Sunday, 9 December 2018

How do we create a writing-friendly environment?

Writing will not flourish unless we create a writing-friendly environment. The main ways we can do this is through publication and performance. This makes it sounds grander than it is. What I mean by ‘publication’, is any means by which we can enable the pupils’ writing to be seen by other pupils, friends, family and the world at large. This might be through legible wall-displays, booklets, books, magazines, using the school bulletin, creating blogs, printing off writing ‘pamphlets’, creating ‘guides’ to places that the pupils have visited, and indeed any writing outlet at all. This involves re-thinking the ideal outcome of pupils’ writing as not being the ‘good bit of work in an exercise book’ but a ‘piece of writing that will be seen and read anywhere’.

This builds in expectation, purpose, audience and feedback, the great motors for writing of all kinds.

Same goes for ‘performance’. Here I mean writing things that can be performed in class, in assemblies, sound tracks for powerpoints, or blogs, videos, films, sound tracks, plays, poetry cabarets, late-night spooky readings and so on. Again, this builds in expectation, purpose, audience and feedback.

Together, when pupils see that their writing has a home and a place and is part of processes that involve readers and viewers, the whole matter of ‘getting it right’ takes on another meaning - and it’s the same meaning that ‘real’ writers use: how will I interest and affect ‘real’ readers?

By doing this we immerse the pupils’ writing into the world of writing at large. This also means creating reading-friendly environments through a thorough and thought-out reading-for-pleasure policy. I’ve written a plan for this: see

There is another here:

And there is an ongoing programme here:

These are all vital and should be adapted to suit purpose for all schools, all teachers and - more importantly - for all pupils and parents.

If we want to create an environment in which children want to and can write, it has to be a reading-for-pleasure environment too.

In support of today's demonstration

We know that racism, fascism, antisemitism and islamophobia are on the move, gathering support. Even worse, there are people in positions of power and influence who have put in place discriminatory policies or nod towards key figures in these racist movements giving them at the very least verbal support. Two generations ago, in France and Poland my family was ripped apart by fascists and their collaborators, with lives ended in the orgy of hate and brutality that raged across Europe. When we say, things like 'Never again', or 'No pasaran' or 'Souviens-toi' we must make sure we mean it and do what has to be done to stop the forces who dehumanise, persecute and murder people for no reason other than their birth, their background or their religion.

Friday, 7 December 2018

SPaG 2018 - analysed question by question. What's wrong with it?

Here (below) are some more detailed comments on the 2018 SPaG paper. They are follow-up to the previous blog which makes more general points. The reason why I've done this is because I think that we should take on the arguments that lie behind this test. One way is to talk about the politics that brought it in (the New Report on Assessment and Accountability being hijacked by Michael Gove so that he could a) pursue his pet agenda of 'grammar' and b) to create a means of measuring teachers' 'performance' (their 'input') by testing children's 'performance' (their 'output'. This is a mechanical and mechanistic idea of what is a performance  or 'activity' in a classroom. It is reducing the activity to the teaching of right/wrong answers. 

Anyway, here are the questions:

Question 1

‘Insert a comma in the correct place in the sentence below.

“Although he was the youngest Tom was one of the tallest.’

 As a general comment, it’s important to point out that the sentences used for this test are ones made up by the examiners.  They are contrived in order to illustrate the point that they want to demonstrate and they have no context around them. The ‘sentence’ (as defined by the ‘Glossary’ and by the test itself) is a bizarre, context-free spurt of language. 

"A sentence is a group of words which are grammatically connected to each other but not to any words outside the sentence."

These sentences are examples of pointless, unrealistic utterances. Surely, we want children to acquire a knowledge about language which is linked directly to how it is used in its many different ways. We use language in order to make meanings. These people, (who regard themselves as experts in language) have missed this key point about language. It’s no surprise though, because their model of ‘grammar’ is an attempt to devise rules without reference to meaning, without reference to social purpose, and without reference to why people choose to say or write things in the way that they do. Or, they think that the reason why people say or write something is because of the 'rules' embedded in the 'sentences'. This cuts out the idea that people have invented language and use language and change language in order to create meaning in many different and varied ways. It's not language which determines how and why we use language but it is people (us) who choose to use language in certain ways. 

Question 8

Which sentence is grammatically correct?

Tomorrow we went shopping at the sales.

In three weeks’ time, I will be on holiday.

Next weekend, we had gone to the river to fish.

Last summer, we swim at the beach and collect seashells.

This is an example of where their use of the word ‘grammar’ (or ‘grammatically’ etc) strays into meaning. Another way to put this question is to ask something like, ‘Three of these questions don’t really make sense. One of them does. Which one?’, but because the examiners’ definition of ‘grammar’ is slippery and inconsistent (one moment using it to mean something defined by ‘structure’ as with Question 1, the next - as with this question - using it to include meaning. That is, the only way to get this question right is from the meaning of the words and phrases of the sentences. To spell it out: it’s only by knowing the meaning of the word ‘Tomorrow’ and the phrase ‘we went’ that we know that the sentence is ‘wrong’ (ie doesn’t make sense). 

