Professor Bas Aarts of Englicious has responded to my criticisms of SPaG here:
For what Bas makes of my son's homework (see my previous post) see my number 10, below. It's the final judgement on it. Shorthand - the homework was useless and wrong.
Here are the rest of my points:
- He spends some time trying to point out that he and his team and his website are independent and then points out how much he, his team and his website are not independent. Either he or others from the team advise the government on parts of this stuff, or they don’t. All I ever said is that they do. Bas seems to agree with this, whilst denying it. I have no idea why he would want to co-operate with this charade or deny that he has!
- He tells us that his ‘aim is for kids to enjoy learning about the language they use every day’. It’s an honorable aim. However, one thing SPaG most certainly is not, is about ‘the language they use ever day’! SPaG is fundamentally a supposed method to teach children how to write standard English. In fact, children see, hear and imitate many other models of written English and they all speak in various forms of ‘spoken English’ which operate with many conventions not covered by SPaG. One simple example: ‘Where you going?’ ‘Out’. There is no part of SPaG that ‘teaches’ what is going on in this interchange. So I have no idea why Bas concocts the fantasy that SPaG is about ‘the language they use every day’.
- Then he says his aim is for kids to use it ‘more effectively both in their formal and creative writing’. On the formal front, I agree that it’s possible that children learn how to construct a rather stiff, formal prose using the directions that are now rife in primary schools: use ‘expanded noun phrases’, ‘fronted adverbials’ and ‘embedded relative clauses’ to make your writing ‘more interesting’. I see the result of these kinds of directives every week, whether that’s from my own child’s writing or in schools that I visit. I see weird artificial sentences, ‘fronted’ with phrases and clauses that would be better placed later in the sentence or in a separate sentence, crammed full of redundant adjectives, and with the flow interrupted by unnecessary relative clauses. This then gets marks as ‘good writing’. No one who actually writes for children (or adults) is consulted on this matter. What is happening is that a new orthodoxy is emerging which says that such sentences are ‘good’. Any writer or experienced leader of creative writing workshops knows that a good deal of this stuff has to be weeded out in writing for effect, suspense, tension, humour and interest. The claim that the way to help ‘creative writing’ is via this kind of grammar at this age of child is laughable. Those of us who have spent decades helping children write poems and stories have hundreds of ‘tricks’ up our sleeves to help them through a combination of imitation, adaptation, invention, structures, themes and the like. Going via the formal, prescribed structures of SPaG prevents us and children from finding good ways to write. If the aim is ‘write by numbers’ and ‘formulae’, then go ahead, SPaG will do the job.
- Bas has a few words about the exclamation marks furore - mostly apologetic. Good. It’s a mess because what grammarians do is use words like ‘exclamation’ and ‘command’ - which have everyday meanings - and seek to apply them in courses and tests with specific ones. So, we exclaim all over the place in many different ways. For the purposes of the test, there are only two valid exclamation sentences. For humanity at large, this is purposeless nonsense. It is, as I keep saying, disconnected from meaning and purpose. It is ‘abstract’ and ‘self-serving’ - that’s to say it just refers to its own systems. A structure of writing is invented as ‘ideal’ like ‘what a nice day I am having!’ and that then IS a ‘true’ exclamation. Does this make sense? No. Is this a useful way to describe how language is actually used? No. At least Bas can see that it’s fairly useless. Too late, pal. The government have got hold of it. It serves their purpose to have right/wrong answers - even though the topic itself doesn’t have right/wrong answers. Job done. Crap grammar. Crap education. Crap test.
