Friday 4 January 2013

Grammar - a framework for teachers who weren't taught 'grammar'


I'm worried that some Year 6 teachers are a bit anxious about the forthcoming grammar test. Part of this worry is that they themselves received little or no education in grammar and as a consequence feel harassed by what's coming. As I've said, I disagree with what's coming and offer the following comments as a way of trying to alleviate some of the stress. It's meant as a general framework for 'grammar'.

Grammar involves several different ways of describing language. The forthcoming grammar test will ask you to teach grammar from two different perspectives. To understand this I'll make an analogy: think of chain. We could describe this chain in terms of a) the links and/or  b) how the links hook up to the next link.

The a) approach looks at separate parts (the links of a chain) and tries to find names for each kind of link. On this chain, the links aren't all the same shape, size or colour!

The b) approach tries to describe how and why one kind of link fits together with another link.

Now hold in your head something that will be useful later: the a) approach can be described as 'vertical' because you can take one link out (vertically) and replace it with another. The b) approach can be described as 'horizontal' because it looks at the hooking up all along a line.

Now let's suppose that there are some strange things about this chain. For a start, the links of the chain are not identical. They come in a variety of colours. When we look at the chain we start to see some colour sequences repeating themselves. This is what's going on when we give words the names: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition.  So take my second paragraph above as a chain. If you coloured all the nouns blue and all the verbs green (for a start) you'd start to see blue and green repeating themselves.

(In the background, if you listen carefully, you can hear people called linguists arguing about some of these colours. They are arguing about what some of the links should be called. Remember, it is the job of those in government who dictate to us what grammar is, to pretend that these kinds of arguments do not go on. They want us to think that grammar is simple and if you test children about it, 'there are right and wrong answers's (see Lord Bew's report on assessment and accountability which is responsible for the SPAG test coming in).

Now, let's look closely at how the coloured links hook up. Again we see that the hooking systems vary down the chains but these hooking systems keep repeating themselves. The hooking systems for the links are the kinds of explanation for why sentences are built in the way they are. So what's going on here in grammatical terms are the descriptions of grammar in terms of things like 'subject-verb agreement' or why we can say 'the book is on the table' but not 'book the on table the'. Some ways of trying to hook the links together won't work. They have to fit in a particular way. That's the 'horizontal' system of the English writing system.

So, these two approaches, a) and b), vertical and horizontal, are the two ways of talking about grammar that you will be teaching. (I'm not suggesting that you use this method of teaching it. This is, I hope, a framework for you to see what it is that you've being asked to do.)

The Links (or the parts of the chain)

Now let's go to one of those links, the one we've called 'verb'. Let's not bother for the moment in trying to say what kind of word is a verb. Nor should we say that this word 'go' is necessarily and always a verb because you'll hear someone say a sentence like this: 'He hasn't got much go in him' and 'go' here is a 'noun'. Let's instead look at how can spot verbs in sentences and see  how they differ from other kinds of words.

If I take the word 'the', it's either 'the' or it's not 'the'. It doesn't vary and become, let's say, 'thes' or 'thed'.  Now let's look at 'go' when it's a verb and ask what kinds of changes can we make with it:

go, goes, going, gone.
If I want to use it to mean something will happen in the future I can write things like:
will go, going to go, will be going.
If I want to use it to mean that something has happened in the past I can write things like:
went, has gone, did go, has been going...

So, one of the things I can say about verbs is that they vary like this. That's not a definition. It's a description but OK all the same. Not everything has to be defined for us to start to understand what's going on! That description (that verbs are words that vary like this) is part of my a) approach. It's 'vertical' because I am taking the link 'go' out 'vertically' and replacing it with different forms of the same verb. In the old days, when I learned Latin, we used to recite these different forms. They were called 'conjugations'.

Traditionally, the shape of conjugations goes in an order: I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they.
In English:
I go, you go, he/she/it goes; we go, you go, they go.
'I' we call 'first person'
'you' we call 'second person'
'he/she/it' we call 'third person'

These three are 'singular' because they only involve one person or one object.

