, ironic? If so, why? How is that irony produced? How do we know it's ironic? 

7. All texts use other texts from before. In fact, at every level word, phrase, clause, paragraph, chapter, genre - previous texts are borrowed. But borrowings also go on at the level of motif, trope, and rhetorical device. All this is 'intertextuality'. You can play the game of intertextuality-spotting'. What does the text appear to have borrowed? Why? How has the text worked variations on what it has borrowed? (ie how has the text 'transformed its sources'? Why?) Rhetorical devices can be found in books of rhetorical devices (!) e.g. an excellent one by Sam Leith. There are also books that include or write up literary motifs and tropes e.g. 'pathetic fallacy' etc. 

8. All texts conceal as they reveal. Whenever they intimate that they are going to be saying something later,  they can invoke or imply danger, fear, loss, spookiness, uncanniness. They can use time-frame switches to indicate there is more to come. Even phrases like 'once upon a time' are revealing-concealing devices which hook readers/listeners in because they say, I am telling you that this happened 'once upon a time' while everyone listening knows that the phrase means there's more to come but which I haven't told you yet! Reveal-conceal is very important for 'hooking' readers, calling on them to read more and more.

9. Writerliness - this describes how texts refer to the fact they are texts. This is part of self-conscious narration or removal of the 'fourth wall' in films and plays. Narrators can do it, or protagonists can step out of role and appear to talk to the reader/listener/viewer. 

10. Register or code. Texts have to use a 'voice' or many voices which precede it. This kind of borrowing is intertextual but can be looked at separately. Particularly interesting, is when, say, narrations switch register, one moment being, say, very formal another appearing to adopt the 'voice' of someone talking. Narrations can borrow the 'voices' (through culturally or professionally specific groups) of trades, classes, localities. Clearly characters do this, but we'll look at that under 'dialogue'. 

11. Dialogue - pragmatics. This is a huge subject but of course is crucial for drama, film and novels. I am no way doing this justice here!

It might be useful to compare text dialogue with transcripts of people in real dialogue. The comparison will reveal that text dialogue features much fewer interruptions, hesitations, ellipses, repetitions than real dialogue. How far from 'real' speech is the dialogue? What methods are used to make it seem more like real speech? e.g. through interruption, hesitate, ellipses and repetition? One thing a written text can't do is show directly that people are talking at the same time, and yet we do this in real life!

How is the dialogue narrated? Using simple tags, tags with adverbs? Passages of description between the dialogue? What is being described? People, setting, weather? Inner states of mind and motive? 

It might be useful to look at whether the dialogue shows people as developing understandings and co-operating? Or being antagonistic?  It might be useful to develop some sub-categories here, eg at the level of how dialogue is represented in terms of how are people taking turns? 

You might want to look at what is 'revealed/concealed' by the dialogue. Are there unspoken, unstated, implied things being said which the writing wants you to pick up on but the narration doesn't spell out? Alternatively - think Enid Blyton and e.g. 'That served her right'  - some texts narrate a commentary on the dialogue that spells things out. 

12. All these features can be analysed and/or summated in terms of ideology. This comes from constantly a) finding ways to describe what's going on in any particular category and then b) asking  why? Why would the author have written the text this way?And/or what does the text 'imply' even if the author intended it or not? Ideology can taken to be something like the 'message'  but if we look at why, say, a book is narrated in a particular way, then ideology becomes more subtle, and more difficult to pin down. Or, take focalisation - what if, like the beginning of 'A Christmas Carol' where the narrator is the focaliser for the first page or so? When we look at Dickens's preface to the book, we can see a certain urgency about how he, Charles Dickens, wanted to make a point with this book. He wanted to say, I Charles Dickens have stuff to tell you about the state of Britain. So, we might say, that this need - perhaps egotistical, but also highly political - goes some of the way to explaining why the narration is so strongly self-conscious and insistent in the first pages of the story. 

Useful books:

'Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose' Mick Short (Routledge)

'Dictionary of Narratology' Gerald Prince (University of Nebraska Press)

'Language and Ideology of Children's Fiction',  John Stephens
(This is the best book I know to make a case for the ideology of narration.)

'You Talkin' to me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama',  Sam Leith

Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan

In the next blog, I'll try to apply these categories to the opening pages of 'A Christmas Carol' and 'Emil and the Detectives'. 



Bad grammar.

In the previous blog, I said how the disciplines of narratology, stylistics, pragmatics and intertextuality could be used as part of a broad strategy called 'knowledge about language'. My argument is that 'grammar' (as defined by the testing and exam system) has become the tail wagging the dog on this matter and that there are political reasons for why 'grammar' (and this particular kind of grammar) was singled out and blown up into the one key kind of 'knowledge about language' that is being taught in schools. In my next blog, I'm going to give you a break down of how those topics, narratology, stylistics, pragmatics and intertextuality can be broken down into very usable 'triggers' for teachers to use in classrooms to help analyse texts, and discover how writing works and to what end. 'Grammar' will be included in this but as only one part. 


As I've said before, the particular kind of  'grammar' primary children do, was introduced because Michael Gove inserted it into the Bew Report, which we should remember was not a report on language in the curriculum, but a report on 'Assessment and Accountability'. Grammar, it was stated, has right and wrong answers, and so would be suitable for use as a means to assess and evaluate teachers and teaching. It was not introduced because a combination of linguists, applied linguists, educationists and teachers thought it would be a good idea. It was introduced purely and only because Michael Gove thought that it would be a good way to assess teachers. However, the actual nature of the grammar involved was plucked from a repertoire of 'grammars' and linguistic knowledge that can be taught. It seems to have been based on Gove's reading of Simon Heffer's book(s) on the matter. Simon Heffer is not a linguist. He's a journalist. I reviewed his first book on grammar for BBC Radio 3 and it included several mistakes.  

The meat of the issue is that for these political reasons, this kind of grammar and an implied teaching practice to fit the test came into being. The grammar itself is problematic because it is based entirely on a self-sealed system which they call 'structure and function'. The function in question is the function within the sentence or passage of writing, not the function in social use. The argument here is that such grammarians believe that they can divine grammatical systems without explaining any particular system according to why such structures have evolved and why they are used. So, they segment ('chop up') language into the sections they think are valid e.g. words, phrases, main clauses, subordinate clauses etc ; and they give them functions e.g. 'subject', or that they 'qualify' or 'modify' other words or phrases or clauses, and so on. Quite why the language is segmented this way is treated as self-evident (the clever grammarians just know it and tell us) , and we have to take the internal logic of e.g. 'subject-verb agreement' as again, apparent. 

To take this as an example, in fact, in use, the subject-verb agreements they say are 'correct', and which teachers have to teach, and children are test on,  turn out to be not correct for millions of people, who say such things as 'we was', 'I were'. Millions of people are, according to this way of looking at language, wrong. To be clear, they are only wrong, if you it has been pre-decided that 'we were' and 'I was' are the only 'correct' forms according to 'rule' invented by grammarians called 'subject-verb agreement' and that there can only be one form of 'agreement', the one we say is right. Why can't we live with variation? Some people say one thing, others say another. After all, we tolerate variation in many other parts of language use. In fact, what happened was that grammarians drew up 'conjugations' of verbs based on what they said was 'one correct form', claimed that this represented some 'real' category called the 'singular' and 'plural' form of the verb ('was' and 'were' when used in the 'first person' ('I' or 'we') even though millions were using it in different ways! Hundreds of years later, thousands of children sit down in a test that is used to assess teachers, and have to spot the 'right' 'subject-verb' agreement! We are not talking about scientific descriptions here. We are talking about a false categorisation foisted on to teachers and pupils. 

Because none of this is connected directly to use and social purpose, the whole field is full of arguments and disputes about terminology and whether bits of the language really 'are' such-and-such or not. Teachers will be very familiar with the argument about 'connectives', 'conjunctions' and 'adverbs'  where they were, in essence, victims of two or three very dogmatic schools of thought claiming that such-and-such a word really 'is' a connective or really is a conjunction or, in another example,  really is an adverb. Similar arguments break out over the categories of words e.g. over 'infinitives', 'subjunctives' or 'determiners' and it's often hard to work out whether the name for one kind of word, e.g. a 'modal verb' is a sub-category of another, in this case, it's clearly a sub-class of 'verb', but is it a sub-class of 'auxiliary' verb or a parallel class? Looking across the English-speaking world, or across time (e.g. in my lifetime)  there are variations between those who would describe 'my' in 'my hat' as a 'possessive determiner' while others call it a 'possessive adjective'.

If you follow any of this closely, you might be interested in this: for all my life studying English, learning French, German and Latin, I've been used to hearing the term 'tense' to describe one feature of verbs. We're all used to throwing around 'past', 'present' and 'future' and where necessary attaching the word 'continuous' when '-ing' endings are used. Sightly more complicated:  the words 'perfect', 'imperfect' or 'pluperfect' might be used. Again, the terminology-lovers get 'essentialist' about it and say, that such-and-such a verb 'is' the 'present' or 'is' the 'perfect' or whatever.  Because all this is a sealed system, not attached to real-life social use, this way of describing verbs gets reduced in the exercises and tests in such a way, that writing, let's say, 'I walk in', gets reduced to saying this 'is' the 'present'. What's wrong with saying that? Well, you don't know that this really 'in the present' until you hear it in the context in which it's spoken. Most of us, at some or another tell stories, or give accounts of events in the past by using the so-called 'present' form of the verb. (This sometimes gets called the 'historic present' to cover it.) 'I walk in' or 'Napoleon gets on his horse' can indeed be part of an account that took place in the past. Meanwhile the form we use in novels to tell stories that are unfolding in the present is the same form we use to recount things that happened in the past: 'Harry Potter wore glasses' means in the book, that in the present of the book, Harry Potter 'is' wearing glasses. In some countries, novels are told using what has been called the 'present' form of the verb.  People having the unfortunate task of teaching 'grammar' to 10 and 11 year olds have to explain that 'I have eaten' is now called the 'present perfect' because, according to the people who invented this term, whatever happened is connected to the present. Most people might reasonably think that if they say, 'I have eaten', the matter of eating is now closed. It happened. It's finished. There's nothing 'present' about it. So what's going on here? Such 'grammarians' have spotted that 'have' is a 'present' form of the verb so 'I have eaten', they say,  must have something of the 'present' in it! This is an example of treating language as a sealed system, with terminology cooked up to justify or slot in with previous terminologies and not with actual social use.  Having learned that it's the 'present perfect' in Year 6, students go into Year 7 and 8, learn French,  and hear that 'I have eaten/J'ai mangĂ©' is the 'passĂ© compose' (meaning literally, the 'composed past') or just the 'perfect'. But surely the 'future tense' is a fixed matter? Not so, say some, because where in French the 'future' is created by doing something with the end of the verb, in English we use the word 'will', so it's not a 'tense' as such, say some, it's just a use of an auxiliary. But hang on, we have another way of doing it: using 'going to'. So is 'going to go' a 'future' tense or not? But hang on again, we can use the 'present' to indicate futurity. 'What are you doing tomorrow?' 'I'm going out.' Clearly this conversation is all about the future, but has used the 'present' in order to tell it. Well, in truth it's not the 'present' in the present, then is it? 

