Monday, November 28, 2011

A Marriage Made in Hell

It was telling that in his speech at Cambridge University last week the Education Secretary, Michael Gove referred first to Classical scholars then to Victorian politicians before finally turning to Wagner, because it's by using these waypoints that he expects us to find our way to the sunny uplands of educational success. Why? Because he likes them. That's why.

So we're likely to get a soundtrack of the Ride of the Valkyries as Gove guns his ARK academy-sponsored helicopter upstream, Air Marshal Sir Simon Heffer his trusty reargunner, blowing holes in the post-modernist arguments of the cultural relativists with his rockets of truth.

While Gove's obvious passion for education is evident - which, let's face it, really should be the minimum entry requirement for the job - his approach is worrying. I could go on at length about why he's wrong about so many things in his speech, but I'll confine myself to his points about English teaching here.

Conventional grammar - as we understand it here and as Simon Heffer lays it out masterfully in his wonderful book Strictly English - doesn’t feature in the English curriculum.

But the English Language GCSE can include listening to tape recordings of Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers.

What is he talking about? Grammar is taught in schools, going right back to Key Stage 1. My own children have been coming home from school with worksheets on causal connectives, adverbs and adjectives for a good few years now. Isn't Gove aware of what is taught in primary schools?

He might have had a point had he limited himself to arguing about a lack of grammar teaching in secondary English, but instead he makes a cheap point about the texts used in spoken language study at GCSE by namechecking Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers. The point of analysing spoken language at GCSE is that it's often being looked at exactly for its structure and its grammar. Just because the choice of texts is contemporary or controversial (as the Telegraph tried to suggest in this feeble attempt to engineer a scandal) doesn't mean that the analysis of them is any less rigorous. Have a look at the excellent resources on spoken language from the English and Media Centre or All Talk, or the demanding work on spoken language and mode covered in AQA A's Language and Mode paper to see what this sort of study really involves.

Secondly, Simon Heffer's book is hardly "wonderful". We've described it as "cobblers" on here before, the linguist, Geoff Pullum was moved (in his THE review) to say "Heffer should be ashamed of himself, and Random House should be ashamed of this book", while David Crystal reviewed it for The New Statesman and commented "...there is no logic behind his recommendations, other than the usual kind favoured by pedants: if I like it, it's logical; if I don't, it isn't".

If Gove is taking grammar lessons from Heffer, we're likely to be disappearing into our Victorian fundaments very soon, while churning out a generation of chaps who know how to address a Baronet.

Surely, the real questions to ask here are "What do we want young people to learn when they study English language?" and "How do we help make that happen?", not "What did I like about English and how do I get everyone else to do the same thing?".

As far as grammar teaching goes, as we've looked at on here several times, the jury is still out over whether teaching "conventional grammar" is actually any good for students of English. Virtually every research paper into grammar teaching has shown that there is either no impact or indeed a negative impact on students' writing skills after being taught conventional grammar. That kind of grammar teaching has failed before and will fail again.

It's not because of some limp-wristed liberalism that English students aren't parsing sentences or writing dictations every waking moment; it's more a result of pragmatism and frustration. If we're going to teach grammar in schools - and obviously our project is all about that, so we think it is worthwhile - we have to look at what works and what will actually create the kinds of engaged understanding of language that will allow students to progress.

Work like that at Exeter Univeristy, pioneered by Debbie Myhill, work like that of the English and Media Centre, work by A level English Language teachers all over the country every day is what we should be using as an inspiration, not the antiquated ramblings of a man who says that "grammar is not a subject for debate" or the words of an Education Secretary who attacks the Arctic Monkeys before using Jade Goody as a model for educational self-improvement.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Survey wins UCL Enterprise Award

We’re delighted that the Survey has been awarded a UCL Enterprise Award for a project entitled Marketing the resources of the Survey of English Usage by the BEAMS Knowledge Transfer and Enterprise Board and the Vice-Provost (Enterprise). The project’s aims are to commercialise the AHRC-funded Web-based platform for English Language Teaching and Learning.

