Saturday 23 January 2021

Primary school grammar - the issues

I've written an article in today's Guardian about parents having to teach their primary aged children 'grammar' as a result of lockdown. 

I'll make the following points about this 'grammar'.

[I haven't proof read this yet!]

1. It is only and entirely addressed to matter of what is taught in primary schools -apart from when I refer specifically to 'secondary'.  It follows from this that this discussion is about what is suitable to be taught to under-11s, and what is the priority that it be taught to under-11s as opposed to other subjects in general or other topics to do with language. For under-11s.

'Suitability' is a matter of child development. Education has long decided that some things are too 'hard' for primary aged children to get hold of: eg algebra, quantum physics, metabolism of the liver, tectonic plate shifts, genetics...(please feel free to put in any other subjects you know of).

'Other topics' is a matter of why 'grammar' (which is mostly about 'sentence grammar')  is thought to be more important than other kinds of knowledge about language eg why and how do we write and talk in different ways for different 'genres' and different kinds of people? Why do we do this? What is dialect? Has language changed? How? Why? Why do people speak English in many different ways around the world? How do we choose what to write, how do we choose how to write? Where do we go to find these different ways? Can we imitate these different ways? 

As this 'grammar' is sometimes put forward as being the 'nuts and bolts' of writing, how come some people can write without knowing it? Are there other 'nuts and bolts'? I teach the grammar of writing stories. This involves me teaching, for example, openers, cliff-hangers, reveal-conceal, story cogs, point of view, interiority, how to convert 'being there', pre-figuring the climax, red herrings, flashbacks, flash forwards, narrative voice(s), use of previous texts ('intertextuality') etc etc. I'm only mentioning this as an example of how 'grammar' of sentences is by no means the only way to look at the 'nuts and bolts' of what we read or say. 

2. It is vital to remember that this 'sentence grammar' was not brought in because Michael Gove - or anybody else - thought that it was a good idea for reasons that it was the best thing to be taught! It was brought in for one reason only: to assess teachers. This is stated quite explicitly in the Bew Report of 2011. This was on 'Accountability and Assessment' - not on language. They were looking for a way to assess teachers. They decided that 'grammar' has 'right and wrong' answers (it doesn't) and so that would do as a way of assessing teachers because a) teachers would teach it, b) children would be examined on it, and c) the scores could be put on a graph which would show that this or that teacher was good, OK or bad. That's why this grammar was brought in to primary schools. 

The government then hired some 'grammarians' to dish up the grammar to teach and test. They did. One grammarian lobbed in 'fronted adverbial' which was a strange one for many of the grammarians and linguists, who by and large had never used the term. 

This leads us on to 'terminology'.

3. So, setting aside the issues of a) this is for primary schools and b) it was only ever brought in for purposes of assessment of teachers, let's look at problems with this kind of 'grammar' and what schools are asked to do with it.

a) It's based on the idea that language can be described in terms of 'classes' and 'functions'.  For old fashioned people like me who learned much of this stuff at secondary school when I was doing French, Latin and German and later 'Old English' or Anglo-Saxon as it is often called, we used to use other terms for this. 'Classes' we called 'parts of speech' and I don't remember that we did call  'functions'.  I think we used to say, 'what are they doing in the sentence?' I think. Sentences are classified (simple, complex etc)  but mostly linguists steer clear of classifying paragraphs and chapters, though secondary teachers will know much better than me that they now have to teach PEP paragraphs and the like. These are prescriptive requirements for how a paragraph must be written in order to get marks in an exam. Other paragraphs not permitted. 

Are there any problems with the 'classes'/'functions' way of describing language? The main problem is that we can often only determine the class by looking at its function. Analogy: we can do anatomy of the heart and say, 'those are the valves'. But we can only know they are valves if we see the things doing what valves do: opening and closing to allow or not allow flow. It's the same with language. We can only say that this or that is a noun or a verb or an adjective when we see it doing what nouns and verbs do! That's because words can act in different ways, depending on the context and use. 

