Well, no it’s not is it. Grammar’s that dull stuff what kids got taught in the 60s. And then enlightened educationalists decided it was unfashionable for children to know how to parse sentences and wotnot. Which leaves me part of a lost generation who trundled through our schooling without learning a blessed thing about this arcane and mysterious subject.
And that neatly segues into the fact that I’ve recently been enjoying my favourite linguistic professor and all round eccentric, David Crystal’s lovely new book, The Story of English in 100 Words. One of his chosen 100 is ‘grammar’. You see, it turns out that grammar is an arcane and mysterious subject. Grammar and glamour come from the same root. Grammar originally meant the study of everything written but, as reading must have seemed like an almost magical skill to your average medieval peasant, grammar became synonymous with supernatural or occult knowledge. ‘Grammary’ came to mean magical or necromantic learning. And this leads us to ‘glamour’ which first meant a magical spell or enchantment and has since travelled on to arrive at its modern meaning which is about as far from the study of grammar as one could imagine.
Then, blow me if I didn’t have one of those zeitgeisty moments whilst reading Out Of Our Minds. Sir Ken bloody Robinson was on about the exact same thing! Was this common knowledge that everyone except me was privy to?
And speaking of glamorous, I had a steering meeting this evening where we discussed the need for more explicit grammar teaching within our English programme of study. The feeling was that we English teachers often get bogged down with content and when teaching writing we faff about with genre conventions and vocabulary instead of getting to grips with the mechanics of sentence structure and punctuation. The proposal was to begin our GCSE course with six weeks of good, old-fashioned grammar. Words to warm the wintery cockles of Michael Gove’s heart, I’m sure.
What I’m not so sure about is whether this is the correct approach. What with being a child of the 70s and only learning grammar by accident when training to teach English as a Foreign Language. Surely we need to nurture students’ creativity instead of drowning them under a deluge of past participles and phrasal verbs? You can see why folks that it was magic can’t you? If you don’t know what a phrasal verb is (and I didn’t until a class of Portuguese students demanded it of me) it can sound pretty mysterious.
So, I did what I usually do these days and asked Twitter what it thought. Well, my goodness! I was astonished at the depth of feeling my innocent enquiry provoked. There was little agreement on how best to teach grammar and indeed whether it needs to be taught explicitly. However, two main points emerged:
- Lots of English teachers are “uncomfortable” with teaching grammar and are keenly aware of their own lack of knowledge. As a rule English teachers tend to be Literature graduates and often make it though their PGCE with a fairly sketchy understanding of what grammar might constitute.
- Knowledge is power. And ignorance is not bliss. If students are confused about basics like what a sentence is and how it works then they are at a serious disadvantage. Able readers and writers seem to acquire an instinctive understanding of how grammar ‘feels’ without being clear about any of the rules.
Where now? Top of my to do list is making an appointment with our MFL department and asking them nicely whether they’d mind giving us some training on the essentials. That done we can make a more informed decision about how exactly we go about implementing what we learn and how best to stuff it into the students’ eager brains.
What with the new Ofsted framework’s imminent arrival with its new focus on literacy, as well as Ofqual’s announcement that 5% of many GCSE subjects will be based on spelling, punctuation and grammar, maybe now’s the time to re-engage with this troublesome topic?
In other news, I learned what ‘conniption fits’ are, and that a serial comma is the same as an Oxford comma. (See that one over there?)
A good night.