Saturday, 12 March 2016

Exclamations, Nick Gibb, rubbish grammar, rubbish test.

Here is the letter that Schools Minister for schools in England has written to one of the national newspapers.

Below are my comments:
As many people have noticed, a) this is not very clear, b) it is really quite extraordinary that a Minister is laying down the law on something so precise and small as the 'grammar' of exclamations c) just because the Minister says that this is the grammar of exclamations, it doesn't follow that it is THE grammar, the only grammar, d) we are talking here about a test for Year 2 children who will be either 6 or 7 years old and in order to teach them this, it will be necessary to start on it when some of them will be 5 and still learning to use a pencil or pen.

As my first point, however, the key thing to remember here is that the reason why this is urgent for Nick Gibb to be pronouncing on it is because he and the government are driven by the need to have a 'reliable' (i.e. right/wrong answers) for a test on writing. That is the burden they have given themselves.

As a result of this, these tests for 6/7 year olds and 10/11 year olds have become a kind of gold standard for what makes good writing. I have witnessed it with my own children. In other words, teachers find themselves compelled to use these right/wrong structures from the exams as ways of saying that this or that piece of writing by the children is good writing. For anyone interested in encouraging good writing of all kinds - fiction, drama, poetry, non-fiction accounts, 'persuasive' writing and the rest - this is a key debate to have.

My own view is that the most appropriate and useful way to encourage good writing of all kinds  AT THIS AGE of child is to a) immerse children in texts that they are interested in b) where appropriate spend time investigating and comparing how writers make their texts interesting e.g. through, let's say, comparing the openings of 5 novels, or comparing ways of making things exciting, comparing how we say things with how we write things - and so on. It may well be that by the time most children are in Year 6 (10/11 year olds) that some terminology is appropriate but it's vital that the terminology doesn't turn into writing-by-numbers (i.e. writing-to-fit-the-terminology) - which is precisely what has happened. To be clear: this is not teachers' fault. It's a result of ministers recruiting one set of linguists to do their work for them - and, let's not forget, these are linguists not educationalists, even though some of them have started to pronounce on what children can and can't do, what children should do and should not do on the basis of....what? Their years of studying learning theory? Pedagogy? Face to face with classrooms full of children? No to all these.

Now to the specific matter in hand. If you read Gibb's letter or go online and read the Cambridge grammar on this matter, or the Oxford grammar or the Halliday grammar - you will see a range of ways of talking about exclamations. Here my thoughts:

1. The main reason for the Oxford and Cambridge grammars to be in existence is to help 'English as an additional language' students from all over the world. So, let's say you're French. You know how to 'exclaim' in French and so you might wonder (or you have homework) how to translate ONE of your exclamation structures into the similar or equivalent English exclamation structures (that's how I use my French grammar books). So where you might say 'Quelle surprise!' or 'Quelle jolie pelouse que vous avez!' I can find 'What a surprise!' and 'What a nice lawn you have!' Fine.

2. Young children immersed in English - either because they are native speakers or because they are first language speakers of another language but are immersed in English, do not need to be told how to exclaim. They just do it.

3. Now to the 'grammar'. You will notice from Nick Gibb's letter that the reason why it is confusing is because, like all grammarians, the words he uses to describe the topic (the 'semantic field') of exclaiming is the same word he uses for something very specific referring to one specific 'grammatical' structure - that is 'exclaim' or 'exclamation'.  So - to do him the favour of explaining his explanation - he is saying: 'if you want to exclaim all over the place, feel free to do so, but if we ask  you in a Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Test when you are 6 or 7 years old, do NOT feel free to say that anything with an exclamation mark is an 'Exclamation'. We are saying - in that context of that test - that there is an Exclamation Sentence structure for which there are only two correct answers 1) an exclamation sentence that begins with 'what' and 2. an exclamation sentence that begins with 'how'. Please, dear teachers, critics and children, don't bother me, Nick Gibb, with your criticism that there are many ways of making an exclamation. I know. We experts on 'grammar' are talking about The Exclamation Sentence Structure'. '

To which the grammarians add - 'And indeed there are some other Exclamation Sentence Structures like, for example, the 'Interrogative Exclamation Sentence Structure' as in 'Do I not like that!' but we won't worry you about this just yet.

4. I think this is mostly a) rubbish grammar b) a rubbish way to teach children - and let's never forget, it's only an issue and only an issue we are talking about because of the need by government to have right/wrong answers as a way of evaluating schools and teachers - and this impacts on the daily lives of children, parents and teachers with yet more pressure and anxiety.

a) why rubbish grammar? Because it is purely and simply 'structural'. It is a form of classifying language purely and simply according to what some grammarians figure out are the key repeating structures of a language. This is then put on a plinth ('reified') as a 'rule' and along come government who say, 'Great, we've got a rule, teachers must teach it, pupils must learn it, and we will test it.' This has very little to do with how we use language. We use language to express meaning and to help with our inter-personal needs (broadly 'to get things done in the social world we live in). There is another world of 'grammar' which says that grammar should take all this on board it should be 'semantic' - to do with meaning and 'functional' to do with interpersonal activity.

So, we might say that there is a topic or 'semantic field' of exclaiming. How do we exclaim? In many different ways, is the answer. We do use 'what' and 'how' structures but many, many others. Outside of the world of one particular kind of classification system, there is no need to divvy these up as being more correct or more necessary than any other. In fact, a nice topic for all children would be to collect exclamations and to look at these different ways WITHOUT MAKING ONE MORE SIGNIFICANT, MORE CORRECT, MORE NECESSARY TO LEARN than any other. At best, the only thing you can say about the what/how structure is that you can find equivalents very easily in many other languages.

5. We are left with a mess made up of governmental requirements for right/wrong answers as part of their punishing, judging, naming-shaming-blaming approach to teachers and children; grammarians' need to a) publish easy-to-consume materials for EAL learners; a very narrow way of describing grammatical structure that leaves out the issue of meaning and purpose in our interpersonal activities. If you are a teacher, you have to teach this stuff. All I can suggest is that you do it pragmatically. With the children make a list of what/how exclamations. Collect them from newspapers and books and speech. Say to the children, when it says in the test, 'which of the following is an exclamation?' there will be a list of sentences. If there is one that looks like one of these, tick it.'

Do I think there is any use or purpose for such an activity? Nope. Do I think it will help them analyse language in interesting and useful ways? Absolutely not, because it is misleading and will inevitably lead to new (or old) kinds of pedantry which say that what/how ways of exclaiming are 'right' or 'correct' or are the 'rule'. This is not true. There are 'what' ways of exclaiming. There are 'how' ways of exclaiming. There are 'what+sentence' ways of exclaining. There are 'how+sentence' ways of exclaiming, BUT as any person worldwide knows - and it really is the only interesting thing about this whole matter - there are many ways of exclaiming.

In an ideal world, we should be able to tell these people to get off our backs, to leave us alone, to stop trying to herd the language into categories that don't match meaning and function, and then using this as a means of herding children into categories that suit governments and make life miserable for children, parents and teachers.

This is at the moment a far from ideal world.