Thursday, 12 May 2016

Why study grammar?

Trying to express complex thoughts in simple English … is demanding, challenging and takes time.

Terry Leahy

There’s been a lot of fuss over the past week about whether it’s appropriate to assess children’s knowledge of grammar at the end of Key Stage 2. Various commentators even seem to take a perverse pride in their lack of knowledge boasting that ignorance hasn’t held them back. But amidst all the confusion and vitriol, some people have been asking why, if grammatical knowledge is so important, most people seem to manage without it. This is a reasonable question, and one worth answering.

First we need to know what grammar actually is. Crucially, it is not a list of rules. Formal grammar is an attempt to describe what real people actually do with language. We seem to born with an innate ability to learn the grammar of our own language – we pick up, without being instructed, such intricacies as word order. English is a subject-verb-object language. That’s just how it works.  The cat (subject) sat (verb) on the mat (object). Other languages work differently. And it doesn’t matter. We all seem to manage to put it together by about the age of three. You still hear children making subject-verb agreement slips long after this (I runned.) but these occur precisely because the ability the learn grammar is a biologically primary adaptation. We know the past participle of a verb usually takes the -ed ending; irregular verbs just have to learned the hard way. So, if the capacity to learn grammar is – at least to some degree – innate, what need is there for formal instruction?

The answer, in a nutshell, is writing. It might seem to the casual observer that the way we speak and the way we write is the same, but it isn’t. Speech is natural. We’ve been doing it for millennia and appear to evolved the capacity to just pick it up from our environment. Writing is high artificial and is a pretty recent invention. If you go back far enough, writing looked like this:


There are no words, no punctuation, no paragraphs: just characters. Oh, and the were no pages, so you had to unroll your papyrus and, if you wanted to read what it said, you had to start at the beginning and work your way, painstakingly, right to the end. This makes a certain kind of sense. In order to make the task of reading less laborious, we’ve systematically improved it over the centuries until now we have commas, page numbers, indexes and hyperlinks.

None of this is acquired naturally. Nobody, no matter how smart, just picks up spelling and punctuation without being instructed. In spoken language its obvious from the context where pauses and are meant to be and emphasis is meant to be placed. In written language it really isn’t. Grammar, at heart, is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.

Because writing is so much harder to understand than speech, we all need a certain amount of teaching in order to be able to do it. But does that mean we need to be taught what a fronted adverbial or a coordinating conjunction is? Maybe, maybe not. Clearly, once you’ve been taught the basics, you can read and write. With practice you acquire a feel for where a comma or full stop should go. So, why the need the learn the meta-language of grammar?

Here’s where I part company from the designers of the Key Stage 2 curriculum. There’s very little need (although, of course, it’s still worth knowing) to be able to identify the subjective mood or to be able to differentiate between a subordinating conjunction or a preposition, but we all – and especially teachers – benefit from knowing some stuff. The bare minimum I think every student – and, by implication, every teacher –  should know is as follows:

Understanding how words work

  • Parts of speech (verbs, nouns, articles, adjectives, prepositions)
  • Subject verb agreement
  • Tense

Understanding how to write a clear sentence:

  • The elements of clauses and sentences
  • Types of sentence (simple, compound & complex)
  • Commas (listing and bracketing)

Understanding how to create a coherent text:

  • Topic sentences
  • Paragraphs
  • Introductions & conclusions

If it was down to me, no one would be allowed to teach unless they understood these basics. Thank goodness it’s not up to me, I hear you cry.

I realise I still haven’t addressed why we need to know this stuff. There are three main reasons:

  1. To be creative you have to know the rules – explicit knowledge of grammar matters. I’ve written about this here and here.
  2. To think analytically you need to ‘think like an essay’ – grammar is concerned with meaning. Daisy Christodoulou has covered this excellently here.
  3. Teaching becomes much more efficient if everyone knows the basics. Instead of having to faff about trying to teach Year 11 to use semi colons by saying you can sort of use them like the word because to join two linked sentences together, you can simply say, a semi colon is used to connect two independent clauses.

I hope that helps.

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