Some other grammarians have stepped into this world of 'tenses' and have announced that the term 'tense' is so problematic, we should dispense with it, and think instead of 'aspect'. This, they say, would dispense with linking a particular form of the verb to a particular time frame (e.g. 'I go' is 'present') but always look at the particular use and describe that. 

Now all this kind of argument is kept well away from teachers and pupils. That's because we're talking here about the equivalent of magic. They believe that it's vital for this stuff to be taught and learned as something fixed by incredibly clever, experienced people who know all about this code that lies behind and beyond language. If you suggest that all this terminology is much debated, is wobbly, fuzzy, and indeed provisional, then it can't be imposed as the right/wrong system required by the Bew Report in order to assess teachers. Then again, if the whole system has problems (because it's self-referential and doesn't connect directly with use) then the whole edifice of diktat and authority is undermined. It must not happen. 

And you shouldn't have read this. 

Unread it immediately.

The worst aspect of all this, though, is that the grammar in question is then used to produce 'writing at the expected level'. Arbitrary categories such as 'fronted adverbials', 'expanded noun phrases' and 'embedded relative clauses' and 'complex sentences'  are used as criteria for what makes 'good' writing. Teachers are forced to tell children that because they are using fronted adverbials,  expanding their noun phrases and embedding their relative clauses, they are writing well. 

As I hope to show in the next blog, 'technical' descriptions of language can involve a wide array of methods. These don't claim to be 'rules' but are tailored to language in use and language in use is of course incredibly diverse and uses 'variants'. Some of these methods may be useful in helping children and students to write. Given that writing is a very complex matter, it's foolish to make great claims for any one method which will itself, on its own, definitely deliver up good writing. People in government and people who devise assessment systems have to say such nonsense. 


PS - I know I've told this story before, but enjoy it if you haven't. Last year, Schools Minister Nick Gibb was asked on to the BBC Radio 4, World at One programme to talk about the grammar test for Year 6 (10 and 11 year olds). He explained how important it is, because he's slotted it into his world view that 'knowledge' is 'knowledge' and that more knowledge is good, less knowledge is bad, and even though the testing system he so loves, segregates children precisely on the basis of whether they have more or less knowledge, he keeps telling himself that the kids are getting cleverer now, thanks to the Tories. 

So the news programme's presenter, Martha Kearney read Nick a sentence and asked him if a given word in a sentence that she read to him was a 'subordinate conjunction' or a 'preposition'. Poor Nick. He struggled and then said the 'wrong' thing. Before we laugh at his misfortune, though, ask the question, in the example that Martha gave, was the distinction between two categories ('subordinate conjunction' and 'preposition') really valid? (The actual example doesn't matter!) Oh yes, say some grammarians. Oh no, say some others! So poor old Nick struggled to get 'right' something that the grammar test asks for, but which may not be right OR  wrong anyway!!! Remember what Lord Bew said in the grammar test? Grammar can be used to assess teachers because it has right/wrong answers. No, Lord Bew, it's you who can be deemed right or wrong on this matter, and in this case, you were wrong, as evidenced by Nick Gibb, who is still smarting under the indignity of Martha Kearney telling him that he was 'wrong'. In reality, it was the question that Martha plucked from the GPS paper that was wrong, not Nick Gibb, and not any of thousands of children and teachers who were told that they had got it 'wrong' too. 

PPS, the dispute in question is over the use of the words 'after', 'before' or 'since' in sentences like (1) 'He went to the loo, after the concert' and (2) 'He went to the loo, after the concert was over'. One school says that the first 'after' in (1) is a preposition and the second (2)  is a 'subordinate conjunction'. Another school says that the distinction - in this circumstance -  is invalid.