Thursday 11 May 2017

A few notes on what teaching grammar to 9-11 year olds could be like (in my dreams!)


What could a reasonable, helpful grammar course in Key Stage 2 look like - if it wasn't dominated by a test that was introduced for the sole purpose of measuring teacher performance? The GPS (formerly SPaG)  was introduced on the mistaken and incorrect basis that 'grammar, punctuation and spelling' have 'right/wrong' answers in the Bew Report in 2011 without a word of evidence. 

1. What is grammar?

This question is complicated by the fact that we use the word  'grammar' in two different ways: 
a) the way a language is structured and  the way it functions.
b) the terms we use to describe these structures and functions.

Because people are so used to talking about some specific terms (noun, verb, subordinate clause etc), it's easy to think that this 'is' grammar. It isn't. It's just the terms that many people have devised. We see the complication this gives us when those who make up the terms ('grammarians') argue with each other.

Here's an example. 

'After the ball, everyone went to the pub.'
'After the ball was over, everyone went to the pub.'

How should we describe the word 'after'?

If you use terms to describe English with exactly the same terms you would use to describe Latin, then in the first sentence, 'after' is a 'preposition'. In the second example, 'after' is a 'subordinate conjunction'. 

If you use terms which, you think are based at least in part on 'meaning' then you will have to come up with a single term which is the same for both. Some grammarians do this. 

Just to be clear, I'm agnostic on this matter. I'm just observing that grammarians disagree on what to call this word. This shows us that terminology is not the same as grammar. 

2. Behaviour

If I was helping to devise a course in grammar,  I would start with trying to convey the idea that language is a part of human behaviour. It is not a self-enclosed, sealed up system that can be talked about solely as if it is simply or only a kind of code. People use language for different reasons. So, the starting point for me is to explore how, where and why do we use language. We could look at the 'edges' of language where we use gesture, noises, signals, signs and the like to communicate ideas and feelings. We could look at the fact we use language across a huge range of situations: drama, film, chat, instructions, song, poetry, ads, computers, texts, emails. In this range of situations, we use language to convey feeling, to exchange ideas, to 'talk to myself', to make rules, to lie, to deceive...and for many other reasons - what reasons?  

3. Good use of language, good writing, etc. 

Whatever shapes we use when we make language, we use them because they are part of these different kinds of behaviour. There is no such thing as 'good language' per se. 'Good' depends on situation, context, and purpose. Is it 'good' for a specific purpose and function? This is a crucial point that is almost completely overlooked by the present way of teaching and testing grammar. Good writing for an instruction on a train is very different from good writing for constructing an argument in an essay or  for a song you hope will be popular. This is a vital principle.

4. Analogy: buildings

When we look at buildings we can see that builders, engineers and architects from the beginning of human civilisation have operated on the basis of structure and function. If you build a house on a flood plain, it's a good idea to use stilts. If you live in a fantastically hot country, then thick walls and small windows is a good idea. Across the thousands of types of buildings across the world, we can identify many kinds of structure-and-function going on. As a preliminary to talking about language, this analogy might well help convey the idea of 'structure and function'. A short tour of a school or house would offer some good evidence of 'structure and function' - beams to hold buildings up, windows to let in light, doors to block off one room from another...etc etc.

5. Language has some analogies with this

It has structure and function within the different uses, which are in turn part of human behaviour. The simplest most interesting way of doing this is to collect some different language uses from around us: slogans on school walls ('Achieve! Aspire!); fire instructions; poems, stories, playground games; songs, prayers; non-fiction; comics; graphic novels;  captions; computer-speak. These are all 'real' examples of language-in-use. This should always be the starting-point of talking about grammar and not the bogus, made-up sentences much loved by grammar exercises. 

6. Having collected up these examples...

...we can do a mix of investigation and instruction. It's for teachers to decide on the balance here. Assuming, let's say, you decide to teach some of the key terms: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction, preposition, phrase, clause..., you could then look at these different real examples to see how the language varies and why. 'No smoking' is very different from 'Please don't smoke'. The grammar is very different. The aim of the language is similar.  But does it have a different effect on the reader/listener? Why? That tiny exercise can be reproduced a thousands times across different language-uses. You can turn this into role plays and games. 

7. Grammar terms are not consistent... whether they are specifically to do with purely naming, or purely identifying a function. So, for example, the word 'conjunction' ends up being a word to name a kind of word whilst at the same time describing its function ie to 'conjoin',  but 'verbs' don't verb, nouns don't noun. The function is not contained within the term. There is a loose way in which simple grammar tries to do this with such over-simplifications (some would say 'distortions') with descriptions like 'a verb is a doing word'. In reality, verbs don't do any more doing than any other word! They don't simply describe doing or even represent doing. We structure our feelings, instructions, actions, states of being, using words that we make work in different ways - but never on their own. They are linked and work with each other, like cogs. A cog isn't a functioning cog unless it has another cog to function with. So, just as a log is a log and not a beam until it is in a house being a beam, so a verb is not a verb until it's in a structure being a verb. So, it's not that verbs are 'doing words' (or some such) but they are words that are cogs which mesh, for example,  mostly with nouns and pronouns, which act as 'subjects' and 'objects' of verbs: 'I'm going out',  'He hit me' and so on.  

These analogies with cogs or buildings,  I'm suggesting, will help children understand what's going on much better than the misleading business of  naming parts of speech. And it is this understanding that helps us write.

8. A key part of understanding grammar is making up new stuff. 

We can do this with imitation, parody, and invention. This is the best way to use our knowledge of language to improve writing. Ask any writer of any kind and they'll tell you (confess!) the many ways in which they've imitated and parodied others. This doesn't just apply to 'creative' writers of poems, stories, plays, scripts, songs but also the writers of instructions, ads, newspaper articles, headlines, blurbs, political speeches, telling jokes and so on. I'd suggest that a key part of learning about grammar can come this way. We can mix the use of the terms as a way of trying to describe the imitations and parodies with the actual process of writing those imitations and parodies. It's unwise and unhelpful of doing this in the old ways, 'let's think of a noun', as this is isolating words from their function.