Sunday, 28 April 2019

Ideas on how we can look at language-in-use

One of the tricks that people in authority work on us occurs when they impose on us a system that seems for a moment to be 'the only way'.

This has happened with what passes off as 'grammar' in primary schools. My argument has been that 
a) the 'grammar' on offer is only one form of several kinds of grammars that can be taught, 
b) this one is particularly narrow because it mostly leaves out the context and purpose of why and how we use language; one grammarian in particular tried to widen the discussion of grammar to include context and purpose, M.A.K.Halliday. He even co-produced a wonderfully accessible text book for schools called 'Language in Use'. The story of why and how Halliday's 'grammar' and this book in particular is not used reminds us that even something as supposedly objective as 'grammar' is in fact a matter of choice, bias and ideology. The point is the view that we should help children and students look at language-in-use was overthrown and another view, with an entirely different approach to language has been put in place.
c) This 'grammar' treats language as if it has rules that are single, correct usages. This is not true of language overall and isn't even true of 'standard English' which this grammar (as taught in primary schools) is concerned with. These rules are not derived from context and purpose. They are derived by means of a method which treats language as if it is an abstract 'system'.  Here's one example: we can say, 'I went for a walk after the match.' And we can say, 'I went for a walk after the match was over.' According to the 'grammar' being taught in primary schools these two usages of 'after' are 'different'. The first one is a 'preposition' and the second one is a 'subordinate' or 'subordinating' 'conjunction'. How is this distinction  derived? According to the internal 'system' rules of this kind of 'grammar'. In the first example, the phrase 'after the match' has no verb. In the second example, the phrase 'after the match was over' has a verb. So, according to this internal 'logic' of the sentence, the word 'after' in the two examples is deemed to be 'different'. But is it? In terms of language-in-use, the word 'after' in both cases is being asked by the speaker to do exactly the same job:  tell the listener something about time sequence of things 'I' did. You or I could make up another expression to describe it, an expression that wasn't tied to the internal-system approach to language-use. It's a 'time-sequence word'. It's a 'one-after-another' word. 
d) This 'grammar' was only introduced into schools because the committee that produced the 'Bew Report" on assessment and accountability deemed that 'grammar' produces 'right and wrong' answers and would be an ideal medium for testing whether teachers were teaching what the government wanted them to teach. In other words the justification for teaching grammar - and this form of grammar - was not because it's necessary or good for children but because it was, supposedly, a good way of testing teachers. (It's a form of 'output' testing. You test the input by testing the output. The input (the teachers' teaching) restricts ways of looking language enough anyway, but then to reduce it even further to the demands of right/wrong answers results in a false picture of how and why we use language. 

I, along with many others, have said that there are many other ways of talking about how we use language. People who listen to the radio programme that I present: BBC Radio 4's 'Word of Mouth' will each week hear how it's easy and possible to talk about and analyse how we use language in ways that don't involve the narrow 'rules' derived from what I'm calling the 'internal systems' approach. 

When it comes to looking closely at language-in-use, in literary texts for example, I've suggested here on my blog and in my booklets that I've produced for teachers that there are many other tools we can use. The ones I've suggested, I argue, are much more fruitful in telling us what is going on in stories, poems, plays and ultimately in all texts. In the academic world, these 'tools' are quite hard to understand, but I've tried to break them down into much more user-friendly ways. These are:

narratology - the study of how we construct stories e.g. through 'flashback' or 'reveal-conceal', or e.g.  through 'red herrings', or how we indicate that a character is 'thinking' or how a story or poem is 'narrated' (e.g. first person, third person or 'omniscient' or a mix) and what shape or tone this narration uses (e.g. 'unreliable' or 'self-conscious'); how a text uses 'reveal-conceal' as a method, and so on;
prosody - the musicality of language and how this has meaning and pattern; 
intertextuality - how we use other 'texts' to create the text that we are speaking or writing;
rhetoric - how we use long-standing, historic strategies when we speak and write, and how these historic strategies are linked to desired 'effects';
stylistics - a bit of a catch-all term but one which looks at some of the above plus e.g. the use or non-use of figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification),  or the use of different 'registers'  - e.g. 'posh' or 'familiar'; 
pragmatics  is the study of dialogue, how we make conversation, what strategies we use when we talk to each other. We can adapt and use this when looking at how writers write dialogue for novels, plays, poems and stories;
lexical field - this focuses on the way that any passage or story uses clusters of words and expressions in a given 'field' of meaning e.g. lots of different ways of talking about 'light' or about 'water'; (I've added this to my checklist because I've been impressed by how my son's teachers have given him this tool when looking at texts. I think it's a good way to focus on how passages have fields of interest which they look at in different ways, creating patterns of meaning
flow - how our emotions and feelings change as a text proceeds and when we can encourage students to look at their reactions to characters, or to emotional states (e.g. tension) (some people do this with little graphs), it reminds us that texts have a time element in them ie the meaning comes in part from how one event (and its emotions) comes after another. Shakespeare is famous for this in 'Macbeth' for example with the Gatekeeper scene - great example of 'bathos' (see below for a book on 'Rhetoric'.)
ideology  - how all of the above contribute to producing in a text a viewpoint that belongs to a wider set of beliefs, attitudes and understandings. 

