John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
To our opponents, the term “fronted adverbial” is the gift that keeps on giving.
No-one without a degree in linguistics knows what it means without looking it up (an adverb, adverbial phrase, or adverbial clause preceding the main verb in a sentence – eg “Yesterday, I got up late”). Professional writers have been queuing up to say that they have had to ask their children. Linguistics aims to analyse and categorise rather than teach, and apes higher maths, by compressing several ideas into as few words as possible.
Teachers don’t think like that, and have been thrown into confusion through trying to do the best for their pupils, without fully understanding what they’re trying to teach. Michael Rosen’s recent attack in The Guardian drew over 3,000 comments, and Ministers find it hard to utter the phrase without embarrassment. Intended to make the teaching of grammar more effective, it makes it more difficult.
Linguistics has failed to make any positive impact on education since its foundation at the beginning of the last century. Its aim, as David Crystal once put it, is “to establish word classes that are coherent: all the words in a class should behave in the same way.”
This requires a single-mindedness that is admirable in some contexts, but not that of English. For example, most linguistics specialists maintain that English has only two tenses, past and present, as these have distinct forms – I walk, I walked – whereas other ways of indicating time, such as I will go, may depend on context, emphasis, or what the linguists call “aspect”.
Linguists in other European countries don’t do this – in French, German and Spanish, for example, time and tense share the same word, and the German future tense is formed in the same way as the English: Ich werde gehen. The most influential French grammar book, Grevisse’s Le Bon Usage is, as its title suggests, based on usage rather than categorisation, as is the grammar of English.
Linguistics specialists do not lack good intentions. David Crystal – in my opinion, the best of them – struggled hard as a professor at Reading University to put his expertise at the service of specialists dealing with the most complex problems of language disorder, and admitted his failure in Linguistic Encounters with Language Handicap, which I reviewed in The Times Educational Supplement in the mid-eighties. The underlying problem was that linguistics and language development deal with different things. The late Professor Katharine Perera, whose thesis on the development of phrasing in reading is the most brilliant piece of reading research I’ve ever read, made the same mistake in a book around the same time. It was intended to be an analysis of classroom language, but did not in fact contain any classroom language. Professors Debra Myhill of Exeter University, and Emma Marsden of York, had more success by studying the effect of grammatical teaching, respectively in English and French, in the context of children’s work. Both found positive effects, one from teaching in context, and the other from building on previous learning of grammar.
So, what is to be done? First, admit that a mistake has been made in good faith. The government looked for advice in the wrong place, reminiscent of Clare Balding’s reflection that she had been looking in the wrong section of the library. Linguistics specialists do not understand language development because they have not studied it. A start has been made by appointing Emma Marsden as Director of the government’s Centre for Excellence in Modern Languages, and we need something similar in English. Second, make it crystal clear that the terminology of the non-statutory glossary is not compulsory, and that teachers are free to explain grammar in terms children can understand, provided that they can show progress in English, particularly in writing, as a result. My approach to this, in a peer-reviewed paper for the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching, is here. I welcome correspondence, and am happy to help pro bono.