King Edward VI head teacher Geoff Barton says grammar should encourage pupils’ love of language, not turn them off the subject altogether
PUBLISHED: 15:27 24 May 2016 | UPDATED: 15:27 24 May 2016
KEGS headteacher Geoff Barton doesn’t know what a fronted adverbial is, yet he has taught English for years and has written grammar text books. So how much do the new SPaG tests really work?
I don’t know how I’ve done it, but I’ve done it. I’ve survived for fifty-three years on the planet without knowing what a fronted adverbial is and with only a hazy understanding of the subjunctive mood.
Grammar is back in the news, and once again we see a polarised debate between those arguing that children should be taught more formal grammar in school and the opposing camp who proclaim that being able to name the parts of speech doesn’t make you a better reader or writer.
The arguments rage because the Government has unleashed a tough new test for 11-year-olds. The inelegantly named SPaG tests (SPaG stands for spelling, punctuation and grammar) have been subjected to lots of comment, with some teachers and parents reporting that children were left traumatised by the punishing difficulty of the questions.
A number of adults – including the Schools Minister responsible for introducing the new tests - attempted some of the questions and duly got them wrong.
In Nick Gibb’s case he was on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World at One’ and interviewer Martha Kearney asked him a sample question:
“In the sentence ‘I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner’, is the word ‘after’ being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition?”
“It’s a preposition,” Mr Gibb replied confidently.
“I don’t think it is,’ snapped Ms Kearney. “In this sentence, it is being used as a subordinating conjunction”.
The teaching profession and many newspaper pundits listened gleefully. Here, it seemed, was grammatical egg smeared across a politician’s face.
Me, I didn’t laugh. I learnt very little grammar at school. I imagine I’d have got a question like that wrong too if asked it, whether with or without warning.
I speak as someone who has edited articles and written school textbooks about grammar. I teach an A-level English Language course which has grammatical knowledge at its core. I’m probably perceived as someone who knows about grammar.
But I’ve tried hard to be the kind of teacher and writer who doesn’t view grammar as a useful stick to whack people with. In the late eighteenth century people like this – prescriptivists – generated lists of rules about what constituted good and poor English. The idea was in part to imbue English with the swaggering status enjoyed at the time by Latin.
But there was another, snider purpose too. After all, rules help to define people who are ‘in’ and people who are ‘out’, those deemed educated and those classed as ignorant.
That’s where many of us remember random bits of grammar guidance from various sources. I was told that a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with (see what I did there?). And I certainly recall being told that starting a sentence with ‘and’ was wrong.
That’s prescriptivism, and it’s too easy to see it as a kind of educational oneupmanship.
Yet without rules we can get lack of clarity and confusion. So in my teaching, I find it useful to teach students about types of sentences (simple and complex); about how a semi-colon between clauses can bring clarity to what we mean; and about the difference between the apostrophe for contraction (“it’s a good idea”) and possession (“the cat finished its food”).
In teaching my students such concepts, I’m teaching them grammatical and stylistic rules. I’d like to think I’m helping them to become better readers and writers.
I hope that in doing so I help to demystify language and to encourage students to appreciate the fun that even the tests can inadvertently generate. One example: ‘Rearrange these words into a sentence – is pen in goat my a’. To which, a child supplied this grammatically perfect answer: ‘My pen is in a goat’.
That’s what we need. Less of the Apostrophe Police. Less grammatical sneering. And instead more boldness to teach the grammar and punctuation that will help our students to communicate more powerfully and precisely, and to encourage them to love language for its creativity as well as its structures.