The word 'proud' is mostly an 'adjective'. In 'Romeo and Juliet' Juliet's father says to Juliet, 'Proud me no prouds'. In that sentence 'proud' is doing the job that a verb would do AND  a noun. We can only know that in the context of that sentence. So we can't say 'proud' is an adjective. We have to say, it all depends on what it's doing. 

Further, the terminology of these classes and functions is misleading, particularly for young people new to the idea of terminology and particularly if they themselves are being told to be accurate about language! So here are some classes again: adverb, adjective, noun, verb. Here are some functions: subject, verb. What?! So the word 'verb' is both a class and a function? A noun can be a subject, and a verb can verb. Brilliant. 

c) Then there are structures. Some people call this grammar, some call it 'syntax'. Some people call them both. I was taught the following structures: words, phrases, clauses, sentences. (Other uses of language were not usually taught us as grammar eg rhetoric, conversations, chapters, novels, political speeches, essays even though they could be as these all have grammars too and could be taught and learned as part of learning how to write - which I think is one of the objectives here isn't it? )

We were taught that verbs come as 'finite' or 'non-finite'. Here is a finite verb in a sentence: 'Trump left the White House'. The word 'left' is the finite verb. It's called a finite verb because, they say, it helps to make a 'complete sentence' in this context. It can also be changed to 'might leave' or to 'is leaving' or to 'has left'. Verbs change. However, these finite verbs are mostly (not always!) made finite when they have a 'subject' written into the sentence. Here it is 'Trump'. So in a way, the verb is 'Trump left'. And indeed when French children learn the verbs they say anyway, they sing out eg (in French) 'Je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils sommes'. 'I am, you [when you're being familiar] are, he is, we are, you are [polite and plural], they are.' This is  called 'conjugating'. 

Ok so, phrases, we were told don't include 'finite verbs', clauses do. We then divided up sentences into these phrases and clauses. We then gave the phrases and clauses names. Phrases, they told us could be 'adjectival' or 'adverbial'. If they were adjectival they described nouns. If they were adverbial they described verbs, they said. At one level of this classification of clauses were 'main clauses and 'subordinate clauses'. Subordinate clauses had another system of classification: they could be clauses 'of' something eg of 'time' or they could be 'conditional clauses' or 'concessionary clauses' or 'relative clauses' etc.

(Reality check: these were all taught to us at secondary school. Not primary school. At primary school we were taught at most, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions. This was then tested at 11 as a way of deciding whether you could go to grammar school or not. Most - not.)

Most of this looks all neat and tidy but any time spent reading about grammar and syntax,  you soon come across arguments over terminology and indeed whether this or that way of chopping up sentences makes sense. You might know of examples yourself. 

We might learn that subjects have to be 'nouns'. Well, we soon also learn that actually what subjects are are 'noun phrases'. Here is a noun phrase: 'The dog' or 'The blue dog' or 'The very blue dog'. Each of these phrases could be the subject in a sentence that tells us about this dog...eating, say. In that noun phrase is a 'the', in two of them there is 'blue' and in one of them is 'very'. So they say, the noun phrase contains a 'determiner' (what we used to call 'the definite article) 'the', the adjective 'blue' and the adverb 'very'. Word of warning: there is no good reason why the word 'adverb' should refer to a word that modifies verbs AND  word that modified adjectives AND modifies whole sentences. But it does. Because it's a useless bit of terminology that no scientist would accept for a minute. 

But subjects can also be whole clauses (according to the above difference between phrases and clauses if you want that one. Some grammarians don't.) 'That I am an idiot is something well known in these circles'. The clause 'That I'm an idiot' is a 'noun clause'. It's the 'subject' of the verb 'is'. It includes a pronoun ('I') a verb 'am', a determiner which is also an 'indefinite article 'an' and a noun 'idiot'. 

