FYI: Grammar in UK schools
The following article appeared in the Education+ section of the|
Independent newspaper on 8 May 1996. With the author's permission, I am
sending it to the Linguist-List as it may be of general interest. - RS
THE GRAMMAR TEST? TOO TRICKY FOR THIS PROFESSOR
This week 14-year-olds in selected schools are taking pilot tests in
English grammar, spelling and punctuation. I hope they do better than I
did when I recently attempted the sample test produced by the School
Curriculum and Assessment Authority to help schools prepare their pupils.
As a linguist, I'm confident I know a thing or two about grammar; bu
my performance on this key stage 3 test was frankly undistinguished. One
of the questions I fared badly on asks you to pick out three adjectives
from the text of a recipe for Whole Oat Slices and then say what they
contribute to the meaning and effect.
The first part was straightforward: I gave myself three marks for
picking out "easy", "delicious" and "ordinary". The "meaning and effect"
part was puzzling, however: what kind of answer was it looking for? When I
turned to the marking guidelines at the back, I found this: "One mark for
an answer which says that in general adjectives describe nouns." What does
that have to do with "meaning and effect"?
The guidelines continue: "Award another mark if the pupil says tha
adjectives make the recipe more appealing or more specific." This answer
is more obviously related to the wording of the question, but doesn't i
make a difference which adjectives you chose?
Only one of my own choices, "delicious", satisfies the "more appealing
or more specific" criterion (which is not a criterion for identifying
adjectives in general). So I lost two marks, essentially for not being
able to read the test compiler's mind.
Both while taking the test and when looking at it afterwards, I found
great difficulty in understanding what was being tested and why. It's no
surprising, if the SCAA's aims are unclear.
The whole question of grammar in the national curriculum has been
dogged by controversy; ministers and ideologues have stepped in at regular
intervals to tinker with the details, and the result, educationally
speaking, is total incoherence.
In theory, grammar is part of the "knowledge about language" element of
the English curriculum; it is meant to develop pupils' understanding of
how language works. In practice, however, SCAA has come under increasing
pressure from the authoritarian "Back to Basics" tendency, which regards
grammar more as a remedial exercise for teaching children "proper
Some of the sample test items are literally remedial: they ask you to
insert punctuation into texts from which it has been removed, or spot and
correct errors in spelling and syntax. This is a test of correct usage,
not "knowledge about language". No one disputes that the ability to use
language well is important (more important, indeed, than grammatical
knowledge per se), but there are much better ways to develop and assess
Other items do test "knowledge about language", but they conceptualise
it in a peculiarly narrow and mechanical way. Assuming you can work ou
what the question is getting at, all you are asked to do is produce the
"right answer" - often a technical term ("adjective") or a definition
("adjectives in general describe nouns").
This is like setting a maths test consisting entirely of questions like
"Write down Pythagoras's theorem" and "Define the word 'hypotenuse' ". We
wouldn't say someone "knew geometry" because they could recite
Pythagoras's theorem from memory: we would want them to show they
understood it and could apply it to solve problems. "Knowing grammar",
similarly, involves more than being able to reproduce a (bad) definition
What I understand as "knowing grammar" is being able to engage in a
process of explicit, systematic reflection on what it is that we are doing
when we use language. The key questions are not "what" questions but "how"
Instead of just asking children to define an adjective, why not ask
them how they know that "delicious" is an adjective? This is a matter, no
of what words mean but of their form and where they can go in a sentence.
(That's how we can tell that "slithy", in "Twas brillig and the slithy
toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe", is an adjective. We use the form
to guess the meaning, not vice versa.)
I am not opposed in principle to the teaching of grammar (if I were, I
would be out of a job). But to teach it effectively, you have to
understand that it is not about eliminating displaced apostrophes or
correcting double negatives. Grammar is about thinking: the skills i
develops are reasoning, argument, problem-solving and critical reflection.
Reducing grammar to the "three Rs" of Rote memorisation and Regurgitation
of Right answers negates any educational value it might possess.
That is exactly what SCAA's tests will do. The tasks require little in
the way of thought, and appear to value remembering and labelling above
reasoning and arguing (which suggests to me that more thoughtful pupils,
those who notice ambiguities and are able to imagine more than one
possible "right answer", may well do badly). If that's what SCAA's tes
designers think grammar should be about, I'm afraid they're a few Whole
Oats short of a full slice
The writer is Professor of English Language at the University of
Strathclyde in Glasgow. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Independent Education+ 8 May 1997