Question 9

Which verb is the synonym of the verb produce?


Just to be clear: ‘synonyms’ and ‘antonyms’ are nothing to do with ‘grammar’. They are some weird vestige left over from ancient rhetoric and public school education. They have no real linguistic value. In reality, synonyms and antonyms don’t exist. That’s to say, one of the whole points about the language we use is that we know that no one word means exactly the same as another. No one word is some kind of exact opposite of another. It is misleading to tell children that this is how we make language work. In fact, when we speak and write, we do other things with similar or un-similar words,  like eg use words to ‘clarify’ or ‘illustrate’ or ‘match’ or ‘add nuance’ or ‘contrast’ or ‘compare’. Rather than waste time teaching children that such non-existent things exist, we can easily invite them to find similarities and contrasts and ask them to wonder why writers and speakers might want to do such things. Such things are embedded in the most basic of stories that the children know, fairy tales like 'Cinderella'  with their stark similarities and contrasts between people or between the ‘then’ and ‘now’ of the story. 

Question 10

Which sentence is a command?

You should bring a coat.
You will need a coat in case it rains.
I am going to bring a coat.
Bring a coat in case it rains.

This is an example of where the examiners are hoist on their own petard. The categories of sentence that they’ve come up with: ‘Question’, ‘Statement’, ‘Command’ and ‘Exclamation’ were originally devised on the basis of the ‘verb forms’ and/or ‘verb structures’ within them.  So we have ways of being ‘interrogative’ in English eg by writing such things as ‘Are you...?’ Or, ‘Is the car...?’ Again, our ways of making a ‘statement’ can be ‘You are...’ or ‘The car is...’. Commands traditionally were defined by such verb forms as ‘Go!’ or ‘Keep left’ and exclamations were (in theory!) limited to sentences that began with such words as ‘How... and ‘What...’ while at the same time not being used to ask questions. (Difficult to follow? Sorry, I didn’t make this stuff up.)

Anyway, the point is that these sentence-types were devised on the basis of grammar and language structure. This was ‘pure’ grammar, in that sense. They also had supposedly difficult or off-putting words like ‘indicative’ or ‘imperative’. Clearly, these examiners decided that they were too hard for 10 and 11 year olds (probably true) so they came up with what they thought were more user-friendly terms like ‘question’ and ‘command’. Now here’s the problem they’ve given themselves: you can only deduce such things from the meaning.  But this gives them the problem of saying that such-and-such a sentence is a 'command' and another one is not - based on meaning alone. Go back to the question. The sentence: ‘You should bring a coat’ can be - purely on the basis of meaning -  be a ‘command’ in the everyday sense. Imagine a teacher: ‘Children: you should bring your coats!’ In fact, by their own definition of a command, even ‘You must bring your coats’ wouldn’t be a ‘command’! Clearly, we use a word like ‘command’ in real life (as opposed to the Alice in Wonderland world of ‘grammar’) to mean ‘to command’ and we can choose a variety of structures to do this depending on who it is who’s speaking and who that speaker is speaking to. A word like ‘command’ has been plucked from real life and applied in one very specific way.

The end result of all this is that the question is not valid. If one of the choices in a multiple choice question is reasonable and feasible but is ‘wrong’ then the test fails. In this case, it fails because they’ve fudged their own ‘grammar’ (supposedly based on ‘word-class, structure, grammar and function’). 

Question 12

Which option completes the sentence in the past perfect?

As a piece of rubric this is really quite annoying. The word 'option' and the phrase ‘completes the sentence in the past perfect’ is jargon. If you really wanted to find out if children could recognise this way of talking about the past, you could phrase the sentence in a much more helpful way. You could say eg ‘Choose from the four examples, the past perfect and write it into the sentence so that the sentence makes sense.’ 

Incidentally, this term ‘past perfect’ is a lovely example of grammarian diarrhoea. Every few years, they come up with new terms for the same old, same old! For decades this form of the verb was called the ‘pluperfect’. That’s how I learned it when I did English, French and German at school. We had the ‘perfect’ (which is one way we can express something in the past) and then the ‘pluperfect’ which to my ears at least made it sound ‘even more in the past’ as if it was ‘perfect-plus’. Now there is a term ‘past perfect’ which is really very hard for a 10/11 year old to squeeze into something that gives them a clue as to why eg ‘I had set’ should be called ‘past perfect’! What is ‘past perfect’ about ‘I had set’? I dunno. Presumably, if some people earned a living for a week by coming up this new name, they must think it is in some deep way an improvement. It’s not. 

Question 13

Which sentence is written in Standard English?

Two sports teams come to our school yesterday.
My friend was tidying the classroom.
Today the children done their school play.
The teachers was going to send a letter next week.