So all this is a way of segmenting sentences. Some of this is taught in primary schools, some of it is not. There seems to be some whole fetish going on about needing to distinguish between prepositions and co-ordinating and subordinating conjunctions. Never mind what these are for the moment. What should be remembered here is that there is at least one famous grammarian who thinks that some of these distinctions are false. He says that there should be no different terms for when we say, 'before lunch' and  when we say, 'before it was lunch'.  The word 'before', he says, is doing the same thing. (I learned that in one it's beginning a phrase and the other a clause. He says, so what?) This is an example of how this terminology business is always a work in progress, a work in dispute. In fact, almost all these terms and distinctions are constantly under review and being changed. A few years ago children were obediently learning about 'connectives'. Then they were junked and now children are not learning 'connectives'. This change isn't because something new has been discovered. Repeat: it's not science. This is about fad and just what one 'expert' says against another as ways of classifying and segmenting sentences. 

d) Where does all this grammar stuff come from? It's interesting (for me!) to look at this, and the answer is that it started out as a way of describing written Latin. Another reality check: written Latin is not Latin. It's written Latin. Latin is the language spoken and written by millions of people all over Europe during the time of the Roman Empire. Written Latin is the written form of the language produced by a tiny elite. The majority of people couldn't write, and spoke Latin however they wanted to. So this grammar was a way of describing one part of this language. Why is this important? Because formal writing is usually a very precise, rule-bound form of language. When we speak, we do many things that writing cannot do or chooses not to do: hesitate, repeat, say incomplete things, use many more pronouns, use emphasis through our way of speaking, avoid 'front-loading' sentences, with phrases and clauses before the main clause and use a lot of sounds that are not usually classed as word even though they have meaning - think of the many ways we use 'mm' as 'mm?' or as 'mm!' and so on. 'Grammar' is not interested in this sort of thing but we as language-users are very interested in them. By the way there are people who study speech who are interested in this sort of thing!

So if 'grammar' started out as a description of written Latin, why is that a problem to us? Because the descriptions of one, don't fit the other. In Latin, grammarians say there is something called an 'infinitive'. The way 'to love' in Latin is one word 'amare'. As I just wrote, we say that with two words, 'to love'. Some grammarians say that 'to love' is the infinitive. Others say, English doesn't have an infinitive. We just use a preposition 'to' and recycle one form of the verb 'love' or 'eat' etc and make something that is a verb without a subject or some such that we use either to give a name to a verb as in the technical phrase,  'the verb to  love' or in sentences like 'To know, know know you, is to love, love, love you', or 'I want to love you'. 

Another example is the 'subjunctive'. In French, one of the languages that developed out of Latin, there is a whole way to say and write verbs in order to indicate things like doubt, uncertainty, possibility and on occasions, obligation.  So if you say to someone, 'I must do it', one way is to use a construction that included a form of the verb that is the subjunctive. You can 'conjugate' it. It's a complete 'verb form'. English as a set of phrases that are not terribly common as with 'Were I to do it' or 'I suggest you be quiet'. In the first, 'were I' or "I were' is a regional dialect form of 'to be' ('I were going out'), but here it is something else. 'I suggest you be quiet' could be 'I suggest you should be quiet'. Some people have said in the past this 'were' and this 'be' are examples of the subjective deducing it from eg French. Others say this usage is too limited to be given the grand word 'subjunctive'. Better to think of another word to describe something so particular. 

Why's it in the SPaG type grammar? Because Gove insisted that it should be! I know that from the grapevine. Gove who is not a linguist decided what should be taught in primary schools. Perfect example of the arbitrary dictatorial and useless way in which things have been decided. 

A further example is 'tense' in verbs. We talk of eg present tense, past tense, future tense'. This derives directly from descriptions of written, elite Latin where a given verb form matches a given time frame. In modern English this doesn't work. For example we have no future tense. We can't take a verb and make it into a future form. We have to use auxiliaries like 'will' or 'shall'  or 'going to'. Or we can use a present tense (so-called) and say 'Tomorrow' or 'When I get home' as with 'I'm going out tomorrow' or 'When I get home, I'm having some toast'. You can go through the verb forms and see how you can stretch them to express different time frames. The most obvious is that novels in English are expressed mostly in the so-called 'past tense' but describe things that are 'present'. Clearly a new term is needed to describe time frames and how we express them in language using a combination of verbs, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, adverbs, adverbial clauses and phrases, etc etc. But this grammar is so inert and antiquated it can't even describe something as obvious as how we express time! 