Friday, September 2, 2011

iGE - the interactive Grammar of English

Colleagues at the Survey of English Usage at UCL have just released this excellent app for the iPhone 3 and 4, iPod Touch and iPad. It's available as a free lite version, or you can pay £4.99 to download the full version.

Part of the Teaching English Grammar in Schools project has involved developing interactive quizzes and tests to help consolidate students' and teachers' grasp of grammatical concepts and frameworks, and the iGE app is a nifty way of doing that. Obviously, we're biased, but we think it's great.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Grammer Matters

With today being GCSE results day, it's traditional for newspapers like the Daily Mail and Telegraph to denigrate the grades students have received and rubbish their qualifications. But this year it's different. It's not just that GCSE grades are over-inflated: the whole qualification is dreadful and schools aren't "fit for purpose".  So the Telegraph seems to be saying something like "Congratulations GCSE students on your excellent crop of grades! Well done for all your hard work and that of your teachers too! Now, come closer, so I can whisper this to you: your qualifications are worthless". Nice.

However, in their rush to prescribe solutions for poor levels of literacy and numeracy - a favoured solution to the former being penalising poor spelling and grammar in all GCSE exams - the Daily Telegraph rather put its foot in it. See if you can spot the not so deliberate mistake in this headline:

the original headline - changed later in the day to remove the apostrophe error

And the chorus of abuse from Telegraph readers directed at GCSE students and their teachers was little better. One correspondent decided it was all the fault of patios. Yes, patios.

But cheap digs aside, the more serious point here is that grammar is once again a battlefield, not because it's necessarily on the frontline of any great linguistics war, but because it's often used as an index for wider social issues, be they standards of education, attitudes to authority or even immigration and single-parent families.

In his now infamous Newsnight rant, the historian David Starkey made a link between language and criminality, a link that has never been far away from the surface of some debates about language use (as I've pointed out here on the SFX blog) and one which shows that for many prescriptivists bad grammar is just a few steps away from riots on the streets.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The appliance of science

Thanks to Lesley Moss for this link to an article in the Daily Mail about the benefits of educational apps for primary pupils.

Friday, March 4, 2011

To happily potter

Simon Hoggart's column in Friday's Guardian featured a mention of Bas Aarts' new Oxford Modern English Grammar (available now from all good retailers). Hoggart expressed delight that a grammarian wasn't slavishly following old-fashioned prescriptive judgements about split infinitives, allowing him to feel unashamed of saying "I'm going to happily potter about in the garden". We've always said that grammar is good for you but it can also make you happy.

Slightly less prestigiously, Dan had his letter about Rastamouse and grammar printed in the Evening Standard this week, which he was very excited about, even if no one else was (even his own kids, all avid viewers of the mighty mouse). Because it's not online, I'll reproduce it in all its brief glory here:

It's a pity that Rastamouse has been criticised by some for encouraging "sloppy" English. There's nothing sloppy about different varieties of English and in fact most of them have very logical and well-established systems of grammar in place.

Rastamouse could actually be a very effective way of helping young people learn more about not only Jamaican English but also Standard English and the different forms of grammar used in other dialects. There's a growing body of linguistic evidence that analysing the grammar and vocabulary of non-standard varieties really helps young people start to understand the patterns we all use in our speech and writing. And that has to be irie.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

National Grammar Day

It's National Grammar Day in the USA on March 4th, and this webpage has lots more information about how it is being celebrated. Among my favourites are the Correct the Celebrity classroom task in which you spot the grammatical errors in Justin Timberlake lyrics, Paris Hilton's blogs and various film titles, although I'm saddened by the fact that we can't just put a big red ring around Paris Hilton herself and fail her.

There are some good tips on writing clearly, some myths exploded about "bad" grammar, and overall it's good clean fun. It veers a little towards the prescriptive for my tastes (Why's there no discussion about dialect forms, for example?), but you can't win 'em all.