We can ask of this question, ‘What is Standard English’? In order to be able to answer the question, the children would need to know the Standard English forms of subject-verb formations using the verbs ‘to come’, ‘to be’, ‘to do’ and ‘to go’. This invites a particular kind of teaching - much loved by  these grammarians, though they sometimes deny it - doing ‘conjugations’. As a grammar school pupil (nb NOT at primary school) we chanted conjugations of verbs in French, German and Latin lessons. It was reckoned, even by the most formal of teachers, that we didn’t need to do it in English. Do these examiners think it's a good idea for us to do it in English? Where's the theory or research showing this? 

The easiest and most fun way to explore Standard English and non-Standard verb forms is to use a piece of fiction where the narration is in Standard and the dialogue is in non-Standard. The most obvious of these is passages in Dickens. I would love to think that it is possible for teachers to find time (in an overloaded curriculum) to approach this question in this way: using a passage of real writing for a purpose (like Dickens, or a modern author for children) and exploring their use of Standard and non-Standard. This can then be used to compare and contrast it with the use of English by people they know or see on TV. 

By the way - open question: is there a good and useful text-book that teachers are using which lays out interesting and fun ways in which the differences between Standard and non-Standard can be taught? 

Question 14

Tick the sentence that uses a dash correctly.

Call me pedantic but in actual fact ‘sentences’ don’t ‘use’ anything. Sentences are made up by human beings and it’s us who ‘use’ dashes, not sentences. I regard this as methodological madness. We keep turning language and parts of language into living beings which can ‘do’ things. This takes away from the fact that we use language to do things that we want it to do. We make choices with language. We make meaning with language. We do this for reasons - which are very interesting to figure out and speculate about. If we get into a mindset that it’s the ‘sentence’ that ‘uses’ the dash ‘correctly’, it invites us to think that there is some mysterious power that rules over us, embedded in something like a ‘sentence’ which has the power of telling us how to use a dash. No, we choose how to use dashes and the world of dashes is a very wobbly, irregular world. As it happens the ‘wrong’ answers are so wrong in this question, that how the examiners have used the dash ‘correctly’ is clear. Even so, the idea that there are only a few ‘correct’ ways to use a dash is dubious. A train journey in the London Underground looking at posters and ads, or indeed two minutes looking at the poetry of Emily Dickenson, or the writing of Lewis Carroll and you’ll find dashes being used in all sorts of exciting and odd ways. 

If these examiners want children to have ‘knowledge about language’ and want them to see the wonderful ways in which we can use language, then the way to do it is not through telling them there are ‘correct’ ways to use dashes but rather to investigate some ways in which writers have used dashes and are coming up with new good ways for themselves. 

Which sentence must not end with an exclamation mark?

What a hilarious film that was
I loved the opening scene
Was the ending funny
I have never laughed so much

The sub-text here is quite funny. The Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, tied himself in knots trying to explain the proper way to use exclamation marks. Someone pushed him into the spotlight to ‘explain’ that this new ‘grammar’ stuff was defining what an ‘exclamation’ is and that these needed an exclamation mark. I think SPaG has retreated from this - unworkable even by their own standards - and here they are being all ‘liberal’ by suggesting that it’s OK to use exclamation marks on sentences that are not exclamations. Phew! But yet again, this has given them another problem: actually you can bung exclamation marks wherever you want. The sentence ‘Was the ending funny’ is of course the usual way in which we ask questions so in their world,  you ‘can’t’ have an exclamation mark at the end. But these are sentences taken out of context. In fact, if you have the intonation of someone of eg a Jewish background - like me! - or someone fond of a particular kind of ironic use of language then we use a structure like this to indeed make exclamations and not ask questions. Older readers will remember the late England football manager, Graham Taylor, saying , ‘Do I not like that’  (in reference to the fact that Holland were beating England). It was not a question. It was an exclamation. When put into writing, it would be perfectly OK to put an exclamation mark. In fact, I can hear people like my father or grandfather saying, ‘Was the ending funny!’ by way of saying it wasn’t funny. Giving children sentences taken out of context demonstrates above all else that the supposed ‘real’ meaning or use that the examiners have in mind is not a universal meaning or use. They don’t seem to realise this. 

Another useless question from the examiners, and one which hasn’t taken notice of how people are using language in real life. 

Questions 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 [and many others in this exam]

These all ask of the children to get the names of ‘word-classes’ correct. We should remember here that there have been times when those in control of this stuff have said that they didn’t want to go back to the days of ‘parsing’. This was an ancient exercise of taking sentences and calling out the word-classes and ‘cases’ etc of the words in the sentences. Teachers would walk round a class barking out one of the words in a piece of Latin and you had to bark back that it was, say, the ‘accusative case of “puella”’ or some such.

