Tuesday 12 June 2012

And so to grammar (More from the draft curriculum)

The Draft Primary English Curriculum lays out clearly what grammar must be taught in primary schools. This is based on two main assumptions:

1. That the level of abstraction required to understand what grammar is is something that children under the age of 11-plus are capable of.

2. Doing the kind of work required to get hold of grammatical concepts helps children under the age of 11-plus to write better.

I have never seen any evidence to back up either of these two assumptions. Is there any? If anyone reading this knows of it, please could they send it to rosenmichael@hotmail.com

My own anecdotal evidence (highly unreliable, I concede) tells me that children under the age of 11plus find the abstractions very difficult to get hold of, and when confronted with any of the thousands of divergences from the 'rules' that have just been taught, get easily lost, confused and irritated. The problem of young children and abstraction is understood by mathematicians. Why else would they hold back on teaching calculus until pupils are older? The problem with grammar is that it requires young children to stop doing what they've been taught to do which is to treat language as if it is something that 'refers' ie most words (not all of them) seem to exist to point at or indicate things, feelings, processes, actions and the like. So language seems to be 'real' or 'actual'. Grammar doesn't treat language in that way directly. It looks for structures and processes which appear not to have meaning but are both described by language and describe language itself. Quite often, this is made yet more difficult when we talk of 'language doing' this or that when there is a very good argument for saying that language doesn't 'do' anything, it's only human beings using language who 'do' anything. (Again, this is debated!).

It's possible to teach some children some of these abstract ideas. This doesn't mean it's possible to teach all children most of them!

The model for teaching grammar laid out in the draft document and in most books I see is the instructional one. So, rather than asking children to investigate and discover what might be going on in clauses and sentences or in the differences between the way we speak and the way we write, the usual method of teaching grammar is asking children to just learn and practise 'rules' (which may not be rules anyway). This is non-scientific, non-empirical. I suspect that this is part of the intention of this draft course of study and others. The word 'rigour' is used as a tough-sounding noun (!) to lend worth and virtue to what is nothing more than asking children to learn many more things without understanding them. I will return to 'rigour' in another blog, because I'm convinced that it is a residue of the Puritans' influence in founding education when industry, self-sacrifice and bodily discomfort proved the virtue of a human activity. How else could a person allay the onset of sloth, luxury, and lust?

To my mind, there isn't much that's rigorous about learning without understanding. 

There is an irony of course in the demand that primary age children learn grammar on the grounds of rigour because a) the grammar taught is inevitably over-simplified and not at all rigorous and b) the children and/or teachers get some of it wrong and not at all rigorously correct! (And why not? It's not easy!)

Anecdotal evidence also tells me that there are many ways to help primary aged children to write better but teaching them as much grammar as is being prescribed here, isn't one of them.