e) As we know, children (and adults!) can learn some or all of this stuff by learning aspects of it by simplifying, cheating and getting it of by heart.  So at school we had tables of 'header words' for the different kind of clauses. This meant we learned the header words rather than learning the classication of clauses according to their meaning and purpose. A clause of concession, they told us, begins with 'though' or 'although'. Great. Learn it. I went into the exam and there was a clause that began with 'No matter when...' Arrrggghhh! We hadn't learned that as a header word. It was a trick question. What kind of clause follows 'No matter when...'?  I didn't know. I failed that question, as did thousands of others who had been taught by kind and honest teachers trying to get us through O-level  with short cut ways to learn types of clauses - which leads us on to why did they stop teaching grammar in secondary schools...which will  lead us on to the question of asking what's missing from this 'sentence grammar'? 

f) People often say that the reason why they stopped teaching grammar was either because it was deemed to be too hard or that it was because lefty teachers (like me) took over education and deemed it to be bad. In fact, neither cause is right. What happened was the old O-level English paper had at least three sections: one 'grammar' and two 'composition' (a kind of essay)  and three 'précis' ( a strict rule-bound way of summarising a passage).  

After 30 years of marking these papers - that's hundreds and thousands of students - examiners found no correlation between the grammar question and the composition question. In other words, no connection could be found to show that eg a) students good at grammar were good at writing or b) students bad at grammar couldn't be good at writing etc . No correlation. That's why they stopped teaching it and said we could or should teach other things to help students write in secondary schools.

g) What might be the reason why there was no correlation? Because using grammar to create sentences is not the same as writing. As I said earlier, writing stories or essays or speeches involve other kinds of grammar and 'stylistics' - ie the matter of how we write. I've written at length about this in my booklets.  I would argue that 'stylistics' are easily as important as this kind of 'sentence grammar' ,  if not more important to help people do extended writing.

One reason why knowing sentence grammar doesn't help us is because it is at heart an abstract almost mathematical code mapped on to sentences. Often it doesn't correspond to active, lively speech and writing. You can learn the whole lot and then walk past adverts or listen to two people talking and quickly discover that the terminology doesn't fit what they are doing. Grammarians try to get round a lot of this stuff by using terms like 'block language' or that the word 'x' is missing but 'understood'. In terms of real language use, an example would be us saying things like, 'You going out?' 'Yep.' There's nothing wrong with this. We all talk like this. If grammar was really about describing language, it would describe it in terms of what it is, not in terms of what it isn't and we would teach it in order to learn how language works. 

h) The bigger reason why there was no correlation between grammar and writing is that the grammar that was taught and is taught now is devoid of the social component. That's to say, people talk and write. We all do. Language is ours, no  matter what grammarians do with it. The reason why we say and write what we do comes from: who we are, who we are talking or writing to and for, what kind of 'genre' we are in (chat, a TV script, a political essay, instructions for fixing a washing machine, a newspaper article, a chat show...etc etc) and where we are in what we're trying to say - eg am I convincing you, do I need to repeat this, shall I change tack and tell a joke, shall I skip the next bit because it's irrelevant, shall I pop in a question or a tease, or a reference to a bit of shared culture...etc etc? 

This is a mix of stylistics, rhetoric, pyscholinguistics and sociolinguistics - as it happens the subjects and topics of the radio programme I've been presenting for the last 20 years, 'Word of Mouth' on BBC Radio 4. 

The 'grammar' of SPaG tries to eliminate these social and contextual aspects of language. I believe this is pointless, misleading and ultimately a dead end. It keeps insisting that these parts of speech and functions explain language-use. At best they are only ever partial explanations and they are never 'rules', at best they are shared conventions for particular kinds of language use. What's more, this kind of grammar is useless for describing or explaining a key aspect of language - language change. Why did the grammarians in my childhood say that we should never write, 'don't' or 'I'm' but we now can? Who decided? Answer: we did! I notice that SPaG grammar dubs this as 'informal language' without explaining what this sociolinguistic phenomenon is and why 'formal language' is seemingly superior and more necessary. 


I have written about this stuff many time before. If you use the search tags on this blog of 'SPaG, or Grammar, or SATs, you'll find many, many more blogs on the matter. 

Thanks for reading.