It was felt, even by the types of people who set these tests, that this was of limited use, and might actually be counter-productive in keeping children’s interest in language alive. In fact, it’s very hard to learn how to do such questions, asked in such decontextualised ways, without having to do some form of parsing. 

To  be fair (why should I be?!) there are ways of doing a limited form of this in fun ways that appeal to children’s interest in ‘spotting’ and ‘collecting’ things. We can indeed spend short periods of time, saying, ‘Let’s spot the adverbs in this set of instructions’ or such like. It is one way to get to know and remember some of the terms. 

By the way, Question 24 asks the children to use pronouns 'correctly'. Interestingly, this use is across three sentences. In the government’s own glossary here is the definition of a ‘sentence’:

“A sentence is a group of words which are grammatically connected to each other but not to any words outside the sentence. “

In fact, this question proves that this statement from the glossary is nonsense. We often use pronouns to refer back from one sentence to another. We say - as here - ‘Jack’ - in one sentence and in the next we say, ‘he’. This grammar even has a word for doing this: ‘cohesion’. (It’s about the only word they’ve borrowed from the great linguist M.A.K.Halliday who spent a lifetime trying to incorporate use, purpose, function, meaning and choice into grammar, something that these people setting these questions seem resolutely to ignore.)

Question 25
Which sentence is the most formal?

Watching too much television should be avoided.
You shouldn’t watch too much TV.
Watching too much TV isn’t a good idea.
You really should try not watch loads of telly.

I put out a question about this on twitter and Facebook: where are the text books which give teachers and pupils some kind of definition and a grid of what is ‘formal’ English. There’s no definition of it on the government’s own glossary, which boasts in its first sentence:
“The following glossary includes all the technical grammatical terms used in the programmes of study for English, as well as others that might be useful. “

The only place it’s used is in this passage:

“Some people use Standard English all the time, in all situations from the most casual to the most formal, so it covers most registers. The aim of the national curriculum is that everyone should be able to use Standard English as needed in writing and in relatively formal speaking.”

No definitions are given here of ‘casual’, and ‘formal’. They aren’t grammatical terms anyway. They are terms to do with etiquette and one person’s ‘formal’ is another person’s ‘casual’. There is also that old familiar slide going on here in which ‘Standard English’ is used here as a term to include ‘spoken English’. 

The old agreement between linguists is that we don’t speak Standard English - we write it. That’s because when we speak, we repeat ourselves, we self-correct, we insert many ums and ers and ‘y’knows’, we often don’t finish what we’re saying so the sentences are ‘incomplete’ and so on. The only time we speak Standard English is when we read a speech or recite something something written. 

Clearly, here the claim is being made that we do speak Standard English and it’s something to do with ‘formal’ situations. But in fact, if Standard English is being nudged into how we speak, then it’s quite easy to use non-Standard forms when we are in formal situations. Alan Sugar does it quite often in ‘The Apprentice’! 

The point is that some people use mostly ‘standard forms’ when they speak. Some people use non-standard forms. Some people hop between both. Some people hardly ever do. Children who hardly ever use the standard forms for, let’s say, the use of the verb ‘to be’ (eg ‘we was’ etc) have to learn the Standard ‘we were’ in order to pass this exam. Some will say that they have to learn it in order to have an equal chance to go for jobs. 

However, that said, it isn’t the Standard English question being asked here. It’s the one about ‘formal’. Perhaps, I thought, the answer to this problem is in the glossary’s definition of ‘register’:

“Classroom lessons, football commentaries and novels use different registers of the same language, recognised by differences of vocabulary and grammar. Registers are ‘varieties’ of a language which are each tied to a range of uses, in contrast with dialects, which are tied to groups of users. “

Is this trying to say (1)  that there is one register in a ‘classroom lesson’ and another in a football commentary?  It’s ambiguous! (What? Grammarians writing ambiguously? Surely not.)  It could mean (2)  that lessons, commentaries and novels use different registers within them. The first meaning (1)  is false. The second one (2) is right. Either way, I don’t think it’s much use if we want to know what a ‘register’ is. That’s because ‘register’ is a fuzzy quasi-literary category often used by critics when they (we!) recognise people in life or in texts switching from one use of language to another, according to where that kind of language is usually used. Famous examples: Margaret Thatcher using the word ‘frit’; Ronald Reagan using the expression, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’. 

I’m afraid that saying this is ‘in contrast’ to use of dialect, is palpably  wrong. One way we switch registers is to go from eg Standard English forms to non-standard ones, otherwise known as switching between ‘dialects’. We do that for many interesting reasons. 

Meanwhile, back with ‘formal’, I have no idea how the children can be expected to get this except through some kind of hunch. I wonder how teachers are teaching ‘formal’ and ‘casual’. I wonder whether the worksheets of the kind that I’ve seen have mixed up ‘formal’ with ‘correct’ and ‘casual’ with some kind of wrongness...I’m genuinely interested in knowing how this is being done. 

