Teaching grammar - Al McConville in the TES

Posted on 22nd August 2016

In a recent article in TES, Alistair McConville backs government’s renewed enthusiasm for the teaching of grammar in schools, but argues that it must be age-appropriate, celebrate the diverse social and linguistic make-up of our society, and help facilitate the equalisation of opportunity for young people.

Government’s attempt to reemphasise grammar has attracted a great deal of criticism, amidst fears of children being subjected to an unnecessary and unhelpful grind through subjection to dull and mechanistic orthodoxies imposed through rote learning. Alistair believes that grammar education is important, but needs rethinking.

He says: “The problem with grammar education has lain in a tendency to think of it as the dissection of living language into dry, atomised chunks. However, I like to think of it as the discovery of meaning in our communications with one another, both spoken and written. Whilst there is great linguistic diversity in our culture, there are also basic underlying rules that emphasise our shared humanity.”

Grammar education’s lack of appeal, he says, lies in the way that grammar has been ‘sold’, with the efforts of mid-20th century philosophers significantly responsible for this. Wittgenstein’s often impenetrable early work saw words representing objects in the real world. His mechanistic approach was adopted by the philosophical prime movers of the age, with the Logical Positivists urging the use only of propositions that could be verified through the senses or the use of logic. There is, of course, no place for expressions of emotion in such a model. The idea that language might be reduced to simplified, unambiguous expressions of fact and logic developed against a backdrop of totalitarian politics, and McConville suggests that it is no coincidence that Orwell’s 1984 ‘Newspeak’ appeared at a time when Logical Positivism still had currency.

Current government aspirations are quite different, says McConville, and he applauds the desire of policy makers that children should be educated to ‘speak and write fluently’, ‘communicate their ideas and emotions to others’ and have a chance to develop ‘culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually’. However, he observes that the grammatical terminology chosen to support the learning of 10/11 year olds is not age-appropriate, and that the effort is unlikely to succeed. A gentler approach, he suggests, might be found in Wittgenstein’s later work, in which he abandoned his insistence on a prescriptive approach and, instead, came to see language as a complex of games, each with its own rules. Whilst these often overlap, difficulties emerge when the rules are incompatible. For example, a religious person speaking of their mystical experience will find little common ground in conversation with someone who only plays the game of scientific reductionism.

Alistair says: “We should teach grammar so that children of all backgrounds are able to engage in those games that will enable them to overcome social and educational disadvantages, and help them to access the richness of our cultural heritage. Thus, grammar both becomes social glue, and assists social mobility. Young people need to understand how and why they might switch between grammatical conventions, according to context – a missed apostrophe might not matter in an email to a friend, but in a job application might be the difference between being offered an interview or not.”

Alistair McConville is a regular contributor to the TES – click here for further articles. (A TES subscription is needed to access some of the articles).