I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences. I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.

Gertrude Stein

Writing is the technological innovation that has most changed the way we think and how we learn. It allows us the send our thoughts across time and space, and peer back in the past to see how people lived and thought thousands of years before we were born. We have access to all that has been recorded and preserved from all over the world.

This is magic, but of a very prosaic kind.

Back in the days when literacy was very much a minority sport, being able to read and write really was magical. So much so that grammar – book knowledge – became synonymous with the supernatural. A grammary was a book of arcane lore and glamour, from the same root, is the act of enchantment. And being able to write, to spell out words, was viewed with the same awe and wonder as the casting a charm. Spelling comes from the Old English word for story and spelling is not only the inscribing of such a story, but the act of performing magic.

Grammar teaching conjures up images of rows of unfortunate, becapped schoolboys being forced to joylessly* conjugate verbs and parse sentences in bleak, windowless classrooms. Now, to the dismay of some, grammar teaching is back in vogue.  There are those who see the new focus on grammar, typified by the ‘SPaG test’ as a great evil put in place to crush children’s creativity and innate love of language. Children’s writer Michael Rosen is one such prominent critic. In a recent article he claims the test

…suffers from a severe case of terminology-itis. The symptoms are: a) an assumption that there is universal agreement on all the names, structures and functions of bits of language in this test – there isn’t; b) the best way to achieve coherence and effectiveness in children’s writing comes from getting them to learn these names – there is no evidence for this; c) that the hours of teaching-time required to teach these names could not be better spent helping 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.

Let’s have a think about the weight of these assertions. Firstly, there is no such assumption that there is anything like universal agreement on the metalanguage of English grammar. Instead, the test prescribes a list of terms in order to cut through the thicket of confusing alternatives. We can, of course, take issue with the choice made, but that’s a different argument. The next claim is equally flimsy. I don’t think anyone has said that learning grammatical terms is the best way to “achieve coherence and effectiveness in children’s writing”. Instead, the assumption is that these terms are worth knowing for their own sake. Our language marks the limit of our thought: we cannot articulate thoughts about that for which we have no words. The final claim, one of opportunity cost, is the only one worth addressing at length. Because time is finite we cannot teach everything; we have to make a choice. Rosen is right to identify that time spent teaching grammatical terminology is time that cannot also be spent on comparing different kinds of texts. What we have to consider is what might be most useful.

I for one left school ignorant of most things grammatical and consequently, although I had a pretty good implicit understanding of how to write, my ability to think meta-cognitively about what I was doing when I put pen to paper was severely curtailed by my inability to articulate what I was doing.Although I could “write coherently and interestingly” I couldn’t write precisely or judiciously. I didn’t have the language or the knowledge to think about how I or others constructed the written word.

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 genre. My experience has been that when pupils arrive in Year 7, they have only the vaguest notion of word classes, sentence structure, punctuation and text organisation, not to mention spelling. What seems to happen is that able writers pick up an instinctive feel for how writing works without being to articulate why, and everyone else labours on in clumsy, inarticulate ignorance.

One of the first things I would always say to a new Year 7 class is, “Who thinks you use a comma when you draw breath?” A forest of hands would sprout before me. This is clearly nonsense, as anyone with asthma knows. Teaching accurate comma usage is trivially straightforward when you know about subject-verb agreement and independent and subordinate clauses. Without this knowledge, we rely on vague approximations which only enable children to mimic the art of writing without internalising why or how.

Rosen then goes on to critique how the items on a particular SPaG test are flawed. To do so he draws upon a thorough knowledge of grammar and shows off his command of this rich, diverse body of knowledge. The fact that he is able to do so is testimony either to being well-taught or to an autodidact instinct to learn. We might take a number of things from Rosen’s virtuoso demolition of the test, but here are the two main conclusions we might draw:

  1. The test is not fit for purpose as it does not allow for the ambiguities and breadth of English grammar.
  2. Michael Rosen does not think children need to know what he is privileged to know.

Firstly, I’m not here to defend the test as such; it may well be flawed, but I don’t feel myself sufficiently expert to confidently say so. What I do know is that a majority of secondary English teachers do not know enough grammar to pass it. This is a direct consequence of being taught, as I was, that self-expression and creativity are all that is important. If children do not know the basics – and know them fluently and automatically – then they will struggle to learn not only the finer points of expert writing but also will be much less likely to intuit that grammar is less a set of rules and more a body of knowledge concerned with meaning. If you ‘just know’ parts of speech, subject-verb agreement, clauses etc. then you can not only think in far greater depth about why writers make choices,  a world of choice and possibility opens up before you too. A test, any test forces a change in curriculum. We might feel it a shame that this has had to be forced upon us, but as is so often the case, what is not assessed, is not taught. Slowly, we might start to undo the damage done through long years of neglecting this precious, magical knowledge.

And of what of the second conclusion? I’m sure Rosen is as well-intentioned as every other education pundit, but in his rush to focus on creativity, he might be guilty of pulling up the drawbridge and kicking away the ladders he used to get to where he is. Naturally, we neither want nor expect every child to become a linguist, but a solid foundation in grammar is one which allows thought to better develop in many areas of the curriculum, not merely the art of composition. He might argue that if children are sufficiently interested they can always do what I (and perhaps he) have done and found out this stuff for themselves. And of course, they can. But few will. Such an argument is similar to Jeremy Clarkson telling students that A levels don’t matter because he didn’t get any and look how well he’s done for himself, but as James Theobold points out, this is a great way to fail.

Rosen concludes his article uncharitably: “But are the people who devised this test really interested in writing? I doubt it.” I’m sure he’s right that the test can be improved, but I think those responsible for designing the test are interested in writing. Unlike Rosen, perhaps they’re interested in rather more than just writing and understand that a sound knowledge of grammar is an investment in otherwise impossible possibilities?

If writing is magic, grammar is the knowledge of how to cast a spell.

*If I hadn’t learned what the infinitive form of the verb was, I wouldn’t know whether I was splitting it out of ignorance or with deliberation. It’s this ability to think with the metalanguage of grammar that allows us to write more creatively and thoughtfully.