Friday 13 January 2012

Grammar in schools past and present: the state of play

1.Many people talk about 'grammar' as if there is only one way to describe language. They use phrases like 'the grammar'; 'Children need grammar' and the like. To repeat: there are different ways to describe the systems of language. To date, there is no universally agreed 'grammar'.

2. For some reason, many people who were taught one of these grammars at school think that it is 'the grammar' and therefore don't need to look at anyone else's grammar.

3. There are comparatively simple ways to describe certain aspects of language. You can do this if you avoid trying to describe how we actually talk to each other and if you avoid anything that the old grammars used to call 'irregular'. A key question therefore is what is to be gained by doing this? There may be something to be gained, but it's best to be clear of the limitations and what are the problems with false, inadequate and incomplete descriptions.

4. We will hear again and again from politicians and many people who are fond of the grammar(s) they were taught, grammar helps you write, helps you understand, helps you deconstruct what people are saying or writing. This would be fine, if a) we had evidence to show that this is true, b) we could know which grammar-descriptions were better than others for children, or for helping you write or both.

5. Many people have told me that it was a disaster that schools stopped teaching grammar for some 20 or more years. It's also frequently suggested that the reason for this is to do with something 'trendy' or 'progressive' or 'dumbing down' or resistance to authority. In fact, it was for another reason entirely. For the whole period of 'O-levels' - some thirty years or so post-1944 Act - English Language, as it was called, had several components on the paper: grammar, précis, comprehension and composition. Composition was what we would now call an 'essay' and/or creative writing. The précis was a highly prescribed piece of summarising of a passage of writing, ie you had to reduce a passage to a fixed number of words but retain or extract 'the meaning'. The grammar question in my day involved such things as identifying the names for 'parts of speech' of the words in a passage or sentence; the names of 'clauses' in the passage; and, on occasions constructing sentences to include a feature of 'grammar' as laid down in the question.

In order to do this grammar question, teachers taught you a system of analysing language. This involved 'clause analysis' and what some called 'box analysis'. We were taught how certain words like 'when' or 'although' introduced clauses and as a consequence this meant a given clause was eg a 'clause of time' or a 'clause of concession' or a 'clause of condition'. We drew up matrices of these 'beginning words' and put the name of the clause next to them and chanted them in class, or the teacher would walk in, call out, 'Although!' and point randomly to someone in the class, at which the boy or girl, called back 'Adverbial clause of concession, sir!' This 'grammar work' happened, I would guess, for about an hour a week, sometimes with homework, which was usually doing exercises from books called things like 'English Highway' and the like.

This particular strand of education was directed at Grammar School pupils who were some 20 % of the population when they entered but by the age of 16 was down by some 5% because that percentage had left without qualifications. Of the 80 per cent, most of whom were at Secondary Modern Schools, most of them didn't stay to do any 'O-levels' at all. A tiny percentage (top stream) in some, not all Secondary Modern Schools, did do this English Language exam.

I say this, so that when people say, schools stopped teaching grammar, please bear in mind that most pupils didn't do this kind of grammar work at all. To say so is a big untruth. It would be fair to say, however, that in primary school and for some pupils in the lower years of sec mods, they would have encountered 'simple grammar' lessons - naming of types of words, chanting 'a verb is a doing word' and that sort of thing.

So we have some 15% or so of the country doing O-level English language. Now here's the secret stat: in all the time this exam was running, the examiners and inspectors didn't ever find any correlation between the scores that the candidates got for their grammar question and the composition question. In other words, teaching that grammar in that way, setting questions on it in that way didn't ever correlate with how they graded the writing of continuous prose.

Why not?

Was it that that kind of grammar didn't actually describe sentences properly? Was it that describing sentences doesn't actually help you write continuous prose ie it may help you write sentences but continuous prose is something different? Was it that the method of learning what they called 'grammar' involved a particular organised mindset (or some such) that didn't correlate with what's needed to produce continuous prose?

I don't know, but these questions have to be answered before we say that we know what works and doesn't  work. At present, a grammar is being taught in all schools, at all levels. Do we know if it works? Or is it being done for some other reason? And who decided that it should be that particular kind of grammar?

But, to go back, I've stated the reason why the grammar question was dropped when GCSEs came in. They had no evidence to show that teaching grammar (or that particular kind of grammar) helped that particular range of pupils to write continuous prose.

This raises the question, then, as to whether there is another kind of grammar or another kind of teaching of a grammar that can and does help pupils write continuous prose (evidence needed, please)? Or are there other methods not involving the teaching of grammar that help produce more and better writers of continuous prose? And, whatever statements we make about grammar, the past, schools and writing have to take on board that most pupils were pushed out into the 'world of work' without the grammar that people frequently say was taught to everyone. It wasn't.

Quite independently of what Michael Gove says, or what you or I say, based on our past experience of learning school grammar - or even university grammar - I suggest that this is where the real state of the art is at. I don't for one moment imagine that this will stop the DfE from insisting that this or that grammar is taught (by asking certain kinds of questions at certain points in the testing regime), or stop experts insisting that this is enabling children to write well.