- Bas says that the tests are devised to test the curriculum. No, Bas, no. The tests are devised to test teachers. That is their only purpose. I suggest that he goes back, looks at the government’s own report which explained why these tests were introduced, the Bew Report 2011. The context was that the SATs had been boycotted. The government had no tests which produced right/wrong answers which they could use to test schools on the input-output model of education, in the field of ‘English’ or ‘literacy’. So they decided that spelling, punctuation and grammar delivered this kind of reliability. At this point, the honest thing that linguists could have done is shout from the house tops that spelling, punctuation and grammar do not deliver right/wrong answers. Thankfully for all of us, language is much more diverse and various than this. Applied linguists might then have pointed out all sorts of interesting things that a study of language-in-use can show us. (I have in front of me, one such document produced by the government’s own ‘Schools Council’ in the early 1970s with the help of Bas Aarts’s predecessor at University College, the great M.A.K.Halliday. It is a flexible 110-unit course in how to investigate language in use for 11-18 year olds. You see, Bas, other and better models for schools have existed. It’s politics that drives them out. More on that another day, perhaps.)
- Bas then points out that yes, he agrees with me that the ‘grammar’ used in SPaG is only one model of grammar but that, he says, is to reduce ‘confusion’. Oh really? Earlier in the blog post, he has already conceded that there is confusion over exclamation marks - that will continue, I can assure him. Look at the 2016 sample test paper for the SPaG test and consider the question on ‘commands’. It deliberately and nastily lays a trap for children by putting as one of the multiple choices a ‘You must..’ sentence. Semantically, this is a ‘command’. Children would of course understand that someone saying ‘You must...’ do something is an order or a command. But of course, the ‘command’ in SPaG is more specific than that. It can only be one that uses the ‘imperative’ form of the verb. The farce here is that we also use the imperative in ways that are not ‘commands’! ‘Be a good boy and get me my slippers’ shows the ‘imperative’ in two functions in one sentence! According to useless Latinate grammar they are the ‘same’. The ‘be’ in the first clause is the ‘same’ as the ‘get’ as the second. Functionally and semantically they are different. Any decent ‘grammar’ would and should take this on board. Not only is this ‘confusing’ if you dish out SPaG type grammar, it encourages examiners to produce tricksy, nasty questions. (By the way, what Bas doesn’t seem to realise is that exams are not accurate, single-formed ways of ‘testing’. One multiple choice question is not the same as another on account of what is known as the ‘plausibility of the distractor’. That’s to say, if I ask you to select one ‘command’ from four sentences, I could make three of the possibilities absolutely nothing like commands eg 1. Four raspberries sitting on my plate. 2. I like Geography. 3. Have you got my pencil? 4. Stand up straight when I’m talking to you! The ‘distractors’ are not ‘plausible’. Fill the three up with command-sounding sentences and it’s no so easy. Confusing? You bet.)
- Bas then tries the old analogy game. He suggests that a simplified linguistics is OK just as simplified history or literary criticism is OK. Well, yes, history in primary schools has been forcibly simplified because it now ends at 1066. In fact, a good deal of ‘history’ is hardly recognisable as history. It’s just old stuff. As for literary criticism, many schools do very complex, ambivalent, nuanced literary critical work with children, discussing motive, plot, alternative ways of writing, genre and so on. However, analogous to SPaG, the SATs have until now introduced a useless reductive line of questioning which reduces literature to extracts in which pupils’ responses have been reduced to ‘retrieval’ and ‘inference’ and excluded ‘intepretation’. Best to steer clear of analogies, Bas.
- More seriously, Bas doesn’t address my point about this grammar not being ‘the’ grammar. My point is that it doesn’t deal with meaning, purpose and function. It treats language as if it is like a self-assembly furniture pack, where all you have to do is use the directions, screws and panels in the ‘right’ way. The ‘terms’ are then simply ways of describing how one panel fits on to another panel. But language is part of our human interaction, our behaviour. It’s the means by which we are social. Every single part of it, words, structures, sounds are in place for that purpose. The grammars we need are ones that are related to meaning, structure and purpose. I have given the example of the ‘possessive’ as at least including a sense of why we have a word like ‘my’ , and we can compare that to a term like ‘determiner’ that is purely a reference to the instructions of the self-assembly model of language. Bas doesn’t engage with this criticism.
