Saturday 13 February 2021

Let's Find Out About Language by Exploring it

 It's my strong belief that primary school children can find out a lot about language (knowledge about language (KAL)) by exploring it and playing with it.  I believe that the kind of knowledge expressed by the grammar for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 is of limited use, partly because it is too much too early, but also because a lot of it is inaccurate and that its starting point - the sentences made up in text books and the SATs tests is not 'language'. We should also remember that the grammar test paper (in effect, the syllabus) was never explained or justified by those who imposed it. It was explicitly brought in in order to assess teachers - see the Bew Report of 2011.  This means that  when someone like me argues with it, we are arguing about what it is, not with how it was justified. 

There are many kinds of KAL and one of the 'fast ones'  pulled by the people who devised the GPS is that the 'grammar' they've introduced is some kind of 'basic' or 'nuts  and bolts' of writing or some such.  I contest that very strongly for several reasons:

1. Language is social. It has evolved as our main way of being social. We talk to each other, we write to and for each other. This 'grammar' excludes this.  It shaves off all the social aspects of language, claiming to explain 'how  language works' through a set of rules, terms and functions. In order to claim this, they have to exclude one of the greatest grammarians of the 20th century, Michael Halliday who incorporated the 'social' aspect of language in his grammar. He only looked at 'language in use', he thought of our production of language as 'choices' we make and he worked out a system of including the contexts in which we use language such as:

 who is speaking/writing? 

who is listening/reading?

 what is the theme of the 'text' we are talking about?

 and what type of 'text' is it - ie what 'genre' does it belong to? (or of course it might be a mix of type or genres.

These contexts are really fruitful ways for us to think about how we can help children talk and write, yet the 'grammar' on offer is stuck on 'the sentence'. It can only ever claim to tell us how a very limited range of sentences - those you find in a piece of very ordinary and conventional prose - work. Every day and all day, we use language in ways that this 'grammar' hardly touches: the grammars of how we put conversations together ('pragmatics), of how we shape and structure stories (stylistics and structuralism), of the forms and purposes of non-fiction, of TV interviews, of popular song, of radio DJs, of comedy, of plays, of film scripts and so on.  These are some of the contexts that Halliday was talking about. By talking about the 'participants' in conversations and writing, he drew attention to 'register' (why do we pitch the way we write in particular ways?) and some of this is what we now talk about in terms of 'writing "up"' or 'writing "down"' which we do in real life but also characters do it in fiction. It doesn't take us long to find the hierarchies of society (race, class, gender, where we are in the 'body' hierarchies etc) permeating through our uses of language in speech and writing.

What follows are ways in which we can explore and play with 'language-in-use' - real language being produced and received in real life situations. 

Collecting language

This works to the same principle that we might apply to, say, biology: that we can collect specimens in order to study them, or history: that we can go to a castle to study how the Normans conquered England and Wales, or we can go and look at a  valley in order to study how rivers cause erosion. 

We can collect language in order to study it. 

One way we can do that is to create a Word Wall. 

What we can do is together collect any lines from songs or poems or plays or TV, any interesting or odd signs, shop names, things that friends and relations say, any great lines from books we like. 

As adults, we can model this to show the children what they can find and where they can go to find it. We try to alert the children to eg the jokey names that hairdressers come up with for their salons, lovely lines from songs they like, great things from books or poems they like.

This can then act as a springboard for helping children keep language notebooks themselves. The simplest and easiest way to do this is to encourage children to think of it as an anthology where they can copy out their favourite lines from songs, poems and stories. As adults we can alert them to funny shop names or signs, or interesting things that we hear on TV or that people in our family say. Many of our children speak languages other than English. Encourage them to use their notebooks to write 'glossaries' or word-lists translating words from one language to the other. (As a child, I did this with the Yiddish that my parents scattered through their speech. 'Pulka - chicken leg' etc) 

Newspaper headlines, book titles, film titles, ads catchphrases and slogans are interesting too because they represent a form of language that we hardly ever find anywhere else. (How interesting that 'grammar' doesn't touch on this! In 'grammar' books, you sometimes see it parked as 'block language' (eg the Penguin Dictionary of Grammar), and yet it's a major form of communication. And it's not as if it's a minor byway of language-use that is peripheral to the economy. Why should it be of such low status to grammarians? (I can suggest one major reason: it's because it's a use of language where the 'sentence' is not the dominant form. Most headlines, ads' posters and slogans in general communicate without using the so-called 'rules' of the sentence. Everything that is laid down about how we must write or talk in sentences is overthrown by two minutes looking at headlines, ads and slogans.) Just take one very simple example: 'No smoking'. What is the 'grammar' of this? 'Smoking' is a past participle being used as a noun. 'No' in this context is some kind of 'determiner', as with eg 'some' or 'both' or 'my'. Or is it? In fact, because of social use of language, this use of 'no' is in fact a command or order. People in charge use it orally. So what is 'no'? In fact, it doesn't matter really what to call it because even if we do, it doesn't tell us what the phrase 'no smoking' is doing or why. The really interesting thing is that it's not a description and yet it could work that way too. 'What's going on here? There's no smoking.' The embedding of the command in the phrase that we see hundreds of times every day, comes from context. The grammar is the context, the context is the grammar. 

Song lyrics, poetry, plays, TV scripts and film scripts are other areas where the so-called  'rules' of sentences don't rule! Again, why should these be ignored? Are they not significant in the general matter of language use? Absolutely not. In fact, all this belongs to an area hardly reached by 'grammarians' - the many genres (and mixed genres and experimental genres) of written language. 

Older children/school students are using writing in ways that the 'rules' can't reach: texting and social media. In these spheres, we the users have been making up our own rules! Abbreviations, quick ways of communicating, in-jokes, much more flexibility about spelling and punctuation. There is in effect a new social language of electronic writing. It is a hugely popular, powerful form of language use. Should it be ignored  or parked in some branch line as 'wrong'? I don't think so. Let's bring it in, compare it, describe it, discuss what it is for, how the social needs are determining the 'grammar' as with 'no smoking'. 

So if we go out and collect language, we can look at these things. The moment we make comparisons, we start to see that language in use is not some inflexible set of 'rules' but is full of variation, experiment and change. Language can be enjoyed! 

Once you and a group of children have a body of collected examples (your 'specimens' if you like), they can be a point of interesting talk and cues for writing. Nearly all the writers I know do precisely this. We jot down words, phrases and notes of language-use to help us write. Of course, writers are not consulted when it comes to devising curricula! Writing in education is devised by people who hardly write anything but reports that hardly anyone reads but end up being the commands and diktats that people 'beneath' them have to obey. Hardly anyone has read the whole of the Bew Report and yet it is this document that has had the effect of skewing how children write in primary schools. It is one of the great paradoxes, ironies and absurdities of the politics of language in English education today! 

If people want to send me examples of how they and some children have 'collected' language, talked about it and used it in any way as a cue for writing, do get in touch. I'm on twitter and facebook and my email is on my website. 

In my next post, I'll look at another way in which we can 'explore language'.