Michael Rosen’s piece in the Guardian (‘Dear Ms Morgan: in grammar there isn’t always one right answer’, 3 November 2015) raises interesting questions about the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (GPaS) test, more popularly called the SPaG test. Rosen’s main point is that the test is not fit for purpose. The real motive for teaching grammar in schools, Rosen argues, is a political one, namely to grade children.
I will not engage with these assertions here, but will discuss another point that Rosen is making – more subliminally and not for the first time – namely that grammar is a subject that involves no more than ‘the naming of parts’, equivalent to ‘collecting car names’. It’s very unfortunate that Rosen seems to be suggesting that the teaching of grammar is not worthwhile in and of itself by telling us that it would be better not to spend valuable teaching time on teaching formal grammar, but instead get children “to do detailed comparative work on different kinds of texts, investigating, interpreting and experimenting, while keeping in mind the objective of enabling all children to write coherently and interestingly”. As long ago as 2005 Philip Pullman made a similar point by claiming that “If we want children to write well, giving them formal instruction in grammar turns out not to be any use; getting them actually writing seems to help a great deal more.”
I would ask this: why can’t we do both, i.e. teach grammar and get kids to write interestingly?
Should we teach grammar in schools at all? The answer to my mind is obviously ‘yes’: grammar is a central part of what makes up the language(s) we speak, and as such is inextricably part of our everyday existence. For most of us it would be very hard to imagine a day going by without using it when we speak, write or think. Because language is uniquely human, knowing about grammar enhances our understanding of what it means to be a human being: it helps us understand ourselves, and how we interact with those around us.
When it comes to physics, biology or maths nobody asks about the utility of teaching these subjects. It is rightly assumed that children should know something about the phenomena that are part of the natural environment they live in. The knowledge they acquire about these subjects ranges from the esoteric to the practical, but most of it is a source of wonder, and can be conveyed by inspiring and engaging teaching. Grammar is no different.
I’m endlessly fascinated by grammar because studying it involves solving interesting analytical puzzles and considering different solutions to the same problem (a transferable skill if ever there was one). From experience I know that school children also enjoy an investigative approach to studying grammar. They love doing grammar. The Englicious website has many grammar activities for school children which helps them learn grammar in a playful way. More advanced students can get their teeth into the assignments that form part of the very successful Linguistics Olympiad in which many schools take part.
For all the above reasons it is important that school children are taught about grammar. However, learning about the mechanisms of language involves effort for children, which includes familiarising themselves with some technical terminology, in the same way that knowing how a poem or novel works involves learning about metaphors, similes, etc. I don’t think that Michael Rosen would disagree with that. Terminology is necessary for every subject we study, and there is a certain joy in knowing the names of the nuts and bolts of things.
Can we do without the terminology? Sure, it is possible to study language and other subjects such as literature, art and philosophy without any knowledge of terminology, but it will be much harder. If students do know some terminology it makes studying those subjects a much richer and more rewarding experience. To my mind if teachers avoid using terminology they underestimate their students’ abilities, and they dumb their subject down.
If the teaching of grammar only involved the ‘naming of parts’ that would be worrying, but there are very clear signs that teachers do not teach grammar in the same way as was done decades ago. There are now many resources that help teachers teach language, including grammar, in an engaging way that inspires children. A clear indication of the excellent language teaching that is being done in schools is the large number of school children who go on to study English language and linguistics at university. There is now talk of an A-level in linguistics. The sooner that comes about, the better.