Question 29 
We’re back with ‘formal’ again! 

Circle the most formal option in each box below to complete the invitation.

We would like to invite you to a catch-up/celebration/get-together  
to mark this fab/really cool/momentous
It will start up/commence/kick off
at 6pm

The most formal sentence (I think!) that comes out of this is:

“We would like to invite you to a celebration to mark this momentous occasion. It will commence at 6pm.”

I’m not sure what is shown or proven by this. I’m not sure why anyone outside of a tiny group of people would want to write to each other like this. Attaching the word ‘formal’ to it sounds to me like dodging the issue. Writing like this is full of class-based assumptions based on the idea that this way of writing has the same status as say, a piece of formal scientific writing. It doesn’t. Writing like this is done in order to flag up a certain class status or an aspiration to acquire the trappings of a particular class status. Formal scientific writing is an agreed code between practitioners going back hundreds of years and is nothing to do with petty ‘class’ distinctions and everything to do with acquired and learned training. 

Actually, I find this question really unpleasant. 

Question 32
More stuff on ‘formal’! 
Are they obsessed? 
This time it’s a matter of micro-distinctions based on dubious categories. Here it is:

Which sentence is the most formal?

She suggested that her mother be present.
She really hopes to be ready on time.
Don’t forget to lock the door!
If Johnny’s later, we’ll start without him.

I’ve been in this language malarkey for decades. What micro-distinctions are there to be made between sentences one and two that tell us that the first is ‘more formal’ than the second? In what ways should this matter or be important or be something that children should spend time learning (or forgetting)? Yes, there are great things to do with register and code-switching, particularly in fiction and when people make speeches. People who write ads do it too. It’s great fun for children to experiment with it, in order to see how these people in positions of power do it. Narrowing this down to the kind of distinction that tells us that sentence one is supposedly ‘more formal’ than sentence two, seems to me to be absurd, all the more so given that I’m not clear that the examiners or anyone else has a clear definition of what is ‘formal’. Why, for example, would the formation ‘suggest that her mother be’ be more formal than ‘really hopes to be’? The first sounds to my ears as being a bit more old-fashioned, not more ‘formal’. 

I suspect that this is an example of grammarians straying into the world of literature and ending up tied in knots. It happens. 

Question 39
What is the grammatical term for the underlined word in the sentence below?
My prize was a fluffy, green pencil case with a gold zip.

As I went through the paper, I was seriously trying to answer the questions. I got to this one and thought I knew the answer according to the ‘grammar’ that these examiners believe in. I was taught two things: after the verb ‘to be’ you get what they call a ‘complement’. It’s in the glossary (though expressed in a particularly opaque, difficult way.)  But I was also taught that all ‘verb phrases’ are followed by the ‘predicate’. So I sat and looked at this and wondered which of these two ‘grammatical terms’ would be right. 

In fact, it’s neither! Hooray. It’s supposed to be ‘expanded noun phrase’ or ‘noun phrase’. Perhaps I haven’t understood the phrase:  ‘grammatical term’. Who knows! And what possible use is it that I’m wrong when both my answers are in fact right? Agreed that ‘predicate’ is not in the glossary but maybe one or two keen 10/11 year olds figured that this phrase is a 'complement'. Hard luck on them. 

Question 41
 is about ‘direct speech’ and therefore about ‘indirect speech’ too. I looked for a definition for these in the glossary. They’re not there. Why not? 

Question 49

uses the term ‘present progressive’. Again, for decades we called this the ‘present continuous’ which had the advantage of using a word - ‘continuous’ which suggested continuous action. It kind of worked, insofar as any of these terms ‘work’. Then someone got paid to turn this into the ‘progressive’. Why? To what purpose? Why was ‘continuous’ replaced? Is it to make older teachers feel redundant and confused? Why is ‘progressive’ better than ‘continuous’? I suggest a game: invent new terms for the old terms and come up with any old justification for why it should be the new term.

More seriously, of course the great industry of worksheets and textbooks don’t and can’t keep up with this nonsense,  so quite often they are ‘wrong’. You and your children are supposed to find a way through this jungle. When we remember that it is the teachers being tested here (see Bew Report 2011 for why this is a method of assessment of teachers not pupils) this kind of verbal monkeying has serious consequences. 

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Last summer's SPaG paper (2018) - what's wrong?

I've been looking at last summer's KS2 SPaG paper and the glossary which is meant to be the guide that teachers use in order to teach children how to do the 'grammar' part of SPaG.

The paper requires a knowledge of something very technical (ie to do with what they imagine are the nuts and bolts of how you put sentences together). However, this is a mechanical or mechanistic view of 'writing' because it has very little to do with:

a) why people use one expression rather than another
b) who uses one expression rather than another
c) what are the purposes for these ways of writing
d) indeed what they mean.

In other words, what's missing here are:

a) choice (why we choose to say/write one thing rather than another)
b) function (what are the social reasons for saying/writing one thing or another
c) meaning (what are we trying to 'mean' when we speak and write, what and how do people making meaning ('understand) what people are saying and writing.

Here are some more specific points about this year's SPaG paper and the 'Glossary'  (accepting for the time being, their own rationale - which I don't! ):

Do you use the ‘glossary’?
Here’s the opening sentence:

“The following glossary includes all the technical grammatical terms used in the programmes of study for English.”

Have you found that this to be true?

Here are some points on this question:

On this year’s SPaG test there were three questions about ‘formal’ English, but the only ref in to ‘formal’ English is under ‘Standard English’ with no real explanation as to what this expression actually means or entails.

There was a question (41) about ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ speech - also not in the ‘glossary’.

There were 10 questions which used the words ‘correct’ or ‘correctly’ and two more which included ‘must’ or ‘must not’. We have to assume that this refers to ‘correct as for Standard English’...but where is the list that children might feasibly learn what is or is not ‘Standard’?

The definition of a ‘sentence’ in the glossary is in contradiction with the definition of ‘cohesion’ in the same glossary.

‘I wish I had...’ Is 'had' a subjunctive or past tense?
The glossary says it's a ‘past tense’ as used for an imaginary situation (?). Comb the internet and you'll find many sites which call it the 'subjunctive'. (These terms which the children have to learn are often much-disputed. This is one example.)

“Phrases can be made up of other phrases.” - What does this mean? How are people meant to unlock meaning from such sentences?! Ironically, it's been written by someone called a 'grammarian' who thinks that learning grammar enables people to write clearly!

In it says if a 'head word' of a phrase is a verb it's a clause. (I jest not.) Meanwhile, the Penguin Dictionary of Grammar refers to something called a 'verb phrase' and the example given is a phrase where the head word is a verb. And we're supposed to make sense of this world of conflicting and contradictory terms?!

[I have pointed out many times, the bigger game going on here is that:

the test is not there to 'teach grammar' but to 'test teachers'. This was stated explicitly in the Bew Report which is responsible for having brought in this stuff. The Bew Report was on Assessment and Accountability and not on language and grammar. It 'used' what they call 'grammar' as an example of a discipline that had 'right/wrong' answers  and so was suitable as a means of assessing whether children were being taught. (That is, taught something or anything. It's a means to an end: measure teacher 'input' by measuring pupil 'output'. It's another part of mechanical theory!)

In other words the kind of grammar that is being taught has to serve this 'accountability' purpose. That's why all the answers are 'right/wrong' even if they are not. A group of linguists took the King's Shilling and let their discipline be mashed up for this purpose.

I sympathise with teachers being forced to teach this stuff but I think it is theoretically misguided in its conception and misleading for those wanting to know how to write. For this age of child, I believe a limited version of it can be used as an adjunct or assistance to other kinds of work (and pleasure!) around texts. The problem with SPaG is that it's the mechanical and mechanistic tail wagging the language dog. ]

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Testing, testing, don't question the testing.

There is testing at KS1 (6 and 7 year olds) and at KS 2 (10 and 11 year olds). There may well be 'Baseline testing' for four year olds coming down the line soon. Secondary schools often feel that that the KS2 tests are not valid or reliable so they administer their own tests - often along the same sort of lines. In between, and beyond, there is inevitably a huge amount of teaching to the test which - to spell it out - frames knowledge and frames how children think about knowledge because of the questions being asked.

These questions have to have right/wrong answers or one version or another of multiple choice questions. This is because the DfE demand 'comparable outcomes' as if this is a pillar of democracy. In fact, it's an instrument of control: teachers, pupils and parents are drawn into the seeming significance of these tests as measures of children, teachers and schools and whole communities. The tests' supposedly unquestioned ability to measure what is significant is constantly put to one side. The testing, what is tested and how it is tested is forced upon us as being supposedly and unquestionably meaningful and useful.

In fact, as teachers and professionals will tell us there are many significant ways of dealing with knowledge, ideas, thought and feeling., some of them much more significant than the simply right/wrong ones. What's more, children and school students don't all have to be constantly assessed or indeed assessed in ways that are instantly marketable(ie the data) or used for 'comparative outcomes'.

High stakes, summative testing leaves no room for children or society to question the validity of reducing knowledge (and children) to people graded solely according to a right/wrong system of thought. They/we 'become' a grade that's based on this right/wrong way of thinking. And we are forced or conditioned to accept this grade as a final statement about ourselves - even though the test leaves much of who we are, how we think, how we work with others outside of the test, outside of the door.

