Some thoughts on language teaching in schools

This was originally posted on the “essays” section of my website, but it might as well go here as well.

Recently, there has been quite a lot of bother – brought to my attention by one particular Twitter account which I follow closely – about the way in which the UK government wants English to be taught in schools, and as language and writing are both topics close to my heart I thought I might presume to weigh in with some remarks of my own.

Before I go any further, a few comments on who I am – and who I aren’t. I am someone who has studied language at a high level, having two degrees in linguistics and working toward a third (a PhD, with a substantial concentration on the linguistics of English as well as other languages). I am someone who greatly enjoys reading and writing fiction, and who reads and writes a lot. (More specifically on the writing front, I have written several novels that are complete in substance even if they still require some polishing, as well as some poetry and a number of plays. None of this, of course, means I am necessarily any good at writing.) I am not someone who has ever taught in school (though I have taught a little in other contexts), nor someone who has ever studied the theory of education in any depth at all. I do not have children of my own.

And some background on the topic of present discussion: the current situation, as far as I can glean, is that the government is pushing heavily a particular approach to the teaching of English in schools with a strong focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar (“SPaG”). Specificially, this takes the form of a quite strongly traditional approach to language teaching involving requiring primary-age children to be able to identify parts of speech (and not just the basic ones like “noun” and “verb”), “fronted adverbials” and so forth, mixed in with a heavy dose of prescriptivism about where commas should go and so forth. The aim is to help children to “write better”. This approach has been the cause of great consternation amongst, apparently, most people with some kind of interest in children’s education who aren’t in the government.

Firstly, let me say that I am not opposed to the teaching of grammar in schools. Indeed, I would be very disappointed if grammar were not taught in schools. Some of the responses to the present situation seem broadly to imply that formal grammar shouldn’t be taught in schools at all, which I think is wrong-headed. Now, to an extent I’m biased because I study grammar full-time and greatly enjoy doing so, so maybe you should just ignore me on this. But it seems to me that grammar is one of those things – like maths, science, history, music and so forth – which definitely should be taught in schools, as part of a basic curriculum. Any practical worth is by-the-by here: we don’t teach children who Henry VIII is because knowing it is likely to be terribly helpful in their future lives, and most people, dare I say it, will live their lives quite happily without ever using a quadratic equation or thinking about the chemical properties of sulphuric acid after they’ve finished their GCSEs. But these things should still be taught – because they’re part of our basic cultural heritage, and because they give people who might want or need to take these things further a starting point from which to do so.

But let me also say that any teaching needs to be appropriate, and by that I’m thinking primarily of age-appropriateness. It’s no good trying to teach young children to get to grips with concepts that are too complicated for them. We teach primary school children arithmetic, but not differential calculus, for a reason. For a similar reason, we need to be careful about what we try to teach them about language.

Let me make clear, as well, that I’m not opposed to the teaching of Standard English. The sad reality is that the way people write and speak affects their chances in life – that things like an accent, or a particular way of forming the past tense, or non-comformity to arbitrary spelling rules are used to cast aspersions on people’s intelligence, to permit or deny them jobs and university places. Perhaps this is something we should be working to change – but it’s not something that’s going to change quickly, if it can be changed at all, and in the meantime we ought to be equipping children to get round these challenges as best they can.

But there is Standard English, and there is over-the-top prescriptivism. There are rules you need to follow to get on in life, and there are rules which nobody cares about except annoying pedants who nobody likes and are mostly interested in asserting their own superiority – and who probably don’t follow their own rules consistently anyway. We need to make a distinction between the two, and not end up teaching the second in place of the first.

Grammar is the theory of language – and like any theory of anything, it’s incomplete. There are things we don’t know at all, and things that are unclear: things that people disagree on. This is arguably much more true of grammar than it is of, say, physics or maths. And, given this, it makes no sense to try and teach grammar as if everything were clear-cut — as if there’s always a “right answer”. The present approach seems to be trying to do this, but that’s not fair, because even within the domain of traditional grammar there’s quite a lot of uncertainty and fuzziness. (And quite often, what we might think about language will turn out to be just plain wrong.) As an example of uncertainty: is the word running a noun or a verb, or both, or neither? It’s not obvious — not even to me, and certainly not to your average six-year-old. There are limitations to the terminology, and often further confusion created by having multiple different terms for what may be a single concept (e.g. “conjunctions” and “connectives”). Trying to teach grammar by assuming that everything’s set in stone just leads to problems, and throwing in what amounts to little better than arbitrary prescriptive judgements just makes things worse.

We can also look at grammar as the science of language. And like any science, you can approach it as rote-learning of facts, but probably a better way is to allow students to discover it for themselves. Why not ask pupils to see what sorts of different words they can identify, rather than trying to force imperfect labels on them from above? An advantage of this is that it leaves more room for the fuzziness and lack of clarity that is part of the study of language as done by professionals. (Of course, you don’t want to take this too far, and risk the children reaching utterly the wrong idea and being stuck with it forevermore because you won’t let them know what other people think.) And a great thing about studying language, as opposed to (say) the behaviour of electrons or the movements of the planets, is that vast amounts of data are available to all of us – there’s no need for expensive equipment or anything like that.

Finally, on the topic of writing better – I don’t think studying grammar helps very much at all. And I say this as someone who, as I have hopefully made clear, thinks the study of grammar is great thing. But quite frankly, whether you can identify a fronted adverbial or not makes very little difference to how good a writer you are. Shakespeare and Chaucer would have had at best very primitive educations in English grammar, and it didn’t hurt their writing one bit. The best way to get good at writing, as anything else, is to practise it. I think everyone – children and teachers and parents – would probably be much happier (and, in the children’s case, much better equipped for life) if they spent a little bit less time trying to force words into boxes (“the noun box here, the verb box here, the subordinating conjunction box here”) and a bit more time actually practising using language.

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