'We' is also 'first person' but it's 'plural' (more than one person or thing)
'You' (in this part of the system) is 'second person plural' when it involves more than one person or thing
'They' 'third person plural'

So that conjugation is a way of describing how verbs vary in the present. It's part of my a) approach. It's  'vertical', taking one form of the verb out and replacing it with another.

The hooking up

So, the question now is why have do these verbs vary? Why do we make these different ways of saying 'go'. It would be much simpler if we always said, 'go': I go to the movies, he go to the movies, tomorrow I go to the movies, yesterday I go to the movies.

But we don't. We vary the verb to show this matter of things going on in the present, in the past and in the future. We vary the verb to 'agree with' how many people are involved or what kind of expression we're saying or writing.

These reasons are part of approach b) or 'horizontal', they are about how and why language hooks the words together along the line.

So, in the 'conjugation' I showed you before, 'go' is the same all the way through apart from one time: he/she/it goes.

So, we can say, that in standard English, the third person singular of 'go' is 'goes'. It varies because people speaking English found and still find it useful to mark or indicate that there is a singular thing going on (one person or thing involved) and that it's not 'me' or 'you' but 'he' or 'she' or 'it'. Or to put it another way, it's useful to mark it out as not being any of the other bits of the system: first person singular ('I'), second person singular ('you'), first, second or third person plural ('we', 'you', 'they').

So everything we've said about conjugations and varying things according to the 'person' (first person, second person etc) is my approach b). 'horizontal, along the line, explanations or descriptions for why and how words stick together, links hook up along the chain.

Another reason for verbs changing depends on what kind of sentence or phrase we're using. There are many ways to categorize sentences. Linguists are not agreed on this. One system you're asked to teach is: 'statement', 'question' and 'command'. Another is 'simple' and 'complex'.

I'm guessing that I don't need to go through these because they are part of the everyday grammar that we all have for talking about language. This everyday grammar is not to be despised. It's all part of the useful ways we have of talking to each other about how we talk to each other!

However, I will add the easily observable fact that these 'functions' or descriptions of sentences demonstrate how we can vary verbs:

'You are going away' (or 'You're going away') - statement
'Are you going away?' - question
'Go away!' - command

'You went away.' - statement
'Did you go away.' - question
[I'm not sure you can issue a command in the past!]

Pause for a moment. One of the reasons why grammar is difficult and hard for all of us, but especially for children is that the moment you come up with a 'rule' or fixed shape or pattern of how language should be, and the moment we come up with descriptions for what's going on, we run into problems: there are exceptions to the rule, or the description just seems to confuse.

To take an obvious example from above. Let's say you want to be aggressive and commanding in order to send someone away. Of course you can say, 'Go away!' But you might also say, 'Will you go away!' Now here's the rubbish bit about conventional grammatical description (at least 'rubbish' from a child's perspective), is that 'Will you go away!' even as a command has the structure we use in English for questions too. In other words, real language, language in use, doesn't stick to the neat patterns and rules and descriptions we give it. So you either (in schools) end up fudging it, or if you're a serious grammarian, you have to come up with more complicated ways to describe what's really going on when we speak and write. You can't simply come up with descriptions and names and expect everything to fit neatly every time. As a serious grammarian, you have to come up with names and descriptions that fit how real human beings make and use language in order to say and write what they want to say.

It's also why, when the Lord Bew report justified the teaching and testing for grammar on the grounds that grammar questions have right and wrong answers, they were talking rubbish.


So in this blogpost, we've looked at how we can describe language vertically and horizontally. We've looked at verbs and three reasons why they vary: 1. 'tense' (present, past and future), 2. 'person' (singular, plural, first, second, third) and 3. type of sentence (statement, question, command). We haven't tried to define 'verb' and it's quite possible that you don't have to! I'll leave that subversive thought with you.

This blogpost has been decidedly unplayful, and non-interactive. Apologies.

So, if you fancy it, take the word 'go' and see what kinds of expressions (phrases, sentences etc) you can come up with, changing it and seeing if you can figure out what is making you change it.  This is the grammar you know, without necessarily having names for what you're doing. You know this grammar, (if you could read and understand this blogpost) because you learned most of it between the ages of 0 and 5.