Bring Back Grammar

The comma splice is spreading rapidly through the community, for those who don’t know what it is this “sentence” is a good example.

We are fast approaching this year’s national examinations, and the problems with Higher English, so apparent after last year’s poor results, remain unaddressed.

Writing recently in The TES Scotland, David Cockburn argued that in order to preserve our heritage, we have to return to teaching “real” literature, and to stop regarding English as a service industry for other subjects. He has a point, in that much of what passes for literature nowadays is nothing more than semi-biographical self-indulgence with a quirky title and a nice cover.

That the current Higher syllabus is flawed is now beyond debate, with its hugely disproportionate emphasis on the teaching of literature, or at least fiction, to the exclusion of almost every other form of language. Which is not to say that literature is unimportant, or that people shouldn’t read books. On the contrary, as teachers we have a positive duty to promote reading. The “study” of literature on the other hand, as opposed to reading popular novels, is quite inappropriate for a significant number of teenagers.

Furthermore, textual analysis, or practical criticism by any other name, is most definitely a minority interest, and yet mastering this particular art is an absolute requirement of the Higher English course, the only real benchmark of linguistic competence in our educational system.

Compare this with the concept of linguistic competence itself, which merits barely a mention in the assessment criteria beyond the bland “spelling, grammar and punctuation will be sufficiently accurate”. There is, of course, no attempt to define what “sufficiently accurate” might mean, which is arguably where any debate about the future of English teaching should begin.

Another problem is that, with very few exceptions, the “sufficiently accurate” ability to communicate clearly, using a variety of sentence structures, selecting the appropriate preposition rather than one at random and avoiding the use of “however” as a conjunction, is something which can no longer be taken for granted, and which creates a very real barrier to learning for a significant number of our students.

What makes it even more frustrating is the fact that even when the teacher knows what needs to be done to improve the situation for those individuals concerned, the pressure to complete the texts, or more pertinently, to find the space for the endless testing and retesting, makes it impossible to do very much about it.

Having completed the marking of 70 or so critical essays – many of them by very able students – it is clear that the majority of failed unit assessments are failed because of the students’ inability to express themselves in grammatically accurate sentences, rather than a lack of knowledge of the subject-matter.

This is a situation which will not be improved by administering further assessments. If the trend is to be reversed, it will be done only through a radical review of the way language is taught, beginning in the early years of primary school.

With a major review of the secondary syllabus under way, the time is right to think again about our expectations of an English language course. For starters, dare I suggest that we learn from our friends in England, and separate the very specialised study of literature from the core study of language, and give the study of literature the time and status it deserves by according it its very own Higher course.

Those who opt for the course will do so because they are motivated and teachers will be clearer about where the focus of their attention should lie.

English departments are not a service industry and English teachers cannot accept total responsibility. All teachers, secondary as well as primary, must accept that they too have a part to play in improving language skills.


This article was first published in TES on 9 April 2004.

2 thoughts on “Bring Back Grammar

  1. Hi Bill
    Margaret here of Kip McGrath Tutors Scotland.
    Maybe it is because I did Latin and Greek but I believe the teaching of correct grammar is important. The use of various parts of speech by name seems to confound even the brightest students. This means they only play lip service to much Textural analysis.
    At Kip we teach GRAMMAR! I believe this helps to understand the writer’s craft.
    Please visit a centre some day

  2. Hi Margaret,
    It’s a long time since I wrote that article, so I had to remind myself what I actually said. I was still teaching in school at that point so was very aware of the need for a re-think about how language was taught in schools – I don’t suppose things have changed so much in the intervening seven years, certainly as far as Higher English is concerned. I wholeheartedly agree about the importance of an awareness of grammar from an early age, but the real debate begins when we talk about how to deliver that. Learning parts of speech and parsing sentences worked for some of us (a sad minority!) but doesn’t work for most, so it needs to be learned in a variety of rich contexts and through speaking and discussion. I think part of the problem in this country is that we are in too much of a rush to have young people writing before they have articulated their thoughts in speech.

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