I find that if I query the basis of a question on a test, or a test as a whole, there is always someone who will come back and 'explain' that the given question is in fact 'reasonable'. (You can find an example of this on the comments thread following my article about using a poem for last year's KS2 SATs 'Reading' paper. I've replied to the person with this:

"If you think 
a) that high stakes, summative assessment is appropriate for all 10/11 year olds, 
b) if you think that that has to be linked to league tables and the instant fate of a school and its staff 
c) if you think that this sort of thing has very little deleterious effect on teaching, pupils and the framing of what we mean by knowledge, what we mean by children's thought, what we mean by the development of thought in young people 
and d) if you think it's appropriate to ask children questions which are methodologically and intellectually wrong but that's ok for sake of being able to deliver 'comparable outcomes' to those in authority, - then the question you're referring is indeed 'reasonable'. 

The whole history of power in society is full of 'reasonable' acts within which are coercive, punitive policies designed ultimately to sustain that power and not to benefit the mass of people held within that power. It is vital within such systems that they produce an elite which quickly adopts and justifies the system that has enabled them to become the elite."

Ironically, within private education and in the homes of people who don't think like this - for whatever reason -, other principles are used - enquiry, discovery, fostering curiosity, stimulating informed interpretation, dialogue, questioning, invention ('creativity') and emphasis on the arts - music, drama, dance, drawing, painting, 3-D play and using holidays as a time to explore and discover history, geography, biology ('nature') in playful ways. It's schools that are being prevented from doing these things while - yes Ok we can call ourselves 'Middle class' parents - are doing these things anyway. Guess who are the big losers in all this? The ones who have to stick with the strait-jacketed - 'learn this and regurgitate it identically tomorrow' children.

I am amazed, delighted and in awe of teachers and schools who struggle against this strait-jacket, who fight like crazy to include as much of this other kind of curriculum in they work. I'm lucky to meet many of them every week in workshops, conferences and in the schools I visit.

Frequently, they have found ways to work against the demands of the testing regime, they suspend the curriculum for e.g. a day a week, or a week per term. They do e.g. 'whole school texts' which teachers explore in many different ways at the same time working across disciplines, using the creative arts and so on. We need to hear much more about schools and teachers doing these things. 

Sunday, 25 November 2018

'Genealogy' - you say 'tomato', I say 'tomato'. Rules and variations in English.

I asked on twitter how people pronounce 'genealogy'. Do people pronounce the middle syllable like the name 'Al' or as 'oll'? It split about 50:50 across several hundred. Some simply said that they pronounced it in one of the two ways. Some gave the 'rule' that 'explained' why they pronounced it their way.

The 'Al' rule is that the person was pronouncing it the way it's written. The 'oll' rule is that the person was pronouncing it according to the 'ology' rule. 

'Pronouncing it the way it's written' is a highly problematic thing to say about anything in English because syllables often have at least two ways of being pronounced - often more - and this one is clearly another. 

Meanwhile, saying that a word should be pronounced a certain way "because analogous words with the same Greek-in-origin suffix but spelled differently" is hardly a 'rule'. 

So, I think we're left with 'variation'. Some say 'al' and some say 'ol'. Fine by me. 

How to do some things that go towards helping children 'own' literacy

I tend to frame my talks about literacy, reading for pleasure, poetry and the like around the idea of 'how to help children think and know that literacy belongs to them'. One starting point for me is thinking about my own childhood and what it was that my parents, my brother and school did to enable me to think that I could write anything, anytime, that I could change and adapt anything anytime. That I could play about with voices, registers, moods, tones, plots, forms and even if I wasn't very good at this or that kind of writing, I still felt that was entitled to do it. 

Much of it came from my parents and brother who read to me, gave me books, told stories, admired others who could tell stories. They were also writers and editors and broadcasters themselves. They played records and 'tapes' (remember them?) of people who performed poems, stories, anecdotes and informal stories. They encouraged me to give my own writing a go, whether that was stories, poems, 'sketches', plays and formal writing for things like Geography and History. They were also people who could speak several languages, some well - some just only a bit, so I heard a lot of French and German spoken, but also quite a lot of Yiddish, Latin and even bits of Russian. And language itself was often talked about as something that was interesting, or odd, or amazing. I could go on. And on. The point is that I was very lucky - absurdly lucky - to get all this. And there was a tone to it all that I treasure: the language and literature of the 'greats' - Shakespeare, Chaucer etc was not held in greater esteem than the carefully crafted jokes and performance of someone like Peter Ustinov or a friend of the family, Solly Kaye, who could tell Jewish jokes to roomful of people at a party. Meanwhile, my brother who was a great mimic could 'do voices' in ways that meant, in effect, he was 'snipping' or 'grabbing' the variations and types around us, bring them into the home and playing with them - and then mingling them with something like the Molesworth books which did the same in writing with the types from smalltime Public School.
(I've written about this in my autobiography 'So They Call You Pisher!' (Verso Books) which I can now see (having written it!) was a way of uncovering how we mix the Education we get in school and college with the 'education' of a very different kind we get at home and with our friends.)

