Grammar for toast?

Grammar for toast?

Last week’s #ukedchat was titled, How can we build children’s imaginations so that they have more to choose from for their writing? and focussed on the dark art of creativity. My contribution to the discussion was to suggest that without clear knowledge of the forms and ‘rules’ of writing, creativity is inevitably stifled. Ideas become a kitchen-sink soup with everything chucked into the pot with little regard for structure, audience or purpose. I was a little disappointed to see that the archive reduces this thread of the debate to “There was a discussion around grammar and whether it was a necessary evil or a vital component to children’s writing. I think that one is like Marmite – you either love it or hate it!”

Well. You may indeed love or hate grammar, but unlike Marmite you ain’t getting far without it. Marmite is a condiment. It’s spice and flavour but it is by no means essential. If grammar has to be compared to a foodstuff let it be bread. Or potatoes.

My view is children’s imaginations are already pretty vast and the younger the child, the greater the depth of their imagination. We don’t need to teach this, it just is. I’ve been coerced into reading Out of Our Minds by creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson (SKR) for an education book club and in it he claims that children arrive in the school system with genius levels of divergent thinking. Teaching is, by its nature convergent and by the time they’ve got to 13 they’ve had most of this surgically removed. “There’s only one answer. It’s at the back. And don’t look. That’s called cheating.” Far from having to teach kids to be creative (which some would argue was pointless anyway), all we have to do is stop teaching them not to be.

By the time I get hold of these young minds they’re 11 and have already had a lot of the creative stuffing knocked out of them. Maybe so. But far more worryingly, they arrive at secondary school with only the vaguest notion of word classes, sentence structure, punctuation and text organisation, not to mention spelling. What seems to happen (and primary teachers please don’t read this as blaming, or passing the buck) is that able writers pick up an instinctive feel for how writing works without being to articulate why and everyone else doesn’t. One of the first things I say to a new Year 7 class is, “Who thinks you use a comma when you draw breath?” A forest of hands sprout before me. I don’t understand where this comes from. Every single primary teacher I’ve ever spoken denies imparting this arrant falsehood but every single child turns up in KS3 with it embedded as a known and certain fact, not up for doubt or discussion.

SKR defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have worth. This process is distinct from imagination. We can think of lots of stuff without actually creating anything worthwhile. This is as true of mathematics, art, music, science and engineering as it is of writing. And it’s the ‘having worth’ bit that’s important here. Writing down lots of interesting numbers but leaving out all the pesky calculations is not worthwhile. Similarly twanging randomly at guitar strings may well give vent to your feelings but is in no way a worthwhile creation. One could perhaps argue that daubing paint randomly on canvass worked for Jackson Pollock but I (and perhaps he) might argue that he went through a rigorous process of experimentation before arriving at a new and beautiful form.

And that’s the point. The form or genre of a creation. In order to write a sonnet one has to understand the rules of the sonnet form. And in order to play with the form, to experiment with the rules and yes, to break them, you still need to know what those rules are. If you don’t know how a sentence operates how can you truly be creative in the way you construct your sentences? Just having ideas and tossing them at the page simply isn’t good enough. Providing a clear, understandable framework for how to structure these ideas will actually help students to be more creative. They will have a greater ability to process their ideas into a form which has worth. Which is, after all, what SKR exhorts.

As an English teacher myself I think that part of the problems stems from the fact that most of us tend to be Literature graduates. We’re great at deconstructing texts and therefore tend to have a decent grasp of how construct texts. We’re less confident about language. For myself, I learnt no grammar at school. Everything I know (and really, it’s precious little) comes from having taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and having been forced by students far more knowledgeable than I about how grammar works in their native language, to explain some of the finer points of English grammar. I clung for security to my copy of Swan’s Practical English Usage and did my best to bluff it.

Would it help students to become better writers if they knew about gerunds and past participles? Maybe not, but they do need to know something about how their language is constructed. Teaching grammar need not (must not in fact) be a tedious process of learning stuff by rote. It can, and should, be every bit as active and inspired as most of what goes on in English lessons in classrooms up and down the land. Why isn’t it? I’d say it’s because teachers are afraid of making mistakes and looking foolish.

The solution? Finding ways to teach grammar creatively that will in turn encourage the creativity lying dormant in many of our students. And this doesn’t just apply to English teaching. Every subject has its own ‘grammar’ which students need to know before they can spread their wings and play with the tools of creation.

Albert Einstein (may have) said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Dylan Wiliam certainly did say, “show me a teacher who doesn’t fail every day and I’ll show you a teacher with low expectations for his or her students.” So, try something new: teach grammar creatively because yes, real creativity does need rules.

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