Though this sounds very technical. In fact, it's possible to break each of these down into very usable ways of talking about texts. I've often given the example I came up with of using 'secret strings' where the children look for the ways in which within any text there are invisible links between words on the basis that some sound similar (prosody),  some are linked by meaning (lexical field), some are linked by a particular metaphorical way of seeing things (stylistics) and so on. 

I don't suggest that this checklist has to be used all the time or that all of the points on the checklist have to be used each time. In any of this kind of work, any rigidity in method will reduce nuance and subtlety in how we respond to a text.  

My booklets are: 'Poetry and Stories in Primary and Lower Secondary Schools'; 'Why Write? Why Read?' and 'Writing for Pleasure'. 

They are available from . Just click on 'Books'. 

While we're on this, please let me recommend for anyone interested in how and why we use language:  'You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle, to Trump and Beyond...' by Sam Leith, published by  Profile Books.  

It's a fascinating example of how we can look closely at language-in-use without reducing it to a matter of naming of parts, supposed 'functions' (which are in reality just names for bits of the system derived from abstract rules not in how or why use language to make meaning). 

Here's one example of me using some of the above methods to look at the opening pages of 'A Christmas Carol':

Saturday, 27 April 2019

I'm not making up this stuff to do with schools and 'data'

Comment from comments thread following my article in the Guardian on Tuesday:

"steve sanderson:

I had a visit from three DfE officials because my school was doing very well in challenging circumstances. When we were in Year 6 I explained to them that our results wouldn’t be as good this year as last because I had taken in three children who had been permanently excluded at other schools. They had missed 18 months of school so were unlikely to do as well as others in the class but were making rapid progress under an exceptional teacher.
The lead official then told me I had let the school down because our results and data would be a bit lower than the year before. It was typical of the DfE. Data before children. Those children were resolving their issues. We were working with Parents. That didn’t matter, it was only data that mattered."

Friday, 26 April 2019

The McNamara Fallacy

Someone put this up on the comments thread following my article in the Guardian this week:

"The McNamara fallacy (also known as quantitative fallacy[1]), named for Robert McNamara, the United States Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, involves making a decision based solely on quantitative observations (or metrics) and ignoring all others. The reason given is often that these other observations cannot be proven.

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes.

The second step is to disregard that which can't be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading.

The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness.

The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.

— Daniel Yankelovich "Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business." (1972)"

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Zionism, Zionists, Katzism

Richard Burgon MP has apologised for saying that Zionism is an 'enemy of peace'. Leaving that to one side for the moment, let's look at the argument for why Burgon needed to apologise. Here it is:


"Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement,said the vast majority of Jewish people identified as Zionists.

“Insulting a core part of their identity and then dissembling about it... [Burgon claimed he hadn't said that Zionism was an enemy to peace]... is shameful behaviour from a senior frontbencher in our party, let alone someone who aspires to administer our justice system,” he said."


This ups the stakes.

Katz is saying that MPs (anyone else?) must not 'insult' Zionism because it is a 'core part' of the 'identity' of the 'vast majority of Jewish people'.

In other words it ups the stakes in what can or can't be said about Zionism,  Zionists, and the 'vast majority' of Jews. Bear in mind that for many decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was active, open debate by Jews (and others) about Zionism. Of course there was! Zionism is a political idea. Can't we argue about Zionism? Any Jews like my parents, who lived in London's East End throughout the 1920s and 30s, regularly had debates about Zionism and of course there were times when either side might have said that there were 'insults' flying. But no one could have closed down the argument on the basis that it wasn't really an argument, and that it was, as Katz has implied, an argument against the core of people's identity. Or if they did, you couldn't get away with saying, 'How dare you say that Zionism is an enemy of peace!  Zionism is a core part of my identity, you have just insulted me, Zionists, and (because the vast majority of Jews are Zionists) Jews.' Yes, yes, yes, people would have said, now let's get on with the political argument about whether Zionism is or is not an 'enemy of peace'. 