All this added up to a sense of entitlement and ownership around language and literature, around 'orality' and literacy. In retrospect, I can see that a good deal of my work in schools, colleges or with my writing has been devoted to passing on as much of this as I can manage whether that's through performances in schools, libraries and theatres, through radio, through what I write and how I write it, or through workshops with children or teaching in universities. It is all in its own way about the idea that language belongs to all of us. It isn't owned by a small elite group no matter how entitled they might appear to be. 

I think that the work we do around Reading for Pleasure are crucial in this matter. Reading for Pleasure - where children (or any of us) browse, choose and read, browse, choose and read is a crucial plank in the process of owning literacy. Here are three links that can help with this:

But I also ask questions about what has happened to the way successive governments have asked children about reading - comprehension, in other words.

I think that the obsession with right and wrong answers (so that children and teachers can be assessed) is a process that results in taking away from children and school students a sense that literacy belongs to them. At the core of this is the insistence that 'understanding' of texts can only be assessed by asking the kinds of questions about 'retrieval', 'inference', 'chronology' and 'presentation' etc at the core of SATs in Primary Schools. These deny the processes of 'interpretation' that all of us do when we get the chance to look at books in the ways that are created when we really do 'read for pleasure'. 

Interpretation involves us letting the free flow of emotions in reaction to a text actually matter, it involves us bringing our own personal experience and memory into understanding what's going on; it involves bringing in our 'repertoire' of texts that we have read, seen and heard, it involves us feeling free to ask questions of a text as and when they crop up, it involves us having a go at answering these questions, and it can involve investigating a text to find connections between things, and find patterns of sound and meaning. 

This can be structured as a set of questions which we can put to children and school students in ways that encourage them to talk, investigate, speculate and share. To be clear - I am  not saying that this is the be-all and end-all of all criticism, or that it is a sufficient way to produce great answers at e.g. GCSE or A-Level or Degree Level investigation of texts. I am saying that these questions are a good place to start with e.g. primary school children, with KS3 school students, or indeed with anyone by way of entry into texts of many kinds. What's more, in my experience of working this way, many of the themes or ideas that we feel that we have to teach about texts are raised by this investigatory approach, so they provide a basis or a platform for, say, work on 'context' or 'language'. 

The set of questions are:

1. Affect: Is there any part of this story, poem, play ('text') that you were moved by, found funny, horrific, weird, scary, spooky...? Why? How? 
2. Experience: Is there any part of the text that reminds you of anything that has ever happened to you or anyone you know? Why? How?
3. Intertext: Is there any part of the text that reminds you of any other text you have ever come across? Why? How?
4. Interrogating: What questions would you like to ask of anyone in the text? Or of the author or imagined author? Having collected these questions together, can you answer any of them? If you can't, how can you go about finding them out?
5. In every text, particularly in literature, there are 'secret strings' that run through it. These are the linked sounds, themes, motifs and images of a text. Can you be 'detectives' and find any of these? Remember any link you find will be a link if you can say why and how? 

How you frame, adapt or rewrite these questions is up to you. How you organise your class to do this is up to you. You may find that one way to do it, is to treat the first three questions as ideal for discussion in pairs. The fourth question can begin with pairs then move to whole class, a collection of all the questions, and then seeing who can answer any of them, taking the questions one by one. You might want to set up hot-seating as a way of answering some of the questions in which the class interview e.g. the author or  one of the protagonists about motives, purpose, meaning etc. A great way to do number 5 is to have a copy of the piece in front of a group of children or school students and they draw the strings on the piece itself, with the explanations alongside. 

I am not claiming that this method is a totally sufficient way to handle all texts. What I will claim is that it acknowledges that people who read - no matter what their age is - respond to texts and understand them with who they are. This set of questions lets that person in, so that interaction can begin. In my experience this encourages an engagement with these processes of 'comprehension' (if that's what it is!) and encourages what I've been talking about in relation to 'ownership' of literacy. 

I have written about these matters at greater length in three self-published booklets:

"Poems and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools"
"Why Write? Why Read?"
"Writing for Pleasure"

I wrote these originally for my students on the MA course I teach on. These students are mostly classroom teachers and librarians. The MA is 'MA in Children's Literature' at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

(You can find the booklets on my website:

in a book published by Walker Books:

"What is Poetry?"

(Also on my website or available through bookshops.) 

By the way one of the main reasons why I have done my poem and story performances on YouTube is also about 'owning' literacy. That is, I thought that what children, parents and teachers could do is a) look at the videos for their own enjoyment; b) find the written versions of the poems and stories that I am performing c) make up performance of their own d) write poems and stories of their own. 

This is the 'virtuous' circle of listening, talking, reading and writing: the more we do of it, the better we get at it. I believe very strongly that poetry, song and performance of all kinds are a great 'bridge' between speech and writing. They provide reasons and motives for why we might want to write and read. 

I have started to talk about these things on my YouTube Channel: 'Michael Rosen for Teachers':