The teaching of grammar

More talk of ‘failure’ in The Australian today.,20867,20077692-2702,00.htmlThis time the focus of attention falls on the NSW English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA), which students in Year 7 complete. Data from ELLA is reported as indicating students’ knowledge of grammar and spelling is deficient. In the absence of a valid historical comparison showing that these results do not match those achieved by students of the same age in past decades, the suggestion in the headline that students are now ‘failing’ is injudicious. Further, before the idea that NSW Year 7 students are ‘failing’ in their knowledge of grammar is bandied around too much, mention should also be made of the fact that ELLA has a writing component. Student result data that I am aware of suggests that while some students might not be able to correctly name certain parts of speech in a particular test item (such as the untypical use of ‘water’ as a verb quoted in the report), the great majority of Year 7 students are certainly using verbs and adjectives correctly in their writing. If grammatical understanding is tested through the use of language by students, rather than their ability to label parts of speech in a test that is designed to “distract” a certain percentage from the correct answer, then a different picture of students’ knowledge and understanding develops. Consideration should also be given to the fact that extensive research over the last century has been unable to establish a link between formal teaching of traditional English grammar and improved student writing. 

The Australian report on the English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA) in NSW also highlights how changes in language usage within the broader community are certainly having an impact on students. It is hardly surprising that some Year 7 students were unable to correct the sentence, “Then Ron and me had lunch”, when this usage is now commonplace in everyday speech. The fact that more than four out of five students were able to correct this mistake suggests that standards in schools in fact remain high.

The issue really comes down to this: if the formal teaching of grammar does not improve students’ writing, then what place does it have in the curriculum?
Wayne Sawyer, writing about such matters in Only Connect (published by The Australian Association for the Teaching of English),

cites Green, Hodgens and Luke (1994, Vol. I), whose work he suggests shows that literacy crises in this country consistently appear to act out social fears about wider moral and social values. Sawyer describes how these authors demonstrate that ‘literacy’ has become a code word for many things, including: allegiance to the Crown and Commonwealth; Protestant religious values; discipline and obedience to authority; mastery of British ‘proper speech’; innate intellectual gifts; monocultural Anglo/Australian nationalism; scientific and technological competitiveness; mental and physical health and employability and job competence. Teaching grammar through drilling, then, might be understood as a process of disciplining students (in mind and body) rather than helping them to become better writers.

Ken Watson, an English educator of international repute, reflected on the place of grammar in the English curriculum at last year’s English Teachers’ Association (NSW) Annual Conference. Here’s part of what he had to say.

The study of rhetoric, the art of effective speaking and writing, was a central part of education from classical times, and in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the study of rhetoric was part of the trivium (rhetoric, grammar and logic). The grammar studied was, of course, Latin grammar. Centuries later, as Latin gave way to English as a key subject in the curriculum, rhetoric could easily have become the central part of the new subject, but unfortunately grammar won out, and the focus in language study became the sentence rather than extended passages of prose and poetry. Even worse, the prescriptive grammarians having been at work in the interim, English was analysed in terms of Latin, though it is hard to think of two languages farther apart, since English, an analytic language, is based on word order, and Latin, a synthetic language, on inflection. ‘Homo mordet canem`means the same thing in whatever order you place the words; the meaning of `Man bites dog`, on the other hand, changes dramatically if one changes the word order. This reliance on Latin grammar has distorted language teaching ever since: recently I was surprised to hear a former English teacher turned author speak of the importance of avoiding split infinitives (a bogey forced on generations of kids on the basis that in Latin the infinitive is a single word and therefore can’t be split).

 At this point I offer you my reply to those who, at parties and in pubs, tell me that it impossible to write well unless one has a sound knowledge of traditional grammar. Yes, I say, one really has to feel sorry for such writers as Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Plato. If only they had been lucky enough to be born after Dionysius Thrax wrote the first Greek grammar (c.100 BC), how much better would have been their chances of immortality.  If this fails, I fall back on the well-known analogy that one does not need a thorough knowledge of the mechanics of a car in order to drive well. 


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