But to claim that things can't be said in this debate because it's a matter of personal identity - as Katz has done -  is a way to close down the debate altogether.

On this specific matter, what Mike Katz is saying is that a person shouldn't say that 'Zionism is an enemy of peace'. He is saying, something along the lines of: just don't say it! It cannot be said. It's an unsayable thing. 

Note that he doesn't offer an argument against the view itself. He simply says a)  that it is 'shameful behaviour' and b) that it is an 'insult'  on the grounds that c)  for the 'vast majority of Jews', Israel is a 'core part of their identity'. 

Potentially,  if we are to follow the Katz rule, this could remove whole areas of debate about Israel from discussion. Yet, when the IHRA code was introduced we heard over and over again how this wasn't a restriction on criticism of Israel. OK, so Katz isn't talking about criticism of Israel, he's talking about criticism of 'Zionism' - which he has subtly turned into 'Zionists' - who mustn't hear comments like 'Zionism is the enemy of peace'. Is that because it's racist? Or antisemitic? Does Katz really think that? 

Meanwhile let's conjure up this Mike Katz Argument-Free Zone. What are we allowed to say about Zionism in this Zone? What instructions does Katz have for us so that we don't receive his censure? What is this new doctrine? 

(By the way, there are millions of Zionists who aren't Jews. In the US alone there are millions of 'Christian Zionists' who are 'dispensationalists'. These are people who believe that it's not long now before the Messiah will come again (Second Coming). But this depends on more Jews, most Jews, or all Jews going to Israel. At this point, the Messiah will come again and all people will convert to this form of Christianity. Those who don't will be put to the sword. All those who are now believers will ascend to heaven in what is known as 'The Rapture'.

If you think I've made this up, please look up "Christian Zionism" and "Dispensationalism" on wikipedia. Actually, the entry on "Anti-zionism" is very interesting too because it tells the story of who in the 19th and 20th centuries was against Zionism and why. It will be surprising for some to read, for example, that some of the most vocal anti-Zionists were the more conservative and 'assimilated' Jews who thought that Zionism would evoke the accusation that Jews had dual loyalties, or that they weren't really attached to Britain or the USA. Interesting read...)

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Classroom teacher David Keyte offers "Things I believe help children become 'readers'"

This list comes from classroom teachers David Keyte from Yattendon School. He posted it on twitter.

Things I believe help children become 'readers'

1. Lots of excited adult talk about books.
2. Regularly share blurbs and extracts of books.
3. Comfy reading.
4. Time for class books every day.
5. Time for independent reading every day.
6. Make authors 'real' through Twitter interactions etc.
7. Make reading 'cool'(pictures of celebrities reading etc)
8. Use recently released books in reading/guided reading lessons.
9. Create opportunities for children to share what they are reading with their classmates.
10. Never dissuade children from trying out a book they like the look of.
11. Walk around school with a book.
12. Regularly ask children 'What are you reading?' when walking around schoo.
13. Create an excitement around your own book shelf at home.
14. Talk about the aesthetics of books.
15. Create bookmarks with your class.

Monday, 1 April 2019

How does Reveal-Conceal work? How do writers do it? Why is it important?

Who's there?
Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
Long live the king!
You come most carefully upon your hour.
'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
Have you had quiet guard?
Not a mouse stirring.
Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
I think I hear them. Stand, ho! Who's there?
Friends to this ground.
And liegemen to the Dane.
Give you good night.
O, farewell, honest soldier:
Who hath relieved you?
Bernardo has my place.
Give you good night.
Holla! Bernardo!
What, is Horatio there?
A piece of him.
Welcome, Horatio: welcome, good Marcellus.
What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?
I have seen nothing.
Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.
Sit down awhile;
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story
What we have two nights seen.
Well, sit we down,
And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.
Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,--
Enter Ghost

So here are 28 little speeches that happen before we read in the stage directions: 'Enter Ghost'. If, we put ourselves in the shoes of the writer, William Shakespeare, and we have a story to tell, it's clear that he has made some choices here about how to do it. For example, he could have begun this play with 'Enter Ghost'. He could have begun with what is the next line after 'Enter Ghost' which is: 'Peace, break thee off: look where it comes again!' (spoken by Marcellus). Shakespeare could, perhaps, have got all four men to come on to the stage talking about this ghost that they've seen before and then to be suddenly confronted with it again. It's easy to think of different ways this scene could begin.