- Bas reminds me that I mentioned ‘metaphors’. Yes, there are useless, formulaic ways of teaching ‘metaphors’, so I’m not in favour of teaching metaphors simply because they exist. I’m in favour of teaching metaphors in observational, practical ways: observe, imitate, adapt, invent. However, as my mother would say - half in Yiddish - ‘Remember Michael, even the best ideas can be turned to ‘dreck’’. (dreck = poo). The point is that teaching metaphor as a rule or a formula or a prescription is a net loss (or ‘dreck’). The ultimate test of any writing is not that it fits a rule or formula but whether others find it interesting.
- I dearly, dearly love the fact that Bas has found that my son’s holiday homework question is useless. Thousands of children and parents are being humiliated by this even as you are reading this. The fact that this particular question (and all the other ambiguous, tricksy questions, all the other questions that have different possible answers) appears, seems mysteriously to have absolutely nothing to do with Bas even though earlier he has conceded that he is part of the system. Sorry, Bas but you were bought in for this project. The fact that it has given rise to thousands of worksheets, revision booklets, written by people (er...adults, Bas) who have misunderstood or who are confused by a model of grammar that primary school children are supposed to be able to cope with, is part and parcel of the whole business. People responsible for this stuff can’t withdraw from the necessary and inevitable consequences of the policy. These booklets, my son’s useless question, his humiliation and bother are part of the policy.
- I have been through the glossary several times. Much of it is so abbreviated that it is impossible to use it as a course. For people new to these terms (or their equivalents) there is no easy way through it. We are also at an absurd moment in the history of this - perhaps it’s a constant part of it - where terms that were essential yesterday, are junked today. Teachers’ pain and confusion needs more than being acknowledged. They have spent the last five years or so being told that it is vital and necessary to teach ‘connectives’ or ‘time connectives’. Suddenly, along comes a ‘glossary’ that tells them that ‘connectives’ have been abolished. Any of us are entitled to ask, therefore, what is the validity of any of these terms? You know better than me, Bas, the category of ‘subordinate conjunction’ is much disputed. The professor of linguistics at Edinburgh University, Geoff Pullum, no less, denies that it exists! As you concede, the word ‘subjunctive’ to describe some not very common constructions we have in English is not accurate or useful. You were overruled by a politician. If I was (you’ll note that I didn’t write ‘were’) in your shoes, I would have walked at that point. Your work, your principles have been traduced. Why are you having anything to do with these people who can’t even trust the ‘trusties’ they’ve agreed to work with? Would a scientist accept that Nicky Morgan overruled them on electrons?
- You plead with me to work with Englicious. As you know, I help make over 20 radio programmes a year about language for BBC Radio 4. We now have a resident linguist, Laura Wright, from the University of Cambridge in every programme. We investigate language and popularise linguistics. This is available on iPlayer and on podcast as well as ‘off air’ ie to listen to as it goes out. This means that teachers, parents and people of all ages can engage with what linguistics can do when it’s away from the pressures of governments and linguists who are doing what politicians tell them to. I’m told that teachers of A-level English Language use it quite a lot. I also spend a huge amount of my time visiting schools, doing my poetry performances and running poetry workshops. These ‘investigate’ language all the time. My poems and workshops isolate aspects of language, ask questions about usage, register, structure, vocabulary, bilingualism, and more. In the workshops, I raise questions of how we can ‘build’ phrases, sequences. I raise questions about how words, phrases and sequences can help create effects. I have a book coming out on writing poetry which investigates poetic language and gives suggestions on how anyone can do the same. I have written a good deal of it on my blog where it is available free of charge, open access. I also run workshops on this for teachers. So, I find it slightly strange that you are asking me to join you! I think you would do much better by joining me and the likes of me, who teach ‘language in literature’ in these different ways, instead of dancing to the government’s tune of ‘right/wrong’ answers, prescriptive language use, and the humiliation of SPaG testing.