It’s time English teachers got back to basics – less grammar, more play
The report published by the University of York on its research into the teaching of grammar will hardly surprise anyone who has thought about the subject. The question being examined was whether instruction in grammar had any effect on pupils’ writing. It included the largest systematic review yet of research on this topic; and the conclusion the authors came to was that there was no evidence at all that the teaching of grammar had any beneficial effect on the quality of writing done by pupils.
Needless to say, this goes against common sense. That particular quality of mind, the exclusive property of those on the political right, enables its possessors to know without the trouble of thinking that of course teaching children about syntax and the parts of speech will result in better writing, as well as making them politer, more patriotic and less likely to become pregnant.
For once, however, common sense seems to have been routed by the facts. If we want children to write well, giving them formal instruction in grammar turns out not to be any use; getting them actually writing seems to help a great deal more. Teaching techniques that do work well, the study discovered, are those that include combining short sentences into longer ones, and embedding elements into simple sentences to make them more complex: in other words, using the language to say something.
A word often flourished in this context by the common sense brigade is “basics”. It’s always seemed curious to me that commentators and journalists – people who write every day and who presumably know something about the practice of putting words on paper – should make such an elementary error as to think that spelling and punctuation and other such surface elements of language are “the basics”. These, and deeper features of language such as grammar, are things you can correct at proof stage, at the very last minute, and we all do that very thing, every day. But how can something you can alter or correct at that late point possibly be basic? What’s truly basic is something that has to be in place much earlier on: an attitude to the language, to work, to the world itself.
And there are many possible attitudes to take up. There are some that are confident and generous and fruitful, and others that are marked by fear and suspicion and hostility. We instil these attitudes in children by the way we talk to them, or the fact that we don’t, and by means of the activities we give them to do, and the environments we create to surround them, and the games and TV programmes and stories we provide them with. The most valuable attitude we can help children adopt – the one that, among other things, helps them to write and read with most fluency and effectiveness and enjoyment – I can best characterise by the word playful.
It begins with nursery rhymes and nonsense poems, with clapping games and finger play and simple songs and picture books. It goes on to consist of fooling about with the stuff the world is made of: with sounds, and with shapes and colours, and with clay and paper and wood and metal, and with language. Fooling about, playing with it, pushing it this way and that, turning it sideways, painting it different colours, looking at it from the back, putting one thing on top of another, asking silly questions, mixing things up, making absurd comparisons, discovering unexpected similarities, making pretty patterns, and all the time saying “Supposing … I wonder … What if … ”
The confidence to do this, the happy and open curiosity about the world that results from it, can develop only in an atmosphere free from the drilling and testing and examining and correcting and measuring and ranking in tables that characterises so much of the government’s approach, the “common sense” attitude to education.
And the crazy thing is that the common sense brigade think that they’re the practical ones, and that approaches like the one I’m advocating here are sentimental moonshine. They could hardly be more wrong. It’s when we do this foolish, time-consuming, romantic, quixotic, childlike thing called play that we are most practical, most useful, and most firmly grounded in reality, because the world itself is the most unlikely of places, and it works in the oddest of ways, and we won’t make any sense of it by doing what everybody else has done before us. It’s when we fool about with the stuff the world is made of that we make the most valuable discoveries, we create the most lasting beauty, we discover the most profound truths. The youngest children can do it, and the greatest artists, the greatest scientists do it all the time. Everything else is proofreading.
Take the national curriculum. The authors of the York study remind us that it lays down that children aged five to seven “should be taught to consider: a) how word choice and order are crucial to meaning, b) the nature and use of nouns, verbs and pronouns” and so on; that children aged seven to 11 “should be taught word classes and the grammatical functions of words, including nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles”, as well as “the grammar of complex sentences, including clauses, phrases and connectives … ” Think of the age of those children, and weep. It simply doesn’t work.
What does work, the York study maintains, is writing in a meaningful context: writing as a practical hands-on craft activity. One of the implications of this is that teachers have to be confident about writing – about play, about delight. Too many are not, because they haven’t had to be; and the result is the dismal misery of the “creative writing” drills tested in the Sats, where children are instructed to plan, draft, edit, revise, rewrite, always in the same order, always in the same proportions, always in the same way. If teachers knew something about the joy of fooling about with words, their pupils would write with much greater fluency and effectiveness. Teachers and pupils alike would see that the only reason for writing is to produce something true and beautiful; that they were on the same side, with the teacher as mentor, as editor, not as instructor and measurer, critic and judge.
And they’d see when they looked at a piece of work together that some passages were so good already that they didn’t need rewriting, that some parts needed clarifying, others needed to be cut down, others would be more effective in a different order, and so on. They’d see the point of the proof reading, at last; and they’d be ready, because they were interested, to know about subordinate clauses and conjunctions and the rest. The study of grammar is intensely fascinating: but only when we’re ready for it.
True education flowers at the point when delight falls in love with responsibility. If you love something, you want to look after it. Common sense has much to learn from moonshine.
Philip Pullman won the Guardian Children’s Book Award for His Dark Materials; his latest book is The Scarecrow and his Servant
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