This leads me to ask, why do it this way? 

Line 1 is a classic example of how writers do 'reveal-conceal'. We pretend that we are revealing a new piece of information whilst at the same time, concealing or withholding another. A character asking a question that he or she doesn't the know the answer of, is one way to do it. If the reader doesn't know the answer - as with this example - then the question is both a question and a cunning way to get the audience to wonder along with the person asking the question. 'Who's there?' says Bernardo. Yes, who? we ask. 

As this is a play and not a story, we don't know exactly how Bernardo says this but we can figure out from how fearful they are later in the scene that a good way to perform this line is to be absolutely terrified. This will add to the 'conceal' element in the question. (Think of the alternatives, e.g.   Bernardo is drunk and he calls out, 'who's there?' as if he's hoping for a bit of company.) Making Bernardo fearful will build up our expectations and fears and - key word for 'reveal-conceal': dread. A lot of fiction works on the basis that we readers and audience fear or dread a bad or awful outcome. We may have this dread confirmed or relieved, depending on what kind of story it is. 

So, the reveal is a guard. The conceal is something along the lines of, who does this guard dread? Who is he afraid of?

It's a great start to a story.

Line 2 from Francisco confirms the dread. It is in a way an echo of what Bernardo has just said. They are equally full of dread. Line 3 is in effect the password that informs the other party that neither is a threat to another. In effect the withholding of what or who it is they dread is being postponed while we have a second of relief along with the two men that the object of their dread hasn't turned up. But what is the object of their dread? Still withheld.

Line 7 tells us that this is the changing of the guard - more reveal than conceal. So far so good. 

Line 8 stokes the dread: Francisco has 'much relief' - a grim Shakespearean pun. 'Relief' from what? Why? That's more conceal at work there. We are given the atmospherics of the fact that it's cold - that's reveal rather than conceal. 

Line 9 is another example of the questioning method of reveal-conceal. We are invited to wonder. Our questioning is informed by the fear that we saw and heard when Bernardo and Francisco first met. A bit more conceal being stoked here.

Line 10 reassures the guards. We are perhaps reassured too but now we are into another form of 'conceal' - the delay. We know in our bones that something is afoot but we are being told that nothing is happening. (Dramatic irony).

Line 21 brings in Horatio and Marcellus - more reveal than conceal. But the next line:

Line 22 we have the question method yet again. This is building up a sense that this group of people really don't know what's going on or perhaps more particularly why the thing that is happening keeps happening. 

Speech 24 is interesting from the reveal-conceal perspective : first we have the word 'fantasy' and then a bit later the word 'dreaded'. Fantasy raises the question of whether they are imagining things. 'Dreaded' chimes with the characters and our sense of foreboding. It stokes the dread - of course. It works as 'what the characters dread so the audience dreads'. 

Then we have the word 'apparition'.  This is a great reveal. We now know what it is that the characters dread but it is sufficiently vague and full of unknown potential to keep the conceal going. An apparition of what? Of who? And why is it here? Lots of conceal in and amongst the reveal.

Speeches 25 and 26 show us that Horatio is the reassuring voice, possibly the more rational voice amongst them. This serves the function of revealing Horatio to us, who will of course later be Hamlet's reassuring and loyal friend. But he also can act in this moment as an echo to our own rational thoughts; e.g. that we might not believe in apparitions. Hiding behind that, though, is the conceal of: 'Well if an apparition does appear, that will outweigh a rationalist's suspicions'. (It's a technique often used on TV shows about ghosts or hypnotism: win over the most rational person in the room!)

Speeches 25-28 are 'delay' methods of reveal-conceal. Notice that Bernardo in 28 has gone into Classical mode of speech, lines that tell us of settings, visuals, states of the weather and the like. We might well feel at this point: 'Get on with it!' but it's being withheld (concealed), right up to the moment that the Ghost appears and is revealed. 

Our sense of anticipation, tension, foreboding and dread should be pretty well stoked up for this moment. 

This opening is a good example of how writers do reveal-conceal. 

I'm interested in why it is that a process that I think is central to how writers write, how and why readers read (excitement, tension, foreboding, confirmation of one's fears or contradiction of them with reassurance) is hardly touched on in the usual school-based criticism. 

I've identified several aspects of reveal-conceal here: e.g. questioning, delay, minor reassurance en route to the object of our dread, stoking fears through use of words like 'dread', talking of an object of our dread in vague terms - like 'apparition' and so on. 

We could call this the beginning of a 'grammar' of reveal-conceal.