Friday 8 July 2016

More on why the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test isn't really about 'raising standards'.

We all struggle with new terms or new terminology. If you introduce me to a new machine using some new technology that I haven't come across before, I will struggle to remember it.

Children are asked to understand and remember new terminology (new to them) all the time. Sometimes they are asked to learn it before they understand it. It seems to me that it's really useful for all of us (but children in particular) if new terminology fits the thing or the process being described. A poker pokes the fire. A cooker cooks. Terms like that are very handy and easy to remember.

Now when it comes to grammar, some of the terms are very old and clearly don't fit as neatly as 'cooker'. An 'adverb' is a great term for describing something that does things to 'verbs'. But it also does things to adjectives, other adverbs and whole sentences, say the grammarians. Not such a great term, then.

In the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test, there are some terms that are not only not particularly helpful, some are long, complicated terms often using Latin as their origin: like 'subjunctive'. There is nothing immediately 'sub' or 'junct' about saying 'If I were you, I wouldn't do that...'

(Let's also remember that the only reason why children aged 10 and 11 have to spot a subjunctive in the GPS test is because Michael Gove overruled the grammarians and said that it must be in the test. This would be like Jeremy Hunt overruling Medical Schools by saying that they had to include alchemy. Let's also remember that most grammarians regard the subjunctive in English as being 'residual' ie very old and not much of it left - at least not enough of it to be too interested in it as being an essential thing for children to be able to spot. For example, the 'if I were' construction is now only a 'variant' for 'If I was...'.)

One of the hardest terms for children to get hold of on the GPS test is the 'present perfect progressive'. For the children I know, it doesn't seem very 'present', 'perfect' or 'progressive'. These words don't seem to them to describe what they're looking at when we say, 'He's been biting his nails for the last half hour.' It may be 'present' but there's a bit of 'past' in there too. (Nothing in the descriptions of grammar are anywhere near as binary as is made out. It's the pressure to be 'right/wrong' for test and exams that makes them binary. Then again, there doesn't seem to be much that's 'perfect' about it. And whatever 'progressive' means, it doesn't seem to be much to do with this. In fact, for all my life, up until the GPS I've been told and have called these kinds of verbs 'continuous'. Someone somewhere decided to change their name to 'progressive' and so that's that. Many teachers will remember how the word 'connective' was taught, then junked. In 20 years time, some of the terms being taught now will have changed again.

Grammarians can of course explain in great detail why it's called a present perfect progressive but that's quite another thing from whether most children will get it, in the context of all the other 50 terms that they have to learn!

So, what is being paraded by Nicky Morgan as 'raising standards', isn't raising standards at all. It's foisting on to young children, concepts that are difficult enough for adults to get hold of, remember and use in exam conditions as a form of 'train spotting'. They are all the more difficult because the words used to describe the 'type' or 'thing' don't immediately seem to relate to the thing itself. This isn't raising standards. It's being obtuse. Or difficult for it's own sake, as being difficult is a virtue.

It's at this point that I suspect that a kind of puritanism or calvinism comes in here: the harder or more  difficult something is to learn, the more 'virtuous' we are. The more 'industrious' we have to be to 'get' it, the better person we are. I'm pretty sure that this particular idea - which goes back to at least the 16th century -  is one of the main motives behind what Michael Gove imposed on the school curriculum and, in particular, in relation to language, grammar and writing.