John Bald is a former Ofsted Inspector, and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
The collective knowledge of English grammar and spelling of the leadership of the teachers’ unions could be written on the head of a pin. To this lack of knowledge and understanding, we must add active disapproval – they see the formal structures of English as a barrier rather than an entitlement. One of the best afternoons’ work I ever did was to persuade Tim Eggar, in the early nineties, to cancel a £28 million project called Link, which had been infiltrated and almost completely taken over by progressives, and was dedicated to the elimination of grammatical correctness in English teaching.
So their opposition to the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests – SPAG, the first part of the student term for spaghetti bolognese – merely reflects their hostility to any test at all. As with the phonics check, they are categorically wrong, and were happy to claim that there was no evidence that teaching grammar did any good at all, until recent research at Exeter with 11- and 12-year-olds proved the contrary.
Unfortunately, while its opponents are completely wrong, the government is only half right, and the reasons for this are worth exploring.
The terminology used in the current tests is based on the twentieth-century discipline of linguistics. This revised the grammatical categories developed during the renaissance, and, where it thought fit, replaced them with others that more accurately reflected the ways in which words are used. So the traditional distinction between clause (containing a verb) and phrase (a part of a sentence without one) was replaced by Noam Chomsky, the best-known proponent of linguistics, by the terms “verb phrase” and “noun phrase”. This was helpful to the extent that a verb can be composed of more than one word – the dog has bitten the Conservative leaflet distributer – but made it that much harder to distinguish a clause from a phrase.
Some of its innovations are less equivocal, and my own bugbear is “determiner”, a category invented to describe the small companion words we use in English – a dog, this dog – but which includes, as in the first of these examples, words which are, deliberately, indeterminate. As a grammatical term, this makes it, literally, worse than useless. It is actively misleading, just as the common idea of a verb as “a doing word” is misleading, as the most frequent verbs in European languages, to be and to have, don’t actually do anything, but describe the state of things – my shirt has a hole in it. Chinese dispenses with the first of these almost all of the time, while French grammarians call them “verbs of state”. This idea of a verb goes against what most of us – including teachers – were taught at school, and the new National Curriculum gets it right. It will take some time to filter through into general understanding, but it is an improvement on previous teaching, that made it hard to identify a verb.
So, one step forward, half a step back. This same old story starts with the Newbolt Report of 1921, which described linguistic science as “Theseus, the deliverer”. The snag is that its methods have a major weakness in their application to teaching, as they do not include study of the developing understanding of a child. One celebrated professor of linguistics has told me that he has no experience of teaching anyone younger than sixth formers, and many others have never taught outside universities. Their use of long, difficult words to describe short, simple ones, breaks a basic principle of good teaching, which is that an explanation should not be more complicated than whatever it seeks to explain. To people who work in graduate seminars, this doesn’t matter. To primary teachers, and indeed those trying to help 16-year-olds compose accurate sentences, it most certainly does.
Ministers may have been attracted to linguistics because it offers a respectable academic alternative to the ideology of progressive English teaching. Unfortunately, it carries an authoritarianism of its own, based on suppressing any point of view that does not fit the theory. Thus, the idea of tense as a marker of time, from the old French word tens, has been replaced in English linguistics by the notion that we have no future tense, as it not formed by change in the form of the verb. This is an idea of tense that is not shared by specialists in other European languages, because it ignores the basic function of tense, which is to indicate a time zone. I suspect that Robert Somervell, who taught Churchill, would have known better, but Churchill’s brief account of his approach appears to be the only record of it we have.
Professor Katharine Perera’s brilliant doctoral thesis (Manchester 1989) on the development of phrasing in young readers shows the path we need to take to solve this problem once and for all. Her method of direct observation and analysis, which showed how accurate phrasing depends on fast, accurate reading of each individual word, can be applied to all aspects of teaching grammar and spelling. Looking closely at patterns of error in children’s work, and identifying the best way of explaining principles to them so that they can understand and apply them, is the proper business of teachers, and one they are happy to undertake when they are not led by people with PhDs in ideology. I’ve set out some simple ways of doing this for spelling and grammar on my site, and explore the principles in this article for the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching.